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Bill Thayer

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 p703  Liber

Unsigned article on pp703‑704 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

LIBER (βιβλίον), a book. The most common material on which books were written by the Greeks and Romans, was the thin coats or rinds (liber, whence the Latin name for a book) of the Egyptian papyrus. This plant was called by the Egyptians byblos (βύβλος), whence the Greeks derived their name for a book (βιβλίον). It formed an article of commerce long before the time of Herodotus (V.58), and was extensively used in the western part of Europe, as is proved by the number of rolls of papyri found at Herculaneum. In the sixth century of the Christian aera the duty on imported papyrus was abolished by Theodoric the Great, on which occasion Cassiodorus wrote a letter (XI.38), in which he congratulates the world on the cessation of a tax so unfavourable to the progress of learning and commerce. The papyrus-tree grows in swamps to the height of ten feet and more, and paper was prepared from the thin coats or pellicles which surround the plant in the following manner according to Pliny (XIII.23):— The different pieces were joined together by the turbid Nile water, as it has a kind of glutinous property. A layer of papyrus (scheda or philyra) was laid flat on a board, and a cross layer put over it; and being thus prepared, the layers were pressed and afterwards dried in the sun. The sheets were then fastened or pasted together, the best being taken first and then the inferior sheets. There were never more than twenty in a scapus or roll. The papyri found in Egyptian tombs differ very much in length, but not much in breadth, as the breadth was probably determined by the usual length of the strips taken from the plant. The length might be carried to almost any extent by fastening one sheet to another. The writing was in columns with a blank slip between them (Egyptian Antiquities, vol. II ch. 7, Lond. 1836). The form and general appearance of the papyri rolls will be understood from the following woodcut taken from paintings found at Pompeii (Gell. Pomp. vol. II p187).

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The paper (charta) made from the papyrus was of different qualities. The best was called after Augustus, the second after Livia, the third, which was originally the best, was named Hieratica, because it was appropriated to the sacred books. The finest paper was subsequently called Claudia, from the emperor Claudius. The inferior kinds were called Amphitheatrica, Saitica, Leneotica,​a from the places in Egypt where it was made, and also Fanniana, from one Fannius, who had a celebrated manufactory at Rome. The kind called Emporetica was not fit for writing, and was chiefly used by merchants for packing their goods, from which circumstance it obtained its name (Plin. XIII.23, 24).

Next to the papyrus, parchment (membrana) was the most common material for writing upon.  p704 It is said to have been invented by Eumenes II king of Pergamus, in consequence of the prohibition of the export of papyrus from Egypt, by Ptolemy Epiphanes (Plin. XIII.21). It is probable, however, that Eumenes introduced only some improvement in the manufacture of parchment, as Herodotus mentions writing on skins as common in his time, and says that the Ionians had been accustomed to give the name of skins (διφθέραι) to books (V.58). Other materials are also mentioned as used for writing on, but books appear to have been almost invariably written either upon papyrus or parchment.​b

The ancients wrote usually on only one side of the paper or parchment, whence Juvenal (I.5) speaks of an extremely long tragedy as

"Summi plena jam margine libri

Scriptus et in tergo necdum finitus Orestes."

Such works were called Opisthographi (Plin. Ep. III.5), and are also said to be written in aversa charta (Mart. VIII.62).

The back of the paper, instead of being written upon, was usually stained with saffron colour or the cedrus (Lucian, πρὸς ἀπαιδ. 16 vol. III p113; croceae membrana tabellae, Juv. VII.23; Pers. III.10). We learn from Ovid that the cedrus produced a yellow colour (Ovid, Trist. III.1.13).

As paper and parchment were dear, it was frequently the custom to erase or wash out writing of little importance, and to write upon the paper or parchment again, which was then called Palimpsestus (παλιμψήστος). This practice is mentioned by Cicero (ad Fam. VII.18), who praises his friend Trebatius for having been so economical as to write upon a palimpsest, but wonders what those writings could have been which were considered of less importance than a letter (compare Catull. xxii.5; Martial, XIV.7).

The paper or parchment was joined together so as to form one sheet; and when the work was finished, it was rolled on a staff, whence it was called a volumen; and hence we have the expression evolvere librum (Cic. ad Att. IX.10). When an author divided a work into several books, it was usual to include only one book in a volume or roll, so that there were generally the same number of volumes as of books. Thus Ovid (Trist. I.1.117) calls his fifteen books of Metamorphoses "mutatae ter quinque volumina formae" (compare Cic. Tusc. III.3, ad Fam. XVII.17).º When a book was long, it was sometimes divided into two volumes; thus Pliny (Ep. III.5) speaks of a work in three books "in sex volumina propter amplitudinem divisi."

In the papyri rolls found at Herculaneum, the stick on which the papyrus is rolled does not project from the papyrus, but is concealed by it. Usually, however, there were balls or bosses, ornamented or painted, called umbilici or cornua, which were fastened at each end of the stick and projected from the papyrus (Martial, III.2, V.6.15; Tibull. III.1.14; Ovid. Trist. I.1.8). The ends of the roll were carefully cut, polished with pumice-stone and coloured black; they were called the geminae frontes (Ovid, l.c.).

To protect the roll from injury it was frequently put in a parchment case, which was stained with a purple colour or with the yellow of the Lutum. Martial (X.93). The same kind is meant by the Greek sittybae (σιττύβαι, Cic. ad Att. IV.5), which Hesychius explains by δερμάτιναι στόλαι.

The title of the book (titulus index) was written on a small strip of papyrus or parchment with a light red colour (coccum or minium). Winckelmann supposed that this title was on a kind of ticket suspended to the roll, as is seen in the paintings at Herculaneum (see woodcut), but it was most probably stuck on the papyrus itself (compare Tibull. l.c.). We learn from Seneca (de Tranq. An. 9) and Martial (XIV.136) that the portraits of the authors were often placed on the first page of the work.

As the demand for books increased towards the end of the Roman republic, and it became the fashion for the Roman nobles to have a library, the trade of booksellers naturally arose. They were called Librarii (Cic. de Leg. III.20), Bibliopolae (Mart. IV.71, XIII.3), and by the Greek writers βιβλίων κάπηλοι or βιβλιοκάπηλοι. Their shop was called taberna libraria (Cic. Phil. II.9). These shops were chiefly in the Argiletum (Mart. I.4), and in the Vicus Sandaliariusº (Gell. XVIII.4). On the shop door, or the pillar, as the case might be, there was a list of the titles of books on sale: allusion is made to this by Horace (Sat. I.4.71, Art. Poët. 372) and Martial (I.118). The price at which books were sold, seems to have been moderate. Martial says (l.c.) that a good copy of the first book of his epigrams might be had for five denarii. In the time of Augustus, the Sosii appear to have been the great booksellers at Rome (Hor. Ep. I.20.2, Art. Poët. 345; see all Becker, Gallus, vol. I p163, etc.) Compare the articles Atramentum, Bibliotheca, Capsa, Calamus, Stylus.

Thayer's Notes:

a This entire classification is taken from Pliny; modern emendation of the name of this class of paper is Taeneotica.

b The obvious candidates, in roughly ascending order of usefulness for large works, are stone, ceramic, wood, metal and cloth. Among stone inscriptions long enough to make up a small book, we find the Fasti Capitolini and the Res Gestae Augusti. Inscriptions on bronze of some length include senatorial decrees, such as the Senatusconsultum de Bacchanalibus; diplomata; and religious texts, such as the Eugubine Tablets. Books on linen, common in Egypt, were also used by the Etruscans: one has come down to us, the so‑called Liber Linteus Zagrebiensis; it too found its way to Egypt, where it eventually got wrapped around a mummy.

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Page updated: 10 Mar 22