UBC prof explores Ancient Greek book trade in talk at Trent

The Heracles Papyrus (Oxford, Sackler Library, Oxyrhynchus Pap. 2331), a fragment of 3rd century Greek manuscript of a poem about the Labors of Heracles.
The Heracles Papyrus (Oxford, Sackler Library, Oxyrhynchus Pap. 2331), a fragment of 3rd century Greek manuscript of a poem about the Labors of Heracles.

Have you ever wondered how to buy and read a book an Ancient Greece? If you have, let me tell you, it was nothing like buying books today.

Professor of Theatre and Film at the University of British Columbia, Hallie Marshall, has great insight into the book trade of ancient Greece.

One of the basic questions in regards to book buying in Ancient Greece is, how accessible would they have been? “Access to books, even in the age of the printing press, was quite difficult,” explains Marshall. So what does that mean for fifth century BCE Athens, long before the printing press was even invented? Well, it means that buying books was next to impossible.

Books in Athens were not what modern day society would call a book. There were limited writing technologies at this time. There was the writing tablet, which were “boards covered in wax,” says Marshall. Writing tablets were used primarily for composition. The other technology used was the papyrus roll.

“Wax tablets allowed for revision and addition in a way that papyrus doesn’t, and this seems to have been the norm for composition in Athens, that you would work up your text on a wax tablet and then once you were happy with what you had, it would go on a more permanent form of papyrus,” explains Marshall.

“The normal production of a papyrus roll seems to have been twenty sheets, but you could have chopped it into smaller sheets or glued extra sheets on, depending on what your buyer wanted,” says Marshall, and this would help to determine how expensive your papyrus roll would be.

Could you actually buy a book in fifth century Athens? Not in our conventional sense.

“In order for there to be a book trade, there had to be an import. In other words, to have books you needed to have papyrus, and papyrus was made only in Egypt,” explains Marshall.

At the market in Athens, there would have been stalls set up, and it is from these stalls that one would have bought their books.

Living in modern day 2015, we have the joy of choosing which publication of a book we want. In ancient Athens there were different publications, but again not in the same sense.

“Another thing that determined how expensive your papyrus roll would be was the quality of the writing. Someone could write something out really quickly for you and you were going to pay less than for something that was written out carefully and had been proofread before it was given to you,” explains Marshall.

For example, if one wanted to purchase An Oresteia, the actors would only buy their own parts—they would not buy the whole play because it would have been too expensive.
Only the director would have the whole copy of the play that they were performing.

The audience would only purchase a scene that they were interested in.

Another important aspect of book buying in fifth century Athens was how books were read and used. Books were a source of entertainment. They were not something that someone read silently on their own but were in fact read aloud, often at parties as a way of entertaining one’s guests.

“People would come and go and there would have been an audience for these readings which would then lead into philosophical dialogue,” explains Marshall.

Often when someone, such as Zeno for example, was reading for an audience something of his own writing, someone who was in attendance of the reading would have taken notes and then distributed or ‘published’ what Zeno had read without his permission.

This then leads into another important aspect of the book trade in fifth century BCE Athens, which is that authors had essentially no control: “once a text was out there, whether they put it out there or somebody else did, it circulated in whatever form those who were interested in it forced it into,” says Marshall. This sort of plagiarism would not be nearly as accepted as it was back then, that’s for sure!

It is clear that buying and reading books in fifth century BCE Athens was significantly different than buying and reading books today.

For those of you who take local book stores for granted, the next time you’re shopping, remember that in ancient Athens if you wanted to buy a book you were probably only buying your favourite chapter, your favourite speech, or your favourite monologue.

About Caleigh Boyle 32 Articles
Caleigh Boyle, double major in English Lit and Cultural Studies is passionate about the arts, words—both spoken and written—and can often be found at Chapters buying more journals than she needs.