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The Book Trade in Fourth-Century Antioch

  • A. F. Norman (a1)


Although the papyrologist and the palaeographer have by now made the study of books in the ancient world a preserve almost peculiarly their own, it may yet be helpful to indicate literary evidence for the reading and writing habits of the educated classes in periods and places in which such modern studies have as yet been able to provide little or no material. A case in point is Antioch in the fourth century A.D., where there is considerable information embodied in the little appreciated works of Libanius, by which light is shed on the question of the writing and publication of books of various kinds. Except for some recent remarks upon copyists and book distribution in Antioch made by Paul Petit, this body of evidence has remained virtually untouched, despite its value. There are limitations, of course; Libanius has no use for any other culture than that of the Hellene and the rhetor. Syriac is mentioned only once in all his writings, and then in a contemptuous aside (Or. xlii 31); Latin, which he realised was increasingly in competition with his own educational system, he met with determined opposition (e.g. Or. i 214, 234; x 14), while he looked upon Christian literature with all the rancour of a confirmed pagan (e.g. Or. xxx 21; xviii 178).

To him, as a schoolmaster, and to his students in rhetoric, books were essential, but it is clear that some restrictions were imposed both on master and pupil by the availability of texts. The ordinary school text seems to have been obtainable, subject to the rules of supply and demand, but other works were correspondingly harder to obtain. One must not look to him for indications of purchase price. It may have been necessary for the parents of his pupils to purchase books—it certainly appears as a normal item in their budget—but he never descends to the mundane question of cost. He himself usually got his books by presentation rather than by purchase, and in any case he maintained his own copyist. His fellow rhetors, Acacius and Demetrius, did the same, and the lending of a text for the purpose of taking a copy was normal practice (e.g. Or. liv 68). There was, however, in addition to the demand which these private copyists satisfied in the establishments of professional sophists or the wealthy families, some market for books for which the professional copyist catered. That there was also some traffic in second-hand books is indicated by Libanius' account of the repeated attempts to burgle his library and of the theft and subsequent misadventures of his prized text of Thucydides. This turned up in the possession of a freshman who had purchased it on the open market (Or. i 148). The ordinary student found the purchase of books a necessity, and Libanius reproves those parents who keep their sons so short of money that they are unable to buy the texts they need (e.g. Ep. 428.3).



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1 Petit, , ‘Recherches sur la publication et la diffusion des discours de Libanios’, Historia v 479509. Despite his very subjective application of Rother's rhetorical statistics, the general lines of his argument are sound, and his information good.

2 Cf. Or. xxxv 12: Cf. Sentent. 3.5.

3 Cf. Ep. 347.1.: Ep. 569., 2:

Ep. 605.2:

4 Cf. Ep. 629. 1: Ep. 1258.1: Ep. 1413: Valentinus of Lydia,

5 Cf. Ep. 1258 and Eunapius VS p. 496:

6 Ep. 152:

7 Or. i 232: Identical with Maximus Or. xlii 3.

8 Memorisation, cf. Or. iii 17; Ep. 376. Limited distribution, Petit, op. cit.

9 For the same expression, cf. Chrysostom PG 59.187; also Vainglory’, 59.

10 e.g. Roberts, , Greek Literary Hands, 17 ff.

11 δέλτοι—as local messages, Or. i 122; complimentary, Ep. 1021; Or. liv 35, 161; as petitions, Or. li 11 . For school exercises, Ep. 886; Or. xxxv 22: cf. Chrysostom, , Vainglory, 73.

12 Cf. Or. xviii 72:

13 βίβλος—as school texts; e.g. Or. i 8, 148 (his text of Thucydides); xxv 46; xliii (study books at Athens); Ep. 1048; 842; βίβλος—as Christian texts, Or. xxx 21; of Porphyry, , Or. xviii 178.

14 Or. iv 18, Eutropius, a law student, Or. lvii 5, used in student fights.

15 διφθέραι—as literary texts outside the school curriculum, Or. liv 68; Ep. 347.3; 399.2; 677.1. For works of Libanius, Ep. 949; 990.4; of Aristeides, Ep. 1262.

16 Ep. 965.2: cf. Chrysostom, , P.G. 59.178: Hence the reference to the copy of the Gospel hanging by the bed, P.G. 61.373.

17 Used for book storage not only by Libanius, but also by Julian, (cf. Or. xviii 118) and by Chrysostom's flock, P.G. 59.178; 61.373.

18 Cf. Chrysostom, P.G. 59.78: Liban. Or. xxxv 25:

The Book Trade in Fourth-Century Antioch

  • A. F. Norman (a1)


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