Suppose I'm a contemporary of Aristotle, living in Athens, and I want to write a book on, say, philosophy or mathematics. I suppose I would start by writing out a complete manuscript on some form of paper. But then what happens?

Were there companies established to professionally copy manuscripts by hand and distribute them? How many copies would be produced, and who would they be sold to? How much would someone pay for a book, and who would they pay? Did the original author get royalties?

If not, what would be the author's incentives for writing a book?

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    Consult wikipedia for a partial answer, but note that "Little information concerning books in Ancient Greece survives. " – Mark C. Wallace May 3 '16 at 13:30
  • There were few royalties, but plenty of incentives, for authors to write books. See my answer below. – Tom Au May 5 '16 at 14:14

There was no publishers, no royalties, and no copyright. All these things were invented after the spread of the printer press. If you are a scientist/philosopher, you would write your book yourself, or hire a scribe if you are rich enough. Then you will send it to a friend, and/or read to your students. Almost all books in mathematics and astronomy begin with something like "Dear Aristodem, I promised to explain you..." as private letters. Your friend is probably also a philosopher, he has some students. He will tell them about the book and some of them will want to copy it. If the demand is large and the students are willing to pay to save their time, they will hire a scribe. As the rumor will spread more people will ask for copies. In any case you will never be payed for writing a book. Or you address your book to a ruler, and send to him. He may ask someone to read him aloud. If he likes it, he will order some copies. This custom: dedicating books to rich and powerful sponsors persisted till the early modern age, by the way. And they rewarded the author. This was what happened with new books.

Unlike the works in science and mathematics, works of poetry, tragedy and history were performed in public. This made some authors very famous, and people were looking for their works to copy.

There were also libraries. Some very rich people collected books. They would search for the manuscripts, borrow them and have their own staff of copiers. The most famous library was maintained by the first Ptolemy's, Greek rulers of Egypt. But several other large libraries are known. There is a famous story that they asked the Government of Athens to give them the originals of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides plays, which were probably preserved in some government storage. Athenians demanded an enormous deposit. Ptolemy payed the deposit, and did not return the manuscripts. (Probably sending copies back to Athens). They also enforced a law that all ships arriving to Alexandria must declare all books on board. The books were copied and returned. As I understand the ruler payed only for copying, to the person who copied.

All such information suggests that there was no market in the modern sense. If you wanted to have a book, you will find someone who owns it, and either copy it yourself or pay to someone to copy it.

By the way, I suppose that theater performances were free. They were sponsored either by the city or by rich people. The city also arranged competitions of the theater plays, and winners were awarded prizes. I suppose this was their only income from the plays.

This describes the situation in ancient Greece and early Hellenistic times.

In Greece proper (before Alexander's conquests) the main kinds of literature (besides science, history and philosophy) were theater plays and verses. Verses were simply copied by people who liked them.

In the late Hellenistic times, it is possible that some commercial writing begins. We have the first novels from that time, and it is not clear whether the authors could make any profit of them. This is also the time when commercial art workshops appear, making paintings and statues for sale.

EDIT. The thing like a "professional writer", a person who lives on honorariums and royalties becomes regular only in the later 19th century. But of course, information on the ancient authors that we have is very incomplete. In most cases nothing is known about the person except his surviving books themselves.

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    How close to reality would you say the scenario in your first paragraph is? Is it only based on the fact that, as you said, ancient books tend to start with letters addressed to specific people? What sources/information is this fictionalized scenario based on? – Jack M May 3 '16 at 13:38
  • I'd like an example too (full disclosure: I've already upvoted this. Its a good answer). I know the Epistles I mentioned all start out that way, but they are letters, so one would expect that. – T.E.D. May 3 '16 at 14:36
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    If you were already a recognized teacher and had students of our own, you could also just tell them to read and copy your book. Or, better yet, just tell your students to write down what you teach them, so that you get a bunch of copies made without having to write a single one of them yourself. (Then get one of the students to write a second, tidied-up copy for your own use, if you want one. You could do it yourself too, of course, but why bother when you can delegate all that tedious work to someone else?) – Ilmari Karonen May 3 '16 at 16:52
  • "their own stuff" -> "their own staff" – hobbs May 3 '16 at 17:36
  • @T.E.D I was not speaking about epistles. BOOKS written by Archimedes, Ptolemy, Diophantus, all begin with an address to some person. – Alex May 3 '16 at 17:48

No, the original author did not get royalties. In fact, often times original authors of works would not be known, or people would write works and attribute them to more famous authors in an effort to get them more widely distributed (up to half of Paul's Epistles are thought to have been authored this way).

Since there was no printing, and most people were illiterate, there was essentially a small professional class of literates who could perform duties like taking dictation (like modern court reporters), writing letters (like 20th century telegraph operators), or copying existing works (like a really really slow and inaccurate photocopier). Copying large works was a very labor-intensive job, and since not just anyone could do it, this made books (scrolls) really expensive to distribute. Just about all the money involved would go to the scribe.

Of course if the source work were in someone else's personal possession, you have to make arrangements with them for access. If you both are rich folk with libraries, that might just be tit-for-tat access. After all, he needs to build his library in the same way.

The concept of copyright originated after the printing press, and was meant to be an industrial regulation (since copying was now cheap, but the presses were expensive). The idea was that the local ruler could reserve for an individual person the exclusive right (eg: monopoly) to copy particular lucrative works. This monopoly was at first given not to authors, but to favorites of the ruler. It was the British at the beginning of the 18th century that first legally established the concept of a limited-time copyright for publishers (not authors) as an encouragement for the production of more works. In the USA in the 20th century this slowly evolved into a near-perpetual monopoly to the publisher, with the original goal of producing more works merely an afterthought.

In the modern digital era copying of works no longer requires an industrial-scale investment in equipment. In fact, it requires a large-scale effort of hardware and software to prevent it from being a trivial operation. So there have been some attempts to rethink the value and use of copyright. Probably off-topic to get into that here, but if you are interested I'd suggest reading some of the GNU Philosophy documents, and reading up on the Free Software movement, and the various "Pirate" political parties.


Alex has given a good general answer. Let me add a detail:

The ancient Jews had a simple system for mass-producing copies of Scripture: Get a room-full of scribes. One stands in front with the book to be copied. The rest sit at desks with blank paper. The guy at the front reads slowly, while the rest write down what he says. Then they had various schemes to check that a copy was accurate. Like always write the same number of letters per line. Then when you get to the end, if the original ends on, say, page 32, line 20, and that line has 15 letters, then if your copy does not end on page 32, line 20, with 15 letters, you must have added or dropped letters somewhere. They'd also spot check places in the middle.

I'm not sure if this technique was used for books other than Hebrew Scripture, but it seems obvious enough that it could have been. Of course this assumes there's a large enough demand for copies to justify getting a bunch of people.

  • The words "ancient" and "paper" do not go very well together. – fdb Jan 12 '18 at 14:28
  • Fair enough. I presume that most often the writing surface would be papyrus, or maybe parchment. Paper was in use in the Middle East by about AD 800. – Jay Jan 12 '18 at 17:34
  • I think my main objection is that there is no evidence for the situation that you describe at the time of the "ancient Jews". We know this sort of thing only in mediaeval times. – fdb Jan 12 '18 at 18:03
  • @fdb Ah, totally different objection. I just did a brief web search to find when this practice first originated and I was unable to find anything in the time I was willing to goof off from work. :-) It is my recollection that it was a method used by the Masoretes, who were around about AD 500 to 1000. I'm not sure if it was used before that or even for that entire period. Of course they're not the only ones to ever use it. So my short answer is: You may be right, that this method didn't come along until ... well, depends when you define "ancient times" as ending. I'm not sure. – Jay Jan 12 '18 at 19:42

I can only offer fragmentary facts I have read but cannot cite sources.

I was told by university lecturer years ago that there survives an Ancient Greek 'history of philosophers' that mentions one philosopher of that time of whom the most interesting thing to be said about him was that he owned the complete works of Plato, indicating that this was very unusual even for philosophers. A lot of the time people learned more by 'talking to someone who had talked to Socrates'.

In Latin (hence not strictly Greek, but Greco-Roman culture was closely intertwined) there is a word 'librarius' which can be translated 'bookseller', although I have read that the librarius's profession involved copying out the books as well as selling them. This suggests there were businesses that specialised in disseminating books for profit, although as other have said, there was no copyright law so authors did not have the same kind of connection to them that modern authors do to their publishers.

There was also a custom among educated Romans that if they wrote a book they invited people they knew to attend a reading of it. The Roman historian Tacitus tried to end each chapter with an epigram, apparently to signal to the audience at the reading when to applaud. Other Roman writers complained about how boring the reading of a book by its author could be. One Roman money lender whose hobby was writing histories was said to be notorious for compelling those unfortunate enough to be in debt to him to attend his readings of his histories.

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