Saturday, October 15, 2011

Reading in the Ancient World

A friend suggested I pick up Cleopatra: A Life for vacation reading while I was in Italy. I was waiting for it to come out in paperback, so it wasn’t a hard sell.

She threw in some fun factoids anyway about the difficulty of reading scrolls that sent me straight to the bookstore after work to procure my copy. Here’s the scoop:

“A twenty-sheet long scroll of papyrus was both unwieldy and fragile. Reading was very much a two-handed operation: you balanced the scroll in your right hand and rolled the used portion with your left.”

And I complain that I can't eat pistachios when I read! That type of labor makes me wonder if scroll readers would bemoan a Kindle out of sentimentality, or jump straight into the digital age. After being convinced an e-book isn't evil witchcraft, of course.

The book also has neat tidbits about the library in Alexandria, which had 500,000 scrolls arranged meticulously in bins, divided by subject alphabetically. It was the largest, most prolific library in the ancient world, until Julius Caesar burned half of it down. Whoops!

The sections of the book covering this nerdy stuff - Cleopatra's rigid education, or making a mortal enemy of Cicero when she snubbed his request of a scroll from her famous library - bring vivid context to a completely foreign time and place... especially since the borders, cities, and texts largely don't exist today.


  1. My sister in law sent me this book for christmas. Haven't read it yet. Will have to move it up the pile to get to sooner than later.

  2. read it! it's fascinating, rich in detail and historic intrigue. makes me want to dive underwater and look for lost alexandrian relics!!!