How Common Were Booksellers in the First Centuries CE?

Jax

Ad Honorem
Aug 2013
6,347
Seattle
P.Petaus 30 P. Petaus 30: A letter describing a travelling book dealer ? Roger Pearse which reads “Julius Placidus to his father Herclanus, greeting. Dius came to us and showed us six parchment codices (tas membranas hex). We selected none of those, but we collated (antebalomen) eight, for which I paid on account 100 drachmas. You will be on the lookout in any case. . . I hope you are well. . .by Julius Placidus.” seems to indicate that booksellers were very common in the first centuries of the common era.

Just how common were they?
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,728
Dispargum
Sidonius Apollinaris, writing in the late 5th century, also mentioned a bookseller in a letter to Bishop Remigius of Rheims.

I wouldn't think booksellers would be very common since the book reading public was very small. Your bookseller seems to be a traveling salesman, which makes sense if he has to go looking for customers and can't afford to wait for customers to come to him.

I found it more interesting that the 2nd century books were in codex format instead of scrolls. The codex was a relatively recent invention at that time.
 

Jax

Ad Honorem
Aug 2013
6,347
Seattle
Sidonius Apollinaris, writing in the late 5th century, also mentioned a bookseller in a letter to Bishop Remigius of Rheims.

I wouldn't think booksellers would be very common since the book reading public was very small. Your bookseller seems to be a traveling salesman, which makes sense if he has to go looking for customers and can't afford to wait for customers to come to him.
I seem to recall that Galen https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galen found numerous works attributed to him at various booksellers that were not his. This would seem to indicate that booksellers were somewhat common. At least from the mid second century to the early third.

I found it more interesting that the 2nd century books were in codex format instead of scrolls. The codex was a relatively recent invention at that time.
This is interesting. I came across the reference to this letter in the book The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins https://www.amazon.com/Earliest-Christian-Artifacts-Manuscripts-Origins/dp/0802828957 were the author is pointing out that the codex still wasn't as popular as a medium as was the scroll except for use by Christians were it by far outstripped scrolls by a considerable margin.
 

Kookaburra Jack

Ad Honorem
May 2011
2,961
Rural Australia
I seem to recall that Galen https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galen found numerous works attributed to him at various booksellers that were not his. This would seem to indicate that booksellers were somewhat common. At least from the mid second century to the early third.

The following from my notes taken from "Libraries in the Ancient World" by Lionel Casson [2002]




==========[quoting Casson]===========

https://www.amazon.com/Libraries-Ancient-World-Lionel-Casson/dp/0300097212



Plautus (end 3rd century BCE) - Roman literacist: Latin adaptions of "Greek New Comedy"
Originally written for Athenian stage (350-250 BCE): entertainment at Roman festivals
Plautus furnished scripts but was poor. (sources: Mendander, Philemon, Diphilus)
The managers of the Roman entertainment purchased Greek originals from booksellers in Tarentum or Syracuse
Collections of Latin and greek drama - via private libraries of richer families + theatre managers





p.130

Moreover, an illuminating bit of information turns up in a more or less
contemporary letter that was recovered from an Egyptian village; in it a son
tells his father that:

'Delos came to us and showed us the six parchment codices.
We didn't choose any but we collated eight others for which
I gave 100 drachmas on account.'

Delos, apparently an itinerant bookseller, was peddling a stock of no less that
14 parchment codices, and these were of interest to a resident of an Egyptian village.
The parchment codex had travelled far and briskly from Martial's Rome.

[I don't know the papyrus Oxy reference, or its date, but first few centuries]





Western monasteries: Monte Casino established 529 CE by Benedict (midway between Rome and Naples)
Rules mandated the regular reading books by the monks; but there was no scriptoria.
Books were donated and often the source were booksellers.



"The spread of Christianity did not put the booksellers out of business; it added business."



Sulpicius Severus c.400 CE commented over new book to arrive in Rome by Martin of Tours.
"I saw the booksellers exulting that it was the greatest source of profit they had;
nothing sold faster, nothing sold for a better price."




c.600 CE Rome was still centre of book trade: Pope Gregory required books for a mission to Britain.


==========[/quoting Casson]===========


Books were a commodity and a trade it seems from early times right through to the present. There would have been ebb and flow in the tides of the trade.


When did roll sellers become codex sellers?





Certainly by the 4th century.
 
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Jax

Ad Honorem
Aug 2013
6,347
Seattle
Moreover, an illuminating bit of information turns up in a more or less
contemporary letter that was recovered from an Egyptian village; in it a son
tells his father that:

'Delos came to us and showed us the six parchment codices.
We didn't choose any but we collated eight others for which
I gave 100 drachmas on account.'

Delos, apparently an itinerant bookseller, was peddling a stock of no less that
14 parchment codices, and these were of interest to a resident of an Egyptian village.
The parchment codex had travelled far and briskly from Martial's Rome.

[I don't know the papyrus Oxy reference, or its date, but first few centuries]
I believe that you will find that it is the letter P.Petaus 30 that I reference in the OP.
 
Aug 2014
951
United States of America
Galen also mentions the Vicus Sandalarius in Rome, a road northeast of the Forum of Vespasian/Temple of Peace. It clearly had shoemakers' shops along it but Galen says that there were bookshops there as well.
 

Jax

Ad Honorem
Aug 2013
6,347
Seattle
"Despite his fame, Martial did not actual publish anything until more than 15 years after his arrival in Rome - around 80 CE. But he certainly gave "readings" of his poems, either in private houses or in public venues like theaters and lecture halls (a feature of the better bath houses). It is also likely manuscripts circulated privately, much as did the "sugared sonnets" of some guy named Will during Queen Elizabeth's I reign.

On the other hand there was a thriving book trade, which is not what you would expect in a society where all books had to be written by hand and probably less than 20 % of the people could read. Becoming a publisher was surprisingly easy. You didn't need the metal type or printing presses which made book and newspaper publishing so cumbersome until the advent of our digital cyber age. All you needed was a bunch of scribes - mostly slaves - and have someone read out a book. Each of the scribes would write down what the reader dictated and hey presto! you had more books. The major expense was papyrus - not cheap - and literate slaves also cost quite a lot. So we hear that books were expensive.

Although the initial investment and materials to be a publisher was a bit costly, the logistics and inventory handling was pretty simple. Book publishers were also the book sellers, and the books were produced right in the shop itself. So you could have five to ten literate slaves, and you'd end up with five to ten copies of whatever best seller was then in vogue. In the shop - called a taberna - the books were on display up front, and the slaves would be writing more books in the back. When Martial's first book went on sale, it costs five denarii.

Was five denarii expensive? Well, to get a feel for the costs we need to look into ancient Roman coinage and prices. The coinage system in Martial's time was essentially that of Augustus. The emperor had decreed that 1 gold aureus was equal to 25 denarii which was in turn equal to 100 sesterces which was convertible to 400 asses (a bronze coin, not the animal, and the singular is as). So with this rate of exchange, Martial's book cost 20 sestercii or 80 asses.

You'll find some books that put a sesterce into modern dollar equivalents. But since Rome didn't have built-in system of inflation like ours, the equivalences soon become outdated. It's better to see what the necessities and luxuries of life actually cost. Still, even then the relative worth of goods and services in antiquity cannot be equated to those today and we have to fish around to get an idea of what 20 sestercii means today.

For instance, what did it cost for a day's food? In Pompeii - which was buried by Vesuvius when Martial was about 40 - a visitor recorded the cost of his consumables at an average of 4 sestercii a day. The diet was also by no means extravagant. On a typical day you ate bread, cheese, and had wine to drink. When you splurged you might have a sausage and some vegetables. In other words, Martial's book cost 5 times what you needed for a a day's modest diet.

Another way to look at the cost is to compare it to the income of various occupations. We know that a Roman soldier earned about 1000 sesterces a year and so he would have to set aside a week's wages to buy Martial's book. This agrees pretty well with the costs of our visitor to Pompeii (who did spend money on more than just food). But paying out a week's expenses for a book is not something your average Roman could easily afford.

So who bought the books? Obviously those with more money than a soldier. The poet Juvenal, who as a younger man probably practiced law (for which you were not allowed to accept fees), said that it was possible for a single man to live "comfortably" on the income from investments of 400,000 a year. Now if he got a return of 5 % - pretty typical for the time - he would get 20,000 sesterces a year. That must have been a comfort indeed and the 400,000 in assets actually defines the equestrian class. So Juvenal's comfortable single equestrian gentleman made about 55 sesterces a day. He could have easily afforded Martial's book.

Finally, we need to point out that a book in ancient times were scrolls and contained not much more than a single chapter of our own single volume codices. If you bought Martial's complete works you'd have to buy 15 "books" which would have run to 300 sesterces. That would be over five days pay for Juvenal and over three months pay for our Roman soldier. Today we can buy Martial's complete works with English translations - double the size of the originals - for about $40. So yes, books were more expensive than today and not something that your average Roman would buy.

Did Martial make money from his books? Not much. He might get a one time payment in a deal with a publisher or patron for a new book, but there was no copyright. So once the book was on the market, anyone with a backroom full of slaves could make and sell his own editions. So throughout his life, Martial had to rely on handouts - sorry, that's "patronage" - from his rich friends."

From The Life and Epigrams of Martial - A Most Merry and Illustrated History

His references include...

Martial, Loeb Classical Library

Latin: An Introductory Course Based on Ancient Authors, Frederic Wheelock, 3rd Edition, Barnes and Noble, 1976. A number of Martial's epigrams are in the exercises.

Martial: The Unexpected Classic - A Literary and Historical Study, J. P. Sullivan Cambridge University Press, 1991. Informative but expensive.

Bathing in Public in the Roman World, Garrett Fagan, University of Michigan Press, 1999. The first section uses the poetry of Martial to learn about the Roman baths.

A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome: Daily Life, Mysteries, and Curiosities, Alberto Angela, Europa Editions, 2009, A general "daily life" book. One chapter discusses costs of goods during Trajan's time and which were similar to those during Martial's lifetime.

"The Display of Elephants in Ancient Roman Arenas", Jo-Ann Shelton, ISAZ Newsletter, No. 21, pp. 2 - 6, (May, 2001)

Experiencing Rome: A Visual Exploration of Antiquity's Greatest Empire, Stephen Tuck, The Teaching Company.

History of Rome, Garrett Fagan, The Teaching Company.
 
Aug 2014
951
United States of America
On the other hand there was a thriving book trade, which is not what you would expect in a society where all books had to be written by hand and probably less than 20 % of the people could read.
I disagree with this author's statement. Based on the amount of graffiti that we know about, especially from Pompeii and Herculaneum, it appears that literacy (and we can talk about what literacy means), there could have been a lot more people who could read and therefore who might possibly buy books.