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H - 96 : Who "wrote" the Antique Classics?

Roman Girl writing on wooden tabled - Fresco Pompeii

When writing my blog about books, I started wondering who actually – in physical terms – wrote them. Today, we sit in front of screens, type or use notebooks to scribble. We are both the author and the scribe. In antiquity, this was not the case. Roman society was literate – it is estimated that about 15% of the population could read and write but literacy was mostly concentrated in towns. Roman ruins are full of Latin text. Clearly, city dweller were able to read. Also, all noble and wealthy people were literate – so were their slaves who kept their books and records. Still, the writers did not write themselves.

A Scribe is taking Notes during the Census - Roman Relief

Having a scribe was not just a luxury. In the time before printing, calligraphy skills were essential. Imagine the classical works written in the handwritings of our doctors? Nobody could decipher them and they would be lost. Professional scribes and standard calligraphy were the answer. We tend to forget that most Roman slaves were prisoners of war, the result of the empire's constant campaigning and warfare. Captured but literate nobles fetched a high price when sold as scribes. They usually served high ranking Roman politicians or wealthy business men. Due to their highly appreciated skills, they were well respected. Many were able to buy their freedom after a decade of enslavement.

19th Century Portrait of a Roman Scribe (Alma-Taderna)

Ancient writers did not compose their books as we do today. Texts were dictated to the scribes who took notes in short-hand – an art that almost nobody masters anymore. For the generation of my mother it was very common. She could do it effortlessly. After the dictation, the scribe would read the text back aloud. It was then edited. The scribe took further notes and wrote the final text in standardized calligraphy on papyrus or parchment. For short-hand, some scribes used wax tables, others thin birch wood tablets. Not surprisingly, none of these drafts survived. Luckily, more papyri and parchments did so!

Roman Wax Tablet, Ink Containers, A Feather & a handheld Papyrus Scroll (Fresco Pompeii)

Scribes were not only there to take notes. At a time when copying was time consuming manual labor, most communication was verbal. A report from the Proconsul in Syria was read aloud to the Emperor and then to the Senate. Gatherings of learned people to discuss the latest discovery in medicine or astronomy started with scribes reading the relevant texts aloud. There was no pre-reading material that one could take home. If someone wanted to discuss with his friends Caesar’s De Bellum Gallicum, his scribe had to go to the library and copy the text manually. Copying a scroll with 10’000 words took 3 – 4 days. So it was feasible. Nobody was allowed to take a scroll from the library. They had to stay there.

Inside an ancient Library - could not find out which one is painted here - anybody knows?

The upside of these restrictions was that scribes became familiar with the writings of classic authors and often advised their master on style and syntax. They also discovered the various styles of calligraphy. Last but not least, since they knew their way around libraries, they were the indispensable assistant if someone wanted to read about previous research. Ancient libraries contained thousands of scrolls. The scribes knew where to find them. The famous Library of Alexandria is said to have owned 500’000 scrolls, Pergamon about 200’000, the 28 libraries in Rome had ten thousands each as did the library in Antioch, Constantinople and Caesarea Maritima. Every library had its own scribes & copied every scroll that entered town.

A few People preserve the Skills of ancient Scribes and produce beautiful Papyrus Texts

Were it not for the fervent copying of scrolls, we would never know about the classic works of antiquity. Of the dozens of libraries in the Roman Empire, not a single one survived intact. The famous Library of Pergamon was plundered by the Roman General Anthony. He gave the 200’000 stolen scrolls to Cleopatra as a wedding gift. Many libraries were burnt down during the wars with German tribes and Persian invaders. Stealing or destroying someone’s intellectual property was as important in ancient warfare as it is today. Also, the adaptation of Christianity was less peaceful  than hope for. Christian zealots not only converted pagan temples to churches and smashed the pagan statues. They also torched libraries to purge ancient believes. For them, there was only one book worth of survival – the bible.

The Ruins of the Library of Caesarea Maritime - one of the big Libraries in Rome's East

Coming back to the issue of scribes, recent research indicates that also large parts of the new testament were written by scribes. Some of Saint Paul’s important books were written whilst he was in prison. In Roman time, prisons were dark, filthy and humid dungeons where you were never alone. Definitely not the place where you could write your Epistles. Paul must have dictated these letters through the prison window to gentile scribes who wrote them down and sent the texts as letters to the communities concerned.

The beautiful Library of Ephesus was reconstructed - it lay in tatters as all other Libraries

Whilst important classics survived, most of the commercial correspondence disappeared. This is not unlike today. Under contemporary business laws, our companies are obliged to keep records for ten years. After that, most are shredded Writing business history is far more challenging than writing about politics given the lack of data and records. Luckily, a few papyrus collections of Jewish merchants survived in the dry Egyptian desert and offer us a glimpse into ancient trading. On the trade routes we sail along this year, wax tablets or perishable birch booklets were the standard tools to record transactions. Since every commercial venture was cash settled once a vessel returned home, no records were kept once the money was distributed. This only changed with the establishment of the VOC, the Dutch East India Company, in the 16th century. The VOC created records to combine the profits of a pool of permanent vessels. The VOC owners owned a share in the business of several ships. They were the first shareholders. Business records had to be kept. Since the 16th century, we actually can research and write business history.

Roman Woman taking Notes in a Butchery - Was it a Customer Debt Ledger?


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