Tuesday, November 6, 2012


Juan Carlos Iglesias Zoido, El libro en Grecia y Roma: soportes y formatos. Cáceres: Universidad de Extremadura, 2010. Pp. 146. ISBN 9788477239222. €12.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Leni Ribeiro Leite, Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo (leni.ribeiro@terra.com.br)

Version at BMCR home site

[For the Table of Contents, see the end of this review.]

In the first pages of his book, Iglesias Zoido states clearly and precisely the scope of his work: to offer a brief, clear, and accessible study of the material aspects of the book in Greece and Rome. What he presents to his reader is a very interesting introduction to the preferred supports and formats of the written text in the Greco-Roman world. This book comes to fill in a gap in the bibliography about the ancient world in Spanish, certainly felt by teachers and students of various subjects, such as Philology, History, and Anthropology. The work is divided into three parts, followed by a general bibliography, a selection of websites, two appendices and an index of cited authors, which add up to a very easy-to-use manual, aimed at the student or casual reader who might, for any reason, be interested in getting to know a bit about the book in the ancient world. The commented bibliographies found at the closing of each chapter, as well as the selected websites and appendices, make this book also an excellent first step before plunging into more in-depth research.

The first part of the work describes the materials used in writing, first in Greece, then in Rome, as well as the instruments needed to write on them. While the center of the stage is clearly occupied by papyrus and parchment, there is room for comments on other, less fashionable materials, such as lead plaques, marble, and wooden tablets, with or without wax. The text is also accompanied by illustrations: according to the author, when describing the shapes and aspect of the ancient book, words cannot suffice, and twenty-one images are spread throughout the work, almost half of them found in this first part. The quality and size of the images, though, do not help the cause; the list of websites at the end will be indispensable for those who feel the need to see the objects in detail.

In the second part, the author considers the different shapes the written text took on, with emphasis on the two predominant forms: the roll and the codex. Here, as elsewhere, Iglesias Zoido makes an interesting comparison between past and present, stressing the continuities and similarities where they are not always obvious – without, of course, underplaying the ruptures that happened and happen. On page 21, for instance, he questions whether contemporary youth with their smartphones or tablets, repeat the same pose of the girl in the Portrait of Sappho, pondering over her tablet, bringing a stylus to her lips – a stylus, also the name of the instrument we now use to press buttons on the screens of our handheld devices of all sorts. On page 61, he calls our attention to a comparison: if the long scrolling of the webpages on the computer screen is another way of unrolling the volumen? There are but two basic formats for the reading devices humanity has built: the circular and the rectangular.

However, the organization of the two first parts of the book into materials and formats, although logical, is not practical. It is almost impossible to talk about one without the other, so the second part, proposed as an introduction to book formats, brings expansion and detail to what has already been introduced in the first part. The codex, for example, is presented as early as page 29, where we find also the etymology of the term and some examples. That makes the second chapter of part two, in theory the section dedicated to the codex, almost superfluous and very short (at only four pages long). That also means that the reader will not find information as concentrated as the table of contents will make it seem.

The third and last part turns to social and economic aspects of the book – the role of copyists, the act of reading, the importance of private and public libraries, the boom of Christianity, the acts of censorship, among others – using the epigram as preferred example. This is also the part of the book where the reader might feel the text is more rushed and less thorough. That should not be counted as a fault of a work that does not fall short of completing the goal set to it in the first pages, since this third part can be considered almost an afterthought, and a most welcome one, on the fulfilling of the objective of the book. The annotated bibliographies to the third part should be enough for anyone interested in those other aspects of the book in Ancient Greece and Rome.

The first two parts are the bulk of the book, and meet the needs of the general reader to which it is directed. The use of archaeological evidence is plentiful and the references to ancient authorities are well balanced with the use of secondary literature. The discussion of medieval times, especially the work of Isidore, is a very welcome addition to a book that focuses mostly on the ancient world. Nonetheless, the absence of certain books from the bibliography is notable. Most acutely, the lack of references to Roger Chartier in the text and bibliography for the third part – only one work, in which he is an organizer, is mentioned. One could also point out Rex Winsbury's The Roman Book (reviewed in BMCR 2010.03.21), which will probably interest the reader of Iglesias Zoido; Johnson and Parker's Ancient Literacies (reviewed in BMCR 2009.07.65) might have been published too late to make it into the text and/or bibliographies, but the same Johnson's Bookrolls and Scribes in Oxyrhynchus (reviewed in BMCR 2005.01.04) could have been included with the other works by Johnson that have found their way to the bibliography, among others.

Other than that, the lack of footnotes (for uninterrupted reading, according to the author), makes for excessive consultation of the general bibliography and appendices, which leads to less comfortable reading for one used to scholarly publications. The two appendices are very useful, though, and are well worth consulting, mainly the second one, on words regarding the ancient book.

Finally, the annotated list of webpages at the end reinforces a charming feature of this book: the willingness to serve as the beginning of a dialogue with other texts and other formats, to be the threshold of the journey, by providing the basis from which thoughts and curiosity can lead to other places and other levels. All things considered, a most welcome addition to students' and teachers' personal libraries alike.

Índice General

Introducción – Objetivos y Estructura del Trabajo
Lista de ilustraciones
Parte I – Los soportes del libro
Capítulo 1 – Las tablillas
Capítulo 2 – El papiro
Capítulo 3 – El pergamino
Capítulo 4 – Otros materiales
Capítulo 5 – Los utensilios del copista
Parte II – Los formatos del libro
Capítulo 1 – El rollo
Capítulo 2 – El códice
Capítulo 3 – El paso del rollo al códice
Parte III – Producción, lectura, conservación y transmisión
Capítulo 1 – La producción del libro
Capítulo 2 – La lectura del libro
Capítulo 3 – La conservación del libro: las bibliotecas
Capítulo 4 – Literatura y soporte textual: el epigrama
Bibliografía general
Selección de enlaces
Apéndice I – Textos grecolatinos sobre el mundo del libro antiguo
Apéndice II – Glosario de términos codicológicos del libro antiguo
Índice de autores citados

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