The ancient Greeks and Romans wrote and copied by hand all of their literary works, as well as any written material concerned with everyday matters—business accounts, personal letters, law codes, and public notices. The printing press was not invented until the A.D. 1400s, many centuries after the end of the Roman period. In the ancient world, the people who copied written material served an important function. These scribes* made poems, plays, histories, and other works available to readers beyond the author’s relatively small circle of friends and family.

* scribe person who copies manuscripts by hand

Writing Materials. Ancient writers used a variety of materials to record their words in some lasting form. One method involved using a pointed stick called a stylus to write on clay or wood tablets coated with wax. The writer could rub out the marks in the wax and reuse the tablets. Other writing materials included bark, animal skins, and papyrus, which was the most common material.

Papyrus—the source of the English word paper—is a plant that grows in the delta of the Nile River. By 3000 B.C., the Egyptians had learned to make flat paperlike sheets from the inner stalks of the plant. They glued these sheets together into long rolls. The Greeks probably began importing papyrus in the 500s B.C., and it became the principal writing material of the ancient world. From the Greek word for papyrus, byblos, came their word for book, biblion, which was the source of the English word bible.

The Greeks and Romans also wrote on parchment, a material made from the skins of cattle, sheep, and goats. First, they washed the animal skins, scraped off the hair, and treated the skins with chalk to whiten them. Then, they cut the skins into sheets, which could be used individually or could be sewn together to form rolls. Calf skin made a particularly fine type of parchment called vellum.

Writers working on papyrus usually used an ink made of soot and vegetable gum. The ink, which dissolved in water, could be sponged clean. Another type of ink, which adhered better to parchment, was made of vegetable dye mixed with iron sulfate. Writers used pens made from dried reeds. They trimmed one end of a reed to a point, then split the point so it would hold ink. Some better and more expensive pens had metal tips.

Using a Manuscript Roll. During most of their history, the ancient Greeks and Romans wrote their books and other long documents on papyrus or parchment rolls. A famous Greek vase from around 440 B.C. shows the poet Sappho reading from a roll. She grips the roll with both hands, winding the portion already read with her left hand and unrolling the text about to be read with her right hand.

The Greeks and Romans wrote in capital letters and did not use spaces to separate words. Punctuation was rarely used—only occasionally to separate or join syllables, to separate clauses and sentences, to show when one speaker stopped and another started, and to mark sections in poetry.

Writers and scribes working on a manuscript roll wrote left to right in narrow columns. They preferred to use only the inside of the roll. If writing appeared on the outside, it was usually because the work was extremely long or the writer was too poor to afford another roll. In most cases, a writer or scribe who accidentally left out a word or wanted to make a change would write the new word at the top or bottom of the roll, with an arrow showing where it should go. Writing was too time-consuming and the materials too costly to start over after a mistake.

The writer or scribe might put the title of the work and the author’s name next to the final column of text. The title might also be noted on a tag (titulus in Latin) outside the roll. People stored their rolls in boxes and buckets, on shelves, or in narrow compartments called pigeonholes.

From Roll to Book. Even after the introduction of papyrus, ancient writers continued to use tablets for types of writing that would be needed for only a short period of time, such as school lessons, letters, or temporary business accounts. Wax-covered wooden tablets could be utilized again and again. The Greeks and Romans joined two such tablets together with clasps or leather thongs to form notebooks.

The Romans used a notebook made of parchment or papyrus, called a codex (plural codices). It was lighter and easier to carry than wood. Professional people, such as doctors and lawyers, found codices useful. Scribes produced inexpensive editions of noted authors in codex form. Early Christians used codices for biblical texts, which helped to spread both the teachings of Christ and the codex form. During the A.D. 300s, the codex began to replace the roll as the primary format for books. People saw that codices were easier to carry than rolls and more practical for storing and using information.


The first step in making a papyrus roll was to cut the papyrus stalks into strips. Then two layers of strips were set out, one on top of the other, with the first layer arranged lengthwise and the second layer arranged crosswise. The person making the papyrus dampened the strips and pressed the two layers together. When dry, the layers formed a sheet. Finally, using a paste made from wheat and vinegar, the papyrus maker glued the sheets together to form a strip 35 to 50 feet long and rolled the strip around a cylinder of wood or ivory.

Copying and Selling Books. For many years—long after authors began writing their poems, plays, and histories on papyrus or parchment-most literary works were recited before an audience. The performer or reader used books as memory aids. Eventually, however, books came to be valued for themselves. The buying and selling of books probably began in Athens in the 400s B.C. The book business seems to have developed quickly, and soon Athens was exporting books to cities on the Black Sea.

Rome had professional booksellers by 100 B.C. These booksellers— the equivalent of today’s publishers—maintained staffs of scribes (usually skilled slaves) to produce copies of books. Because there were no copyright laws to protect an author’s rights to his or her work, anyone could copy a book for private use or for sale. In addition to booksellers, Rome had dealers who specialized in used books or old and rare books. (See also Alphabets and Writing; Libraries; Literacy.)

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