Alternate History

Roman Printing

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See also: List of Althists

A lead pipe manufacturer during the end of the civil wars between Caesar and Pompey realizes that he can improve and vary his stamps of ownership and manufacture by devising individual letters and putting them together to form different patterns. News of this man’s successful enterprise eventually reaches Augustus, who steals the idea and reapplies it to his literary propaganda efforts. Since everything Augustan must have its basis in the past, printing is restricted to texts of traditional topics and deliberately associated with the (lost) Twelve Tables of Roman law. Soon the technology is known throughout the Empire. The Romans and Greeks eagerly adopt the practice, but many other nations regard this innovation as an ‘imperial’ matter. The Christians and the Jews, in particular, regard printing as a tool of the oppressor and therefore continue to copy their texts by hand. Printing is a state monopoly and inaccessible to most Christians. Since the imperial government holds a monopoly on printing, the new technology does not raise literacy levels or spread book knowledge further a-field to any great degree. Official monuments, however, are more accurately transcribed.

When Christianity finally becomes legal in 312, the Word of God begins to be printed. The Arians and the Nicenes use this technology in their war over the nature of Christ, while the Donatists reject the practice as ungodly. Constantine approves official 'Christian' Greek and Latin fonts.

Timeline - adoption of the technology

In this variant there is a more general spread of the technology.

Augustus, on learning of the new technology, decided to make use of it, and co-opts the inventor to work for him. There are some immediately obvious uses for the new technology, for example 'standard opening texts' for official documents. Political candidates and enterprising tradespersons quickly see one possibility and, within a very short time walls are covered in what are initially fairly crude stamped messages, that are the equivalent of much later fly-posting. After some legislation on the subject a certain limited usage arises - signage, noticeboards, maps, 'the laws of the locality' etc.

The main problem is quickly realised to be the bottleneck caused by a suitable medium on which to print - only a limited supply of papyrus is available: various other materials are tried, with varying effectiveness. Various groups see the advantages of having a large supply of papyrus-equivalent - among others merchants considering advertising, scholars the possibility of distributing copies of their books, librarians of gaining additional volumes, and politicians and others seeking to promote their presence. Long distance trade routes yield some knowledge of a material called 'paper' which sounds suitable and is investigated.

Eventually means of making 'paper' are developed and printshops aimed at official, mercantile and other markets emerge. New trades such as 'printmaker', 'print seller' and 'news sheet vendor' emerge. Prints of the Emperor became common in most households - followed by other images and books. The new technology was adapted to other scripts - and led to the adoption of Demotic as a formal method of writing in Egypt.

The resulting spread of literacy and 'cheap publications' leads to discussions among the intelligensia about the 'dumbing-down' of literature - mainly by those whose writings do not sell. Libraries and other bodies, however, use the new technology to extend their collections, and sell 'certified copies' of their works to scholars.

The development of Printing in Europe in the later Roman Empire

Printing aided the bureaucratisation of the Roman Empire as edicts could be dispatched in great numbers: with the increasingly heavy fiscal burden on the population resentment at the perceived excesses of the centre grew, leading to revolts and low level disruption. Unofficial printing developed apace, including populist publications and 'exposes' of the behaviour of members of the upper classes and of sects etc, caused much annoyance to Roman officials. Elements of what in the 20th Century OTL would be called nationalism, sometimes culturally or religiously defined, began to develop among various populations.

Some of the tribes of the 'barbarians' learned printing skills - and both Alaric and Atilla used the technology to promote their causes among the Roman populations.

As in OTL in later periods the influence of printed matter could extend far beyond the literate - those of the working classes who had the skill could read aloud to illiterate colleagues.

See also

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