More Papyrus Roll Vocabulary: frons, cornua, umbilicus

In an earlier post, I raised some questions about the description of papyrus rolls. This generated some very helpful discussion in the comments. I now want to look at some of the ancient terminology for rolls.

A good place to begin is with the word frons. Among the meanings for frons in the Oxford Latin Dictionary are four grouped under this larger heading: “applied to one or other extremity or face of a thing”:

  • a. the outer or inner surface (of a wall, etc.)
  • b. either of the flat ends (of a papyrus roll)
  • c. the top or bottom end (of a trench)
  • d. the broad side (of something rectangular)

The definition as applied to the papyrus roll was not entirely clear to me at first glance. Lewis and Short’s comparable definition (“the outer end of a bookroll or volume”) was also a little unclear to me. The examples provided in the OLD, however, help to clarify the meaning and also introduce the other terms that interest me here, cornua and umbilicus. Here are the passages, with a little extra context provided. Text and translations from the Loeb editions (with a couple small changes):

Tibullus [Lygdamus], Elegiae 3.1.9-14:

lutea sed niveum involvat membrana libellum,
     pumex et canas tondeat ante comas,
summaque praetexat tenuis fastigia chartae
     indicet ut nomen littera facta tuum,
atque inter geminas pingantur cornua frontes:
     sic etenim comptum mittere oportet opus.

“But first let yellow parchment wrap the snow-white roll and pumice shear its hoary locks, and letters traced to show thy name border the high top of the fine papyrus, and let the horned knobs ‘mid both its fronts be painted. For in such trim guise must thy work be sent.”

Here, the frontes (translated somewhat curiously as “fronts”) might best be described as the top and bottom of the rolled-up roll. The type of deluxe roll being described here would be wrapped around a wooden rod (an umbilicus) with knobs on each end (the cornua), which are recommended to be painted in this passage. Note the wordplay here on the more typical meanings of these words, the cornua (horns) sit atop the frons (forehead).

There are not many unambiguous ancient Roman images of such a deluxe roll with an umbilicus and colored cornua. The fresco below from Pompeii is one possible example that may show cornua, but it’s tough to say when looking at different images:

Fresco depicting a woman reading a papyrus roll, possibly showing cornua, found at Pompeii (VIII.2.39), now in Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, inv. 8838; image sources: Getty Images (left) and Pompeii in Pictures (right)

I don’t know of any surviving Egyptian papyri that show evidence of attachment to an umbilicus, but Capasso (Volumen: Aspetti della tipologia del rotolo librario antico) reports the existence of several umbilici among the Herculaneum papyri. Moving on now to the next passage in the list for frons:

Ovid, Tristia 1.1.1-12:

Parve — nec invideo — sine me, liber, ibis in urbem.
     ei mihi, quod domino non licet ire tuo!
vade, sed incultus, qualem decet exulis esse;
     infelix habitum temporis huius habe.
nec te purpureo velent vaccinia fuco —
     non est conveniens luctibus ille color —
nec titulus minio, nec cedro charta notetur,
     candida nec nigra cornua fronte geras.
felices ornent haec instrumenta libellos;
     fortunae memorem te decet esse meae.
nec fragili geminae poliantur pumice frontes,
     hirsutus sparsis ut videare comis.

“Little book, you will go without me and – and I grudge it not – to the city. Alas that your master is not allowed to go! Go, but go unadorned, as becomes the book of an exile; in your misfortune wear the garb that befits these days of mine. You shall have no cover dyed with the juice of purple berries – no fit color is that for mourning; your title shall not be tinged with vermilion nor your papyrus with oil of cedar; and you shall wear no white bosses upon your dark edges. Books of good omen should be decked with such things as these; ’tis my fate that you should bear in mind. Let no brittle pumice polish your two edges; I would have you appear with locks all rough and disordered.”

In this instance, (if this were a happier book) the frontes (here rendered as “edges”) would again be adorned with the painted cornua, or knobs, of the umbilicus. But the frontes would also be “dark” and “polished with pumice.” This is an interesting description. I’m not quite sure how this would work (I’ve got another post coming on pumice and papyrus, but I don’t want to get bogged down in that now). The roll would be further decorated with a colored titulus, or tag that hung from the end of the papyrus roll and identified the contents of the roll.

Ovid, Ex Ponto 4.13.7-8:

ipse quoque, ut titulum chartae de fronte revellas,
     quod sit opus, videor dicere posse, tuum.

“I, too, though you should tear the title from the head of your roll, could tell, I think, what work is yours.”

Here, the frons is the top end of the closed roll, to which the titulus is attached.

Seneca, De Tranquillitate Animi 9.6:

"'Honestius,' inquis, 'hoc se impensae quam in Corinthia pictasque tabulas effuderint.' Vitiosum est ubique, quod nimium est. Quid habes, cur ignoscas homini armaria [e] citro atque ebore captanti, corpora conquirenti aut ignotorum auctorum aut improbatorum et inter tot milia librorum oscitanti, cui voluminum suorum frontes maxime placent titulique?"

“‘It is more respectable,’ you say, ‘to squander money on these than on Corinthian bronzes and on pictures.’ But excess in anything becomes a fault. What excuse have you to offer for a man who seeks to have bookcases of citrus-wood and ivory, who collects the works of unknown or discredited authors and sits yawning in the midst of so many thousand books, who gets most of his pleasure from the outsides of volumes and their titles?”

Here, the English rendering of voluminum frontes as “outsides of volumes” conjures (for me at least) a modern bookshelf with codex spines. If we apply the meaning of frons indicated by the previous passages, what comes to mind instead is the drawing of the lost relief from Trier showing a shelf full of rolls with frontes and tituli facing out [[Update 12 July 2021: …if in fact they are papyrus rolls and not cloth; see Jan Heilmann’s note in the comments below]]:

Image source: Christoph Brouwer and Jakob Masen, Antiquitatum et Annalium Trevirensium (Liége: Jo. Mathiæ Hovii, 1671), vol. 1, p. 105.

Martial, 1.66.9-12:

mutare dominum non potest liber notus.
sed pumicata fronte si quis est nondum
nec umbilicis cultus atque membrana,
mercare: tales habeo; nec sciet quisquam.

“A well-known book cannot change author. But if you find one whose face is not yet smoothed by the pumice stone, one not embellished with bosses and parchment cover, buy it. I have such, and nobody will be the wiser.”

Here again we find the suggestion that the frons of a very fine book, unlike the one being sought here, would be “polished with pumice,” and that treatment is paired with an umbilicus and a nice parchment cover.

Martial, 3.2.1 and 6-11:

Cuius vis fieri, libelle, munus?
...
Faustini fugis in sinum? sapisti.
cedro nunc licet ambules perunctus
et frontis gemino decens honore
pictis luxurieris umbilicis,
et te purpura delicata velet,
et cocco rubeat superbus index.

“Whose present do you wish to be, little book?…Do you fly to Faustinus’ bosom? You are wise. Now you may walk oiled with cedar, your twin brows handsomely adorned, luxuriating in your painted bosses, clothed in dainty purpIe, your proud title blushing scarlet.”

Here the fancy roll again gets all the treatment: oil of cedar, painted umbilici (two of them apparently – one at the beginning and one at the end?), purple cover, and red title (here index as a synonym for titulus).

So, it seems pretty clear that the frontes are the top and bottom of the closed roll. But then what can it mean to polish the frontes with pumice? I will dedicate a separate post to this issue.

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8 Responses to More Papyrus Roll Vocabulary: frons, cornua, umbilicus

  1. Above: ”I don’t know of any surviving Egyptian papyri that show evidence of attachment to an umbilicus, but Capasso (Volumen: Aspetti della tipologia del rotolo librario antico) reports the existence of several umbilici among the Herculaneum papyri.”

    Given that arid Egypt preserved very many ancient wooden items, such might suggest that scroll umbilici were rarely used there.
    Susan Wood (coincidentally) in “Literacy and Luxury in the Early Empire: a Papyrus-Roll Winder from Pompeii,” Mem. Amer. Acad in Rome 46 (2001) 23-40 described more than one set of end holders for umbilici (including ivory rods), apparently from Europe. Such may lend a bit of support to other-than-Egypt usage.

    • Thanks–yes, the article by Susan Wood is really very interesting. I just came across it not that long ago, and I’m amazed I never knew about these artifacts. My understanding of her argument is that these stands held rolls in place so that a reader could have free hands but still see a column of text. It’s kind of brilliant!

  2. John Glynn says:

    Wonder what form Catullus’ and Cornelius Nepos’ books took in Catullus 1?

    • I think this is probably also being imagined as a deluxe papyrus roll. Line 2 (arido modo pumice expolitum) is trading on one of the same tropes with the reference to pumice.

  3. Jan Heilmann says:

    Thank you very much for this contribution, which is once again worth reading. Just a minor note. It is not clear whether the relief (unfortunately lost) actually represents scrolls. Cf. Brinkmann, August. “Ein verschollenes Relief aus Neumagen.” BJ 114/115 (1906): 461–69. doi:10.11588/bjb.1906.0.48040. In view of the proportions, the structure and the bending when removed, he assumes that they are rolls of cloth.

  4. Pingback: Stands for Holding Open Papyrus Rolls? | Variant Readings

  5. Joe in Australia says:

    Would umbilici serve any purpose *other* than to be held in reading devices? It seems to me that they’d be an inconvenience more than anything else when reading a scroll held in one’s hand; and they’d make it hard to wrap a scroll neatly.

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