Thursday, 4 April 2013

Making Roman paper




The Romans were a pretty literate bunch, the sheer amount of signs and graffiti around Roman towns suggests the bulk of the population could read - and the Roman military machine ensured every soldier learnt his Ps and Qs. But those 100-million Romans spread across the Empire needed something to read, and that meant the ancient paper industry was at least as large as anything the world saw pre-industrialisation. Helpfully Pliny gives us a good run-down of paper making in 78AD, which at the time mostly used papyrus as feedstock.

The best paper was derived from the centre of the papyrus plant - this 'first quality' paper was known as 'Augustus' by the time of Pliny, although it had earlier been known as 'hieratic'. Working a little further out from the plant's centre, 'second quality' paper was named 'Livia' after Augustus' wife, while 'third quality' paper retained the term 'hieratic'. Roman paper was priced by quality, hence the need for these distinctions. Pliny notes that the paper maker Fannius had developed a technique for dressing lower quality paper to achieve the same finish as 'first quality', no doubt making more money in the process. He doesn't say how, but its possible the paper was smoothed with chalk in the same manner toga's were treated. From 'third quality' Pliny describes progressively cheaper paper such as 'Taeneotic' which was sold by weight rather than quality. And lastly he comes to the brown paper of the age - 'emporitica' or packing paper. Too course for writing, this was used for wrapping parcels and merchandise. So if you want to imagine Romans going shopping or getting a parcel in the mail...think of them holding something that would have looked a lot like the brown-wrapped parcels of the 19th and 20th centuries - before postpaks. For more on Roman History - check out 'A Body of Doubt' - live on Amazon now