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books, Greek and Roman

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Books existed in Egypt long before they came into use in Greece. Systems of writing had been invented and developed for administrative purposes in both Egypt and Mesopotamia by c.3000 bc. While the Sumerians and Babylonians used clay tablets for their cuneiform scripts, the Egyptians used papyrus (see palaeography; papyrology, greek).

The papyrus plant grew mainly in the Nile delta. It was used for many purposes: to make ropes, sandals, baskets, boats, and—most importantly—writing material. Papyrus remained the dominant writing material throughout classical antiquity. A papyrus roll (on average 6–8 m. (20–26 ft.) long) would take a book of Thucydides (2), or a play of c.1,500 lines, or two to three books of Homer. The text is arranged in columns; the number of lines per column varies between 25 and 45.

Although writing may have been employed early on in the composition of Greek poetry (and the complex structure of both Iliad and Odyssey is hardly conceivable without it), the performance of poetry continued to be oral throughout the Archaic and Classical periods. Much of early epic poetry is reflected in both lyric poetry and black‐figure vase‐painting, Corinthian and Attic, and it seems doubtful whether this can be accounted for by oral transmission (by itinerant rhapsodes and choirs) alone. So it is reasonable to assume that book‐rolls played a part in the transmission of Greek poetry in the 7th and 6th cents., if only as aides‐mémoire to the performers. In the 6th cent., the tyrants Polycrates (1) of Samos and Pisistratus of Athens are said to have been admired for their collections of books. Pisistratus is credited with a revision of the texts of Homer which until then had been ‘confused’; he is also said to have inserted lines about Salamis and Theseus into the texts. There clearly was, in the later 6th cent., an authoritative text of Homer which served as a basis for rhapsodic recitals at the Panathenaea.

From c.500 onwards, book‐rolls (evidently of papyrus) appear on Attic vases; as far as the writing can be identified, they all contain poetry. The Duris cup in Berlin of c.485 bc illustrates the use of book‐rolls in schools, and Aristophanes' Clouds. describes the ‘ancient education’, i.e. in the schools of c.500, where the children were made to memorize epic poetry and to sing it in the traditional mode. In Aristophanes' Frogs (405) Dionysus says he read Euripides' Andromeda on board ship. The earliest references to booksellers are in Eupolis and in Plato (Apology 26d), where Socrates says that a copy of Anaxagoras could be bought ‘from the orchestra’ (in the Agora of Athens?) for one drachma ‘at most’. Xenophon (Anabasis) refers to ‘many written books’ being exported on ships from Athens to the Black (Euxine) Sea, and in Memorakilia Socrates asks Euthydemus whether he wants to become a rhapsode, having bought the complete works of Homer.

The intellectual revolution of the sophists and the interest in dithyrambs and tragedy raised demand for books in Athens, where book production and the book trade flourished in the 4th cent. It made the vast collecting activities of Aristotle and his pupils possible and led to the formation of libraries, notably that of Aristotle himself.


Subjects: Classical studies

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