The Annales School 1929

The Price of Papyrus in Greek Antiquity

by Gustave Glotz

Source: Annales d’histore économique et sociale. 1929, Vol 1, no. 1;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2009.

Scholars have often asked what the price of paper of papyrus fiber was in the countries of ancient Greece. The question is not only of great interest for the history of civilization. Since it is a matter of a product and commerce exclusively Egyptian, it also has its importance in economic history and, as we shall see, in the history of international relations.

Until 1912 we only found three indications on the question in our literary and epigraphic documents, which were in any case contradictory. While lamenting the rarity of information, most authors maintained that papyrus had always been dear. Only Gardthausen was of the opinion that it was dear before and after the Hellenistic period, but for four centuries the low cost of primary materials and labor, as well was the facilities for fabrication, allowed Ptolemaic Egypt to furnish an inexpensive product to the Mediterranean world. When in 1912 Durrbach published the accounts of the Delian hieropes of the period 314-250 [BCE] I observed in an article “On the Price of Goods in Delos” that these accounts provided a fair number of new indications concerning the price of papyrus and refuted those authors who had treated the question. But I must note that this article remained in those shadows into which writings published in scientific reviews are plunged: Schubart, in his excellent Einfürung in die Papyruskunde, which appeared in 1918, says (p. 39): “Ueber die Preise des papyrus wissen wir trotz verienzelten Angaben ungefähr nichts. Billig was er nicht;” and he gives the reasons for its dearness which he admits for all of antiquity, without distinction as to period. Now that Durrbach has published a second series of Delian inscriptions (1926) and is going to publish a third whose proofs I have read, and as a result of which I have dispose of new data for the years 231-179 BCE, I would like to return to the overall question. It is worth the trouble, since to three indications from the past, which apply to the years 407, 333, and 322, are added – independently of those provided by papyrology – 18 others which are spread out over thirteen years between 296 and 179.

We know that Egyptian papyrus had been imported to Greece since the Sixth Century, but it was rare because of its price. It is for this reason, Herodotus tells us, that the Ionians long employed, in order to write, the skins of sheep and goats which, he adds, the barbarians still do, obviously those of Asia. At the end of the Fifth Century the precious sheets were much more widespread in Greece, but remained dear. In 407 the epistates[1] charged with the labors at Erechteion [2] bought two of them in order to transcribe the copies of their accounts that they were obliged to deposit in the archives. They paid 1 drachma, 2 obols per sheet. This was a high price at a time when a day’s work was worth 1 drachma, even for an architect.

It is true that they oppose to this price, found in an official act, one they think they can deduce from a literary text. Plato has Socrates say that on the square of the agora we can find Anaxagoras’ “Treatise on Nature” for no more than a drachma. Dziatzko maintained that if the manuscript was worth a drachma, the paper certainly wasn’t worth more than a third and that, the volume being composed of several pages, the sheet couldn’t have cost more than one obol. But the copies which Socrates speaks of with a smile are low quality copies. The booksellers of the market had not the least pretention of producing out of date items for the price of new paper or, and with even more reason, the price of paper increased by the salary formerly paid in the past to the scribe, a salary which, on its own, represented more than one day of work. Plato thus gives us precious information concerning the sale of used books, but he gives us no information on the value of papyrus in the Greece of his times.

The market price of the year 407 held steady for three quarters of a century. In fact, in Epidaure, according to Thymele’s accounts, they pay 4½ Aeginetic [3] obols, that is, one Attic drachma and ½ obol, for a sheet on which is to be written an expenditure record. We would like to have a certain date for this. Unfortunately, all that we believe is that the purchase in question was made in at least the sixteenth, and perhaps in the twenty-seventh year after the beginning of the works in progress, and that these works began around 360, thus around 344-334 BCE. All of this is quite vague. Nevertheless, I think we can be more precise. Four years before this papyrus purchase the accounts mention a purchase of lead at twice the normal price. Such an increase can only be explained by a cause similar to the one that produced the same effect in the final years of the Fifth Century, i.e., by a total cessation in mining exploitation in the Laurion basin. One of these crises was determined by the presence of Spartans in Decelie and the desertion of slaves; the other one could only have been by the arrival of the Macedonian army on the Attic border, after the battle of Cheronee. It is thus four years after 438/7, in 434/3 that the sheet of paper in Epidaure was worth more than one Attic drachma. Thus, for three-quarters of a century the price hardly varied, at least in normal times.

But suddenly, ten years later, in 322, the plea “Against Dionysodoros” teaches us that the great merchants of Athens write their most important contracts on tablets worth two chalkoi [4] and on pieces of paper every bit as inexpensive. Is this one of those exaggerations so customary among lawyers? In truth, it is quite possible that the Pseudo-Demosthenes gives a real price for the tablet and an approximate price for the papyrus. But he wouldn’t have dared to speak as he did if papyrus still cost 32 times more, as in 407, or 26 times as in 333. Nevertheless, we could continue to quibble about this if we didn’t have any other, similar indications.

The great, the inestimable advantage that the Delos inscriptions present in the economic history of antiquity is that they give a series of prices that spread out across a century and a half. The differences are characteristic, and the highs and lows always have a meaning that one must sort out. A few years ago I was able to demonstrate by a typical example, that of a product as small as the pea, how the Delian market price reflects Greek history over a century. We will see that the variations in pricing of papyrus are not without their importance.

The first indications the hieropes [5] of Delos provide us concerning the price of paper date from 296. They number two for that year, both of them in conformity with that given by the orator of 322. 1 - A sheet (harthς) is paid for at a price that mutilation by a stone renders uncertain, but is perhaps one obol and in any event remains below one drachma. 2- For one drachma one can have several scrolls (bidlia), i.e., at least two scrolls of at least two sheets and probably of more than two sheets. The sheet is thus worth 1 ½ obols at the very most, but it is much more likely worth much less and could even have been, as in 322, a single tetartemorion.

We thus have a period of at least 26 years (322-296) for which a base price is certified.

But this period is exceptional. From the year 279 until 179 the Delos accounts give us 16 prices for 12 years. All these pries are higher, not only and by a large amount to those of the preceding period, but even to those of 407 and 333.

Twice (267,231) the sheet cost....1 dr. 3 ob.

Five times (274, 250, 200, 179).... 1 dr. 4 ob.

Once (250)........ 1 dr. 4 ob. 1/4

Once (250).... 1 dr. 5 ob.

Once (218)..... 1 dr. 5 ob. ½

Twice (279, 204).... 2 dr.

Two and probably three times (269, 258, 224-222).... 2 dr. 1 ob.

Once (267).... At least 10 dr.

We thus have a series of prices that includes seven degrees, from 9 to 13 obols, after which, by a great leap, we arrive at the single price of 10 drachmas. We shouldn’t think, though, that over the course of this century the price varied with the times: it is 1 drachma 4 obols in 274 as well as in 179, and in the year of 250 it goes from 1 drachma 4 obols to 1 drachma 4 ¼ obols. Even more, in the year of 267 alone we find both the lowest and highest of all. This latter price should be set aside: 10 drachmas or more could only be asked for papyrus whose age-old renown places it above all others, that which was 11 fingers (0 m .20) long and which was distinguished for its fineness, solidity, whiteness, and shine, that which in Egypt was reserved for sacred books and acts of royal authority, (harthς), (ieratihoς), and (basilihoς). As for other prices, they could be asked for for papyrus of ordinary good quality, with the trademark of “The Amphitheatre,” which was produced near the amphitheater of Alexandria, and which was nine fingers (0 m 17) long.

Consequently, if papyrus was inexpensive in Greece since the final quarter or third of the Fourth Century, it again became dear during the first quarter of the Third, and this time forever. Before asking how we can explain the period of decrease noted during the years 322 and 296, let us clarify the beginning and end dates of this period. We have seen in inscriptions that it can be extended 10 years ab initio and 16 years a fine. But if nothing prevents us from beginning it in 332, it doesn’t seem that it lasted until 279. The Delian accounts of the year 281 could, in this regard, provide us with precious information: they mention a purchase of papyrus, but they are mutilated just after the word harthς at the place of the price. In the case where it would have borne a low price it would have, within two years more or less, dated the event that so strongly modified the price of papyrus. But it is more likely that it already had a high price. In fact we know that a few years previously in Greece paper wasn’t on object in wide use by those without much money. Having no choice, poor people did as in the distant époque of ostracism: they wrote on pieces of broken pots. In 283 and 282, when Cleanthe began to take lessons in the Portico he only had at his disposal to collect the thoughts of his master Zeno shards of vases and shoulder blades of oxen. Forced to work in order to live, papyrus was too expensive for him. This anecdote could very well reduce by three or four years the interval into which we can place the return of high prices.

We must now turn to Egypt in order to understand what happened for the first time in the interval from 333 to 332, and a second time forty or fifty years later. For the production and sale of paper was an industry and commerce strictly Egyptian.

Everything indicates that in Egypt paper could be quite inexpensive. The cultivation of the plant was widespread in the Delta. The work demanded care, but wasn’t complicated. Labor was abundant and barely cost more than the price of maintenance. The cost of production was thus not high. It was this very reason that led Gardthausen to believe that before being exploited by the imperial tax authorities papyrus was moderately priced. But as we have seen, this hypothesis is correct for only a limited time. This is not so either for the period prior to 333-322 or for the years after 296-282. Why?

It is because the monopoly that was to make papyrus so dear under the Roman emperors already existed under the pharaohs and was reconstituted under the Lagides [6] We can now see what it was that happened between 333 -322 and determined an enormous drop in paper. It was simply this: during the winter 332-331 Alexander opened wide the gates of Egypt and poured oriental merchandise onto the Greek markets. In replacing national administrations with Macedonian domination it put an end to the monopolies that from time immemorial had made wealthy the temple treasuries and the royal coffers. There then began a reign of liberty in the production and sale of papyrus that still continued at the beginning of the Third Century. We know, and can see in the accounts of Delos, that Ptolemy, son of Lagos, independent satrap since 311, king since 305, had not yet reorganized the monopolies in 296. Otherwise, in a year when the master of the islands, Demetrius Polioricete, found himself in a state of war with the master of Egypt, papyrus, already more dear in 322, would have been nearly unaffordable.

Everything seems to indicate that Ptolemy Soter didn’t change fiscal policy until his abdication in 285. His successor, on the contrary, returned to pharaonic traditions. We know from the “Revenue laws” that in the 27th year of his reign Ptolemy Philadelphus gave a definitive constitution to certain monopolies. This was a reform, not a creation. The price paid for papyrus in 279 and Cleanthe’s anecdote teach us that the paper monopoly had been re-established during the sixth, and perhaps even the second year of the reign. In any case, a reason of this kind was needed for the price of papyrus to be so high in 279, since in that period the commerce of the islands with Egypt was facilitated by excellent relations, as is proved by the invitation addressed to the Nesiotes and accepted by them to officially participate in the Olympic festival and the foundation of the Ptolemaia in Delos.

We possess sufficient information on the papyrus monopoly in the time of the Lagides so that it is impossible for there to be any doubt. Primary matter was purchased from individuals in accordance with the price fixed by the royal administration. The work was done in public workshops, except for the privilege reserved to priests to meet by their own means the needs of temples. Sale was assured by retailers who stocked themselves from the king’s stores. The sale price was thus fixed less often by the cost than by the profit demanded by the tax authorities.

Thus, inexpensive paper couldn’t be obtained even in Egypt. It has often been observed that without the necessity to economize the subject of the Lagides would not regularly have written on the verso of their pages, or even more had recourse to the pitiful practice of the palimpsest. And they would have even less used ostracons if they had had at their disposal a more convenient and cheaper material. Finally, in a country where the respect for the dead was always scrupulously maintained, embalmers would never have wrapped mummies in old discarded paper if they could have had new ones at a good price.

The indications we have on the price of papyrus in Egypt bear a close relationship to those given in the Delos inscriptions of the same period. Between them we find sometimes the normal difference represented by export rights, shipping costs, and the profit of the intermediary, sometimes a large difference explained by a disturbance in commercial relations caused by political events. In 251-250, while the accounts of the Delian hieropes twice give the price of 1 drachma 4 obols, once that of 1 drachma 4 ½ obols, and once that of 1 drachma 5 obols, the Zeno’s accounts mention the price of 1 drachma 1 obol. The difference is hardly greater in the Second Century: while in Delos they pay 1 drachma 4 obols per sheet, retail price, an Egyptian government office pays 100 drachma for 100 sheets, 1 drachma per sheet, semi-wholesale price. It is true that at certain moments the price decreases to below 1 drachma in the country of production. An account from Fayoum indicates as the price of a sheet of ordinary format (harthς) as 4 obols ¾ or 3/8, and the price of small-format sheets (hartidion) as 1 obol the sheet and 8 drachmas the hand of 48 or perhaps 50 sheets. In this case, lacking the precise date, we can’t make a comparison. But around 259-258 we find an enormous spread. The Delos accounts in 258 bear the high price of 2 drachmas 1 obol, perhaps because Egypt is implicated in the Cyrenaic events and the risk of war hinders Greco-Egyptian commerce. Around the same time, Zeno’s accounts mention a purchase of papyrus that the publisher believes he can evaluate, despite the difficulties in reading that he truthfully mentions, as 40 drachmas for 60 sheets, thus 4 obols the sheet. If the number x=60 should truly be maintained for the quantity, for the price we might replace m by n, which would be more in conformity with the market price of the time. It is nevertheless not impossible that the Third Century before Christ already knew this price of 4 obols, which is certified for the middle of the Second Century after Christ. In any case, since the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus, the price of papyrus in Egypt – even if from 1 drachma 1 obol at its highest it descends to 4 obols at its lowest – still remained above the price paid in the importing nations like Attica and Delos, and even more so in the producing country before the re-establishment of the monopoly.

It remains to examine a document where Gardthausen believed he had found a confirmation of his theory, but which on the contrary leads us to better understand the monopoly on paper. On a papyrus from Tebtynis a comogramatte mentions, in the year 112, the following expense: hartwn i, an (a) r, A, i.e., hatergon for 10 hartai, at 100 (copper) drachmas each, 1000 drachmas.” For Crönert, who examined this text, harthς doesn’t designate a sheet of papyrus, but a scroll, a hand, a scapus of twenty sheets. A purely arbitrary hypothesis. Yet Gardthausen adopts it and after having correctly translated hatergon by Lohn he continues by reasoning as if it were a question, not of a salary, but of a sale price. And here is his conclusion: 10 hands of papyrus are worth the same as 1000 drachmas of copper. Thus one hand costs 100 drachmas, so one sheet costs five drachmas which means, in an era when copper money lost much value in relation to silver money, a reduction of one pfenning. Let us simply return to our text and translate: “Salary for the production of 10 sheets at 100 drachmas each, 1000 drachmas.” It is a matter of a sum owed by the administrators of the monopoly to a worker or a paper producer later on called hartopoioς. In addition, given that the relation of minted silver to copper was then at 1:475, the worker received 0 fr 20 silver per sheet, and not 0 fr 01, as Crönert and Gardthausen think.

The profit to the royal treasury was thus quite substantial, since the price for the sheet for the Egyptians was at least 0 fr 65 silver (4 obols) and even reached 1 fr 15 ( 1 drachma 1 obol). That of Greek importers and resellers was nothing to sneer at, since the price of the sheet varied in Delos between 1 fr 50 silver ( 1 drachma 3 obols) and 2 fr 15 ( 2 drachmas 1 obol).

One can judge from this detailed study how useful it can be to gather and classify figures, however rebarbative in appearance, that are scattered about our inscriptions and papyri.

It could suffice to recall and confront twenty prices scattered over two centuries to cast a bit of light on the economic history of antiquity which the historians of the time have neglected. It is through a series of analogous studies that we will have some precise notions on retail and wholesale commerce, on the general conditions of international exchange.

I chose as an example a product which, in addition, teaches us about the political history, not to mention the intellectual history of the Hellenic countries. It is not a matter of indifference to note one of the effects suddenly produced on Egypt’s material situation by the Macedonian conquest, one of the profound differences that distinguishes the reign of Ptolemy Soter from that of Ptolemy Philadelphus. And we can reflect on the consequences of a system that had as its primary result that of only turning over to consumption a paper as dear as stamped paper is in contemporary societies. The monopoly had hardly been suppressed by Alexander than the Athenian Lycurgus, who was even so a thrifty administrator, had made and deposed in the archives an official copy of the tragic poets, which was quite a lovely beginning for a National Library. But the monopoly reestablished by Philadelphus transmitted to the book the dearness of paper. Thus is explained the incomparable importance that the library of Alexandria immediately took on and maintained for centuries: the Ptolemies furnished it with papyrus either free or at a low price. At the same time, they were masters of its sale overseas at a rate they alone fixed and even – as Evergete II did – prohibited its export.

1. In Athens the epistates presided in the council and the assembly; in the Hellenistic kingdoms the title was given to an agent of the king within the subject city.

2. The most sacred temple in Athens

3. One of the various weight standards for currency

4. Eight chalkoi = One obol

5. Priest/administrator

6. Dynasty of the Ptolemies.