Buying Books in Rome circa 86 CE

The surviving writings of the satirical poet Martial provide a number of insights into Roman book culture. He has been an especially important figure in discussions of the history of the codex, as he mentions on multiple occasions portable parchment books, which are generally taken to be references to codices (and the earliest surviving references to codices that contain literary materials as opposed to notes and more ephemeral writings). I’ll be coming back to those issues in future posts. For now my interest is in the location of a shop in Rome where Martial says these portable books could be bought.

Here is the relevant passage from Book I, 2 (the text and translation is that of D. R. Shackleton Bailey):

Qui tecum cupis esse meos ubicumque libellos
     et comites longae quaeris habere viae,
hos eme, quos artat brevibus membrana tabellis:
     scrinia da magnis, me manus una capit.
ne tamen ignores ubi sim venalis et erres
     urbe vagus tota, me duce certus eris:
libertum docti Lucensis quaere Secundum
     limina post Pacis Palladiumque forum.

“You who want my little books to keep you company wherever you may be and desire their companionship on a long journey, buy these, that parchment compresses in small pages. Give book boxes to the great, one hand grasps me. But in case you don’t know where I am on sale and stray wandering all over town, you will be sure of your way under my guidance. Look for Secundus, freedman of lettered Lucensis, behind Peace’s entrance and Pallas’ Forum.”

As Shackleton Bailey points out in a note, the Temple of Peace was dedicated in 75 CE by Vespasian, and the Forum of Pallas is a reference to the area that would be known as the Forum Transitorium, where there was a temple to Minerva just to the northwest of the Temple of Peace. Relevant portions of the Severan marble map preserve parts of this area:

Remains of the Severan marble map supplemented with top plan and superimposed on a modern street plan; image source: Ernest Nash, Pictorial Dictionary of Ancient Rome, 2nd ed. (New York: Praeger, 1968), p. 1.439

As the overlay indicates, the area in question is located roughly at the modern intersection of the Via dei Fori Imperiali and Via Cavour. The area seems to have been a hub for the book trade in Martial’s day. He twice mentions Argiletum, the area between the Forum Romanum and the Subura, as an area of book shops. In Book I, 3, he names it as a general shopping area for books:

Argiletanas mavis habitare tabernas,
     cum tibi, parve liber, scrinia nostra vacent?

“Would you rather live in the shops of Argiletum, when my boxes have room for you, small book?”

Later in Book I (117), Martial mentions that copies of his poems can also be purchased at a nearby shop. Here is the relevant passage, again in the text and translation of Shackleton Bailey:

Argi nempe soles subire Letum:
contra Caesaris est forum taberna
scriptis postibus hinc et inde totis,
omnis ut cito perlegas poetas.
illinc me pete. †nec† roges Atrectum -
hoc nomen dominus gerit tabernae -
de primo dabit alterove nido
rasum pumice purpuraque cultum
denarîs tibi quinque Martialem.

“No doubt you often go down to Argiletum. Opposite Caesar’s Forum there’s a shop with its doorposts completely covered by advertisements, so that you can read the entire list of poets at a glance. Look for me there. Ask for Atrectus (that being the name of the shop’s proprietor), and he will hand you from the first or second pigeonhole a Martial, shaved with pumice and smart with purple, for five denarii.”

This shop is placed opposite Caesar’s Forum (the Forum Iulium). We appear to be in roughly the same area as the shop of Secundus, that is, in the vicinity of the Temple of Minerva:

Martial mentions the names of other book sellers but no other locations, as far as I am aware. Booksellers could certainly be found in other areas of the city. In the second century, Galen refers to a space called the Sandalarium (Σανδαλάριον) as having a high concentration of booksellers. Aulus Gellius also mentions this area (Sandaliarium) as a location of booksellers. Some reference works place the Sandaliarium (or Vicus Sandaliarius) to the northeast of the Temple of Peace, but I’m not entirely sure what the evidence for that placement actually is.

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6 Responses to Buying Books in Rome circa 86 CE

  1. Germaine Warkentin says:

    In an article on Galen and the fire of 192 (forthcoming) I used the maps in Pier Luigi Tucci, The Temple of Peace in Rome. 2 vols. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017). They show the Via Sandalaria (the street of the shoemakers) as running along the top (the NE but the angle is hard to indicate) of the Templum Pacis, with the Argiletum running downwards from the Subura to intersect with the Sandalarium right at the corner. I checked what maps of early Rome I could find and they confirmed this more or less. I believe the Argiletum had the reputation of being posh, or having been at one time.

    • Thank you for the reference to Tucci, whose work has done much to clarify the archaeology of the area. In vol. 1, p. 21, Tucci expresses some of the doubt to which I alluded at the end of my post: “There is no clear evidence for an identification of the Vicus Sandaliarius with the street running northeast of the Templum Pacis. …The only certainty is that the Vicus Sandaliarius was located in the same Augustan region as the Templum Pacis (Regio IV).” But I am not even sure what the evidence is for the location in Regio IV (general reference tools have not helped, but I don’t have the topographic reference tools handy at the moment).

  2. Germaine Warkentin says:

    This got posted before I had a chance to say “shaved with pumice and smart with purple” and stored in a “nido” would indicate a bookroll, not a codex.

  3. Cat Atherton says:

    Thank you very much for this clear summary of the evidence. I take it the association of bookshops with the Temple of Minerva/Pallas wasn’t fortuitous?

  4. Joe in Australia says:

    It’s hard to see how the text of a scroll could be “purpuraque cultum”, if it refers to the murex extract: I don’t think there’s any way to use it as ink, or even as a wash. Could it refer to a cover, or binding, or perhaps some sort of decoration attached to the scroll? Alternatively might it simply be a metaphorical use?

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