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Publishing in Ancient Greece

a business opportunity for time travellers

By Richard SeltzerPublished 12 months ago 4 min read
Publishing in Ancient Greece
Photo by Paulina Milde-Jachowska on Unsplash

"Imagine you're an artist in ancient Greece," suggested Elle.

"I wouldn't be an artist. I'd be a publisher," Oz replied.

"Publisher?" she asked, prompting him to delve further into this new fantasy. "There were no printing presses in those days. Would you hire copyists and dictate to them?"

"That would be too slow, and books made that way would be too rare and too expensive. I'd want to make lots of copies and get them to market quickly."

"What do you mean?"

"Have you ever been to an early showing of a blockbuster movie and seen people in the audience raising their phones and pointing them at the screen? They're streaming the movie so they <or their confederates> can make bootleg copies and sell them over the Internet. At the first performance of a Sophocles play, at the first public reading of chapters from Herodotus or Thucydides, I'd want transcribers in the audience."

"No one could write ancient Greek fast enough to keep pace with a speaker."

"Of course not. That's why I'd devise a shorthand."


"These days, people typically speak about a hundred words per minute, but can only write twenty to thirty. That's why English shorthand was developed, which enables transcribing at a hundred, even two hundred words per minute. There doesn't seem to have been a shorthand version of ancient Greek, but there should have been. I would invent one — quick-stroke equivalents of letters and common words. I would train a team of teenagers and send three or four of them to important public performances to take notes.

"They would give their work to a team of scribes, who would compare shorthand versions and turn out finished master copies with full words. Then others would take what they had done and make fair copies, one copyist for each section of the work. Within a week of a first public performance, I would have dozens of copies for sale.

"In those days, there were no copyright laws. No need to pay authors. And without any expectation of payment, authors would have rejoiced to have their works made widely available. I would make a fortune for myself, provide lucrative employment for the educated, and at the same time, preserve literary treasures for posterity."

"Clever. When you figure out how to time-travel, you should try that."

"Maybe, maybe not. It's hard to balance the gain and the loss. Although such a business could have led to the preservation of more works, the works themselves would have been distorted by the marketing goals of the publishers."

She asked him, "Can you turn that into a story?"

"Imagine Archilochus."


"A Greek poet best known for a fragmentary love poem known as the Cologne Epode."

"And your story?"

"Imagine that there was such a publisher in his day, two centuries before Pericles, before the flowering of Greek culture. The publisher liked the style but wanted a rewrite. He explained,

'Your poem needs to be more credible, more natural. Readers need to be able to identify with the situation.'

"'But this is real," said the poet. "These are my heart-felt emotions.”

"'That's fine for the lady herself, Archilochus. I'm sure she's flattered by your verse. But you have to think of the audience — the real audience, the paying audience. With a few minor changes, this could be a best seller.'

"'What changes do you have in mind?'

"'You wrote about an older experienced woman with a beautiful soul. That's fantasy.'

"'No. That's real. She's wonderful. She has changed my life.'

"'Congratulations. May you have many happy years together. But what's real isn't necessarily plausible, or publishable. Very few people would believe the truth of what you have written. Very few could imagine themselves in such a relationship. Instead of what you have written, imagine you are seducing an innocent young woman. She's physically delectable. She resists you and suggests that you leave her alone and, instead, pursue an older woman, like the woman you wrote the poem to, someone experienced and willing, ripe and ready. In the new version of your poem, you should reject that older woman as over-ripe and win the sweet young thing by describing to her the physical delights she has never experienced.'

"'But I'm not attracted to sweet young things.'

"'Remember, Archilochus, you're not writing an autobiography. You're writing poetry to be read and enjoyed by hundreds, if not thousands. First, last, and always, think of your audience, your real audience; not your bedmate, but rather the public. Write not what you feel, not what you believe, but what people want to read. Then we'll both get rich from the sales, and if the gods so wish, you will be known ten, twenty, maybe even fifty years from now.'

"So, he rewrote the poem as the seduction of an innocent young woman."

"So what did he write?"

"Here's a loose translation of mine:

'I told her,

There are many kinds of pleasure aside from godlike penetration,

one of which would be enough to satisfy both of us.

With the help of the goddess of love,

you and I can explore the options and make our choice.

I'll be happy to follow your lead.

The approaches to your garden are sweet and grassy.

There's no need to deny us the delights on this side of your gate.

You can trust me to linger and respect your wishes.


'Such things I said, then laid the virgin

upon a soft garment.

among the blossoming flowers.

She restrained me out of fear,

until I gently caressed her breasts,

then spread her lips,

revealing the tender flesh

at her sweet vulnerability.

I kept my word and did not force her.

Touching and holding her shapely body

was enough to bring release.

My juices grazed her still-virgin hair.'"

Elle asked, "Do you prefer your women young or ripe? Does your delusion that I'm young work for me or against me?"

"I see you as both, at once, like a double exposure in a photo print. But whatever age you are, you're perfect," he replied.


About the Creator

Richard Seltzer

Richard now writes fulltime. He used to publish public domain ebooks and worked for Digital Equipment as "Internet Evangelist." He graduated from Yale where he had creative writing courses with Robert Penn Warren and Joseph Heller.

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