We all know what an ancient scroll should look like. Most of us haven’t actually seen a scroll from the first century AD, but we know what they look like in movies and stage productions. They should look something like a rolled up cylinder of paper with attractive wooden knobs poking out at either end.
There, like that. These were the prop scrolls used in the movies “Alexander” and “Agora”. Nothing screams ancient and legitimate like wooden handle thingies. Nothing could be more genuinely scroll-like. It’s beautiful, it’s antiquated. You can just imagine Julius Caesar casually picking one of these up and reading it with a British accent.
But I’ve recently been surprised by the lack of wooden knobs in artistic evidence from the Roman Empire.
Where are all the handle thingies?
Could we have been overestimating the prevalence of cool-looking-rolling-pin-shaped-sticks this whole time?
First up, let’s take a good look at carbonised scrolls from the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum.
These scrolls were charred and preserved during the AD 79 eruption of Vesuvius. A small number of wooden artifacts have survived from Herculaneum, and one would expect that if the conditions of preservation were good enough to save the papyrus, they would probably preserve a wooden handle within the scroll too. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any indication of a charred stump protruding from these scrolls. The scrolls on the right are a little hard to make out, but the end of each scroll is flattish and has a tiny hole. The hole is so small that it seems to be just a tiny space left in the centre of a large amount of tightly rolled up papyrus. This suggests that the scrolls unearthed from the Villa of Papyri didn’t have wooden handles attached to them.
Now look carefully at the scroll case (known as a capsa) at the base of this statue of Sophocles:
The scrolls in this capsa are all the same standard width, and they all finish with flat ends. This meant that they stood perfectly upright at exactly the same height in this scroll case. The scroll case also came with a flat lid, which would fit snugly over these scrolls. But imagine if the scrolls had handles like the movie props. If the Romans tried to neatly stack those scrolls like this, having a doorknob shaped stick protruding from either end would hamper the scroll from standing upright. Unless, of course, the wooden end was flat and the same diameter as the scroll. But not only would that chunky handle increase the weight of the scroll, it would also mean that every one of your scrolls needed to have the same standard wooden handles or they would poke up into the lid of the scroll case at uneven heights.
Perhaps the most elegant solution was the most mundane. Since the papyrus was already cut to a standard width, all that was necessary was to design a scroll case just slightly taller than the height of an upright scroll; and that way, all handle-less scrolls would fit snugly into the capsa with a flat lid over the top. No fuss, no worries. And it would be lighter to travel around with, too.
The trend seems to hold true in pretty much all other classical sculptures I’ve seen:
The fanciest imperial statuary didn’t showcase any fancier form of scroll. Roman Emperors certainly didn’t mind being pictured with scrolls of the regular, handle-less type.
The handle-less scrolls were also prominent in Byzantine art:
But let’s not leave it off there. Let’s take this to another art medium. This survey wouldn’t be complete without a good look through Pompeiian frescoes.
‘Proclus and his wife’ has got to be my favourite ancient couple picture. She’s writing on a wax tablet, and he’s holding a scroll. And if you look closely, the scroll has a red tag attached to it, which probably served as an identification marker. But as to our original investigation, there is no sign of any handle sticking out of the top of that scroll.
Now here’s a beautiful still life, and you can see more writing tablets. On the far left there’s a reed pen, and a tiny little pewter tankard of ink. I can see another identification tag on this scroll. But there’s not a hint of rolling pin handles.
The detail in this painting is incredible; the words on the scroll are almost legible. It doesn’t show any handles, though, only the ragged edges of worn-out papyrus.
And there weren’t any handles sticking out of the two scrolls painted on the wall of the Villa of Mysteries, either.
But finally, I thought I saw something that looked like a handle:
This was the only fresco I could find which might depict a scroll with a handle, though it is a little unclear. In high resolution, that golden brown blob at the edge of the scroll kind of resembles a chip in the wall surface. The other end of the papyrus doesn’t seem to have quite the same handle on it, but this might simply be a type of scroll where only the inner endpoint of the roll has a wooden rod attached to it. In any case, this is the nearest indication that Romans might have attached wooden rods to their scrolls – at least as far as I can gather from ancient art.
But then where did our idea of Greek and Roman scroll handles come from?
I can only guess. I’m fairly confident that the image of handled scrolls didn’t arise from Medieval representations:
If you ignore the strange hand positions, it’s clear that the scroll that St. Mark is writing on here had no rolling-pin-shaped handles.
My impression is that our current perception comes from our greater visual familiarity with a different tradition: the Jewish Torah scrolls.
These scrolls are enormous, beautiful, sacred, precious, and visually arresting. They are also probably the only scrolls which are still in use as texts to be read aloud, which was the original function of the scroll.
Unlike the majority of Greco-Roman scrolls, these were built to stay in one location: the synagogue. So it wouldn’t matter that the wooden handles were cumbersome for travel, or that you couldn’t stuff these scrolls into a suitcase with a dozen other assorted scrolls. The Torah demanded much greater reverence than what was given to profane works. So it wasn’t out of place for these scrolls to have their own handles.
My contention is that through religious education – whether by having a Jewish upbringing, attending a Sunday school lesson on the Torah, or doing a school project on Jewish religion – our society has gradually become more familiar with the image of this type of scroll than of the Greco-Roman scrolls used for most literary purposes before the invention of codices. And we have now conflated the two.
Once the Torah-type had become the familiar image of the scroll, it would not have been too difficult to simplify and generalise the form, working on the assumption that Greco-Roman scrolls were merely smaller versions of the Torah scrolls.
I will admit, though. I am quite sad to have found that the Greeks and Romans generally didn’t make much use of attractive polished wooden handles on their scrolls. Perhaps those movie reproduction scrolls will never quite look the same for me.