linen, silk, and ivory books in ancient Rome

ivory book cover, c. 810

The Historia Augusta describes linen and ivory books in the Ulpian Library in Rome.  The Historia Augusta was written in Latin sometime between 360 and 425.  A playful work, it provides chronologically arranged biographies of Roman Emperors in “something like an ancient mockumentary.”[1] The biography of Roman Emperor Aurelian states:

All these things you may learn in your zeal for research from the linen books, for he {Emperor Aurelian} gave instructions that in these all that he did each day should be written down.  I will arrange, moreover, that the Ulpian Library shall provide you with the linen books themselves. [2]

The biography of Tacitus states:

And now, lest any one consider that I have rashly put faith in some Greek or Latin writer, there is in the Ulpian Library, in the sixth case, an ivory book, in which is written out this decree of the senate, signed by Tacitus himself with his own hand.  For those decrees which pertained to the emperors were long inscribed in books of ivory. [3]

The translator of these texts notes, “the ‘ivory book’ is doubtless as fictitious as the ‘libri lintei‘ {linen book}.”[4]

Linen books and ivory books may well have existed in ancient Rome.  A fire in Rome about 192 destroyed many of Galen’s books.  According to an eleventh-century scholar in Cairo, Galen’s loss included “dearest to him — the books written on white silk, with black covers, for which he had paid a high price.”[5]  A bookshop owner in Baghdad in the tenth century stated:

The Greeks write on white silk, parchment, and other things, as well as on Egyptian scrolls and al-fulhan, which is the skin of wild asses. [6]

Books written on white silk would have been a luxurious version of books written on parchment.  Books made from ivory plates similarly would have been a luxurious version of books made from wooden tabulae.[7]  The latter are known to have existed in the Roman Empire.  Books written on linen could have fitted within the book-material product range between parchment and silk.  Ivory books would have been at the top of the book product range.

The Ulpian Library is a reasonable location for sumptuous books.  The Ulpian Library was the most lavish library in Rome.  Across the Roman Empire, it lagged in fame only the great libraries at Alexandria and Pergamum.  The Ulpian Library, like most major libraries in the Roman Empire, had separate sections for books in Greek and books in Latin.  Both sections of the Ulpian Library together probably held roughly 20,000 scrolls.  Within the grandeur of the Ulpian Library may well have been linen, silk, and ivory books.

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[1] From Jona Lendering’s description and analysis of the Historia Augusta.

[2] Historia Augusta, Life of Aurelian, 1.7, trans. David Magie (Loeb Classical Library). Licinius Macer is the only other source to attest to linen books in the Roman Empire.  Mehl (2011) p. 175.

[3] Id. Life of Tacitus, 8.1-2.  The references to linen and ivory books are realistic, i.e. the nature of the books doesn’t seem to be part of any verbal play.

[4] Id. note 23.

[5] Al-Mubashshir ibn Fātik, quoted in HP p. 164.  Galen, On the Avoidance of Grief (trans. Rothschild and Thompson (2011)), describes the destruction of Galen’s library, but does not mention silk books.  Galen’s silk books may have been silk scrolls imported to Rome from China.

[6] Al-Nadim (Abu al-Faraj Muhammad ibn Ishaq ibn Muhammad ibn Ishaq), Fihrist, trans. Dodge (1970), v. 1, p. 39.  Al-Nadim finished writing the Fihrist in 987-8.  Id. states that the Indians also write on white silk.

[7]  The ivory books alternatively may have been books with ivory covers.  One such cover from c. 810 is shown above. Of course books in the Ulpian Library in Rome prior to the fourth century would not have featured Christian iconography.

[image] Ivory cover (front view) of the Codex Aureus of Lorsch, c. 810, Carolingian dynasty, Victoria and Albert Museum.


Dodge, Bayard Dodge. 1970. The Fihrist of al-Nadīm: a tenth century survey of Muslim culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

HP: Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, Ahmad ibn al-Qasim. English translation of History of Physicians (4 v.) Translated by Lothar Kopf. 1971. Located in: Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 294Online transcription.

Mehl, Andreas. 2011. Roman historiography: an introduction to its basic aspects and development. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

Rothschild, Clare K, and Trevor W. Thompson. 2011. “Galen: ‘On the Avoidance of Grief.’” Early Christianity, vol. 2, pp. 110–129.

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