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Pliny on the Making of Paper

Paper is made from the papyrus, by splitting it with a needle into very thin leaves, due care being taken that they should be as broad as possible. That of the first quality is taken from the centre of the plant, and so in regular succession, according to the order of division. “Hieratica” [holy] was the name that was anciently given to it, from the circumstance that it was entirely reserved for the religious books. In later times, through a spirit of adulation, it received the name of “Augusta,” just as that of second quality was called “Liviana,” from his [Octvian’s] wife, Livia; the consequence of which was, that the name “hieratica” came to designate that of only third-rate quality. The paper of the next quality was called “amphitheatrica,” from the locality [near that place in Alexandria] of its manufacture. The skilful manufactory that was established by Fannius at Rome, was in the habit of receiving this last kind, and there, by a very careful process of insertion, it was rendered much finer; so much so, that from being a common sort, he made it a paper of first-rate quality, and gave his own name [Fannia] to it: while that which was not subjected to this additional process retained its original name of “amphitheatrica.” Next to this is the Saitic paper, so called from the city of that name, where it is manufactured in very large quantities, though of cuttings of inferior quality. The Tæniotic paper, so called from a place in the vicinity, is manufactured from the materials that lie nearer to the outside skin; it is sold, not according to its quality, but by weight only. As to the paper that is known as “emporetica” [shop paper], it is quite useless for writing upon, and is only employed for wrapping up other paper, and as a covering for various articles of merchandize, whence its name, as being used by dealers. After this comes the bark of the papyrus, the outer skin of which bears a strong resemblance to the bulrush, and is solely used for making ropes, and then only for those which have to go into the water.

All these various kinds of paper are made upon a table, moistened with Nile water; a liquid which, when in a muddy state, has the peculiar qualities of glue. This table being first inclined, the leaves of papyrus are laid upon it lengthwise, as long, indeed, as the papyrus will admit of, the jagged edges being cut off at either end; after which a cross layer is placed over it, the same way, in fact, that hurdles are made. When this is done, the leaves are pressed close together, and then dried in the sun; after which they are united to one another, the best sheets being always taken first, and the inferior ones added afterwards. There are never more than twenty of these sheets to a roll. [Naturalis Historia, XIII, Chapter 23]

The translation of this text is referenced in the last post. Here, as there, we’ve omitted the footnotes, but these may be read at the source, the Tufts University Perseus Digital Library, here. For people whose impressions of Roman times are formed by the movies, this sort of document from the first century should be eye-opening. Technological progress is alive and well, brand names appear—and paper is already available in various forms, not least as wrapping paper in your local store. The labor- intensive process whereby hand-cut strips of the pith inside stalks of the papyrus plant were carefully laid now in horizontal and now in vertical rows—thus to create mutually supporting structures overlaid—reminds us of the vast changes that have taken place since.


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