Book Publication in Ancient Rome

By Clift, Evelyn Holst | National Forum, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Book Publication in Ancient Rome


Clift, Evelyn Holst, National Forum


Evelyn Holst Clift (December 1947)

In Rome private libraries are recorded from the middle of the second century B.C., when Rome came into contact with the Greek world through the conquest of Macedonia. . . . It is sufficient here to say that book collecting was pursued with enthusiasm by wealthy Romans in all periods, sometimes because of their scholarly tastes, sometimes simply for display purposes. The idea of a state or public library seems to have occurred first, among the Romans, to Julius Caesar. . . .

It is a curious fact that the bulk of available information on methods of publication in the Roman world comes from this same Republican age in which books were apparently so hard to procure. The only known publisher at this time was T. Pomponius Atticus, and by good fortune his social position as a wealthy Roman knight made possible the friendship between him and Cicero which has been commemorated in sixteen books of letters. . . .

The year 57 is the first secure date for Atticus' publishing activity in connection with Cicero's work. When Cicero returned from exile in that year, he delivered a speech concerning the confiscation of his house during his absence. The land had been declared sacrosanct, and it was a complicated problem to decide what restitution should be made to him. This speech Cicero considered so fine that he thought it ought to be published, as a model to the younger generation of orators. Hence, he says, he will send it to Atticus to publish, whether he wants it or not. From that time on, Atticus was continually occupied with the publication of Cicero's writings . . . Cicero even contemplated permitting Atticus to issue a collection of his letters.

Yet even now Atticus did not have exclusive publication rights, for in a letter to his colleague, Q. Cornificius, Cicero said:

What I last wrote was a treatise De Optimo Genere Dicendi. This book I should be glad if you would favor with your support, preferably out of conviction; failing that, as an act of kindness. I will tell your people, if they are so inclined, to copy it out and send it to you.

In the light of this letter one cannot talk of organized publication in the ancient world. Cicero did not, in this case, send Cornificius a copy made by one of his own librarii, nor did he appeal to his customary publisher, Atticus, for a copy from stock. Instead, Cornificius' own people must make the copy. The only advantage Atticus might have in the publishing business was a skilled group of literary slaves. Not all Romans, even among the upper classes, had private copyists; they would find it more convenient to obtain a copy from Atticus. In the words of his biographer, Cornelius Nepos,

He had slaves that were excellent in point of efficiency, although in personal appearance hardly mediocre; for there were among them servants who were highly educated, some excellent readers and a great number of copyists; in fact, there was not even a footman who was not expert in both of those accomplishments. …

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