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Pliny on Paper

We have not as yet taken any notice of the marsh plants, nor yet of the shrubs that grow upon the banks of rivers: before quitting Egypt, however, we must make some mention of the nature of the papyrus, seeing that all the usages of civilized life depend in such a remarkable degree upon the employment of paper—at all events, the remembrance of past events. M. Varro informs us that paper owes its discovery to the victorious career of Alexander the Great, at the time when Alexandria in Egypt was founded by him; before which period paper had not been used, the leaves of the palm having been employed for writing at an early period, and after that the bark of certain trees. In succeeding ages, public documents were inscribed on sheets of lead, while private memoranda were impressed upon linen cloths, or else engraved on tablets of wax; indeed, we find it stated in Homer, that tablets were employed for this purpose even before the time of the Trojan war. It is generally supposed, too, that the country which that poet speaks of as Egypt, was not the same that is at present understood by that name, for the Sebennytic and the Saitic Nomes, in which all the papyrus is produced, have been added since his time by the alluvion of the Nile; indeed, he himself has stated that the main-land was a day and a night’s sail from the island of Pharos, which island at the present day is united by a bridge to the city of Alexandria. In later times, a rivalry having sprung up between King Ptolemy and King Eumenes, in reference to their respective libraries, Ptolemy prohibited the export of papyrus; upon which, as Varro relates, parchment was invented for a similar purpose at Pergamus. After this, the use of that commodity, by which immortality is ensured to man, became universally known. [Naturalis Historia, XIII, Chapter 21]

This quote comes from Pliny the Elder’s The Natural History. This English version comes with scholarly annotations from John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S. H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A. London. Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street, 1855.  We have eliminated the footnotes here which correct some of Pliny’s errors, but they may be viewed at the site where we got the quote, namely the Tufts University Perseus Digital Library here. (Isn’t the Internet a wonder?)

Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) was a naturalist and natural philosopher; he also served as a military and naval commander in the time of Vespasian. This brief summation of paper in its earliest form, as papyrus, is wonderfully modern in sound—and yet, we suggest, echoes the sentiments of all those who are engaged in reading and writing. 

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