Our favourite Cambridge Don has a nice piece in the New York Times on getting published in ancient Rome … here’s a tease:

Bookstores in Rome clustered in particular streets. One was the Vicus Sandalarius, or Shoemakers Row, not far from the Colosseum (convenient for post-gladiatorial browsing). Here you would find the outsides of the stores plastered with advertisements and puffs for titles in stock, often adorned with some choice quotes from the books of the moment. Martial, in fact, once told a friend not to bother to venture inside, since you could “read all the poets” on their doorposts.

For those who did go in, there was usually a place to sit and read. With slaves on hand to summon up refreshments, it would have been not unlike the coffee shop in a modern Borders. For collectors, there were occasionally secondhand treasures to be picked up, at a price. One Roman academic reported finding an old copy of the second book of Virgil’s “Aeneid” — not just any old copy but, the bookseller assured him, Virgil’s very own. An unlikely story maybe, but one that persuaded him to part with a small fortune to acquire it (rather more, in fact, than the combined annual wages of two professional soldiers). The risks on cheaper purchases were different. A cut-price book roll would presumably have fallen to pieces as quickly as a modern mass-market paperback. But worse, the pressure to get copies made quickly meant that they were loaded with errors and sometimes uncomfortably different from the authentic words of the author. One list of prices from the third century A.D. implies that the money needed to buy a top-quality copy of 500 lines would be enough to feed a family of four (admittedly, on very basic rations) for a whole year. If you settled for an inferior job, you could get a 20 percent discount.

… we’ll see how many Classicists grumble when they read “millenniums” … personally, I’ve always wondered how many literate Romans actually ‘read’ as opposed to having someone read to them (and not even in a ‘performance’ sense). If I think about it too hard, I start thinking of the ancient literate slave as the Roman equivalent of an iPod Touch, with a longer battery life.

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