Life In The Roman Empire : Books And Writing

Girl with a stylus and writing block. Wall painting from Pompeii, 1st century AD. This lovely image of a reflective young women is often called Sappho, after the famous Greek poet, althought she is equally likely to have been a bright young Pompeian with literary leanings.
Girl with a stylus and writing block. Wall painting from Pompeii, 1st century AD. This lovely image of a reflective young women is often called Sappho, after the famous Greek poet, althought she is equally likely to have been a bright young Pompeian with literary leanings.

Latin, the language of the Romans, was originally spoken only in the small region of Central Italy known as Latium. It might well have been displaced by geographically more widespread Italian tongues such as Oscan and Umbrian, but Roman conquests made it the received speech of the peninsula, and ultimately of most wealthy or educated people all over a vast empire.

Writing began in the 7th century BC, when the Latin alphabet was devised as an adaptation of the Greek letters used by the Romans Etruscan neighbours. The earliest known written Latin is on the Lapis Niger, an inscriped block of stone, found in the Forum Romanum, that probably dates from the early 6th century BC. There is no way of establishing how many Romans became literate, but written records, orders and transactions were vital to the efficient running of the Empire, while poems, plays, political and philosophical reflections, letters, prayers and graffiti provided outlets for vivid self-expression that often bring the Romans very close to us.

Commemorative inscriptions and some official decrees appeard on stone or bronze, but a variety of materials were available for other purposes. A wooden tablet with a coating of wax was particularly useful for temporary personal memoranda and school work; the metal or wooden stylus that scratched letters into the wax had a flat  top that could be employed for corrections or to erase all the written content so that the tablet could be used again. However, occasion this unstable medium also seems to have served for quite important documents.

Letters and other personal statement could be written with pen and ink on thin sheets of wood. Pens were made of metal, or sharpened reeds of feathers; Roman ink, variously mixing soot, resin and cuttlefish ink, was surprisingly black and durable, as surviving documents have shown. Those who could afford it bought a much less cumbersome, paper-like material made from the papyrus reed (an Egyptian invention from which the word paper is actually derived). This was also used for Roman books, which took the form of long papyrus scrolls. A book, or part-book, was called a volumen, or roll (the origin of the English word volume); the reader held it in both hands, simultaneously rolling and unrolling it so that the text was progressively revealed. Under the Empire, parchment and and vellum (made from hides) were also used as writing surfaces, and the book with pages, or codex, began to be made, but surprisingly it never replaced the much clumsier roll.

Roman interest in books only became intense under the influence of Greek culture in the 2nd century BC, when libraries were part of the booty brought back from the East by Sulla and other successful generals. An influx of well-educated Greek slaves facilitated the development of the book trade in Rome, where something resembling mass production was achieved by booksellers whose slaves wrote out copies of texts dictated by one of their number. The influence of ardent collectors such as Cicero helped to create a fashion for possessing a private library, and booksellers flourished in the capital and ultimately in most parts of the Empire, advertising the latest authors on the pillars outside their shops. The first public library in Rome was founded during the reign of Augustus by the retired politician-poet Gaius Asinius Pollio, and within a century there were over 20, some of which allowed members to take out books for private reading. Authors were paid an outright fee for their works, and even the most famous were unable to live on their literary income. Martial for example, complained that in spite of being read even on the Danube and in Britain, his work brought him little profit. The bookseller-publisher could not afford to be generous, since there was no copyright law and consequently he could never acquire exclusive rights to any publication. As soon as he put a work on sale, a rival bookseller could acquire a copy, put his own scribes to work on it, and publish his own edition. Impecunious authors were therefore dependent on the generosity of one or more patrons and as Martial lamented, there was not a Maecenas in every generation.

Writing materials used by Romas at various times. The hinged book was filled with wax (shown here as a separate item in ready to melt block form), which when hard could be written on with the elegant stylus; pen and inkpot are to hand for more durable writing, along with a lighted lamp, a spare wick and a seal.
Writing materials used by Romas at various times. The hinged book was filled with wax (shown here as a separate item in ready to melt block form), which when hard could be written on with the elegant stylus; pen and inkpot are to hand for more durable writing, along with a lighted lamp, a spare wick and a seal.

Source: Nathaniel Harris : History Of Ancient Rome

Cleopatra killed by drug coctail?

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra

Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt, died from swallowing a lethal drug cocktail and not from a snake bite, a new study claims. According to Christoph Schäfer, a German historian and professor at the University of Trier, the legendary beauty queen was unlikely to have committed suicide by letting an asp — an Egyptian cobra — sink into her flesh.“There was no cobra in Cleopatra’s death,” Schäfer told Discovery News.The author of a best-selling book in Germany, “Cleopatra,” Schäfer searched historic writings for evidence to disprove the 2,000-year-old asp legend. His findings are to be featured on the German channel ZDF as part of a program on Cleopatra.“The Roman historian Cassius Dio, writing about 200 years after Cleopatra’s demise, stated that she died a quiet and pain-free death, which is not compatible with a cobra bite. Indeed, the snake’s venom would have caused a painful and disfiguring death,” Schäfer said. According to German toxicologist Dietrich Mebs, a poison specialist taking part in the study, the symptoms occurring after an asp bite are very unpleasant, and include vomiting, diarrhea and respiratory failure.“Death may occur within 45 minutes, but it may also be longer with painful edema at the bite site. At the end, the dead body does not look very nice with vomit, diarrhea, a swollen bite site,” Mebs told Discovery News. Ancient texts also record that Cleopatra’s two handmaidens died with her — something very unlikely if she had died of a snake bite, said Schäfer.

The Queen of the Nile committed suicide in August 30 B.C. at the age of 39, following the example of her lover, the Roman leader Marc Antony, who killed himself after losing the Battle of Actium. At that time, temperatures in Egypt would have been so high that “it was almost impossible for a snake to stay still enough to bite,” Schäfer said. “The main problem with any snakebite are the unpredictable effects, because the venom of the snakes is highly variable. The amount they spent for the bite may be too low. Why taking a risk even to survive with such unpleasant symptoms?” Mebs said. According to the researchers, who traveled to Alexandria where they consulted ancient medical texts, a plant poison mixture which is easily dosed and whose effects are very predictable could have worked much better.“Ancient papyri show that the Egyptians knew about poisons, and one papyrus says Cleopatra actually tested them,” Schaefer said. Schaefer and Mebs believe that Cleopatra chose a drug cocktail made of opium, aconitum (also known as wolfsbane) and hemlock, a highly poisonous plant from the parsley family that is believed to have been used to poison Socrates. The drug cocktail, Schäfer claims, was known at the time to cause a rather painless death within a few hours.

“Cleopatra reportedly carried out many toxicological experiments, an imitation of Mithradates VI. In her quest for the most peaceful and painless way to die, she would have observed the deaths of many condemned prisoners by many different poisons and combinations, including snakebite,” Adrienne Mayor, author of the Mithridates biography “The Poison King,” told Discovery News. “In my opinion, Cleopatra would have taken a high dose of opium as a sedative and then succumb to a cobra bite within a half hour,” Mayor said. “She would be sedated and calm, feeling no pain, as the cobra venom slows her respiration, and she breathes her last and dies.” According to Alain Touwaide, an international authority on medicinal plants of antiquity at the Smithsonian Institution and the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions in Washington , D.C., the drug cocktail would have technically worked well.“A mixture of opium, aconitum and hemlock would have been a very intelligent combination. Opium and hemlock would have contributed to a painless death, easing the action of aconite, believed in antiquity to have deadly effects on the gastro-intestinal system. However, it wasn’t common at all to mix vegetable poisons at Cleopatra’s time,” Touwaide told Discovery News. “Cleopatra is a constant source of legends and theories, and is often credited with the writing of treatises on poisons, cosmetics and medicines,” Touwaide said. “I believe finding her body and applying forensic methods of analysis would be the only way to solve the mystery of her death.”

Death of Cleopatra by Jean Andre Rixens, 1874

The Great Library of Alexandria

Ptolemy II Philadelphus is shown conversing with scholars in the library of Alexandria in this 1813 work by the Italian neo-classicist painter Vincenzo Camuccini (1771-1844). Camuccini was probably inviting paralleis with Napoleon, portraying him as a patron of the arts.

The most celebrated library of the ancient world was established in Alexandria, Egypt, in the first half of the third century BCE, during the reigns of Ptolemy I Soter and Ptolemy II Philadelphus, king of Egypt 322-246 BCE. The library was part o a museum, which included a garden, a common dining room, a reading room, lecture theatres and meeting rooms, creating a model for the modern university campus.

A Papyrus fragment with lines from Homer’s Odyssey, from the early Hellenistic period c. 285-50 BCE, found in Egypt. Papyrus was usually inscribed with a sharpened read using black ink. The library of Alexandria made a point of collecting Homeric texts.

Attempt were made to gather together all the knowledge of the known world. Messengers were sent to buy items at the book fairs of Rhodes and Athens. International scholars came on funded visits. According to Galen, all ships visiting Alexandria were obliged to surrender their books for immediate copying – the owners received a copy, but the pharaohs kept the originals in their museum. The Alexandria library collection included the best available texts of Greek authors and also of non-Greek works, such as the Hebrew Old Testament. In this way, the museum asserted the power of the Ptolemaic kings over both the Greek and non-Hellenic worlds.

At its height, the library of Alexandria was said to posses nearly half a million scrolls- In the mid-third century BCE, the poet Callimachus was employed there, and created the first ever alphabetically arranged library catalogue. Ptolemy II Philadelphus even set up an offshoot library, the Serapeum, which was more of a public library, whereas the main library was designed for scholars.

Collecting Greek books in imitation of Alexandria became a sign of cultural status, and the library at Pergamum was established in the second half of third century BCE. in direct competition with Alexandria. Greek scholarship enjoyed enormous prestige. The study of Homer, for example, was considered essential for an educated man. Many papyrus fragments of Homer were found in Egypt. Euripides (480-406 BCE.) and Demosthenes (384-322 BCE.) were also part of the curriculum in Hellenized Mediterranean cities such as Oxyrhynchus, Ephesus, Pergamum, and Corinth.

According to a spurious legend, the library of Alexandria burned down in 48 BCE. when Julius Caesar set fire to the Egyptian navy, and the flames accidentally spread to the onshore port installations. Althought Caesar’s fire may have destroyed a book depot, the library was not situated near the port. In fact, Greek scholars reported working in the library twenty years later. It was probably destroyed when Alexandria was captured by the Roman emperor Aurelianus in 273 CE. In 2002 the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a major library and museum complex supported by Alexandria University, UNESCO and the egyptian goverment, was established close to the site of the ancient library, with the aim of re-establishing Alexandria as one of the great intellectual and cultural centres of the twenty-first century.

In the new Biobliotheca Alexandrina, the main reading room is located beneath a 32-metre (104 foot) glass-panelled roof which is tilted out towards the sea like a sundial and measures 160 meters (524 feet) in diameter. The walls are made of grey Aswan granite and engraved with characters from 120 different scripts.

Source: Martyn Lyons, Books- A Living History, 2011