Tiron’s Press

4 Nov

Why was it that in the year 122 A.D., the Roman Emperor Hadrian fired his personal secretary? The latter, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, had already written lives of Julius Caesar and Augustus. He went on to finish biographies of the eleven emperors from Augustus to Domitian. But the mystery of his break with Hadrian has never been solved until the uncovering of the role of a publisher named Tiron in the affair. It was the latter who sought out the historian as an author with whom he wished to do business. Tiron therefore served as the pivot of the ruination of the government career of the writer named Suetonius. The tale of the latter’s dismissal remained hidden and buried in his own lifetime.

The news columns in the Roman Forum were the location where the publisher named Tiron fell into serious trouble. A large crowd of individuals stood in front of the tall white boards, reading the public notices of the day’s deeds and events. People continually approached and departed after learning what had been recently posted there. A pair of city officials were in charge of bringing in new boards and setting them against the permanent pillars. Court decisions, police cases, official edicts, and records of Senate debates appeared here. Births, deaths, fires, and treasury business were described, along with gossip and informal stories of human interest. This was the place where Romans found out about public and private scandal. The future schedules of theaters and the public circus was available on the boards.

Suetonius was a constant, habitual reader of the news albums that were posted. He made use of the files of copies kept at the public records office when he was writing about the lives of past emperors and important figures. What better historical source existed in Rome? Where else could credible truth about events be found?

One day, a stranger suddenly spoke to the historian who was Hadrian’s secretary. He was a thin young man in a gray tunic writing down news items with a stylus onto a wax tablet.

“You are Suetonius, the imperial scribe, I believe?”

The fat writer in a white toga turned about and looked into a dark, yellowish face. Sea blue eyes seemed to smile at him, with energetic confidence in them. He impressed the emperor’s assistant at first glance.

“Let me introduce myself, sir. I am Tiron, publisher of books of literary worth. It is possible that we share common interests that may benefit should we agree to work together. Would you like to hear what I am able to offer you?”

Suetonius stared for a time at the younger man, unsure what to say to him.

“Let me treat you at some nearby tavern. I have found that a congenial place to discuss literary  matters,” said Tiron, still smiling. “I promise that you will find what I tell you to be interesting.”

The pair walked off from the news boards together, the writer uncertain what might result from talking with this bold new acquaintance who claimed to be a publisher.

Opposite each other at a thermopolion table, the two men drank calda wine and introduced each other.

“I must confess that I am not a native of Rome,” began Tiron. “Alexandria is my city of birth, and my original language happens to be Greek. But I know how deeply Emperor Hadrian loves our Hellenic literature and culture. My natural assumption is that you share his passion for all things Greek. That is an enthusiasm that continues to sweep the minds of Romans.”

“All of us have learned much from the Greeks and owe them our gratitude,” declared Suetonius. “The Greek nation is older than the Romans. You still have much to teach us.”

“But the center of the world is now here in Rome. This metropolis has become the hearth of creation and inspiration. That is why I became a publisher in this universal capital. What would you say if I told you that there is a method to transcend the limitations set by the papyrus rolls now in common use in making books? I speak of a new, better product, the codex.”

Suetonius grinned. “I am familiar with those flat, open books,” he said. “Our merchants use them to keep accounts. They refer to them as business ledgers.”

“What if papyrus rolls were broken up and glued into volumes of codex pages? Lengthy narratives could be offered in a single, thick book then.”

“But I can imagine that the copying of such manuscripts would be difficult and expensive,” mused the historian.

Tiron, bending his head forward, lowered his voice to a whisper.

“There is a way of making many copies of a page at once, without endless handwriting of separate manuscripts. It can be accomplished very cheaply.”

Suetonius now had a puzzled look. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“I have a new device that can produce the separate sheets for a codex type of book. Would you like to accompany me and see how it operates?”

“Yes, of course,” answered th writer with eagerness.

The two of them made arrangements for Suetonius to visit the workshop where the young publisher kept his invention and was testing its potential uses.

Timon’s shop with papyrus rolls for sale was located on Vicus Tuscus, south of the Forum and near the Circus Maximus. His workroom was in the rear, behind the displays and storage area.

Suetonius was surprised to see in the middle of the darkened room what appeared to be a large wine or olive press. A wooden beam, anchored to the edge of a barrel, offered a lever that helped concentrate and focus the force of applied pressure. A mechanism similar to a large screw hung down from this lever.

Timon asked his guest to sit down on a stool and watch his demonstration of the press device.

He then picked up from a table a small metal cube the size of a thumb and handed it to his new acquaintance. The writer examined it, finding one face indented with a figure that resembled the first letter of the Greek and the Latin alphabet, an A.

“The cube, as you can see, is like the datum that players throw when they gamble with dice,” said the inventor.

“What is it made of?” asked the writer, Suetonius.

“A Greek plumbarius made these with all the letters of the alphabet for me in Alexandria. It contains the finest lead produced in the East.”

“Of what possible use is it?”

Tiron grinned with satisfaction. “If I coat it with ink, my press can then make a clear impression of that letter inscribed upon it onto either papyrus or parchment. A line of such data will then yield a line of script. I have succeeded in imprinting whole pages of written text that way. The mechanism can thus become the creator of written material that is readable. Each time that the screw is lowered and tightened, a new copy is produced. Let me demonstrate how it operates.”

Working with energetic speed, Tiron soon had a papyrus sheet full of inked characters to show his guest.The words and ideas on the page were completely comprehensible to Suetonius as he perused the printed text. The latter was clearer than even the best handwritten manuscript.

The historian turned to Timon with an expression of delight on his face.

“This is a very valuable press when the lead cubes are used under it. Yes, I aim to explore the possibilities of what you have shown me today, my good man.”

Thus began a partnership between the writer and the printer-publisher that contained the promise of future fortune and success.

Though far away in Britain, re-organizing the province and building his northern Wall, the Emperor Hadrian still had eyes and ears that operated for him back in Rome. A fervent lover of everything Greek, he seemed to have a secret distaste for the great imperial capital of Rome.

Hadrian was continually informed of conditions back in the metropolis through reports from his Praetorian Guards and their secret agents in the city, the quaestionarii.

A subject of enormous interest to the Emperor was the actions of his palace secretary, Suetonius.

What was he thinking and writing? What was the nature of his new association with a Greek publisher?  Why was Suetonius bringing his manuscripts to the shop of this foreigner?

A team of three secret agents was assigned the task of breaking into the shop at night and uncovering what it was that the writer and the Greek publisher were up to.

The intruders succeeded in finding several compositions by Suetonius in a box lying on a table.

They decided to take away with them the manuscript that had a provocative title to it.

These secret frumentarii were proud of what they had seized for the eyes of their ruler.

“The Lives of Famous Harlots” appeared to have in it material demanding the attention of the state officials all the way up to the Emperor.

The stolen manuscript was returned to its box in the publisher’s workshop the night following the break-in. Neither Timon nor Suetonius noticed that it was missing for that one day.

A decision by the pair of what to print using the press for an initial codex book had to be made so that the enterprise could advance forward. Each of the partners had his own personal opinion about what should be chosen.

“You know what my choice is,” said the historian. “It will hold great interest among the reading public, no doubt about that.”

Timon, having studied several unpublished works by the writer, had an opinion of his own.

“You should choose one of your three new biographies: either about Caligula, Nero, or Claudius. That must be the subject of the first printed codex. It will be a safer subject than your work on the famous Roman whores of the past. The last work is too salacious, even though it deals only with previous times and earlier generations.” Suetonius gave him a smirking grin.

“Not all of the women are dead,” muttered the historian.

“What do you mean?” asked the perplexed Timon.

“There is a famous lady whom I describe with a false name, a sort of obvious mask.”

“Do I know who she is?” demanded the troubled Tiron.

Suetonius laughed lightly. “Everyone in Rome should be able to recognize who that character is.”

Timon thought quickly. “You cannot mean…”

“I do,” nodded the writer. “I certainly do.”

“Very well,” said the inventor as he surrendered. “We will do it the way that you wish.”

By the time that new commands from the Emperor in Britain arrived in Rome, the first copies had been printed and several sales completed in the front of the shop.

Suetonius was soon informed by the Praetorian Prefect that he had been fired from the post of palace secretary to Hadrian. Unemployment was his punishment for insult to the Emperor’s wife by presenting her as one of Rome’s famed harlots.

But the more terrible fate was that decided upon for the publisher of the insulting work.

The city vigiles, watching the neighborhood overnight, had instructions not to interfere with the setting of a fire on a certain street, at a particular shop.

Tiron had gone to bed in the back room as he always did.

The press that printed on papyrus was only a few feet away from him. It was the last thing he saw as he lay down and covered himself with a blanket.

Did Tiron dream that night of the future of the invention he had brought to Rome?

Fire destroyed both him and the printing press that fateful night.

What could have been was lost for the age, the city, and Roman civilization.

Mechanical printing by Tiron was swiftly forgotten by everyone.


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