All About Glass

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Dio Cassius' Roman History printed by Robert Estienne in Paris, 1548

All About Glass

One might say that the 16th century scholar-printer Robert Estienne (1503-1559) inherited from Aldus Manutius the mantle of Greek printing. At the very least, he must have felt an affinity with Aldus based on his love for the ancient Greek writings and his desire to render them in modern typography. Actually, he was heir to the Parisian publishing firm his father Henri (d. 1520) founded in 1501, the House of Estienne. He came of age and spent his career in the company of learned men who, through the book arts, contributed to the flowering of French Humanism during the reign of Francois I (1515-1547). Following his father’s death, he worked for his stepfather, the celebrated printer Simon de Colines (c. 1480-1546). Then in his own shop, he employed the typefounder and engraver Claude Garamond (1499-1561) to design the Greek type commissioned by the king and used to print this important first edition of Roman History.

Noli altum sapere (Be not high minded) in Dio Cassius. Roman History. Paris: Robert Estienne, 1548. CMGL 97550.Scholar and artist Geofroy Tory (c.1480-1533) also worked for the House of Estienne and possibly created the olive tree motif which became the firm’s famous insignia, or, printer’s device. Estienne used several variations of it to “mark” his publications. We see an example on the very last page of Roman History, where a classically robed sage points to an olive tree and to a Latin phrase inscribed in a banner waving from one of its branches: Noli altum sapere (Be not high minded). It is a message of humility which Estienne may have intended for the contentious Catholic theologians on the faculty of the Sorbonne. Their opposition to Humanist principles and their hostile attempts to censor his publishing activity ultimately caused Estienne to flee to the Protestant haven of Geneva, where he lived until his death in 1559.

Dio Cassius (c.155-235 A.D.) did most of the research and writing for his Roman History over a twenty-two year period, probably between 200 and 222 A.D. He surveyed 1000 years of Rome’s history in 80 books. Estienne’s first print edition is based on a 15th century manuscript and contains only books 36-60, covering the period from 69 B.C. to 50 A.D.  Book 57 contains a story about a magical glass cup, its inventor, and the emperor Tiberius (42 B.C.-37 A.D.), who was known for his cruelty. Dio undoubtedly borrowed this tale from two other Roman texts, both published a century earlier: Pliny’s Natural History and the Satyricon by Petronius. While the three narratives vary in some of their details, the outcome is the same. An individual presents Tiberius with a glass cup that breaks but can be instantly restored. Alarmed by the realization that such a glass could be superior to gold, Tiberius executes the inventor in order to safeguard the secret and the value of gold. Whether a legend or based in some truth, as many legends are, the story of an indestructible glass continued to be worth retelling, not only to illustrate an emperor’s cruel character, but also to arouse the imagination.

Diane Dolbashian

This essay is part of a series on Treasures in the Rakow Research Library.

Dio Cassius. Roman History. Paris: Robert Estienne, 1548.

Dio’s Roman History. Trans. Earnest Cary. 9 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Published on January 7, 2014