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Ancient Libraries: 200s CE

Pompeii Couple Wikimedia Commons pompeliicLet's explore the shift from rolls to books.

Between the first and fifth centuries CE, a shift occurred in the format of information. Rolls created of papyrus and parchment were being replaced by the codex. This trend began late in the first century. Evidence comes from letters sent among Romans discussing these new books. The great works were being recorded on both sides of membranae (a.k.a skins) leaves and sewn together.

The image on the right shows both a codex and a scroll in Pompeii.

Marcus Velerius Martialis who is known as Martial (40 CE-104 CE) refers to a codex in his 85-86 CE work "Ovid's Metamorphoses on Membrane" in which he states "this bulky mass of multiple folds all fifteen poems of Ovid holds." Casson (2001) notes that standard works of popular authors were available in the bookstores by the end of the first century.

This shift was also taking place in Egypt with papyrus being used as the sheets of the codex. Casson (2001) found that the percent of literature written as codex rose from 1.5 percent in the first century to 17 percent in the third century. By the fourth century the percentage of codex were 50 percent and by the sixth century as high as 90 percent.

The Transition

Over this five hundred year span, publishers experimented with many different ways to create these codex including variations in paper composition, sizes, folding techniques, sewing options, and cover materials. Clearly, it took a while for buyers and readers to find their preferred format. However Casson (2001) notes that the Bible was strongly favored in the codex form from the beginning. The rise of Christianity may have sped up the displacement of the roll by the codex.

Although it took centuries for the transition to occur, the advantages of the codex were clear including ease of access, capacity, bookmarking, durability, and easy identification.

As books (codices) became available, some libraries began using a press (armarium) for storage. This piece of furniture provided room for both books (codices) and rolls (volumina) and often included doors. While some of these were built into niches in the wall, others were free standing.

Examples of presses with book storage are show below. The tomb of Galla Placidia who was buried around 449 CE shows a press containing the four Gospels (below left).

Gospel Press The Care of Books PDEzra The Care of Books, PD

A marble sarcophagus of a Greek physician around 300 CE (image left) shows a man reading in front of a press.

Press The Care of Books PD

The Book Trade

During this time, the book trade grew. According to Gamble (1997, 53), the ancient equivalent of a door-to-door book salesman was a common sight. Gable quotes a private letter written from Julius Placidus to his father:

"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 eight, for which I paid on account 100 drachmas. You will be on the lookout in any case."

Gamble (1997, 53) states that "by the first and early second centuries the parchment codex was beginning to be used not merely as a notebook but as an alternative to the traditional roll, though its literary use was limited and would remain at best sporadic and tentative until the fourth century."

Aelia Library

In 212 CE, the bishop of Aelia collected what may be the most ancient library of Christian books. This marks the beginning the Christian church library movement.

Musical Notation

Musical papyri have been found from the time of Ancient Greece. The notation is more involved than the earlier cuneiform tablet works. This musical notation used different systems for voice and instruments and could represent pitch and note duration.

Go to Ancient Greek Music on Papyrus to see and hear early works.


Casson, Lionel (2001). Libraries of the Ancient World. Yale University.

Clark, John Willis (1901). The Care of Books. Cambridge University Press Warehouse. Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=uvQ_AAAAYAAJ

Dunlap, Leslie W. (1972). Readings in Library History. R.R. Bowker Co.

Gamble, Harry (1997). Books and Readers in the Early Church. Yale University Press. Preview Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=2aEJfsXY57cC...

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