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Cicero and the etymology of 'syllabus'


Shortly after returning from exile in 58, Cicero sent a brief note to Atticus with the sole purpose of requesting his friend’s assistance in arranging his library. This letter (Att. 4.4), and a few others that followed it, became a source of some conjectures about the specifics of bookmaking in classical Rome and Greece, as well as the pertaining terminology. It is difficult to imagine a monograph or even an article on ancient libraries that omits this episode – quite rightly so, but nevertheless there are some elements of contemporaneous cultural context that should be considered in this connection.

The wording of Cicero’s request addressed to Atticus bears very strong references to the social order of the time. It may be noted how Marcus Tullius distances himself from the actual task of renovating his personal library. It was Tyrannio, a freedman, who was responsible for the arranging (dissignatio) of the surviving volumes (Cicero does not give us an impression of his own involvement in this process). Librariolus¸ the general term, used by Cicero for those employed by Atticus in his book publishing business, is a characteristically diminutive form of librarius, suitable for a slave and reminiscent of the contemptuous Graeculus. Atticus’ slaves are expected to perform their job under Tyrannio’s supervision, and Cicero once again does not imply his own possible involvement or his guiding role. This detachment, cultural reasons for which had been suggested above, may very well resonate in the final part of Cicero’s request: iisque imperes ut sumant membranulam ex qua indices fiant, quos vos Graeci, ut opinor, sittÚbaj appellatis. Through this circuitous tone Cicero either wants to create an impression that for him the knowledge of specific terminology is duly and understandably superfluous or he indeed has some doubts as to how one calls the little slips of parchment that were at times attached to papyrus rolls. Either way, Cicero is not worried about using a wrong Greek word, considering that he hardly lacked a specialist with whom he might have consulted (Tyrannio, for instance, certainly would have been of assistance). A Roman aristocrat simply could afford not to care much about the terminology of any given craft. It is ironic, that Cicero’s letters became the primary evidence for this particular Greek term, shrouded in orthographic uncertainty (s…lluboj or sittÚbai?).[1] Although a mere scribal error is likely responsible for the confusion, the varying spellings in Att. 4.4a , 4.5.3 and 4.8.2 may in fact ascend to Cicero’s manuscripts, with Cicero’s carelessness being the reason. The disregard for the social context may have contributed to the subsequent coining of the term syllabus in humanist Latin and some modern European languages. Cicero, a figure of great literary authority, was presumed to be a trustworthy witness for the Greek word not attested in other classical writers (at least not in the form found in the Medicean manuscript, which in 1470 was used for the editio prima). The word was suitably reinterpreted to denote any kind of a concise summary or list of subdivisions in a text. In the atmosphere of enthusiasm for the recent advances in book production, it only seemed proper that an author would be well versed in the terminology of the trade that made distribution of his works possible.

[1] H.G. Liddell and R. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (rev. H.S. Jones and R. McKenzie, rev. supp. by P.G.W. Glare), (Oxford, 1996), 1599.

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