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Mary Beard, professor of classics at the University of Cambridge, is editor of the (London) Times Literary Supplement, and author of an article in the New York Times Book Review.
She tells us that the Roman poet Martial said, “My book is thumbed by our soldiers posted overseas, and even in Britain people quote my words. What’s the point? I don’t make a penny from it.”
Pre-Gutenberg, all reading material was laboriously copied out by hand. A battalion of slaves was the equivalent of the printing press.
What we know as “books” were “book rolls” up until the second century. They were long strips of papyrus, rolled up on two wooden rods at either end. The reader unrolled the papyrus from the left-hand rod, onto the right, leaving a “page” stretched between the two. Beard tells us
It was considered the height of bad manners to leave the text on the right-hand rod when you had finished reading, so that the next reader had to rewind back to the beginning to find the title page. Bad manners — but a common fault, no doubt. Some scribes helpfully repeated the title of the book at the very end, with just this problem in mind.
The experience of reading was very different from the modern one. Skimming was difficult, as was looking back a few pages to check something you might have missed.
And during some periods of Roman history it was the fashion to copy the text with no breaks between the words — just a “river of letters.”
But, says Mary Beard, there’s a lot that seems quite familiar. There were money-making booksellers, and authors who were exploited and impoverished; there were celebrity book launches; and there were prizes that could make a career.
Roman writers knew that the profits of their writing ended up in the booksellers’ pockets. Booksellers often combined retail trade with a copying business, so they were in effect the publishers and the distributors as well.
At best, writes Beard, the author received only a lump sum from the seller for the rights to copy his work. And once the text was “out,” there was no way of stopping its piracy.
The tame poet, Horace, a favorite of Caesar Augustus, called booksellers rich “pimps” of Roman publishing, and authors — or perhaps the texts themselves — were the poor hardworking prostitutes. Horace said his slim volume of poetry was “on the game, all tarted up with the cosmetics of Sosius & Co,” his publishers.
Horace didn’t do too badly from his writing. Although there were no royalties, he was — like most of the best-known authors in Rome — taken under the wing of a patron. Maecenas, Augustus’s unofficial minister of culture, set him up in a house.
In Rome, bookstores clustered in particular streets. One was the Vicus Sandalarium or Shoemakers Row. It was not far from the Colosseum (convenient for post-gladiatorial browsing). In this area you could find the storefronts plastered with advertisements and blurbs for titles in stock; they were often adorned with choice quotes. In fact, Martial once told a friend not to bother going inside, since you could “read all the poets on their doorposts.”
If you did go inside, there was often a place to sit and read. Slaves were probably on hand to fetch refreshment, rather like the Starbucks type coffee shop in Barnes and Noble.
Collectors could find secondhand treasures for a price. One academic reported finding an old copy of the second book of Virgil’s “Aeneid.” This was not just any old copy but, the bookseller assured him, Virgil’s very own. This might have been an unlikely story, but our academic did spring for it, for a small fortune — rather more than the combined annual wages of two soldiers.
If you bought cheaper merchandise, there were different risks: a cut-price book roll would probably fall apart as quickly as a modern mass-market paperback. But there was a worse situation: the pressure to get copies made quickly meant that they were loaded with errors; there were sometimes uncomfortably different from what the author had written.
A list of prices from the third century AD implies that the money needed to buy a top-quality copy of 500 lines would be enough to feed a family of four, on basic rations of course, for an entire year. If you settled for an inferior version though, you could get a 20 percent discount.
Even though an author might not make much money from his work, he still wanted to announce to the world that it was available on shelves.
The Roman launch party took the form of selected readings from the work, usually semi-publicly or at exclusive invitation-only events, perhaps at the home of a rich patron.
Today authors become angry when only half the expected guests turn up, have a quick drink, eat some food and leave without buying a book. Pliny complained in the second century AD that in Rome “there was hardly a day in April when someone wasn’t giving a reading. ” He also whined that poor authors had to put up with small audiences, most of whom slipped out before the end in any case.
But a surer way to celebrity was the literary prize. All through history, authors have been competetive. A story from the very earliest days of Western literature tells of a literary showdown between Homer and Hesiod, his less famous and slightly younger contemporary. Hesiod won, on the grounds that his “Works and Days,” a long poem on farming, was more “useful” than the Iliad.
And all Greek drama was written for competition.
Later, Roman emperors paid for high-profile prizes, rather like the Pulitzer or the Booker prizes. Many previously published writers were successful in such competitions. But there was always the risk of public humiliation; you could be upstaged by some wild-card amateur.
One Roman tombstone commemorates an 11-year-old prodigy named Sulpicius Maximus, carefully coached by Mater and Pater no doubt, who died shortly after competing “with honor” at a prestigious poetry prize in Naples. He had impressed the judges with his composition on a well-known mythological theme: a speech of Jupiter, telling off the sun god for having loaned his chariot to the reckless youth Phaeton.
But there’s no need to feel sorry for many of these struggling ancient authors, according to Mary Beard. They have had long-term success down the centuries.
Plato is even now the best selling philosopher the world has ever seen. And clicking on Amazon reveals that Livy, Horace and Virgil still rival many of the modern writers who write about their world.
sole source: NY Times article by Mary Beard on Sunday, April 19, 2009. www.nytimes.com. Beard’s latest book is “The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found,” Harvard University Press, ISBN 13:9780674029767.
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