In defense of the scroll, by Seneca the Younger

Seneca the Younger (image credit: Calidius)

I recently took a time-machine trip to ancient Rome, and brought back the following short essay by Seneca the Younger.  Those of you who attack ebooks in favour of physical books?  This is how you’ll sound in two thousand years.

It is this writer’s sad duty to disagree with his valued friend Marcus Valerius Martialis, who, though the writer of many valued epigrams, has the wisdom that would scarcely bring an ass out of the desert and to a healthful spring.

Ah, scrolls! How can such beautiful objects be called inconvenient. What dull fool would prefer a codex?

Martialis writes of the wonders of the ugly modern invention known as the codex.  He values this ugly hand-perching bird over the more natural beauty of the scroll.  In fact, in a public post in the forum, Martialis has made known his “Top Five Reasons Codices are Superior to Scrolls.”  I shall now answer each of his points with a nail of logic, affixing them, as it were, to a cross on which the codex must be publicly executed.

This new invention the codex, a bound collection of pages, can never be superior to the traditional scroll.

  1. Martialis makes his first point “The codex is more convenient than the scroll.”  This is ridiculous upon the face of it.  How convenient can it be to forever “flip” back and forth an endless number of pages when one could merely scan down a scroll?  Pages are far too short.
  2. Secondly, Martialis claims that “The codex is more portable than the scroll.”  Is he a nomad that he must carry his epics and philosophies upon his back?  When I go to a recitation of The Iliad, I expect the performer, if he be a man, to bring as many scrolls as he has voice to carry.  Can he bring us merely from the invocation of the muses to the sack of the Thracian camps?  Very well!  Then he need only bring eleven scrolls.  Can he recite for days, and take us all the way to the burial of Hector?  Then let him find a servant to carry his scrolls.

    The codex. How modern. How ugly. How "convenient."

  3. Thirdly, Martialis brazenly proclaims that the codex, or “book” as I have heard some call it, is more aesthetically appealing.  For shame.  If these devices continue in their popularity, no civilized citizen will ever wish to enter a coffee house again for fear of the constant rustle of flipping pages, and the bumping of these young folk who strap their “books” for convenience against their hips, and whom I thus name “hipsters.”  Scrolls, in contrast, are nearly silent, and may be tucked under a belt.
  4. In the fourth place, Martialis insists that he can find information more readily in his “book.”  Does he fear that the words will fly away if he does not search them out quickly enough?  The empire grows so small in these days that a man might leave his newborn son and travel the whole world before the boy has even become a man.  Is there no end to the speeding up of our lives?  Count me as one for whom his ancestors’ speed at looking up a fact is good enough.
  5. Finally, Martialis notes that the book can be stored more conveniently than the scroll.  Well, there is no arguing this.  And no doubt if we listen to the Martialises of the empire, then all our knowledge might soon be kept in a room the size of a provincial governor’s atrium.  And what, pray tell, will happen to all that knowledge when Jupiter next sends his fiery wrath from the heavens to burn that tiny and condensed closet of learning?

I conclude by predicting that the codex has no future.  The scroll was good enough for our ancestors, and it will be used long after Martialis and the last of his leather-clad hipster books have turned to dust.


About davidlomax

Writer, teacher, husband, dad. Geek from way back. Author of the totally pre-orderable Backward Glass, out in October 2013 from Flux Books ( View all posts by davidlomax

One response to “In defense of the scroll, by Seneca the Younger

  • Ann

    He’s full of ‘the more things change’ Andy Rooney-isms. I have a book on Travel in Ancient times and he says, about a popular summer vacation spot, “Why must I look at drunks staggering along the shore or in noisy boating parties? Who wants to listen to the squabbles of nocturnal serenaders?” Or about living near a bath house… “When the muscular types work out and toss the lead weights, when they strain (or make believe they’re straining) … and the people who enjoy hearing themselves sing in the bathtub. Add also the people who dive into the pool with a deafening splash”

    Yeah, somehow it doesn’t surprise me he’d be all for scrolls. ^_-

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