Roman administrators throughout the empire used wooden tablets (Lat., codices; sg., codex) as registers. Eventually, codex became a technical term for an accounting or other financial book or authoritative collection of official or legal writings (cf. code). This is how the Romans in the imperial period, the romanized people of the East, and the Byzantines, who succeeded the Romans in the East, understood the word codex, regardless of the material out of which it was made.

In modern usage the term refers to ancient or medieval transpositions of an archaic wooden book onto sheets of soft material (papyrus or parchment). These sheets were usually folded down the middle, to form leaves that were then superposed or gathered in various ways. Modern paper books are still codices in form. Historically, this format replaced the papyrus roll (Lat., volumen) which, in the Classical East, had been the standard medium for literary, religious, and official writings. The historical problem with the codex is to determine how it came so successfully to rival the scroll in use. This question can be set out in chronological, technical, economic, and cultural terms.

The first archeological examples of ancient codices come from Egypt. Among the literary texts, the codex first appeared in the second century CE. In the third and fourth centuries, it challenged the scroll more and more strongly, eliminating its use by the fifth century. Among administrative texts, the codex appears later (first half of the fourth century); its triumph over the scroll is also late (seventh-eighth century) and not so complete. Although these dates are somewhat precarious, depending in part on paleographic considerations, the Egyptian evidence suggests that the codex appeared during the Roman imperial period, that it was most probably a Roman innovation, and that its diffusion in the East was a correlate of the romanization of the ancient Mediterranean world.

Although it eliminated the scroll (except in Jewish liturgical practice, where it remains in use), the codex borrowed from it a part of its Greek or Latin terminology (e.g., tome, volume, page). Moreover, contrary to the prevalent modern opinion linking codex and parchment, many ancient codices were papyrus books, whose sheets were nearly always cut from rolls. The codex thus appears to be an adaptation of or an improvement on its predecessor: the codex is genuinely technically superior to the scroll (e.g. it gives easier access to a given place in the text and is easier to cross reference).

The material out of which the codex is made, with its attendant physical properties and its economical constraints, determines the shape of the final product and, to some extent, its internal features. Papyrus codices often preserve the height of the roll from which their leaves and sheets were cut (usually about 25–30 cm). The sheets (e.g., in the well-known Nag Hammadi Gnostic manuscripts) were frequently gathered in single quires, sometimes to a considerable thickness. Such an assemblage is not only technically weak, but also unfeasible with parchment sheets, which were always gathered, as paper is today, in superpositions of thin quires, most often of two sheets and four leaves (Lat., quaterniones, hence, “quire”). Being an inexpensive and ubiquitous material, papyrus had a broader range of use than parchment. Although luxury papyrus codices, with calligraphy and illuminations, do exist, most known codices are of average or low quality and contain mundane texts, such as accounts or private copies of literary works. Expensive parchment was generally preferred for luxury editions or for reference or professional works (e.g., liturgy and law).

Given its Roman background and its coarse wooden archetype, the codex must at first have been perceived by the hellenized Eastern upper classes as a pedestrian format, alien to the liberal Classical culture, whose texts were normally on scrolls. The codex eventually won out, as a consequence of the growing importance in the Roman Empire of religious and intellectual milieux, that had no prejudice for established book standards, namely the Christians and the local academies.

If there is one clear conclusion that the Egyptian evidence permits, it is that the codex was favored by Christians as the exclusive medium for their Holy Scriptures. In addition to the societal generality described in the preceding paragraph, there is no obvious explanation for this fact. Some scholars see the preference as an aspect of the Christian break with the synagogue, where the use of the Torah scroll has survived. It is also possible that the codex appeared to the Christians a better tool than the scroll for teaching purposes.

Thanks to Roman peace and prosperity, many schools flourished in the East, as did other scholarly activities, such as philology and law. This was a time of didactic and practical culture, with bookish tendencies, and that culture was disseminated by a proliferation of handbooks, lexicons, collections of texts, encyclopedias, and codes, for which the practical format of the codex was more suitable than the scroll.

[See also Literacy; Nag Hammadi; Papyrus; Parchment; Scribes and Scribal Techniques; Scroll; and Writing Materials.]


  • Blanchard, Alain, ed. Les débuts du codex. Bibliologia, vol. 9. Turnhout, 1989.
    Original views on the beginnings of the codex
  • Robinson, James M., et al. The Facsimile Edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices: Introduction. Leiden, 1984.
    Important for the physical properties and the making of the early papyrus codex
  • Turner, Eric G. The Typology of the Early Codex. Philadelphia, 1977.
    Standard work on the subject, based on extensive descriptions of material
  • Wouters, Alfons. “From Papyrus Roll to Papyrus Codex: Some Technical Aspects of Ancient Book Fabrication.” Manuscripts of the Middle East 5 (1990–1991): 9–19.
    Contains an up-to-date bibliography

Jean Gascou