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Presented By: Classical Studies

Slavery and the Book: Toward a New Social History of Roman Literature

Joseph Howley, Columbia University

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Slavery and the Book: Toward a New Social History of Roman Literature

Joseph Howley,
Columbia U.

Thurs. Sept 15th 2022
4:00 PM

2175 Angell Hall
Classical Studies Library

Summary: Histories of the book have tended to distinguish periods of book history and cultures of the book in technological terms: manuscript and print, scroll and codex, papyrus and parchment, silent reading, hypertext. This paper will argue that the defining material condition of the book in ancient Rome was not an element of format or medium, but rather the role played by enslaved book workers — secretaries, readers, copyists, and other specialists. Though Roman elites could and did read and write for themselves, their book culture depended on enslaved labor to operate at the scale it did. This book culture arose in elite households of the late Republic, and even as book use spread more widely in the early centuries of the Empire, practices and values of the book formed by the role of slavery remained dominant, and the shadow cast over the book trade by elite domestic slavery remained long. This paper will argue for the centrality of enslaved labor to the history and culture of the Roman book, and will consider how the source and evidence challenges of book history intersect with those of social history and the history of slavery. It will consider three case studies from the spheres of writing, reading, and copying books, and suggest that specific practices of enslavement in the Roman world have significantly shaped ideas that are central to how we imagine the book in the long European tradition.

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