How were Latin books written, illustrated, bound, published, sold? For school exercises, short letters, transient commercial records, the Romans through antiquity wrote with a stylus upon waxed tablets and erased with the thumb. The oldest literary Latin known to us was written with quill and ink upon paper manufactured in Egypt from the pressed and glued leaves of the papyrus tree. In the first centuries of our era parchment made from the dried skins of animals began to rival papyrus as a receptacle of literature and important documents. A folded sheet of membrane, or vellum, constituted a diploma, or two-fold. Usually a literary work was issued as a roll ( volumen, “wound up”), and was read by unrolling as the reading progressed. The text was customarily written two or three narrow columnae to a page, often without punctuation of clauses or even separation of words. Some manuscripts were illustrated by ink drawings; Varro’s Imagines, e.g., consisted of 700 portraits of famous men, each picture accompanied by a biographical note. Anyone could publish a manuscript by hiring slaves to make copies, and selling the copies. Rich men had clerks who copied for them any book they wished to own. Since copyists were fed rather than paid, books were cheap. First “printings” were usually of a thousand copies. Booksellers bought wholesale from publishers like Atticus, and sold at retail in arcade bookstalls. Neither publisher nor bookseller gave the author anything except courtesy and occasional gifts; royalties were unknown. Private libraries were now numerous; and about 40 B.C. Asinius Pollio made his great collection the first public library in Rome. Caesar planned a still larger one, and made Varro its director; but this, like so many of his ideas, waited upon Augustus for its fulfillment.
Stimulated by these facilities, Roman literature and scholarship began to equal the industry of the Alexandrians. Poems, pamphlets, histories, textbooks rivaled the Tiber’s floods; every aristocrat adorned his escapades with verse, every lady composed words and music, every general wrote memoirs. It was an age of “outlines”; summaries on every subject struggled to meet the needs of a hurried commercial age. Marcus Terentius Varro, despite many military campaigns, found time during his eighty-nine years (116-26 B.C.) to synopsize nearly every branch of knowledge; his 620 “volumes” (some seventy-four books) constituted a one-man encyclopedia for his time. Fascinated by the pedigrees of words, he wrote an essay On the Latin Language, now our chief guide to early Roman speech. Perhaps in co-operation with the aims of Augustus, he tried in his treatise On Country Life ( De Re Rustica, 36 B.C.) to encourage a return to the land as the best refuge from the disorder of civil strife. “My eightieth year,” said his introduction, “warns me that I must pack up and prepare to leave this life”; he would make his last testament a guide to rural happiness and peace. He admired the sturdy women who were delivered of children in the fields and soon resumed work. He mourned the low native birth rate that was transforming the population of Rome; “formerly the blessing of children was woman’s pride; now she boasts with Ennius that she ‘would rather face battle three times than bear one child.'” In his Divine Antiquities he concluded that the fertility, order, and courage of a nation require moral commandments supported by religious belief. Adopting the distinction of the great jurist Q. Mucius Scaevola between two kinds of religion- one for philosophers and one for the people- he argued that the second must be upheld regardless of its intellectual defects; and though he himself accepted only a vague pantheism, he proposed a vigorous attempt to restore the worship of Rome’s ancient deities. Influenced by Cato and Polybius, he in his turn decisively affected the religious policy of Augustus and the pious ruralism of Virgil.
As if to complete the work of the elder Cato in every field, Varro continued the censor’s Origines in his Life of the Roman People – a history of Roman civilization. It is a pity that time has scuttled this and nearly all of Varro’s work, while preserving the schoolboy biographies of Cornelius Nepos. In Rome history was an art, never also a science; not even in Tacitus did it rise to a critical scrutiny and summary of sources. History as rhetoric, however, found in this age a brilliant practitioner- Caius Sallustius Crispus (86-35 B.C.). He played a vigorous role as politician and warrior on Caesar’s side, governed Numidia, stole with skill, and spent a fortune on women; then he retired to a life of luxury and letters in a Roman villa that became famous for its gardens and was to be the home of emperors. His books, like politics, were a continuation of war by other means; his Histories, Jugurthine War, and Catiline were able defenses of the populares, powerful attacks upon the “old guard.” He exposed the moral decay of Rome, charged the Senate and the courts with placing property rights above human rights, and put into the mouth of Marius a speech asserting the natural equality of all classes and demanding a career open to talent wherever born. He deepened his narratives with philosophical commentary and psychological analysis of character, and carved out a style of epigrammatic compactness and vivid rapidity which became a model for Tacitus.