It’s On the Sillybos: The Birth of the Book Title

Anyone who has ever written a book, article, course advertisement, blogpost, or conference paper knows the mental agony that accompanies the completion of this task. It is not enough to write a great book; we must next sell our work with a clever title. We are told that “sexy” titles lure the elusive reader, student, or conference participant to our work. It is perhaps comforting to know that writers in Greco-Roman antiquity underwent the same mental anguish when attempting to title their own works.

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Late antique (300-500 CE) copper chariot mount with three men reading. Image via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

A great deal of knowledge about titling anxiety comes from Ovid. The Augustan era poet revealed how books could visibly stand apart from others on the scroll shelf or bucket (Tr. 1.1.7): ‘nec titulus minio, nec cedro charta notetur ‘ (“Your titulus will not be marked in red, nor your writing surface with cedar oil”). Red lettering on a label was one way to make your work stand out, as was the use of yellow parchment rubbed smooth with a pumice.

Romans sometimes called the tag that protruded from the bottom of a papyrus an ‘index’, and such a tag usually included the name of the author (Livy 38.56.6). One could also call this little tag a titulus (“small inscription”)–from which we get the word “title.” As Ovid stated in the beginning of his Remedia Amoris: ‘legerat huius Amor titulum nomenque libelli ‘ (“Love read the titulus and name of (this) little book”). Yet not all of his works had a title, it seems. The Amores of Ovid were  simply known as the Liber sine titulo (“Book without a name”) to many medieval scribes, either because the title had been lost altogether or had purposefully been omitted by the author. Ovid and other rough contemporaries such as Cicero show that the practice of titling was common by the first century BCE, but where did the practice come from?

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The beginning of a 12th c. edition of Ovid’s Amores: ‘Incipit Ovidi[us] sine titulo…’ (Ovid begins without a title…’ (Hs. 329 from the Die digitale Landesbibliothek Oberösterreich)
Titles were not common in Athens during the 5th c. BCE. They had only just come about, mainly as a part of Attic drama competitions. Every entry needed a title to be referred to. These plays were often referred to simply by their opening lines, but alternately could have their own title–as Aristophanes refers directly to his play Knights (Nub. 554). The expert on this subject, Nicholas Horsfall, notes: “The competitive element is also present, though less strongly, at Rome and here too any competition presupposes at least a substantial degree of unambiguous nomenclature” (1981: 104). Due to competitions, dramatic works almost always had to include a title, but other writers also put a great deal of thought into what to call their writing. At the end of a papyrus or parchment scroll would sometimes be placed a hanging tag called a σίλλυβος (sillybos) which transmitted this title and oftentimes the author of the work.

A parchment sillybos tag attached to a 1st or 2nd c. copy of Sophron’s Mimes on Women (P. Oxy. II 301).

As ancient historian Jocelyn Penny Small has pointed out quite deftly, books today always have a title, but the utility of this practice was not always readily apparent to those in antiquity (2015: 29). As she says, when you have 1 book in your possession, you can simply call it “The Book” (e.g., The Bible), but if you have two books, you can refer to it in a few ways:

  1. By number
  2. By author
  3. By subject
  4. By the opening words (a incipit) or the end (a colophon)
  5. Combination of one or more of these

We see numeric titling in the books of the Bible quite frequently. The names for the Hebrew books of the Bible usually uses the first significant word of each book as the title. However, the first five books of the Bible, called the Pentateuch (Greek πεντάτευχος, Latin Pentateuchus meaning “five scrolls”: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deutoronomy) is perhaps called this because it was held within 5 scroll boxes. Alternately, many New Testament books are named after the supposed author. You could even refer to a book simply by the main characters present in the story.

What it is important to see is that works oftentimes did not have just one title they were referred to with.  Plato’s Phaedo was also referred to as On the Soul, and it appears that many philosophical dialogues also came with alternative titles when catalogued by others. Consequently, the modern habit of presenting an alternative title (often following a colon) perhaps has roots in an ancient habit. Suddenly Peter George’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) makes a little more sense. With so many titles floating around, why not present a couple to your reader?

A late 2nd or early 3rd c. CE list of titles and incipits for Hyperides’ speeches (P. Oxy. 47.3360) Image via the Sackler Library, Oxford. 

Callimachus (c.310-240 BCE) was present at the Library of Alexandria and was highly influential within the Ptolemaic court in the mid 3rd century BCE when he wrote his Πίνακες (“Tables”), essentially a library catalogue of select holdings at the Library of Alexandria in 120 books (Weber 2011: 231). The full title of this work was actually ‘Πίνακες τῶνἐν πάσῃ παιδείᾳ διαλαμψάντων, καὶ ὧν συνέγραψαν'(Tables of persons eminent in every branch of learning, together with a list of their writings). Catchy title, don’t you think? Each of the works he listed had the title and also the incipit–the beginning of the text.

In addition to organizing titles at the library, Callimachus began to pare down works and to provide a kind of canon for future readers. Title lists such as his were not comprehensive, but rather an anthology or greatest hits album. These lists often inform us of what Greco-Romans called various works that are now lost to us, and even help us to amend nickname titles or those given to texts by medieval scribes.

I will follow this post up with another about how medieval and Renaissance scribes made up or renamed ancient works, but I wanted to focus today more on the classical titling of texts and how this had an effect on the construction and materiality of the text itself. For instance, much like earlier scrolls and codices, medieval manuscripts often did not include a title page at all. Because most people had only a few books, they did not need to have an extensive page dedicated to explaining its contents. Many simply relied on the incipit. It was this incipit, presented at the beginning of a text, that functioned to introduce the reader to the contents of the manuscript. It was only with the coming of the printing press in the mid 15th century and the vast multiplication of texts that people began to more frequently insert a title page for a text. However, such pages simply made little sense when reading a scroll, which would often have a tag, perhaps a title in the middle, left hand margin, and an incipit as soon as one opened it.

As this brief post has at least partially attempted to explain, titles first came about in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean as a result of Attic literary competitions. In other words, they are a product of an ἀγωνία (“a competitive struggle”)–from whence we get the word “agony”–that later became just one way of organizing information when libraries began to grow with more and more texts and to use cataloging techniques. The agony and the ecstasy of titling a work is that it is an important aspect and can indeed lure the listener, student, or reader. One thing to keep in mind when titling your own work is that, at least in antiquity, the author often lost control of what their writings would be called in the future, even if it was published on a sillybos. 

Not long ago, I made a flowchart to help those titling conference papers.





6 thoughts on “It’s On the Sillybos: The Birth of the Book Title

Add yours

  1. Your blog is so fascinating! It always gives me new information to marvel at in the mornings. Thanks 🙂

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