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Publishing in Rome: 1st century BC

In describing the scene of literary Rome in the 1st century BC historians often mention publication dates for particular works. This sounds strange in any period before printing. Yet publication is a similar concept in a society where all books are hand-written.

Rome has no publishers in the modern sense. When a work is ready for publication, the author or his friends provide the necessary funds. The text is then sent to what is in effect a writing factory.


The scribes, numbering perhaps as many as thirty, sit in a courtyard or hall with a papyrus scroll on a slab in front of each of them. Most are slaves, working for the master who owns the factory. Into their ink wells they dip either a bronze pen, with a flattened and pointed end as a nib, or a reed sharpened and split to hold the ink.

They all write the same text, which a reader declaims in measured tones. The written part of the papyrus rolls up on the left of each slab; the unwritten part unrolls from the right. As each completed batch of scrolls is taken off for delivery to customers, the team - depending on the size of the edition - starts the same book again. The work has been published.


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