bundling verbal work in ancient Rome

In ancient Rome, elite men competed intensely in verbal arts. They evaluated each other at the fine granularity of phrases and specific word choices. [1]  Epigrams, compact verbal expressions, were highly valued.

In these circumstances, a Roman orator c. 100 GC described his business strategy for a speech that he hoped to sell widely:

I have certainly tried, by varying the character of the style, to get hold of all sorts and conditions of readers, and though I am afraid that each individual reader will not find every single passage to his liking, yet I think I may be pretty confident that the variety of styles will recommend the whole to all classes.  For at a banquet, though we each one of us taboo certain dishes, yet we all praise the banquet as a whole, nor do the dishes which our palate declines make those we like any less enjoyable.[2]

While a speech today isn’t usually considered a bundle of goods, the strategy described is essentially that of bundling. Recent analysis of bundling has identified favorable economic circumstances for bundling:

The bundling strategy is particularly attractive when the marginal costs of the goods are very low, when the correlation in the demand for different goods is low, and when consumer valuations for the individual goods are of comparable magnitude.[3]

The marginal cost of short passages in a speech are very low. In addition, hearer valuations of such passages are likely to be of comparable magnitude. Pleasurable or unpleasurable, an oratorical sentence itself can’t create a fortune or cause death.

What about correlation in demand for different style passages? Modern textual works tend to have a fairly uniform style designed for the rather predictable preferences of the target audience. Perhaps the author’s intended Roman audience had more disparate stylistic preferences than typical modern audiences.

Bundling in the communications industry today tends to be considered in terms of content and information goods.  Styles, however, can also be aspects of bundles.

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[1]  The Elder Seneca, recounting rhetorical exhibits for his sons so as to instruct them, declared:

Who would put up with a man saying of siphons: “They rain back at the sky,” and about sprays, “perfumed showers,” or using the phrase “chiselled forests” of a spruce garden, and “springing glades” of a picture?  Or what I remember him saying of sudden deaths one day when you took me along to listen to him: “Every bird that flies, every fish that swims, every beast that roams finds burial in our stomach.  Now ask why we die suddenly: it is on deaths that we live.”  Should he not have paid us for that with his hide, even if he had already been manumitted?  I’m not one of those very rigid judges, determined to direct everything by a precise rule.  I think that many concessions must be made to genius — but it is faults, not monstrosities, that we must concede.

Seneca (circa 37 GC), Controversiae 10, preface 9,  quoted from Declamations, trans. M. Winterbottom (London: William Heinemann, 1974) p. 361.  Seneca’s willingness to forgive faults for genius echos that of Longinus, On the Sublime, Ch. 36.  Both Seneca and Longinus indicate a culture acutely concerned about stylistic details of short expressions.

[2] Pliny the Younger, Letters, 2.5: “To Lupercus.”  For additional evidence of Pliny’s relation to commercial booksellers, see also Letters 1.2, “To Arrianus,” and 1.8, “To Pompeius Saturninus.”

[3] Bakos, Yannis and Brynjolfsson, Erik, Bundling Information Goods: Pricing, Profits and Efficiency (April 1998). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=11488 or DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.11488

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