Sunday, 29 January 2012

Writing in Roman times - Wax tablets and Codices

It has been widely acknowledged and known that the publication of books in antiquity as books or codices derives from the practice of wax tablets, a use that soon in the 2nd to the 4th century AD has replaced the writing and publishing on scrolls. It is quite an experience to hold such a wax tablet and a stylus in hands and see why it was not solely the Christians that made widely use of the codex, but that any Roman school trained girl or boy would be looking for reading in codices rather than scrolls, as from childhood on they were used to reading not only on a single wax tablet, but, as shown in the picture above, in wax tablets that like a codex were bound together at the back with leather straps.
Or compare the polysided tablet here:

(all products here are authentic replicas, available on  

It is easy to imagine that people who have been trained on writing on such tools were naturally inclined to read codices rather than scrolls.
Although much of the early history of the codex-form of the book production is in the dark, we know rather more about the publication process during the first centuries.

In the so-called Shepherd of Hermas written at Rome in the early 2nd century, we read:
(2) The elderly woman came and asked if I had already given the book to the presbyters. I said that I had not. 'You have done well', she said. 'for I have some words to add. Then, when I complete all the words, they will be made known through you to all those who are chosen. (3) And so, you will write two little books, sending one to Clement and the other to Grapte. Clement will send his to the foreign cities, for that is his commission. But Grapte will admonish the widows and orphans. And you will read yours in this city, with the presbyters who lead the church.[1]
If this short note reflects a typical praxis, then books were published and handed out by the author, once they had been read by a few insiders and amendments had been made even by those first readers. But the publishing remained the author’s responsibility, also the first copying and sending out of the book. The first copies, then went to specifically commissioned people, as in this case to Clement who was the agent for foreign cities. These agents made further copies (as otherwise Clement could not have sent the book to a number of foreign ‘cities’), while others, as here Grapte, used their copy for instruction. The reading out the book to the leading people in the community, the presbyters, without handing it out, lay with the author. Books, therefore, did not simply made their way into the public. As today, there existed proper structures and procedures for the writing, correcting, proof-reading, revising, publishing, copying and distribution process that lead to a diverse readership with regards to location, purpose and intent. And, clearly, codices were becoming the form of this early 'mass' production phenomenon, clearly meant and directed as part of a sales chain of a formal book trade.

[1] Herm. vis 2.4 [8], trans. B.D. Ehrmann, Loeb Library.

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