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More Material Evidence on Reading in Roman Antiquity

February 1, 2012

Yesterday I complained that some offering claims about texts and reading in antiquity didn’t take adequate account of important material evidence, citing the data offered in manuscripts that indicate how they were used.  Specifically, many Christian manuscripts of biblical texts come from the copyist with various “reader’s aids” that were clearly intended to facilitate reading the manuscript.  This shows that people actually read from manuscripts, and weren’t forced to memorize texts and deliver them from memory.

Another body of material evidence even more overlooked (to my knowledge) is comprised of the many visual representations of people using texts from the ancient world.  These are paintings, reliefs and sculptures.  These show us the implements used to copy texts, the postures taken in doing so, private and public reading of texts, etc. 

So far as I know (and I would love for someone to correct me), the major collection of this visual evidence is in a very old book:  Theodor Birt, Die Buchrolle in der Kunst:  Archaeologische-antiquarische Untersuchungen zum antiken Buchwesen (Leipzig:  Teubner, 1907; reprint, Hildesheim/New York:  Georg Olms, 1976).   Roughly translated:  “The Bookroll in Art:  Archaeological and Antiquarian Investigations of Ancient Book Culture”.  There are some 190 illustrations (photos and drawings of items).  The timespan ranges from ancient Egypt through late Roman antiquity. 

Specifically relevant to the issue with which I’m concerned (did people read aloud from manuscripts in group settings), Birt provides us ancient visual depictions of such events, with one person reading and others in the group engaging in discussion of the text.  These correspond to the references to the reading-occasions in ancient literature so deftly discussed recently by William A. Johnson, Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study of Elite Communities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Those of us used to printed leaf-books and whose acquaintance with Greek or Latin is solely through printed editions (which typically include modern punctuation and lots of other aids, and most importantly have word-separation) will likely find ancient manuscripts difficult to read.  But it is an error to assume (as, unfortunately, some do) that our difficulty equals that of ancients (for whom “scriptio continua“, i.e., words written without separation, for example, was common). 

Fortunately, Birt’s book has been reprinted a few times (especially in the 1976 reprint mentioned above).  Unfortunately, however, the reprint is a much-reduced size, which means that the illustrations are smaller.  Also, the quality of some photos has suffered.  But, overall, there are plenty of illustrations clear enough to be of value to anyone seriously interested in the use of books in antiquity.

Now here’s a project for someone, perhaps a PhD student in Art History.  What are we to make of the visual depictions of people with a roll and others with a codex?  I have some observations and ideas, but I haven’t made an exhaustive search of relevant items.  I don’t think there are any depictions of “high status” individuals (e.g., emperors and other high figures, philosophers, etc.) with a codex prior to the 4th century CE.  There are likely reasons for that.

But after the “triumph” of Christianity in the 4th century CE, in Christian art thereafter we have figures sometimes depicted with a roll and sometimes (and/or other figures) with a codex.  I can point to depictions of Jesus sometimes with a roll and sometimes with a codex.  Is there an iconographic significance to these choices?  And could someone do a full (or at least large) inventory and analysis (if it hasn’t been done)?

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  1. Clyde Adams III permalink

    The online version at Google Books *does* include the photographs, for example on page 3 and page 47:

    It is true that the online reading version at does not seem to include photographs. I have no idea why, but it is certainly not due to copyright, since the info page describes it as out of copyright. I will bet that the downloadable files at do include them.

    • Hmm. When I paste in the links you give, I surely don’t get any photos. But if you see them, great. I’ll stick with my printed version.

  2. Domenico, you just might be right! I’ve now looked more carefully at the excellent color reproductions in the Freer centenary volume, “In the Beginning: Bibles before the Year 1000,” and there must might be a small trace of John’s right hand in a position similar to Luke’s.

    • Chris Keith permalink

      And is it Mark or Luke who has the clear bare hand? I think I made a mistake earlier in referring to Luke since “Markos” is to the immediate right of the bare-handed evangelist.

      • Yes, you’re right to note this (and I should have myself). The ordering of the four Evangelists on these covers reflects the “Western” order of the Gospels in this codex: Matthew, John, Luke, Mark. It is Mark (not Luke) who points to or touches his book. For a study of these portraits, the following: Charles R. Morey, “The Painted Covers of the Washington Manuscript of the Gospels,” in Studies in East Christian and Roman Art. University of Michigan Studies, Humanistic Series, Vol. 12, Part I, ed. Walter Dennison and Charles R. Morley (New York: Macmillan, 1918), 63-81.

  3. Chris Keith permalink

    Larry, I don’t offer a full discussion, but I do address the iconographic representations of Jesus with a scroll or codex on pp.244 – 246 of my “The Pericope Adulterae, the Gospel of John, and the Literacy of Jesus” (Brill, 2009), which includes some images of early Christain sarcophagi that Robin Jensen kindly provided me. Another overlooked source for such portrayals is Joseph Natanson’s “Early Christian Ivories” (Alec Toranti, 1953) which shows images of carvings of gospel scenes where scrolls and (in at least one scene) a codex are placed in Jesus’ hands. There was also a debate in JTS between Roger Bagnall and Peter van Minnen over whether the variants for the verbs in Luke 4.17, 20 portray Jesus handling a scroll or a codex. (Bagnall’s essay is JTS 51.2 [2000]: 577-88 and van Minnen’s response is JTS 52.2 [2001]: 689-90.)

    • Right. The oooodles of examples of statues and paintings of people (men typically) holding a scroll (more often in their left hand) are . . . many and known, the likely (obvious?) iconographic meaning being that the person is learned. I presume also that representations of, e.g., the Evangelists with a codex reflects the early Christian preference for the codex for their scriptures especially. But when we have (Christian) examples of OT figures (prophets often) with scrolls, does this reflect a view that the codex came to prominence among Christians, and that pre-Christians used the roll for their scriptures? Lots to ponder. I really would like someone to undertake a full survey of the data.

      • Chris Keith permalink

        Agreed. It would be thoroughly interesting. I’ll add here another (somewhat unrelated but somewhat related) question I’ve never had sufficiently answered in case one of your readers or you can help. In the images on the cover of the Freer Gospels, the Evangelists’ hands are covered, presumably indicating the holy nature of the text. Except, Luke’s right hand is uncovered and touching the book. Why is it that Luke can touch the text with one hand but everyone else must be covered? What does this mean? The precise image to which I refer is on the cover of the excellent volume “In the Beginning: Bibles before the Year 1000” (Smithsonian Institute, 2006). I asked this question at the launch of that book at the Freer Museum in the special SBL session in DC, but no one else seemed to know either.

      • In the Freer Gospels paintings, all the Evangelists actually hold their codices with their hands covered with their mantle. There are other examples of this motif. But it is curious that Luke seems also to touch (or point to?) his with a bare hand. Don’t myself know what it signifies.

      • I think that also John has a bare hand: we can see his right blue arm

  4. F. Lestang permalink

    Birt’s book is available on :

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