Johns Hopkins University Press

This article traces how the entomological bookworm shaped the historical practices, poetics, and literary discourse of Greco-Roman book culture in the early imperial period. I argue that attending to the materiality of bookworms illuminates another realm of poetics and rhetoric around reading (and non-reading), with special focus on Ovid’s exile poetry and several Greek epigrams from the Garland of Philip. Building a bridge from the methodology of book history to literary criticism and metaphor, I ultimately show how the bookworm participates in the discursive construction and stigmatization of a certain kind of inept, pedantic reader.

People in antiquity knew that physical books faced many perils: fire, mice, malignant readers, plagiarists, cooks, fishmongers, the jaws of time. This article seeks to understand how a certain illiterate and destructive consumer of books—the insect known in English as the “bookworm”—shaped the historical practices, poetics, and literary discourse of Greco-Roman book culture in the early imperial period. Bookworms let us peer into the “shelf-life” of books and imagine what happens to them in the dark when they are not being read, which is how most books spend the majority of their lives. I will argue that attending to how bookworms operate in the material circumstances of ancient book practice illuminates another realm of poetics and rhetoric around reading (and non-reading) within the more clearly demonstrated discourse of ancient book culture, taking as my primary examples a passage from Ovid’s exile poetry (Epistula ex Ponto 1.67–74) and several Greek epigrams from the first-century ce Garland of Philip. Building a bridge from a materially specific historical reality to the realm of literary criticism and metaphor, I will show how the bookworm comes to participate in the ancient discursive construction and stigmatization of a certain kind of inept, pedantic reader.

Recent scholarship has attempted to understand reading not as an isolated cognitive process (e.g., silent or oral) but rather as a more dynamic, social event. For example, in his study on elite reading communities in the high empire, William Johnson characterizes reading as “the negotiated construction of meaning within a particular sociocultural context” (2010.12). Yet as the lens of book history shows, reading is just one among a number of practices to which material texts may be put (Price 2012).1 Book historian [End Page 1] Leah Price observes that “once books are placed in the hands of owners who recognize neither their language nor even their alphabet, illegibility throws their material attributes into relief. As with any purloined letter, we come to look at the book-object only once cultural difference prevents us from seeing through it” (Price 2006.11). By virtue of being a non-reader, the bookworm renders legible a more capacious and materially sensitive chapter in the discursive representation of books and readers in antiquity.2 These insects let us probe the ways that texts as objects not to be read could nonetheless convey meaning to their users, reminding us of the material and cultural contingency of all modes of reading.3

One premise of this article, then, is that it is wrong to take ideal literary representations of books and readers as objective, straightforward evidence for how Greeks and Romans read in practice and how they thought about books. Alessandro Barchiesi describes this mistake as “the search for the perfect book,” pointing out how scholars have taken poetic, authorial representations of the ideal libellus as sufficient for understanding the material reality of books and reading (Barchiesi 2005).4 I thus begin by examining the material circumstances of the bookworm—a decidedly unideal, non-reading user of texts. I suggest that these material findings open up a different perspective on the materiality that goes into forming the poetic imagery and metaphors that figure (imperfect) books and (bad) readers. Such an approach enables us to see how the bookworm becomes mobilized as a poetic figure that secures distinctions between good readers and their not so good counterparts. [End Page 2]


“A most destructive Enemy of books has been the bookworm,” writes William Blades in his Enemies of Books (1888.68). Destructive, yes, but I suggest that the bookworm gains special notoriety among bibliophiles because it is an evanescent, anonymous consumer of books, plying its trade in the dark when no one else is looking. That is, the bookworm is a bibliographical phenomenon that book users encounter largely through its mysterious traces. Galen, for example, reports that thetas can be mistaken for omicrons if an insect has eaten out (ἐκφαγούσης) part of the letter.5 What Galen sees is the negative space of the insect’s trace, rather than the culprit itself. The bookworm’s clandestine behavior and vermiculate traces may explain the medley of Greek and Latin terms used to denote book-damaging insects. In Latin, tinea, which the OLD defines as “a larva of moth, beetle, etc. grub, maggot (esp. as destructive of clothes, books, and other materials)” and blatta, “a name applied to various insects, e.g., cockroach, clothes-moth, book-worm.” In Greek, there is σής (“clothes-moth”), σίλφη (later, τίλφη) (“cockroach”), and μυία (“fly”).6

It is likely that it is the larvae of these various insects that munch their way through books, leaving at nature’s call to reproduce. This is what evolutionary biologist Stephen Blair Hedges found in a 2013 study that used early modern woodcuts to trace the biogeographic history of two species of invasive wood-boring beetles: anobium punctatum (the common furniture beetle; Figure 1) and oligomerus ptilinoides (the Mediterranean furniture beetle). Hedges observed two kinds of wormholes: lines that are caused by larvae following the grain of the wood, and round exit holes made by beetles when they emerge as adults from pupation and leave the wood to reproduce (Hedges 2013.2). “Worm” thus refers to the negative vermicu-late space, as well as the larval status of the insect (whether fly, moth, or beetle) that produces it. As I discuss in greater detail below, this negative space is more likely to be identified as a wormhole if an author wants to cast aspersions on the negligence or ignorance of the book user.

The bookworm pursues a well balanced diet. While Blades supposes that the bookworm played little to no role in the textual landscape [End Page 3]

Fig. 1. “The bookworm” in
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Fig. 1.

“The bookworm” in Blades 1888

of the middle ages, writing that “the monks, who were the chief makers as well as the custodians of books . . . had no fear of the bookworm before their eyes, for, ravenous as he is and was, he loves not parchment” (Blades 1888.63), material and literary evidence attests otherwise. Bookworms would happily go after parchment, animal skin, and the glues used [End Page 4]

Fig. 2. Photograph courtesy of the British Library:
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Fig. 2.

Photograph courtesy of the British Library:

in binding.7 Vitruvius (de Arch. 5.12.7) and Pliny the Elder (NH 16.197) note that these creatures like to consume wood materials and products.8 The papyrus bookroll was also a food item of choice, according to Horace, Ovid, Martial, Pliny the Elder, and Lucian.9 Papyrological evidence supports these literary witnesses. For example, P.Fam.Tebt. 15—a papyrus from Roman Egypt and part of the larger “Family Archive from Tebtunis,” dated to 114 ce—records a famous dispute about the damage incurred to a certain archive, reporting that some of its papyrus documents had been σητοβρότα, “worm-eaten” (P.Fam.Tebt. 15.36).10 The first-century ce PLond 256 (Figure 2)—a miscellaneous collection of public and personal [End Page 5] documents, bound in scroll form and recycled as the backing for oratorical school exercises—shows clear traces of bookworm activity.11

Ancient sources often explain the potential for worm life through the intersection of several negative conditions that contribute to rot. One prime cause is humidity. This is why Vitruvius recommends that libraries face to the east: “For those that face the south and west, books are damaged by worms and dampness, since damp winds arise and breed and nourish worms and destroy the rolls with mold by diffusing moist air” (de Arch. 6.4.1).12 Another important catalyst of rot is neglect (situs). Upon returning from Greece, Aulus Gellius encounters some books laid out for sale in the harbor at Brundisium: they are “filthy from long neglect (‘ex diutino situ squalebant’), in bad condition and unsightly” (NA 9.4).13 These volumina may not have contained bookworms, but bookworms do appear in tandem with neglect in Statius (Silv. 4.9.10), where Grypus’s libellus is “putrefying as a result of bookworms and neglect” (tineis situque putrem).14

Ancient book users thus could expect to find worm damage in papyrus that had remained untouched by human hands for too long.15 In this regard, an intriguing piece of evidence comes from a third-century ce [End Page 6] letter preserved on papyrus and written by an army doctor (P. Ross. Georg. 3.1). Away from home for an extended period of time, the doctor asks his wife to take his medical treatises (τὰ ἰ[]ατρικὰ βυβλία) out of their θυρίς (a cabinet built into a recess in a wall) and shake them out (ἐκτίναξον) from time to time, “presumably to rid them of dust and larvae.”16 Cedar oil was a well-known remedy to protect timber and books against worms and decay.17 Enslaved laborers were also tasked with rousting worms from books.18 According to Lucian, aristocrats who owned household staff (τοι̑ς οἰκέταις) might beat them for neglecting to take care of books that have become “lodgings for bookworms” (ται̑ς τίλφαις οἰκήσεις).19

This evidence shows that bookworms tend to emerge in a nexus of imagery that associates the creature with decay (caries, putresco, etc.) and disuse (situs). Book users would have viewed worm traces neither as isolated phenomena nor as inevitable, but rather as signs pointing to a larger network of material vulnerability and human neglect. This is not to say, however, that ancient book users understood bookworm damage to be identical to decay and rot. They were attentive to the material specificity of bookworms’ physical traces. Lucian, for example, makes fun of the ignorant book collector for his inability to distinguish between valuable and worthless books (ad Indoct. 1):

ἢ πόθεν γάρ σοι διαγνω̑ναι δυνατόν, τίνα μὲν παλαιὰ καὶ πολλου̑ ἄξια, τίνα δὲ φαυ̑λα καὶ ἄλλως σαπρά, εἰ μὴ τῳ̑ διαβεβρω̑σθαι καὶ κατακεκόφθαι αὐτὰ τεκμαίροιο καὶ συμβούλους τοὺς σέας ἐπὶ τὴν ἐξέτασιν παραλαμβάνοις;

Why, how can you tell what books are old and highly valuable, and what are worthless and simply in wretched repair—unless you judge them by the extent to which [End Page 7] they are eaten into and cut up, calling the bookworms into counsel to settle the question?20

The phonetically resonant verbs διαβεβρω̑σθαι and κατακεκόφθαι invoke the holes that we saw bored in PLond 256, indicating that Lucian was sensitive to the choppy appearance of wormholes.21 While Latin and Greek speakers use various words to describe the insects that consume books, the evidence shows that these insects overlap both in their textual practices and as connotative terms, tending to emerge from language that associates the creatures with decay, age, and disuse. In particular, the bookworm is tied to practical conditions of book storage, prompting readers and writers to imagine what happens to their books in the dark.


While book users recognized the material threat of worms and desired to roust them from their books, Roman poets preserved these same bookworms in their poetry. Attention to the bookworm gives us access not only to a materially grounded, historically specific aspect of ancient book culture, it also opens a window onto ancient constructions of textual materiality, as well as perceptions and anxieties about books and readers—or, more precisely, books and non-readers. The bookworm, I contend, is imagined as a particularly sinister threat to books, specifically throwing into relief the material contingency of “immortal” verse. A brief comparison with another threat—fire—is instructive. While fire obliterates books, reducing them to ashes, the bookworm poses a different kind of danger.22 The bookworm defaces books, mutilating them bit by bit in a dark space when the material text has ceased to circulate and no longer has (caring) contact with a human reader.23 [End Page 8]

The threatening association of bookworms with gradual decay and defacement rather than utter obliteration is powerfully made in a passage from Ovid’s exile poetry, his first Epistula ex Ponto, issued in 13 ce. Ovid frames this epistolary poem with instructions to the addressee, Brutus, about where this work of his is to be stored. Since there is no place for these “wandering books” in a public library, Ovid exhorts Brutus to keep them in his own private household, perhaps where Ovid’s condemned Ars Amatoria once resided. Ovid’s anxiety about the material survival of his book then shifts to the mental anguish he faces as a result of his exile in Tomis (67–74):

non igitur mirum, si mens mea tabida facta  de nive manantis more liquescit aquae.estur ut occulta vitiata teredine navis,  aequorei scopulos ut cavat unda salis,roditur ut scabra positum rubigine ferrum  conditus ut tineae carpitur ore liber,sic mea perpetuos curarum pectora morsus,  fine quibus nullo conficiantur, habent.

(text Owen 1915)

No wonder, therefore, if my mind, wasting away,melts like water trickling down from snow.It is eaten as a ship is injured by the hidden borer,as the briny sea water hollows out cliffs,as iron, stored away, is gnawed by corroding rust,as a book, when laid away, is grazed on by the mouth  of the bookworm,just so my heart holds the perpetual gnawing of sorrow,for which there is no conclusive end.

Ovid, I suggest, taps into the material specificity of the bookworm to evoke for his readers the psychological trauma of exile. Through these similes, Ovid describes a kind of damage that continually diminishes and defaces physical material, repeatedly invoking the language of biting and consumption (estur, roditur, carpitur, morsus). He compares his mind to [End Page 9] a book that is “laid away” (conditus) and endures Tartarean torture: the perpetual and unpredictable gnawing of the bookworm. The connection between Ovid’s “rotting” (tabida) mind and the physical toll on the material book is further enhanced by line 71. Often used metonymically for “sword,” ferrum can also mean “writing stylus.”24 Read thus, the line provides a deft hinge to the wormed book in the following verse, especially given the double work of ferrum.25 Since the ferrum is put away, it cannot come to the defense of the liber.

A further common element of each simile in this passage is stasis. The ship is out of use, the cliffs cannot flee the waves that crash against them, the iron is “placed away” (positum), the book “stored up” (conditus) to face the perpetual and unpredictable gnawing of the bookworm. Bodily preservation is predicated upon proper use: even when objects are put away, like the medical books of the army doctor, the danger of the bookworm is lurking. Moreover, a liber that is conditus is an oxymoron. In her recent work on Roman writing, Stephanie Frampton notes that “in every sense, the words liber and volumen in Latin connote a work already conceived to be in or on its way to the public domain.” A book is “a thing that is meant to be given away” (Frampton 2018.157). By employing this simile about a stagnant, worm-ridden book, Ovid emphasizes his hope that he, too, will one day circulate—a wish stated explicitly at the end of this poem. Poetic durability and textual integrity are thus linked to use and reading, a point that Ovid also makes in his Metamorphoses: “I will be read by the mouth of the people . . . I shall live on” (“ore legar populi . . . vivam,” Met. 15.878–79). Through the power of his readers, Ovid’s nomen will be “unerasable” (indelebile, Met. 15.876). Divorced from his readers as an exile, Ovid replaces the audible “mouth of the people,” ore populi, with the textually invasive and speechless “mouth of the bookworm,” ore tineae.

The emotional pathos of this passage is further heightened if we consider how Ovid may be alluding to, and adapting, an appearance of bookworms in another literary epistle. In the epilogue poem to his first collection of Epistles (20 bc), Horace addresses his book as if it were an enslaved youth, eager to escape its author/owner. The book/slave will enjoy [End Page 10] a brief vogue in public while still fresh and neatly polished, but, Horace warns, it will soon face perilous fates (20.10–13):

carus eris Romae, donec te deserat aetas;contrectatus ubi manibus sordescere vulgicoeperis, aut tineas pasces taciturnus inertis,aut fugies Uticam aut vinctus mitteris Ilerdam.

(text Wickham 1901)

You’ll be precious in Rome, until your youth deserts  you;when you’ve been thoroughly thumbed by vulgar hands  and begin to grow dirty,either you will feed sluggish bookworms in silenceor you will flee to Utica or be bound and sent to Ilerda.

Worms feed upon Horace’s text after it has been frequently read, handled, and circulated, but is now old and past its prime. And in theory, Horace’s liber of Epistles itself will have been handled by a reader all the way through to the end of the scroll. Thus the reader will come upon these worms not only at the imagined “end” of the book’s life cycle, but also at the physical end of the scroll. Ovid, on the other hand, foregrounds the possibility that his book will be put away and gnawed on by worms right as the reader starts his journey through the text, inverting Horace’s worm topos from the final to the first poem in the collection, and thus playing up the anxiety the exiled poet feels about achieving any (human) readership.

To sum up, Ovid draws on the material aspects of the bookworm to expose for the reader his “perpetual gnawing of sorrow” (perpetuos curarum . . . morsus, ex Pont. 1.73). The corrosion is happening in a place where no one else can go except Ovid. And so he likens his mental distress to bookworm damage: signs manifested through the negative traces left by a culprit that corrodes the closed, unread liber/Ovid. Just as there is no conclusive end (fine . . . nullo, 1.74) to Ovid’s sorrow, there is no boundary, no end, no goal in the bookworm’s non-linear journey through the text: worm holes appear at random in medias res.26 [End Page 11]


In addition to representing poetic anxieties about not being read, the bookworm creeps into those literary discourses that seek to materialize the style and ethics of certain reading practices. In this section, I will demonstrate how the figure of the bookworm comes to embody a kind of reading that is contrary to the paradigmatic literary and productive reading that is articulated by writers such as Seneca, Plutarch, Quintilian, and Gellius.27 Their rhetoric constructs and endorses a reader who checks and channels his readerly appetites into gathering material that is useful and appropriate in style and content, and also has the potential to be transformed for future use. Seneca, for example, asserts that, as readers, we ought to “play the part of the good pater familiae, making more ample what we have received” (“sed agamus bonum patrem familiae, faciamus ampliora quae accepimus,” EM 64.7). The reader as pater familiae maintains a relationship to his reading material that is industrious, generative, and masterful.

One of the most common metaphorical schemes through which this discourse embodies these ideal affective qualities is the flower-gathering bee.28 Plutarch (On Listening 41E–F) upholds bees as ideal reader-gatherers, denigrating those who prioritize entertainment value and dazzling rhetorical style over useful, fruitful substance:

διὸ δει̑ τὸ πολὺ καὶ κενὸν ἀφαιρου̑ντα τη̑ς λέξεως αὐτὸν διώκειν τὸν καρπὸν καὶ μιμει̑σθαι μὴ τὰς στεφανηπλόκους [End Page 12] ἀλλὰ τὰς μελίττας. αἱ μὲν γὰρ ἐπιου̑σαι τὰ ἀνθηρὰ καὶ εὐώδη τω̑ν φύλλων συνείρουσι καὶ διαπλέκουσιν ἡδὺ μὲν ἐφήμερον δὲ καὶ ἄκαρπον ἔργον. αἱ δὲ πολλάκις ἴων καὶ ῥόδων καὶ ὑακίνθων διαπετόμεναι λειμω̑νας ἐπὶ τὸν τραχύτατον καὶ δριμύτατον θύμον καταίρουσι καὶ τούτῳ προσκάθηνται, “ζανθὸν μέλι μηδόμεναι,” καὶ λαβου̑σαί τι τω̑ν χρησίμων ἁποπέτονται πρὸς τὸ οἰκει̑ον ἔργον.

One ought therefore to strip off the superfluity and inanity from the style, and to seek after the fruit itself, imitating not women that make garlands, but the bees. For those women, culling flower-clusters and sweet-scented leaves, intertwine and plait them, and produce something which is pleasant enough, but short-lived and fruitless; whereas the bees in their flight frequently pass through meadows of violets, roses, and hyacinths, and come to rest upon the exceedingly rough and pungent thyme, and on this they settle, “making the yellow honey their care,” and when they have got something of use, they fly away home to their own special work.29

Women are drawn by superficial attractions, culling colorful, sweet-scented flowers to weave garlands that are pretty but ephemeral. The good (male) reader, on the other hand, should treat his raw material like the bee. He must resist the temptations of the colors and smells that (apparently) distract women and instead collect something more substantial and useful (χρησίμων) for generating his own product. For Plutarch, the male reader draws on his reading material to produce and enhance something that uniquely belongs to him (οἰκει̑ον ἔργον), while the female gatherer makes a product that is ultimately infertile and “fruitless” (ἄκαρπον ἔργον). The adjective οἰκει̑ον brings home (so to speak) the appropriative and productive function of “good” reading, taking as its point of departure the οἶκος and all the property that belongs to its master.

In his Epistulae Morales, Seneca also draws on the figure of the bee to materialize a similar set of readerly affects (EM 84.3): [End Page 13]

apes, ut aiunt, debemus imitari, quae vagantur et flores ad mel faciendum idoneos carpunt, deinde quicquid attulere, disponunt ac per favos digerunt et, ut Vergilius noster ait, “liquentia mella / stipant et dulci distendunt nectare cellas.”

We ought to imitate, as they say, the bees, which wander and pluck flowers fit for making honey; then they arrange whatever they have gathered and closely pack it into cells and, as our Vergil says, “they pack close the flowing honey and swell their cells with sweet nectar.”

He goes on to claim that honey is not in fact produced directly from the process of gathering “juice” (sucum) from a number of flowers, but rather that bees transform this mixture into honey through a “certain property of their breath” (“proprietate spiritus sui mutent,” 84.5). The bee’s proprietas symbolizes each reader’s individual ability to transform his reading material into something that uniquely belongs to him, that is, something proprium (or, for Plutarch, οἰκει̑ον).30 Like Plutarch, Seneca is also concerned about the gendered implications of different reading practices. He warns at the start of this letter that continual reading will “render one’s strength flabby and watery” (“vires . . . solvet ac diluet,” 84.2). The figure of the bee works perfectly to embody the two-fold process of consumption and (useful) production expected of Seneca’s ideal, male reader. Seneca has carefully culled verses from Vergil’s Aeneid (“liquentia mella / stipant et dulci distendunt nectare cellas,” Aen. 1.432–33) so as to link the reader-asbee to masculinity, since Vergil uses these bees to figure the industrious men who build Carthage.31 For Seneca, as for Plutarch, the bee embodies a properly masculine style of productivity, impervious to the excessive pleasure and ultimate fruitlessness involved in superficial, feminine consumption. As scholars have noted, poets commonly invoke the trope of the flower-culling bee to indicate their own mastery of or affinities with certain [End Page 14] poetic styles and genres.32 Likewise, the reader as flower-culling bee links (good) reading with masculine mastery over materials (like flowers) that have feminine associations.

Yet this ecosystem of readers boasts greater biodiversity than bees and flowers. Greek epigrams from the first century ce Garland of Philip contribute to and play on this literary topos, as they invert the praiseworthy figure of the bee into the bookworm, drawing on the latter creature’s perverse material associations to skewer a certain kind of bad, pedantic reader.33 These satirical epigrams (AP 11.322, 11.321, and 11.347) adopt an anti-Callimachean pose, falling in line with other epigrammatists of the period who treat Callimachus, Aristarchus, and Zenodotus as “prototypes of the pedantic commentator on literary texts” (Gow and Page 1968.114). They employ entomological metaphors to criticize grammarians and critics who grub about for “thorny” questions in overly learned poetry and scientific inquiry.34 Antiphanes, for example, lampoons grammatici as “root-grubbing another’s Muse” (ῥιζώρυχα μούσης / ἀλλοτρίης, 11.322.1–2), activating an insect metaphor by comparing grammatici to insects that attack the roots of a vine, and perhaps also punning on etymological “roots” and the Callimachean use of glosses. Antiphanes (11.322) and Philip (11.321) address grammatici as “bookworms that walk amongst thorns” (ση̑τες ἀκανθοβάται, 2) and “worms of thorns” (ση̑τες ἀκανθω̑ν, 1), respectively, and Philip (11.347) calls disciples of Aristarchus and Callimachus “thorn-gathering worms” (ση̑τες ἀκανθολόγοι, 2).

The anthropomorphic bookworm is thus not an “anthologizer” like a bee, but rather an “akanthologizer,” a perverse reader who bores through texts and rummages about for thorny questions, such as the ones that appear in the following epigram of Philip (AP 11.347):

Χαίροιθ᾽οἱ περὶ κόσμον ἀεὶ πεπλανηκότες ὄμμα,  οἵ τ᾽ἀπ᾽ Ἀριστάρχου ση̑τες ἀκανθολόγοι.ποι̑ γὰρ ἐμοὶ ζητει̑ν, τίνας ἔδραμεν ἥλιος οἴμους [End Page 15]   καὶ τίνος ἠ̑ν Πρωτεὺς, καὶ τίς ὁ Πυγμαλίων;γινώσκοιμ᾽ ὅσα λευκὸν ἔχει στίχον. ἡ δὲ μέλαινα  ἱστορίη τήκοι τοὺς Περικαλλιμάχους.

A fond farewell to you whose eyes are ever roving round the universe, and you others, thorn-gathering book-worms of Aristarchus’s brood. What good is it to me to inquire what paths the sun ran, and who was Proteus’s father, and who was Pygmalion? I would know works whose lines are crystal-clear; let the darker learning sap the strength of our super-Callimachuses.35

This epigram draws a contrast between light and dark, disparaging “thorn-gathering bookworms of Aristarchus’s brood” (i.e., grammarians) for their pursuit of “dark learning / inquiry” (μέλαινα ἱστορίη).36 Mέλαινα ἱστορίη is a riddling phrase, and I suggest that three layers of meaning lurk within. First, we can take it in the literal sense of work done at night or in the dark, something grammatici, astronomers, and bookworms all have in common. Secondly, μέλαινα may refer metaphorically to the obscurity of the questions whose answers grammarians were expected to know. According to Suetonius (Vit. Tib. 70), the emperor Tiberius had a penchant for testing grammatici themselves with questions just like the ones we see in this epigram:

maxime tamen curavit notitiam historiae fabularis usque ad ineptias atque derisum; nam et grammaticos, quod genus hominum praecipue, ut diximus, appetebat, eiusmodi fere quaestionibus experiebatur, quae mater Hecubae, quod Achilli nomen inter virgines fuisset, quid Sirenes cantare sint solitae.

Yet his special aim was a knowledge of mythology, which he carried to a silly and laughable extreme; for he used [End Page 16] to test even the grammarians, a class of men in whom, as I have said, he was especially interested, by questions something like this: “Who was Hecuba’s mother?” “What was the name of Achilles among the maidens?” “What were the Sirens in the habit of singing?”

(trans. Rolfe)

Obsessed with obscure mythological trivia, Tiberius attempts to beat the grammatici at their own game. Suetonius is poking fun at the emperor by associating him with the predilections of a certain “class of men” (genus hominum) he elsewhere represents as prone to sexual deviance (Suet. de Gramm. 23). Moreover, Suetonius also indicates that Tiberius’s association with such men and their reading practices had negative consequences for the emperor’s literary style: “He obscured his style with excessive mannerisms and pedantry” (“adfectatione et morositate nimia obscurabat stilum,” Vit. Tib. 70).

Readers associated with the obscurity (μέλαινα, obscurus) of such pedantic captiousness slip towards the effeminate end of the reading spectrum; (metaphorical) “thorn-gathering,” in particular, is associated with effeminacy and lack of masculine control.37 In another epigram from the Garland of Philip, Antipater (AP 11.20) contrasts the “stock of thorn-gathering poets” (ποιητω̑ν φυ̑λον ἀκανθολόγων, 2) with Archilochus and “manly” Homer, criticizing these inferior poets for ornamenting their verses with “twisted contortions” (λελυγισμένον, 3).38 The aesthetics of what is written are aligned with those of the reading process: thorn-gathering produces convoluted poetry of a twisted, sophistic (and so effeminate) bent. Similarly, in Petronius’s Satyricon, the “shady” (umbraticus) teacher of rhetoric is lampooned for emasculating contemporary speech: “By stimulating certain absurd effects with empty and trifling tones, you have brought it about that the body of speech is enervated and dies” (“levibus enim atque inanibus sonis ludibria quaedam excitando effecistis, ut corpus orationis [End Page 17] enervaretur et caderet,” Sat. 2). Where Petronius indicates that the trifling style of rhetoricians saps the manly strength from the “body of speech,” Philip (AP 11.347) wishes that these “bookworms” may themselves “waste away” (τήκοι) in their pursuit of obscure mythological trivia.

Lastly, μέλαινα may also point to a material darkness inflicted on poetry’s verses as a result of the grammarians’ lucubration, perhaps in the form of soot from lamps or dark ink from annotations (see Ker 2004). Black soot and grammarians appear in tandem in Juvenal’s seventh Satire, where the nighttime work of the grammarian Palaemon39 has dark consequences for his physical books (7.222–27):

dummodo non pereat mediae quod noctis ab horasedisti, qua nemo faber, qua nemo sederetqui solet obliquo lanam deducere ferro,dummodo non pereat totidem olfecisse lucernasquot stabant pueri, cum totus decolor essetFlaccus et haereret nigro fuligo Maroni.

Just make sure that you get something from sitting from midnight onwards in a place where no blacksmith would sit and no one used to carding wool with their slanting steel comb. Just make sure that you get something for breathing the stink of as many lamps as there are boys, while your Horace gets totally discoloured and the soot sticks to your blackened Vergil.40

Juvenal does not blame the grammarian for the “black soot” that mars his Maro; rather, his pupils’ parents are at fault for their ridiculous standards and demands that necessitate the grammarian’s deep dive into mythological minutiae (7.229–36):

sed vos saevas imponite leges,ut praeceptori verborum regula constet [End Page 18] ut legat historias, auctores noverit omnestamquam ungues digitosque suos, ut forte rogatusdum petit aut thermas aut Phoebi balnea, dicatnutricem Anchisae, nomen patriamque novercaeAnchemoli, dicat quot Acestes vixerit annis,quot Siculi Phrygibus vini donaverit urnas

Yet you parents, you lay down savage laws for the teacher: that he should be precise in his use of grammar, that he should be familiar with the history books, and should know all the authors like his own fingers and nails. If he’s asked a random question while he’s heading for the hot baths or for Phoebus’s spa, he must be able to identify Anchises’ nurse and to state the name and birthplace of the stepmother of Anchemolus and how long Acestes lived and how many jars of Sicilian wine he gave to the Trojans.

This anecdote about Palaemon neatly maps the obscurity of thorny questions onto the material text: Palaemon’s reading practice—burning the midnight oil to hunt down answers to obscure questions—translates quite literally into the sooty disfigurement of his books.

In addition to blackness from soot, page darkening could also result from readerly annotations. Seneca formulates this very connection in his letter on liberal studies (EM 88). Drawing a contrast between the vir litteratus and the vir bonus, Seneca writes (EM 88.38–39):

magno impendio temporum, magna alienarum aurium molestia laudatio haec constat: “o hominem litteratum!” Simus hoc titulo rusticiore contenti: “o virum bonum!” Itane est? annales evolvam omnium gentium et quis primus carmina scripserit quaeram? quantum temporis inter Orphea intersit et Homerum, cum fastos non habeam, computabo? et Aristarchi ineptias, quibus aliena carmina compunxit recognoscam, et aetatem in syllabis conteram?

This sort of praise comes as a result of a huge outlay of time and a great annoyance to the ears of others: “What a learned man!” Let’s be content with this (more rustic) title: “What a good man!” Does this mean I should [End Page 19] unroll the annals of all races and find out who was the first man to write poetry? Or, since I don’t have written records, should I calculate how much time lies between Orpheus and Homer? Or should I look over the trifles of Aristarchus, in which he branded the verses of other men, and wear away my life upon syllables?

Seneca expresses contempt for superficial learnedness, poking fun at the reading practices we now know to be associated with the “thorn-gathering worms” of Philip’s epigram. Seneca invokes Aristarchus—the very same grammarian referenced in AP 11.347—as an example of a “bad” (yet litteratus) reader, scorned for “branding” the poetry of others. This “branding” (compunxit) refers to the process of marking spurious lines of poetry with the obelos, a practice that would quite literally have darkened the page. Moreover, as Francesca Schironi demonstrates in her recent study, Aristarchus also introduced the diple (>) to indicate lines where he had comments on content, myth, or style.41 These marks (even thorn-like in appearance) would have the effect of puncturing the reader’s smooth course in reading lines of poetry that ought to be “clear” (cf. λευκὸν . . . στίχον, AP 11.347.5). Instead, the reader faced with an obelized page will be lured into pedantic quibbles and philological wormholes, mimicking the entomological bookworm’s oblique and meandering passage as it munches through the scroll.


Philip’s epigram from the Garland demonstrates how the bookworm as insect comes to participate in the discursive construction and denigration of a certain kind of bad reader. Moreover, the nexus between this epigram and the other Latin sources demonstrates how debates about reading stem from and open out onto broader social anxieties. In particular, grammarians are stigmatized not only for their reading practices but also for their servile origins and deviant sexual behavior.42 Therefore, a line had to be drawn between “ideal” elite readers and the class of people who embody [End Page 20] the pedantic, unfertile reading of the grammaticus. Ironically, this same grammaticus would have been the person who instructed the “ideal” elite reader in the basics of reading when he was a boy. All the more reason, then, that elite discourse would endeavor to construct and secure a distinction between these two groups that both participate in the world of letters: the elite, masterful, male reader—figured as the mobile, productive bee—and the lowly, servile pedant, a (wingless) worm absorbed in (or confined to) his books.

Physical traces of readers and reading are hard to come by in ancient evidence: we are largely at the mercy of literary representations. Working with this evidence requires great care because these elite writers show themselves reading as they would like to be seen. My contention is that a book’s historical intervention productively illuminates a more idiosyncratic and materially precise model of books and reading. The bookworm is one historical actor in this model, and its practices as a non-reader throw into relief the anxieties people had about the social, bodily, and contingent lives of texts and the contested space of reading. The intersection between book history and literary criticism opens up for view another realm of the literary discourse on readers and reading in antiquity, one that activates the (zoologically low) bookworm as a metaphor for a bad reader, debasing the pedantic, socially deviant grammarian as a non-literary, superficial, improperly selective reader and elevating the productive, authoritative, masculine bee-reader. In other words, this materially sensitive approach uncovers one way in which ancient literary discourse forged its own distinctions between “good” and “bad” readers. In doing so, it has also brought to the fore the non-hermeneutic ways that books produce meaning as textual objects.43 [End Page 21]

Cat Lambert
Columbia University


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1. See also McKenzie 1999. For recent classics studies that advocate for integrating the methodology of book history, see McCutcheon 2015, Howley 2017, and Frampton 2018. Frampton, however, takes as her focus the materiality of writing rather than the materiality and embodiment of reading, which is my primary interest here.

2. It is especially in this respect that this article seeks to build upon Johnson’s 2010 study, which is interested primarily in the hermeneutic uses of texts and thus often treats reading as a disembodied practice.

3. As literary critics and book historians alike remind us, modes of reading depend on the historical convergence of various factors and actors. Over the last few decades, scholars from a range of disciplines outside of classics have sought to scrutinize, destabilize, or find alternatives to the naturalized and dominant figure of the “critical reader”: for example, Latour 2004, Warner 2004, Best and Marcus 2009, Love 2013, Felski 2015, and Allan 2016. The fons of much of this work in literary studies is Sedgwick 2003. See also Emre 2017, who argues that the valorization of certain modes of reading over others (e.g., critical and detached over susceptible and passionate, autonomous over instrumental) is both historically contingent and also a limitation for literary criticism.

4. Contrast Van Sickle 1980.5: “The roll imposes linear movement through or back. No skipping around or dipping in” to Martial 14.2, or the practice of the sortes vergilianae. See also Williams 1992. For the often elided roles of enslaved or freedmen scribes and readers, see Blake 2012.

5. Galen Commentary on Hippocrates’ Epidemics Book 6 17a.795.

6. Bookworms receive passing mention in Winsbury 2009.131. For a survey of Greek insects in art and literature, see Davies and Kathirithambay 1986. The Greek σέες make their textual appearance as early as Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, where they are imagined as “cutting up” Milesian wool (ὑπὸ τω̑ν σέων κατακοπτόμενα, 730).

7. The 10th century Exeter Book contains a riddle in Old English about bookworms; see Rid. 47 in Dobbie and Krapp 2004.205. Bookworm holes appear in the 12th century leather binding of MS f.3.12 (Liverpool University). For bookworm excrement in a 12th century copy of the Gospel of Luke, see

8. This shared diet reinforces a conceptual link between books and wood; cf. Wray 2007.

9. Horace Epist. 20.11, Ovid ex Ponto 1.1.72, Martial 13.1, and Lucian ad Indoct. 1.

10. For more on this papyrus and others in the Tebtunis archive, see Jördens 2012.

11. For further discussion of the papyrus in question, see Frampton 2018.163–67.

12. Similarly, he recommends (5.12.7) that shipyards be built facing the north, for the southern warmth “generates rot (cariem), book/wood worms (tineam), and ship worms (teredines) with other noxious beasties (reliqua bestiarum nocentium).” This passage seems to presume that worms generated spontaneously. Cf. Lucretius DRN 3.715–20 for the spontaneous generation of worms (vermes) in corpses. Martial 14.37 provides evidence contrary to the theory of spontaneous generation: the personified scrinium (“book-box”) shall admit bookworms and moths (tineas trucesque blattas) if not given “choice books.”

13. When Pliny (NH 11.49) notes that “dust in woolens and in clothes breeds moths (tineas) . . . this is also noted in sheets of papyrus (in chartis),” he means that bugs thrive in materials that are out of use. At Satires 2.3.118–19, Horace invokes the image of tineae and blattae feasting away on blankets that are falling apart unused: “Rich coverlets, banquets of moths and worms, lay rotting in his chest (“stragula vestis / blattarum ac tinearum epulae, putrescat in arca”).

14. Ovid (Am. 1.12) aligns “rotten old age” (cariosa senectus) with wax on boxwood tablets that grows “white from foul neglect” (“immundo cera sit alba situ”). As wax ages, fatty acids separate out and rise to the surface. For more on “wax bloom,” see Harley 1993. Thank you to Alexis Hagadorn for these references.

15. Giving books “exercise” to keep them in shape, and thus dewormed, is pushed to satirical extremes by Lucian in his parody of the ignorant book collector (ad Indoct. 16), who is “always unrolling and rolling [his βιβλία] up, gluing them, trimming them, smearing them with saffron and cedar oil” (τὰ βιβλία καὶ ἀνατυλίττεις ἀεὶ καὶ διακολλᾳ̑ς καὶ περικόπτεις, καὶ ἀλείφεις τῳ̑ κρόκῳ καὶ τῃ̑ κέδρῳ καὶ διφθέρας περιβάλλεις καὶ ὀμπαλοὺς ἐντίθης, ὡς δή τι ἀπολαύσων αὐτω̑ν).

16. Houston 2014.184 n. 14 and 230 n. 54. For the papyrus itself, see;3;1

17. E.g., Horace Ars Poetica 332. For papyrus that has been treated with cedar oil, see Houston 2014.230: MP 3 1237 (Ibycus), and MP 3 1495 (Theocritus).

18. See Cicero Ep. ad Att. 4.4a, 4.8.2 and Nepos Att. 13.3–4.

19. Ad Indoct. 17. See also Petronius Satyricon 78: Trimalchio says to Stichus bringing him his grave clothes: “See to it, Stichus, that neither mice nor moths (tineae) touch them; otherwise I will burn you alive.”

20. Text and translation from Harmon 1921. Unless marked otherwise, all translations are my own.

21. Wormholes may have looked different in papyrus rolls and codices. Wormholes appear at successive intervals in an opened roll, and it is thanks to wormholes that W. E. H. Cockle was able to reconstruct Euripides’ fragmentary Hypsipyle (Cockle 1983.52, P.Oxy. VI 852).

22. On Roman book burning, see Howley 2017.241, who argues that book burning is rejected by Roman literary culture as an act of violence to literary texts, as opposed to documents.

23. Bookworms and fire appear together at Juv. Sat. 7.22–27, where the narrator encourages the poet Telesinus, having failed to secure imperial patronage, either to burn his books or shut them up and have them pierced by worms: something like life-imprisonment and torture for the books, or a kind of damnatio memoriae that leaves visible marks of erasure through (entomological) excision. Geue 2017.57 argues that this passage emphasizes the perishability of Telesinus’s doomed work.

24. For ferrum as writing stylus, see Ovid Met. 9.522.

25. Scabra . . . rubigine (71) further evokes material writing. Frampton 2018.135 suggests that Catullus 68.151 (“ne vestrum scabra tangat rubigine nomen,” “lest corroding rust touch your name”) can refer to the caustic red ink of a rubricated titulus that would eat through papyrus and cause blemishes as it ages and oxidizes.

26. The non-linear traces of bookworms may explain the popularity of bookworm riddles in the late antique and medieval periods. The late antique author Symphosius (1968) wrote a riddle on the bookworm (de Tinea), and, again, the 10th century Exeter Book contains a riddle in Old English about bookworms. See note 7 above..

27. See Quintilian IO 10.1.13–14 and 10.2.26: reading a variety of genres improves the orator through acquisition of material and verba, but the reader/orator must then exercise judgment in applying the good qualities and strengths (bona) of many authors. See Plutarch On Curiosity 520A–B, Progress in Virtue 79C; cf. How the Young Man Should Study Poetry 14F and 28E, and König and Whitmarsh 2007.50. Cf. Howley 2018.85–88 on Gellius 76–77. Also on Gellius, Vardi 2001.

28. The figure of the bee has a long literary history. The bee as flower-gathering poet is a familiar convention in archaic lyric poetry (e.g., Pi. P. 4.60–61, HHerm. 553–66, and Bach. 10.10) that is sustained in later poets like Callimachus (H.Ap. 110–12) and Horace (Od. 4.2.27–32). Yet see Worman 2015.55 for how literary theorists police the potentially emasculating “floral feminine mode,” and 151–53 for a discussion of how Aristophanes (Birds 748–50, Frogs 1003) and Plato (Ion 534a7–b3) appropriate this “bee poet” trope in order to make fun of poets and produce caricatures of poetic inspiration. For bees more generally, see Davies and Kathirithamby 1986.70–72 and Waszink 1974.

29. Translation and text from Babbitt 1927. Plutarch also invokes the figure of the bee and the same line of Simonides at Progress in Virtue 79C–D.

30. Elsewhere in the EM (e.g., 2) Seneca advocates for reading familiariter (“intimately”) in order to make what he reads “his own” (sua) rather than “someone else’s” (aliena). Familiariter, like the Greek oikeion, derives from the household (familia) and emphasizes the proprietary relation between the reader/owner and his books/belongings.

31. Bees are prototypical figures for masculine activity starting in Homer: Il. 2.87–88 and 16.641–43.

32. Worman 2015, especially chap. 2.

33. For the general contents of the Garland, see Gow and Page 1968.xlv–xlix. On its dating (no earlier than 40 ce, and probably assembled and published under Nero), see Cameron 1980.61: “It is . . . probable that, like many other Greek men of letters, Philip should have sought (and perhaps won) Nero’s patronage with his book.”

34. For this metaphorical use of ἄκανθαι, see Athen. 3.97d and Lucian Hes. 5 (“You pick out a few splinters and thorns and seek out handles for captious criticism”); see also Athen. 5.222a–b. Spinae and spinosus are similarly used in Latin.

35. All texts and translations of epigrams from the Garland of Philip are from Gow and Page 1968.

36. Lightness vs. darkness is a recurrent theme in these epigrams. In Antiphanes 11.322.5, grammarians are referred to as “darkness to little beginners” (παισὶ σκότος ἀρχομένοισιν) and mocked as “bed-bugs that secretly feed off good authors” (εὐφώνων λαθροδάκναι κόριες, 6).

37. See Steiner 2008 for a discussion of the perverse sexual proclivities and appetites of the dungbeetle (κανθάρος) as literary antagonist. Steiner addresses the iambic associations and baseness of the dungbeetle, among other “zoologically low” wood-boring insects (e.g., (s)knips, on which see Davies and Kathirithamby 1986.97–98), but she does not discuss “bookworms/moths” (ση̑τες). However, her discussion of Callimachus’s association (Iamb 13) of his literary antagonists with the imagery of scraping (ἀποκνίζει, cf. Aristophanes Frogs 1198–99) and wood eating suggests shared thematic associations between inept literary critics and insects that are low on the entomological spectrum.

38. The feminine connotations of this word hark back to the sophistic “twistings” (λυγισμω̑ν) for which Euripides is made fun of at Aristophanes Frogs 775.

39. While Juvenal represents Palaemon as a downtrodden schoolteacher, Suetonius (de Gramm. 23) has a different take: Palaemon was born as a slave to a female master and then acquired extreme wealth and celebrity status.

40. Text and translation from Braund 2004. For this satire within the historical and cultural context of the second sophistic, see Uden 2015.

41. Schironi 2018, who also notes that Aristarchus used the asteriskos for repeated lines and a combination of the asteriskos and obelos to mark repeated lines that did not belong to that specific passage (51).

42. For grammarians and their social status, see Kaster 1988.

43. In various forms, this project has benefitted from the generous insights of Claire Catenaccio, Marcus Folch, Constanze Güthenke, Alexis Hagadorn, Darcy Krasne, John Ma, Kris-tina Milnor, Jim O’Donnell, Alan Ross, James Uden, and Katharina Volk. A warm and enthusiastic audience at the 2020 SCS/AIA Meeting in Washington, D.C. inspired me to pursue publication. I am tremendously indebted to Joseph Howley, for indulging my initial idea to “write about worms” and seeing this project through its subsequent twists and turns, and Nancy Worman, for many spirited conversations about metaphor and materiality. I also wish to acknowledge my fellow graduate colleagues at Columbia: without their friendship and intellectual camaraderie throughout the global crisis of COVID-19, this article might never have reached fruition. Finally, I would like to thank Arethusa’s editor Martha Malamud and the anonymous readers for their input and generous support.

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