Ancient book dissemination.

Discuss the world of the Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, and Egyptians.
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Re: Ancient book dissemination.

Post by mbuckley3 »

An excursus on letter collections.

Jerome, Letter 102, to Augustine : "..copies of a letter addressed by someone apparently to me have come hither. In the said letter I am exhorted to sing the παλινωδια, confessing mistake in regard to a paragraph of the apostle's writing, and to imitate Stesichorus...Although the style and the method of argument appeared to be yours, I must frankly confess to your Excellency that I did not think it right to assume without examination the authenticity of a letter of which I had only seen copies...I had almost forgotten your letter, or, more correctly, the letter written in your name...Therefore, if it is your letter, write me frankly that it is so, or send me a more accurate copy..."

Letter 105 is a continuation : "You are sending me letter upon letter, and often urging me to answer a certain letter of yours, a copy of which, without your signature, had reached me through our brother Sysinnius, deacon, as I have already written...I am at a loss to express my surprise that the same letter is reported to be in the possession of most of the Christians in Rome, and throughout Italy, and has come to everyone but myself, to whom it was ostensibly sent. I wonder at this all the more, because the brother Sysinnius aforesaid tells me that he found it among the rest of your published works, not in Africa, not in your possession, but in an island of the Adriatic some five years ago...I refused at first to answer your Excellency, because I did not believe that the letter, or as I may call it (using a proverbial expression), the honeyed sword, was sent from you...I was afraid lest you should have reason to remonstrate with me, saying, 'What ! Had you seen the letter to be mine - had you discovered in the signature attached to it the autograph of a hand well known to you, when you so carelessly wounded the feelings of your friend, and reproached me with that which the malice of another had conceived? ' Wherefore, as I have already written, either send me the identical letter in question subscribed with your own hand, or desist from annoying an old man, who seeks retirement in his monastic cell." (NPNF tr.)

All this absurdly elaborate fencing, allowing Augustine the space to withdraw accusations by citing copyists' mistakes or hostile fabrication, depends on an unstated assumption : that Augustine kept copies of his correspondence in the same way as he would have had master-copies of the books he had written.

Lest this be thought a Late Antique innovation, there's Cicero, Against Verres II.iii.71 (167) :
"Vettius wrote a letter to Carpinatius in Sicily..a letter that I came upon in the house of Carpinatius at Syracuse among the files of letters received [in litterarum allatarum libris], and a copy of it at Rome in the house of Lucius Tullius, another director,..among the files of letters dispatched [in <libris> litterarum missarum]." (LCL tr.)

Whether or not the evidence was forged is immaterial : the practice of keeping copies of letters sent and received is taken for granted.

The papyrological record supports this. Brent Nongbri, in '2 Corinthians and possible material evidence for composite letters in antiquity' (@, gives a good brief survey, with plates, illustrating the practice in private as well as commercial/administrative contexts.

Returning to the theme of 'control' which has been a constant in this thread : in theory, the collection of an author's letters should have been one of the more secure methods of literary transmission. There was, in theory, a double attestation of the existence, authenticity and precise wording of a letter. In practice, the picture was rather different.

Cicero, To Atticus 16.5 : "There is no collection [συναγωγη] of my letters, but Tiro [[his 'secretary '] has about 70, and some can be got from you. Those I ought to see and correct, and then they may be published [edentur]."

For context, there are 426 letters to Atticus in the published collection. There is no evidence that it was Cicero himself who actually went ahead with this proposal; had he done so, there was a serious deficit in his own archive.

Fortunately, as Cornelius Nepos reports (Life of Atticus 16), there were eleven rolls ('volumina') of Cicero's correspondence chez Atticus. However, Nongbri's discussion points to a weakness at this end of the arrangement. Letters were glued together to form a roll. For permanency, they could later be copied onto a fresh roll. Aside from copyists' errors, this process left room for omission, whether accidental (Nongbri's example) or deliberate, and, of course, interpolation.

Naturally, the longer the interval after the death of the main actors, the more haphazard the collection of correspondence. In discussing his edition of Origen's letters, Eusebius has no authorial archive to guide him.

H.E. 6.36 : "And there is extant also a letter of his to the Emperor Philip himself, and another to his wife Severa, and various other letters to various persons. As many of these as we have been able to bring together, preserved as they were here and there by various persons, we arranged in separate roll-cases, so that they might no longer be dispersed.These letters number more than 100." (LCL tr.)

As, by this time, a letter of Origen was a prestige artifact, it is likely that Eusebius' collection, which has not survived, contained a fair few forgeries. This might apply even to the letter quoted by Rufinus used earlier in the thread : it is good evidence for practices thought plausible, it is not 'necessarily' Origen's own words.
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Re: Ancient book dissemination.

Post by mbuckley3 »

An excursus on unorthodox methods of book dissemination.

Two features not enjoyed by traditional forms of publication were mass distribution, and a fixed text. In sharp contrast, documents from the imperial chancellary benefiited from both. Decrees and letters would circulate widely, and achieve permanence when transformed by dutiful councillors into inscriptions on stone or bronze. Occasionally, however, a private individual would mimic the imperial method.

Firstly, if you had wealth and connections, mass distribution of a (chapter-sized) pamphlet was possible. Pliny, letter 4.7 :
"I am constantly writing to tell you what energy Regulus possesses. It is wonderful the way he carries through anything which he has set his mind upon. It pleased him to mourn for his son - and never man mourned like him; it pleased him to erect a number of statues and busts to his memory, and the result is that he is keeping all the workshops busy; he is having his boy represented in colours, in wax, in bronze, in silver, in gold, ivory and marble - always his boy. He himself just lately got together a large audience and read a memoir [librum] of his life - of the boy's life; he read it aloud, and yet had a thousand copies written out [transcriptum] which he has scattered broadcast over Italy and the provinces. He wrote at large to the decurions and asked them to choose one of their number with the best voice to read the memoir to the people, and it was done." (tr. J.B. Firth)

Secondly, the permanent provision of a literary text was attempted in Lycia by the C2 philosophical inscription of Diogenes of Oenoanda.

For context, Asia Minor was home to what Christina Kokkinia has termed large epigraphic dossiers. For instance, the C2 Lycian Opramoas of Rhodiapolis covered a small building (? his mausoleum) with 20 columns of c.105 lines of writing; the inscriptions comprise 70 documents including letters from the emperor, from provincial governors, and votes of thanks from the Lycian League. A cascade of evidence pointing to the subject's place of honour in the world. In this sense, it has much in common with Augustus' Res Gestae, another extensive inscriptional enterprise, the most complete survival of which is in Ankara.

Diogenes' inscription is radically different in conception, self-effacing in that it attempts to teach the tenets of Epicurus rather than praise Diogenes. It was huge, the largest Greek inscription known from antiquity., covering a colonnade wall 80+ metres long and over 2 metres high. About 8000 words have been recovered, of an original 25,000+, comprising three (epitomes of) treatises, letters by Diogenes and (allegedly) by Epicurus, a set of maxims known to be attributed to Epicurus, and another set author(s) unknown*.

Visualisation is important. The format is quite literally that of an open book, a papyrus text unrolled column by column along the wall. Tricks of manuscript production are used : the maxims of Epicurus' Κυριαι Δοξαι, in larger lettering, run in a single line at the base, seeming to serve as 'scriptural' source texts for the treatise above. The other set of maxims, again in larger lettering, is inset in a way to focus the eye.

That this is not just a sheaf of documents but an authored 'book' is shown by the (engagingly garrulous) introduction. Including :

".. So, (to reiterate what I was saying), observing that these people are in this predicament, I bewailed their behaviour and wept over the wasting of their lives, and I considered it the responsibility of a good man [χρηστος τις ανηρ] to [give assistance] to the utmost of one's ability, to those of them who are well-constituted...

"..I now go on to mention my mission and to explain its character and nature. Having already reached the sunset of my life, (being almost on the verge of departure from the world on account of old age), I wanted, before being overtaken by death, to compose a [ fine] anthem now those who are well-constiuted. Now, if only one person or two or three or four or five or six or any larger number you choose, sir, provided that it is not very large, were in a bad predicament, I should address them individually and do all in my power to give them the best advice. But, as I have said before, the majority of people suffer from a common disease, as in a plague, with their false notions about things, and their number is increasing (for in mutual emulation they catch the disease from one another, like sheep), moreover it is right to help [also] generations to come (for they too belong to us, though they are still unborn) and, besides, love of humanity prompts us to aid [επικουρειν**] also the foreigners who come here. Now, since the remedies of the inscription reach a larger number of people, I wished to use this stoa to advertise publicly the [medicines] that bring salvation [σωτηριας]. These medicines we have put [fully] to the test..." (fr. 2-3, tr. Martin Ferguson Smith)

Those looking for contextual echoes will note the (unusual, for a philosopher) description of Epicurus as κηρυξ and σωτηρ, 'the herald who saved you' (fr.73, cf 1Tim. 2.7, 2 Tim.1.10,11); the reference to him surviving a catastrophic shipwreck (fr. 72);; the folding in of a doctrinal exposition - here, of the theory of infinite multiverses - within what is nominally a letter (fr. 62ff); yet also the scolding of addressees for not internalising what they have been taught (fr. 70). There is even a vision of an Epicurean future, a quasi heaven on earth (fr. 56) : "[? So we shall not achieve wisdom universally] since not all are capable of it. But if we assume it to be possible, then truly the life of the gods will pass to men. For everything will be full of justice [δικαιοσυνης] and mutual love [φιλαλληλιας], and there will come to be no need of fortifications*** or laws and all the things which we contrive on account of one another."

However, the most illuminating comparison, if we regard it, with Trobisch, as a C2 production, is with the New Testament as a book. Here again we have a construction of various genres of writing, of various and disguised authorship, arranged in such a way as to comment on and interpret eachother, instruction leading to 'salvation'.

The startling difference with Diogenes' use of this method, of course, was that he realised his book in stone. The text was secure, and the potential readership was always available. It is telling that when γνωσις is mentioned, it is by definition non-esoteric (fr. 116) : "It is in case [you] do not yet [possess] knowledge that we turned so many letters to stone for you".


A colophon. The Elder Pliny (NH 13.21) described papyrus as "the material on which the immortality of human beings depends." Diogenes of Oenoanda is unknown from the literary record. The resurrection of his name via his monument suggests that it was not quite as self-effacing as I suggested. Indeed Plutarch, in a rather bilious essay, thought it hypocritical of Epicureans, extollers of the 'private' life, to publish anything at all (Moralia 1128ff, Is 'Live Unknown' a Wise Precept) :

"But not even the author [ie Epicurus] of the precept wished to be unknown, as he made this very statement to escape from being unknown, dishonestly courting fame as a person of no ordinary wisdom by his advice to seek obscurity...So those with an inordinate and unrelieved appetite for fame disparage fame to others, their rivals as it were in love, in order to secure it without competition...For what need was there for him to say this, what need to write it and then publish it for the years to come, if he wanted to be unknown to the people of his day, this man who did not even want to be unknown to posterity?...You are telling..yourself, Epicurus, not to write to your friends in Asia, not to enlist recruits from Egypt, not to cultivate the youth of Lampsacus, not to circulate books to every man and every woman in which you advertise your wisdom...What is the meaning..of the tens of thousands of lines written to honour Metrodorus, Aristobulus, Chaeredemus, and composed with no small labour so that even after death these men may escape oblivion?..." (LCL tr.)


* Seneca (Letter 33) noted the tendency for all Epicureanisms to be attributed to Epicurus :
"We Stoics are not subjects of a despot..With them [ie Epicureans] on the other hand,
whatever Hermarchus says or Metrodorus, is ascribed to one source.In that brotherhood,
everything that any man utters is spoken under the leadership and commanding authority
of one alone."

** ie a play on Epicurus' name

*** with apposite irony, Diogenes' wall was demolished C3/C4, the blocks being used to make
a defensive wall for the town
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Re: Ancient book dissemination.

Post by Secret Alias »

Excellent work! Amazing information. Thank you.
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Re: Ancient book dissemination.

Post by mbuckley3 »

Poet's corner.

Ovid, Tristia 1.7, claims that on the eve of exile he burnt his own unrevised manuscript of the Metamorphoses, and that it only survives thanks to unauthorised copies. This may, of course, be a convenient way of forestalling criticism. But it does witness an author's inability to control the precise content of a text published 'unofficially'. So much so, that he actually provides a preface (cf Tertullian, Solinus) to make it clear to the reader just which 'edition' of the Metamorphoses he is reading.

"These verses, upon my departure, along with so many other things of mine,
I sadly threw on the fire with my own hand.
Just as, they say, in burning the brand and burning her son,
the daughter of Thestius proved a better sister than a mother,
so I placed to perish with me these undeserving books,
my very own flesh and blood, on a fierce funeral pyre :
either because I detested the Muses, my accusers,
or because the poem was crude in form and still growing.

The verses were not totally destroyed : they survive
(several copies of the writings, I think, were made).
Now I pray they live, and that my studious pursuits may give the reader
delight, and serve as a reminder of me.
Yet they can't be read patiently by anyone
who's unaware they lack the final hand.
That work was taken from me while on the anvil
and the writings lack the last touch of the file.
I ask forgiveness not praise, I'll be praised in full,
if you don't despise me, reader.

These six verses too, if on the brow of the first book
you consider them worth placing, take them :
'Whoever you are who touch these book rolls bereft of their parent,
to them at least let there be granted a place in your city.
And that you may be more indulgent, they were not published [edita] by him,
but snatched away [ rapta], as it were, from the funeral pyre of their master.
Whatever defect in them this crude poem has,
I would have been about to correct - if it had been allowed.'" (tr. Andrew Laird)
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Re: Ancient book dissemination.

Post by mbuckley3 »

A footnote on libraries.

It is a constant frustration that large portions of the works of, in particular, Roman historians are extant only in epitomes, whether ancient or medieval. One of the drivers for this was practical necessity, given the state of the books themselves. The 'mixed' condition of the contents even of the imperial libraries on the Palatine is witnessed by Galen previously on this thread. Here is the C4 mathematician Pappus of Alexandria* justifying his own epitome of the C1 Heron of Alexandria's Mechanica :

"So much for the hoisting winch. The above-mentioned five simple machines we want to discuss briefly according to Heron's writings, adding for the instruction of the studious also the sections on the cranes with one, two, three and four masts, which we necessarily mentioned so that the one who is looking for books in which this is written does not get into perplexity. For we, too, have come across copies that are often ruined, lacking both beginnings and endings."
[..μη ποτε και των βιβλιων εν οις ταυτα γεγραπται απορια γενηται τω ζητουντι. και γαρ ημεις κατα πολλα μερη διεφθαρμενοις ενετυχομεν αναρχοις τε και ατελεσι βιβλιοις]
( Pappus 8.1114 ff., own tr.)**


* As regards 'the' Library of Alexandria, Roger Bagnall's 2002 article, 'Alexandria : Library of Dreams', is a fine outline of "our nearly total ignorance" of all aspects of it, from which "a whole [scholarly] literature of wishful thinking has grown up."

**Otherwise referenced as Heron, Mechanica 2.1. Accessed from the 1900/1976 Teubner edition of Heron's works, vol.2, p.272, available in facsimile online at, a link I owe to the always invaluable Roger Pearse
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