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The History of Publishing Ep 2: The Classics: Greeks and Romans

It is highly likely the ancient Greeks adapted their own papyrus scrolls from Egyptian society. They did have alternative methods of recording the written word, by scribing words into wax wooden tablets. An estimated 30,000 Greeks scrolls have survived throughout the centuries, providing a decent catalogue of history and showcasing the development of the modern alphabet. The content in the surviving examples show that the Greeks used books for entirely practical purposes and, unlike their Egyptian counterparts, were largely un-decorated.

During the height of the Greek empire and the golden age of Athens, books were regarded as tools for learning. Arts and entertainment, like plays, poems and myths, were produced in written forms but were predominantly circulated through speech and spoken word. What is fascinating about Greek reading is how it was accessible outside the scholarly circles. Though there is little evidence to suggest everyone could read, the Greek alphabet and easily understood content made the book a commonplace mode of communication for much of wide society.

The reign of Alexander the Great massively advanced the book and its place in society. As their ruler conquered more land and broadened Greek influence, the written word became vital in recording new information and topics of discussion. In the Hellenistic cities, new centres of learning were established, alongside great libraries and a thriving book market. Papyrus scrolls superseded spoken word as the standard form of communication. Evidence suggests that the 30,000 surviving examples are barely the tip of the iceberg of what were likely enormous collections of books and writing, particularly in Alexandria.

Roman society is credited for introducing the Greek book to Western Europe. After their conquer of Greece, they transported much of their libraries home as the foundations for their own. Roman books were closely related to the Greek papyrus scroll, with the only difference being the use of the Latin language. The Romans developed their own robust book trade and this is where we see book ownership become a defining symbol of class and status. Private libraries were common and a necessary signifier for any member of the upper class or aspiring social climber. However, due to slave labour, book prices were still low enough for those with modest incomes to afford.

Next Episode: Episode 3. Early Christianity and The Codex

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