Johnson 2009

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Johnson, William A. "The Ancient Book." The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology. Ed. Roger S. Bagnell. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.


bookrolls: books on papyrus rolls; first represention on a Greek vase, c5, but in use by Greeks at least 2000 years before that (256); columns laid out running left to right, always between ~2-3.5" wide, usually narrow; prose visually distinguishable from poetry; no incentive to fit text to roll, since scribe could always cut off end or add more papyrus; rolls usually 3-15m long

"The diameter and heft of the rolled-up bookroll could itself be an iconographic feature of design." (264) -- poetry, divisions in novels on slim rolls; historical works longer, thicker, heavier

codex: c2-c4, replaces bookroll

papyrus: two-layer sheets made from papyrus pith; sheets not sold separately but glued left-right into rolls; much care given in putting together highest quality, which was often used for bookrolls

script: scribes payment based on quality of writing, usually 2-2.5x as much as for writing a document; written in "bookhand" with mostly separated letters for greater legibility; trained and apprenticed scribes; laid out scriptio continua (no spaces between words); rules for division of words on lines strictly observed; iota adscript used; scriptio plena (unelided Greek delta epsilon before a vowel) often written, even when not spoken, as a way of separating words; diacritics at particular points of a sentence sometimes used indicate word breaks (262); "thorough training" needed to be able to read scriptio continua

"the net effect is designed for clarity and beauty but not ease of use, much less mass readership" (262)

scriptio continua not used out of primitiveness or ignorance; Latin literary texts had used interpuncts between words and Romans discarded them in favor of Greek aesthetic style

"Strict functionality, clearly, is not a priority in bookroll design. The bookroll seems, rather, an egregiously elite product intended in its stark beauty and difficulty of access to instantiate what it is to be educated." (263)

punctuation: less elaborated punctuation, although markings are still evident at the end of sentences and major divisions in the text

  • paragraphos: horizontal line at left edge of column, marks major divisions
  • dicolon: like colon; marks changes of speaker in dialogue or drama
"Little interferes, then, with the run of the text aside from the paragraphoi. For the reader, the paragraphoi naturally act as landing points for breath and mental pauses and as visual cues for returning to a passage when a reader looks up from the text." (261-2)

Maas's law: discovered by Paul Maas; bookrolls exhibit a forward tilt in the column, so that lines move slightly to the left as they go down; is a regular and deliberate feature (as we know from ruling lines) in Roman era, especially c2 and c3

wide margins on top and bottom; bookrolls used only 40-70% of front papyrus surface; "surely something here of aesthetic display and even of conspicuous consumption" (263)

protokollon: sheets added to front of the finished roll to protect the early sheets

umbilici: rods used to facilitate rolling/unrolling

title tags of parchment often sticking out from rolled edge of papyrus as a label (264)

one roll per book, but unsure how many may have contained more than one work -- seems limited to Homer, short speeches and philosophical dialogues


enter historical record in c1CE; in c2, bookrolls still account for ~90% of of books, by c4, codices account for 80% of total; by c6, changeover is complete (266)

bookrolls almost exclusively used papyrus; books, papyrus at first, then parchment

for papyrus codices, begin with rolls (since papyrus was sold in rolls), then cut off sheets of appropriate size; generally single-column, visually very different from bookrolls

workaday script more commonly used; pretentious scripts rare;

Christian texts almost always written in codex form (over 80% of all examples); shift from Classical to Christian texts accompanies shift from bookroll to codex, and shift from papyrus to parchment

"Christians appear to be instrumental in the adoption of the codex." (267) -- could be to distinguish themselves from other text; workaday script for working class; to accommodate more gospels in one form

advantages of codex:

  1. compactness
  2. durability
  3. ease of access and reference (possibility a red herring to assume this for early codices, though)
  4. economy of material (possibly not an important consideration for ancients)

disadvantages of codex:

  1. book production more complicated
"Without implying direct cause and effect, we can see that medieval characteristics such as the rise of scriptoria, renewed encyclopedism, and the habit of extensive marginal annotation can be located within the series of changes we associate with the transition to codex form." (267)

Books and Their Contents

of surviving papyri, many high-brow authors and demanding texts (see table on 269); fewer "light" authors, like Latin novelists

bookrolls show no evidence of mass readership but "a product to be associated with the intellectual and social elite" (269)

Books and Society: The "Scholars" of Oxyrhynchus

letter with multiple postscripts asking for books; shows a society of readers/thinkers gathering/collecting texts collectively, with some individual ownership

"What is particularly striking about this letter is the fact that the scholars pursue their interests as a group and that what the letter seems to imply is not so much the individual scholar busy with his studies but a circle of readers with scholarly interests and one with contacts in Oxyrhynchus, which, as the metropolis, has similar readers' circles, along with other resources of interest to "scholarly" readers." (272)

consistent with annotations in scholarly texts: often marked by many readers, who identify themselves in their annotation

Johnson's examination of annotated Oxyrhynchus texts show striking similarities; indicate a group of scholars working together -- a sociocultural context

Lucian's text berating the Syrian man for cultivating a bad group of intellectuals in his reading circle; shows that good reading circles should be composed of elite, literate individuals who knew how to read texts aloud performatively and discuss; collating and interpreting texts was done as a group (276)