Wherein the Greeks are happy to sell you books…unless, of course, you simply steal them.
Some of my favorite places in life have been bookstores. Growing up in a small town with a small library, I was in the position of needing to buy most of the books I voraciously read. My family and I had little discretionary income, requiring me to forage primarily for used and heavily-discounted copies: used bookstores, thrift stores, garage sales, grabbing books and magazines left behind on public transportation. I was even banned once or twice from book sales for abusing their “all the books you can fit into a bag” sales policy (I made sure they sold me my bags o’books before I left).
While the ancient Greeks didn’t have the papyrus equivalent of the paperback exchanges I loved to haunt, they nonetheless developed the practice of selling scrolls—sometimes in large quantities—to a growing public hungry to read.
Reading: A Very Spendy Habit
Bookselling was originally a “print-on-demand” business: customers would order a particular document, and a scribe would copy the text onto a scroll. Because all the people needed for such transactions were in short supply—wealthy patrons with enough money to purchase hand-written documents, and scribes with the literacy and training to produce the texts—the business was necessarily limited.
This began to change in ancient Athens with both increased literacy and customers with the means to accumulate personal libraries. For example, scholars believe the playwright Aristophanes (446–386 BCE) owned a library of tragic plays, including as many as 45 plays by Euripides, so that he could effectively satirize them. Showing how expensive such a library would have been, Aristophanes’ contemporary Plato is recorded as having spent 100 minæ for three works by Philolaus the Pythagorean: in that general period 100 drachmæ equaled one mina, and one drachma equaled a day’s wages for a manual laborer, meaning your average worker would have needed to toil over 27 years to afford those scrolls. At those rates, today’s college students couldn’t hit up Fannie Mae for enough cash to buy a single Introduction to Philosophy textbook.
At the same time, while most people in ancient Greece could not afford books, it’s possible that the prices for many books were not as staggering as this. Socrates, in a speech at his trial, claimed one could buy for one drachma a copy of the work of the natural philosopher Anaxagoras. This, however, wouldn’t buy a new, deluxe copy of Anaxagoras—instead, as Lionel Casson says, “Socrates implies that a drachma was the price of a cheap book, a battered second-hand set of rolls, say, or a one-roll pamphlet.” In other words, it’s the kind of copy a 4th-century BC me might have purchased (without the possibility of an “all the scrolls you can fit in a satchel for one drachma” deal for which I would have been grubbing).
Ilisos Prime Delivery
While many book purchases were still made directly from authors or scribes—many stories have Plato purchasing the three works directly from Philolaus or his family, although one says he bought them from the tyrant Dion of Syracuse (who got them on the cheap from an impoverished Philolaus)—the growing number of works and readers led to a thriving market for literature. Socrates, in the above-mentioned speech, said Anaxagoras’ works could be purchased in the orchestra, a part of the public marketplace in the main square called the agora. Zeno of Citium (336 – 265 BCE), the founder of Stoicism, became engaged with philosophy after purchasing the historian/philosopher Xenophon’s Memorabilia from an Athenian bookseller (the bookseller even pointed Zeno towards Crates of Thebes, the most famous Cynic philosopher of the time, who happened to be walking through the market).
These booksellers even provided key texts by such Greek writers as Sophocles and Aristophanes’ much-derided Euripides for the famous library of Alexandria—a decision they soon regretted. Ptolemy III (280–222 BCE) requested these manuscripts from Athens but then, instead of copying and returning the scrolls, simply kept them for the library (he did lose his deposit).
The Athenian booksellers’ market is long-gone, but you can still buy books at a fantastic Greek bookstore—just be sure to watch out for messes from Billie Holiday.