Reading in Ancient Rome

If you read Latin, you may have noticed that the title of my blog is derived from the Latin phrase “Legendum est” — you have to read. I am by no means a Latin scholar, but I do enjoy the odd trip to the past, and so I thought, why not post on reading in ancient Rome? Placete, lectores!

Trajan's Column

Incidentally, Rome’s legacy to reading happens to be quite substantial. One very visible remnant of this legacy today is the Times New Roman typeface, the serif-counterpart to Helvetica in terms of ubiquity. (I find the topic of typefaces rather sexy and must indulge in this quick digression.) Roman typefaces get their name from the marks left by the chisel in Roman inscriptions, a classic model of which is Trajan’s column, erected in Rome about 114 AD to commemorate the emperor’s military victories. Warren Chappell comments on the column’s roman typeface thus:

There are several ways of reaching a general understanding of the basic nature of roman. One logical and rewarding way is to think of the forms as a series of geometrical variations on a theme of square, circle, and triangle, which, when set together, will become a frieze of contracting and expanding spatial interruptions. This breathing quality is the very essence of the inscriptional concept, and is responsible for the liveliness as well as the nobility of the great classic carvings. (A Short History of the Printed Word, 22-23)

End of digression. To keep a permanent record of their history and ideas, Romans had, in addition to marble and stone, their trusted scrolls. (For quick notes, they depended on wax tablets.) In the 2nd century AD, the scroll was replaced by the codex, which was more enduring and made pages much more accessible. (That’s slightly unfair, perhaps, because technically the scroll didn’t have pages, but you get the point.) One can speculate about the influence that scrolling and the codex exerted on reading habits, but it seems likely that the inconvenience of scrolls forced readers to read much more attentively and memorize passages so as to avoid having to unwind the scroll again to find a certain passage.

Of course, Rome’s impact on reading culture goes beyond appearances and reading technology. Rome contributed significantly to the spread of literacy in the ancient world. Peter Watson credits Roman education as “the basis of modern educational system, and [it] was one of the elements leading to the birth of the West” (A History of Ideas, 212). Roman textbooks such as Quintilian’s book on rhetoric, Donatus’ grammar books, Marcellus’ lexicon or Martianus Capella’s treatise on the liberal arts were the ropes with which medieval Europe dragged itself out of the Dark Ages. And this is not to mention yet the Roman legacy to law and literature.

According to Watson, Rome managed to boost its literacy rate to 10%. The Athenians, a couple of centuries earlier, could boast only half as many literate citizens. “Probably,” Watson suggests, “tens of thousands of people could read in Rome, where there was, for the first time, such a thing as a literate culture” (ibid., 209). This culture was not just made up of lawyers and poets. Readers could be found everywhere, as evidenced by Trajan’s column, but also by more mundane reading matter such as domestic letters in Vinolanda, graffiti on the walls of Pompeji or treatises about farming, accounting or letter-writing. Such literature reflected Roman society’s concern for utilitas — usefulness. To Romans, reading was useful, and Watson quotes Echion from the Satyricon, who said habet haec res panem — this [reading, that is] has bread in it. Utilitas was so ingrained in Rome’s culture of reading that it even extended to such a seemingly otiose genre as poetry: good poetry, the poet Horace declared, ought to be both “dulce” (sweet) and “utile” (useful).

Rome also cultivated critical reading skills and scholarship. The Romans’ obsession with Greek literature led Roman scribes to publish carefully edited versions of Greek plays and poems. Of course, Rome created its own great classics, too, notably during the Golden Age of Latin, roughly situated in the period 100 BC-100 AD. Caesar and Cicero wrote magnificent Latin prose in the first century BC. Later, under the emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero (the so-called Julio-Claudian dynasty), Virgil, Horace and Ovid composed some of the greatest poetry of the Western Canon. What do these works tell us about reading habits? Comparing Virgil’s Aeneid to Homer’s Ilias and Odyssey, for instance, we might surmise that Roman reading culture made significant steps towards literature for reading as opposed to literature for listening: Homer’s epics seem much more dramatic, visceral and formulaic than Virgil’s; in other words, they were composed for performance, not for contemplated reading. The Ilias celebrates the immortality of fame, and while I am convinced that Homer was aware that he, too, became immortalized in his verse, I cannot help the impression that Virgil and his fellow Romans were much more self-conscious about the potential immortality of the written word. Latin expresses this idea tersely in the motto “vox audita perit, littera scripta manet” — the spoken word perishes, the written word lasts.

However, such musings might suffer from misguided retrospection. As readers of the classics, we might overestimate the importance of poetry and literature in ancient Rome, for the meat and bone of Roman reading was law and rhetoric.*  The importance of rhetoric, nurtured by the importance of Roman law, was the reason many Romans were taught to read to begin with. Consequently, much training in reading was geared towards public speaking. Amongst other things, readers had to learn how to separate words in the unpunctuated scripta continua (unbroken writing). But future lawyers had to practice writing as well; a written rebuttal of a judge’s decision was not uncommon. Cicero was the greatest orator and rhetorician of all, and in his writing he often speaks keenly about the role of books, libraries (of which Rome had many) and education, and I mention him here because his tragic death stands as a reminder of Rome’s love for reading: he was assassinated while perusing Euripides’ Medea.

*We have to keep in mind, though, that Romans did not necessarily distinguish, the way we do, between poetry or fiction on the one hand and non-fiction on the other. Poetry, as mentioned earlier, had to be useful in order to be considered good. And orators were not faulted for making stuff up and be dramatic and subjective as long as it served the useful purpose of convincing and persuading others.


15 Responses to “Reading in Ancient Rome”

  1. October 9, 2008 at 2:05 am

    Very interesting, and utilitas. ;) That book by Watson looks great. Another one for the pile…

  2. 2 legendumst
    October 9, 2008 at 9:13 am

    Thank you! Watson’s History of Ideas is quite a tome, but the range of ideas he covers, the way he weaves them together plus the anecdotes and stories he throws into the mix make for a pleasurable read. It’s a novelistic encyclopedia, if you will; a bit overwhelming at times — the table of contents is a book in itself! — but recommendable.

  3. 4 Giuseppe Paolo Mazzarello
    February 15, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    You inherited from ancient Romans their clever interest in reading. As Italic from Genoa I am close to Rome however you seem more ancient Roman than Roman people. I am trying to write some fictions set in ancient Rome and, if you want, could submit them to you. Maybe in instalments.

  4. February 16, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    Grazie per il commento, Giuseppe, and for your kind offer to send your fiction, but at the moment my bookshelves are bursting with unread books and I have some catching up to do. Thanks for visiting!

  5. 6 Viviana
    March 8, 2009 at 7:23 pm

    I am doing a report on books in Ancient Rome, and i was wondering if you could go into detail a little further about what the books looked like? thank you, i got a lot of info out of this.

  6. March 8, 2009 at 10:07 pm

    You’re welcome, Viviana. As mentioned, the books of the Romans consisted mostly of scrolls. The codex was invented in the 1st century BC, but was used widely only from 100 AD onwards. I suggest you scour Google (including Google image search!) and Wikipedia for more information on the following items:

    – scroll
    – codex
    – wax tablets
    – library of Alexandria
    – papyrus
    – parchment

    And here’s an interesting comment on Cicero’s library practices:

    “Cicero’s correspondence with Atticus on the subject of the Antium library provides interesting evidence for technical aspects of Roman library practice. Cicero asked Atticus to send two librarioli to Antium; these two slaves, Dionysius and Menophilus, were to be employed as glutinatores, “book-binders.” Cicero mentions one task performed by the “book-binders”: attaching small tags of papyrus or parchment (quos vos Graeci, ut opinor, sittubas appellatis) bearing the book title to the papyrus rolls.”

  7. December 9, 2009 at 4:28 am

    Seems like you are a real pro. Did you study about the theme? *lol*

  8. 10 lil k
    April 26, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    does anyone ever get on this website anymore

  9. 11 Awesomness
    May 20, 2013 at 4:10 am

    Too many words…

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