Our Little Roman Cousin of Long Ago - Julia D. Cowles

The Gift of a Book

There were no book stores in Rome two thousand years ago. There had been but few books made, and each one of these had been written by hand for some special person. The writing was done upon sheets of papyrus which were rolled into the form of a scroll. A book written in this way was not only highly valued, but it made an expensive gift.

"I have received many favors from the Consul, Crassus," Gaius said one day at dinner, "and I should like to prove to him that I am grateful for them." Then turning to Gaia, he added, "I think I will have a copy made of the book of Greek poems which was recently sent to you."

"It would make a beautiful gift, I am sure," said Gaia.

"I shall want the best sheets of papyrus that can be found in Rome," Gaius continued. "I think it will be well for Glaucon to go to the shop and select them. Would you boys like to go with him?"

"Yes, indeed," replied Marcus and Lucius.

"How is papyrus made, Glaucon, and what is it made from?" asked Lucius, as they were preparing to go to the shop.

"Papyrus," replied Glaucon, "is a reed which grows sometimes twice as high as a man's head. The stem is not round, but has three sides, and it is four or five inches thick. The outer covering of the stem is dark, but the inner part, or pith, from which the sheets of papyrus are made, is white.

"When I was in Egypt," Glaucon continued, "I visited a very large papyrus factory, and it was interesting to see how the sheets were prepared."

"Do tell us about it," said Marcus.

The boys knew that Glaucon had travelled in other countries besides Greece, before he had been taken captive and made a slave.

"The factory," responded Glaucon, "was in a large building with open courts. Tanks of water stood in each court, and great bundles of papyrus stems lay beside them. The stems were first dipped in the water to soften them, then they were taken inside the building, where the dark outer covering was peeled off. After that the white pith was cut into very thin strips with a sharp knife.

"When these strips had been dried," Glaucon continued, "they were laid upon tables, side by side, and other strips were laid side by side across them, and pasted down. This made them into large sheets. After being pasted the sheets were pressed, bleached to make them very white, and trimmed to the same size."

"Where does the papyrus grow?" asked Lucius.

"In Egypt," replied Glaucon, "and the largest factories are in that country."

Gaius was pleased with the fine, smooth sheets that Glaucon brought with him from the shop. He called for the slave who did his writing, and who, like Glaucon, was an educated Greek. This slave's name was Drusus.

To Drusus he gave the sheets of papyrus and the book of Greek poems. "I want an exact copy made," he said, "for it is to be a gift to the Consul."

Drusus was well pleased with the task, and went about the work at once. Terentia and even little Livia, as well as Marcus and Lucius, stood by while Drusus sharpened the reed pens and split their points carefully. He then filled the inkstands, one with black ink, the other with red, after which he took Gala's book from its case and carefully unrolled the first page. The headings and ornaments at the beginning of the book were made with red ink, and the writing which followed was done with black.

"How queer the Greek letters look," said Terentia. "They are not at all like the Latin letters. Can you name any of them, Marcus?"

"I know the names of only a few," replied Marcus, "but next year, when I enter the grammar school, I shall learn to read and write Greek. I think that will be fine."

"I am learning to speak Greek from mother," said Terentia, "but I do not want to learn to write such queer letters."

One after another Drusus unrolled the pages of the book, and copied them upon the fine sheets of papyrus. The work went on rather slowly, for he took care to form each letter perfectly, so that the book should be as beautiful as possible.

After many days the last page was copied, the ornaments at the end were carefully made in red ink, and the writing was completed.

"Come, Terentia," called Marcus, who was watching Drusus at the time, "you will want to see the book put together."

Very carefully Drusus laid the pages side by side, lapped the edges one over the other, and pasted the many sheets of papyrus into one long strip. Then he added light wooden rods to the ends of the strip, and the book was ready to be rolled and placed in the case which had been made to hold it.

It had taken a long time to complete the work, but when Gaius examined it and saw how clearly and perfectly the letters had been formed, and how carefully the ornaments and headings had been made, he was very much pleased.

"It is quite as beautiful as my own book," declared Gaia, and Gaius added, "I think that it surely will please the Consul."