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Ancient note taking as a first step in the creative process

Raffaella Cribiore


This paper will inquire into ancient note taking as a practice that allows us to reconstruct to some degree the working methods of ancient students, authors, and rhetors. I will approach this issue in a twofold manner. The literary and documentary papyri from Greek and Roman Egypt offer some examples of working drafts which contain notes and corrections that are similar to the genetic papers of modern authors. Of these, I will concentrate on P.Lit.Lond. 51; P.Oxy. LIV 3724; P.Koln. VI 250, and will examine a list of incipits in a papyrus from Michigan (Borges and Sampson 2012). Notes and memoranda of lawyers also survive, which show how advocates applied their rhetorical education and used brief aides memoires in court (e.g., P.Col. VII 174). The second part of the paper will provide some context for these papyri and consider the remarks of some ancient authors concerning process of genesis (though their own notes and drafts are irretrievably lost).

Note taking was an essential skill in the schools of sophists and philosophers where much instruction was oral. Students made notes at Quintilian’s lectures and recorded admired passages (1 pr. 7; 2.11.7, and cf. Lib. 3.16-17). Such notes could be worked up into finished treatises (Quint. 3.6.59). In the absence of textbooks , the students of philosophers regarded the taking of lecture notes as a serious obligation (cf. Lu Herm. 2.9; Philostratus, Vita Apoll. 1.19).) In late antiquity, teachers of philosophy in the Aristotelian and Platonist schools lectured from their own notes, written down or memorized. They did not, however, always give the same version of a lecture on the same topic. Students wrote notes ἀπὸ φωνῆς, from the living voice of their teachers, and produced various, differing written records that sometimes were published under their own names without objections from their teachers (Praechter 1990; Sorabji 1990; Schoeler and Montgomery 2006; cf., however, the negative reaction of Quintilian).

Several authors allow us a glimpse of their creative process. Among them, Plato (Theaetetus 143), Pliny the Younger (Ep. 3.5.7-17, 7.12.3, 17.5, 20.1-2) Gellius (Pr. 1-3, 1.7.18; 15.14; 17.21.50) and Lucian (Hist. 48) show how notes were part of their preliminary work. Travelers who intended to produce written accounts of their journeys must have made extensive notes. Pausanias must have recorded observations and inscriptions as he travelled, before shaping them in the Periegesis (Habicht 1985). Travelling in Egypt, Aristides dictated notes on various monuments to his slaves but could not use them because they were lost (Or. 36.1). He also dictated notes of his dreams to slaves when he could not record them in his own hand but many of these were also lost (Or. 48.2).

The barristers’ notes that survive in the papyri correspond to some degree to the notes that ancient orators brought with them when delivering their speeches in court and at oratorical displays. This practice, which is attested by visual and literary evidence, has been insufficiently investigated. From Demosthenes to Libanius (Or. 1.71; 232) orators could partly rely on writing during oral delivery (cf. also Quintilian 10.7.30-32 and Seneca the Elder, Contr. Pr. 3.6). Pleaders wrote out notes before speaking and some of these were later collected in book form.

In conclusion, the process of note taking in antiquity was often part of the initial mechanism of the genesis of a text. In schools jotting down notes was an indispensable practice because of the frequent lack of books. Students created their own books from lectures. Notes, however, also had another function. They served to prompt orators and advocates and referred to an already existing work. After delivery, however, orators might produce a differing version of their texts for publication. 

Session/Panel Title

The Genesis of the Ancient Text: New Approaches

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