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“Slavery,” Rex Winsbury explains, was “the enabling infrastructure of Roman Literature.”[1] From composition to publication and distribution it was enslaved and formerly enslaved workers who were responsible for a great deal of the physical and cognitive work involved in the writing, copying, reading, and transportation of ancient literature.[2]


While in English “author” usually denotes the person who came up with the ideas for physically composed (by hand with pen and paper or on a typewriter, computer, tablet, or phone) a particular text the Latin word auctor does not mean the same thing.[3] The Latin auctor might mean the author of a text, but this does not mean the author physically held the pen and it was often used in a more general sense to refer to someone who is an authority or who has authority. The close association of authorship and authority means that an author might be automatically assumed to be someone of high status (i.e. someone freeborn with authority).  


The differences between modern and ancient authorship become particularly clear when we turn to the wide range of figures involved both in what we might call the writing process. Whether or not a text had a named author there might also have been a secretary writing down the author’s words. That is, taking dictation. Dictation could be taken down in shorthand by a specialist in tachygraphy (sometimes also called stenography) or it could be taken down in longhand. One early Christian text, the Shepherd of Hermas refers to someone taking down a text syllable by syllable, but this was not normal practice as it made the process extremely lengthy. While anyone who was literate might theoretically serve as a secretary, shorthand was a reading technology that was associated with enslaved workers. 

Once a text had been composed it would need to be copied. Depending on the text’s length and purpose, copying might be performed by the secretary who took dictation, by an enslaved worker visiting from another household, or by a professional copyist who worked in a bookstore. 

When texts were disseminated, they often moved by literate messenger. If the text was a letter, they might be responsible for performing (i.e. reading) the letter aloud to its recipient(s) and for answering questions about its contents. If the text was a long literary work or treatise and the sender was very wealthy, the enslaved worker might even be gifted alongside the book as a kind of interpretive guide.

While these roles are often distinguished by separate titles, on which see below, a single person might perform a variety of roles. A man named Diphilus, for example, is named as the “scribe and reader” (scriptor et lector) of Crassus. So, too, a secretary might also be a copyist, messenger, and reader. 

People utilized enslaved literate workers for a variety of reasons: because they themselves were illiterate; because physical impairments liked vision loss prevented them from reading and writing themselves; because the utilization of personnel enabled them to consult texts while they were composing; and because it was easier than performing this work themselves. Certain tasks, like reading at night or copying long texts, were a strain on the body. For those who could afford it, it was preferable to outsource their bookwork. Dio Chrysostom notes that it was much better to be read to than to read oneself. 

The extant literary and epigraphical evidence uses a wide variety of terminology to refer to the roles played by various workers in the textual industry. In some regions and periods these titles would also be used of high-status individuals. In Egypt, for example, priests often also played the role of “scribe.” We should not assume, however, that those with lofty literate titles always did the work.[4] Apollonos, a translator (hērmeneutēs / ἑρμηνευτὴς) mentioned in several Egyptian papyri, was also identified as “illiterate” (P. Cair. Zen. I 59065, P. Ryl. IV 563, PSI IV 409).  

Recent scholarship at the intersection of book history and classics suggests that enslaved and formerly enslaved literate workers made substantive contributions to the meaning of the texts that they worked on.[5] This would make these individuals active participants in the production of Roman literature.

Greek and Roman Terminology:

amanuensis a general term used for secretaries who performed a variety of duties. Philologically the word refers to the extension of a person’s hand (manus) and is, thus, deeply embedded in an enslaving mindset that saw people as body parts.

ἀναγνώστης/ lector a “reader” who reads a text aloud. The term was used both might be an unofficial reader called upon to read in the moment or a professional reader who performed texts for reading events in public or private. 

βιβλιοπώλης bookseller or bookshop owner.

ἑρμηνευτὴς / hērmeneutēs “translator” or “interpreter.” Translators played an important role in military affairs, the preparation of legal documents, and the oral interpretation of written documents. 

γραμμᾰτεύς (grammateus) a secretary or scribe.

librarius from liber meaning “book.” A librarius might be responsible for any aspect of bookwork including reading, composition, and copying. It might refer to a secretary or, in some periods, a bookseller or library worker. 

notarius shorthand note-take or speedwriter. Someone to whom words are dictated. 

scriba: someone who writes, but not usually an author. More commonly this term referred to someone in charge of public records or accounts. 

scriptor: this term was used for someone who composes work, but it often meant someone who writes things down. That is, a secretary, a scribe or potentially a copyist.


1. Rex Winsbury, The Roman Book (London: Duckworth, 2009), 79.

2. On enslaved literate workers see Winsbury, The Roman Book,  79–85; R. J. Starr, “Reading Aloud: Lectores and Roman Reading,” Classical Journal 86/3 (1991) 337–43; William Fitzgerald, Slavery and the Roman Literary Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000);  Robert Darnton, “What is the History of Books?,” Daedalus 111/3 (1982) 65–84; Thomas Habinek, “Slavery and Class,” in ed. Stephen Harrison, A Companion to Latin Literature (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), 385–93; Joseph A. Howley, “In Ancient Rome,” in eds. Matthew Rubery and Leah Price, Further Reading (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 15–27.

3. Things get blurry when we consider that English speakers often talk about someone being the author of an idea without necessarily writing anything down.

4. Herbert C. Youtie, “ὑπογραφεύς: The Social Impact of Illiteracy in Graeco-Roman Egypt,” ZPE 17 (1975) 201-221.

5. Sarah Blake, “Now You See Them: Slaves and Other Objects as Elements of the Roman Master,” Helios 39.2 (2012): 193–211; idem, “In Manus: Pliny’s Letters and the Arts of Mastery,” in Roman Literary Cultures: Domestic Politics, Revolutionary Poetics, Civic Spectacle, ed. A. Keith and J. Edmondson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), 89–107.

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