About Maximapedia

Ancient Libraries

ANCIENT LIBRARIES The researches which have followed the discoveries of P. E. Botta and Sir H. Layard have thrown unexpected light not only upon the history but upon the arts, the sciences and the literatures of the ancient civilizations of Babylonia and Assyria. In all these wondrous revelations no facts are more interesting than those which show the existence of extensive libraries so many ages ago, and none are more eloquent of the elaborateness of these forgotten civilizations. In the course of his excavations at Nineveh in 1850, Layard came upon some chambers in the south-west palace, the floor of which, as well as the adjoining rooms, was covered to the depth of a foot with tablets of clay, covered with cuneiform characters, in many cases so small as to require a magnifying glass. These varied in size from i to 12 in. square. A great number of them were broken, as Layard supposed by the falling in of the roof, but as George Smith thought by having fallen from the upper storey, upon which he believed the collection to have been placed. These tablets formed the library of the great monarch Assurbani-pal the Sardanapalus of the Greeks the greatest patron of literature amongst the Assyrians. It is estimated that this library consisted of some ten thousand distinct works and documents, some of the works extending over several tablets. The tablets appear to have been methodically arranged and catalogued, and the library seems to have been thrown open for the general use of the king's subjects. 1 A great portion of this library has already been brought to England and deposited in the British museum, but it is calculated that there still remain some 20,000 fragments to be gathered up. For further details as to Assyrian libraries, and the still earlier Babylonian libraries at Tello, the ancient Lagash, and at Niffer, the ancient Nippur, from which the Assyrians drew their science and literature, see BABYLONIA and NIPPUR.

Of the libraries of ancient Egypt our knowledge is scattered and imperfect, but at a time extending to more than 6000 years ago we find numerous scribes of many classes who recorded official events in the life of their royal masters or details of their domestic affairs and business trans- Libraries. actions. Besides this official literature we possess examples of many commentaries on the sacerdotal books, as well as historical treatises, works on moral philosophy and proverbial wisdom, science, collections of medical receipts as well as a great variety of popular novels and humoristic pieces. At an early date Heliopolis was a literary centre of great importance with culture akin to the Babylonian. Attached to every temple were professional scribes whose function was partly religious and partly scientific. The sacred books of Thoth constituted as it were a complete encyclopaedia of religion and science, and on these books was gradually accumulated an immense mass of exposition and commentary. We possess a record relating to " the land of the collected works [library] of Khufu," a monarch of the IVth dynasty, and a similar inscription relating to the library of Khafra, the builder of the second pyramid. At Edfu [1] See Menant, Bibliothbque du palais de Ninive (Paris, 1880).

the library was a small chamber in the temple, on the wall of which is a list of books, among them a manual of Egyptian geography (Brugsch, History of Egypt, 1881, i. 240). The exact position of Akhenaten's library (or archives) of clay tablets is known and the name of the room has been read on the books of which it has been built. A library of charred books has been found at Mendes (Egypt Expl. Fund, Two Hieroglyphic Papyri), and we have references to temple libraries in the Silsileh " Nile " stelae and perhaps in the great Harris papyri. The most famous of the Egyptian libraries is that of King Osymandyas, described by Diodorus Siculus, who relates that it bore an inscription which he renders by the Greek words ^TXHS IATPEION " the Dispensary of the Soul." Osymandyas has been identified with the great king Rameses II. (1300-1236 B.C.) and the seat of the library is supposed to have been the Ramessaeum at Western Thebes. Amen-em-hant was the name of one of the directors of the Theban libraries. Papyri from the palace, of a later date, have been discovered by Professor W. F. Flinders Petrie. At Thebes the scribes of the " Foreign Office " are depicted at work in a room which was perhaps rather an office than a library. The famous Tel-el-Amarna tablets (1383-1365 B.C.) were stored in " the place of the records of the King." There were record offices attached to the granary and treasury departments and we know of a school or college for the reproduction of books, which were kept in boxes and in jars. According to Eustathius there was a great collection at Memphis. A heavy blow was dealt to the old Egyptian literature by the Persian invasion, and many books were carried away by the conquerors. The Egyptians were only delivered from the yoke of Persia to succumb to that of Greece and Rome and henceforward their civilization was dominated by foreign influences. Of the Greek libraries under the Ptolemies we shall speak a little further on.

Of the libraries of ancient Greece we have very little knowledge, and such knowledge as we possess comes to us for the most part from late compilers. Amongst those who are known to have collected books are Pisistratus, Polycrates of Samos, Euclid the Athenian, Nicocrates of Cyprus, Euripides and Aristotle (Athenaeus i. 4). At'Cnidus there is said to have been a special collection of works upon medicine. Pisistratus is reported to have been the first of the Greeks who collected books on a large scale. Aulus Gellius, indeed, tells us, in language perhaps " not well suited to the 6th century B.C.," 1 that he was the first to establish a public library. The authority of Aulus Gellius is hardly sufficient to secure credit for the story that this library was carried away into Persia by Xerxes and subsequently restored to the Athenians by Seleucus Nicator. Plato is known to have been a collector; and Xenophon tells us of the library of Euthydemus. The library of Aristotle was bequeathed by him to his disciple Theophrastus, and by Theophrastus to Neleus, who carried it to Scepsis, where it is said to have been concealed underground to avoid the literary cupidity of the kings of Pergamum. Its subsequent fate has given rise to much controversy, but, according to Strabo (xiii. pp. 608, 609), it was sold to Apellicon of Teos, who carried it to Athens, where after Apellicon's death it fell a prey to the conqueror Sulla, and was transported by him to Rome. The story told by Athenaeus (i. 4) is that the library of Neleus was purchased by Ptolemy Philadelphus. The names of a few other libraries in Greece are barely known to us from inscriptions; of their character and contents we know nothing. If, indeed, we are to trust Strabo entirely, we must believe that Aristotle was the first person who collected a library, and that he communicated the taste for collecting to the sovereigns of Egypt. It is at all events certain that the libraries of Alexandria were the most important as they were the most celebrated of the ancient world. Under andr/a. tne enlightened rule of the Ptolemies a society of scholars and men of science was attracted to their capital. It seems pretty certain that Ptolemy Soter had already begun to collect books, but it was in the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus that the libraries were properly organized and established in separate buildings. Ptolemy Philadelphus sent into every 1 Grote, History of Greece, iv. 37, following Becker.

part of Greece and Asia to secure the most valuable works, and no exertions or expense were spared in enriching the collections. Ptolemy Euergetes, his successor, is said to have caused all books brought into Egypt by foreigners to be seized for the benefit of the library, while the owners had to be content with receiving copies of them in exchange. Nor did the Alexandrian scholars exhibit the usual Hellenic exclusiveness, and many of the treasures of Egyptian and even of Hebrew literature were by their means translated into Greek. There were two libraries at Alexandria; the larger, in the Brucheum quarter, was in connexion with the Museum, a sort of academy, while the smaller was placed in the Serapeum. The number of volumes in these libraries was very large, although it is difficult to attain any certainty as to the real numbers amongst the widely varying accounts. According to a scholium of Tzetzes, who appears to draw his information from the authority of Callimachus and Eratosthenes, who had been librarians at Alexandria, there were 42,800 vols. or rolls in the Serapeum and 490,000 in the Brucheum. 2 This enumeration seems to refer to the librarianship of Callimachus himself under Ptolemy Euergetes. In any case the figures agree tolerably well with those given by Aulus Gellius* (700,000) and Seneca 4 (400,000). It should be observed that, as. the ancient roll or volume usually contained a much smaller quantity of matter than a modern book so that, e.g. the history of Herodotus might form nine " books " or volumes, and the Iliad of Homer twenty-four these numbers must be discounted for the purposes of comparison with modern collections. The series of the first five librarians at Alexandria appears to be pretty well established as follows: Zenodotus, Callimachus, Eratosthenes, Apollonius and Aristophanes; and their activity covers a period of about a century. The first experiments in bibliography appear to have been made in producing catalogues of the Alexandrian libraries. Amongst other lists, two catalogues were prepared by order of Ptolemy Ph'iladelphus, one of the tragedies, the other of the comedies contained in the collections. The HivaKfs of Callimachus formed a catalogue of all the principal books arranged in 120 classes. When Caesar set fire to the fleet in the harbour of Alexandria, the flames accidentally extended to the larger library of the Brucheum, and it was destroyed. 5 Antony endeavoured to repair the loss by presenting to Cleopatra the library from Pergamum. This was very probably placed in the Brucheum, as this continued to be the literary quarter of Alexandria until the time of Aurelian. Thenceforward the Serapeum became the principal library. The usual statement that from the date of the restoration of the Brucheum under Cleopatra the libraries continued in a flourishing condition until they were destroyed after the conquest of Alexandria by the Saracens in A.D. 640 can hardly be supported. It is very possible that one of the libraries perished when the Brucheum quarter was destroyed by Aurelian, A.D. 273. In 389 or 391 an edict of Theodosius ordered the destruction of the Serapeum, and its books were pillaged by the Christians. When we take into account the disordered condition of the times, and the neglect into which literature and science had fallen, there can be little difficulty in believing that there were but few books left to be destroyed by the soldiers of Amru. The familiar anecdote of the caliph's message to his general rests mainly upon the evidence of Abulfaraj, so that we may be tempted to agree with Gibbon that the report of a stranger who wrote at the end of six hundred years is overbalanced by the silence of earlier and native annalists. It is, however, so far from easy to settle the question that a cloud of names could easily be cited upon either side, while some of the most careful inquirers confess the difficulty of a decision 5 (see ALEXANDRIA, III.).

The magnificence and renown of the libraries of the Ptolemies excited the rivalry of the kings of Pergamum, who vied with the Egyptian rulers in their encouragement of literature. The 2 Ritschl, Die alexandrinischen Bibliotheken, p. 22; Opusc. phil. i. 123.

3 N.A. vi. 17. * De tranq. an. 9.

5 Parthey (Alexandrinisches Museum) assigns topographical reasons for doubting this story. Some of the authorities have been collected by Parthey, op. cit.

Pergamum German researches in the acropolis of Pergamum between 1878 and 1886 revealed four rooms which had originally been appropriated to the library (Alex. Conze, Die pergamen. Blbliothek, 1884). Despite the obstacles presented by the embargo placed by the Ptolemies upon the export of papyrus, the library of the Attali attained considerable importance, and, as we have seen, when it was transported to Egypt numbered 200,000 vols. We learn from a notice in Suidas that in 221 B.C. Antiochus the Great summoned the poet and grammarian Euphorion of Chalcis to be his librarian.

The early Romans were far too warlike and practical a people to devote much attention to literature, and it is not until the Rome ' ast centurv f tne republic that we hear of libraries in Rome. The collections of Carthage, which fell into their hands when Scipio sacked that city (146 B.C.), had no attractions for them; and with the exception of the writings of Mago upon agriculture, which the senate reserved for translation into Latin, they bestowed all the books upon the kinglets of Africa (Pliny, H.N. xviii. 5). It is in accordance with the military character of the Romans that the first considerable collections of which we hear in Rome were brought there as the spoils of war. The first of these was that brought by Aemilius Paulus from Macedonia after the conquest of Perseus (167 B.C.). The library of the conquered monarch was all that he reserved from the prizes of victory for himself and his sons, who were fond of letters. Next came the library of Apellicon the Teian, brought from Athens by Sulla (86 B.C.). This passed at his death into the hands of his son, but of its later history nothing is known. The rich stores of literature brought home by Lucullus from his eastern conquests (about 67 B.C.) were freely thrown open to his friends and to men of letters. Accordingly his library and the neighbouring walks were much resorted to, especially by Greeks. It was now becoming fashionable for rich men to furnish their libraries well, and the fashion prevailed until it became the subject of Seneca's scorn and Lucian's wit. The zeal of Cicero and Atticus in adding to their collections is well known to every reader of the classics. Tyrannion is said to have had 30,000 vols. of his own; and that M. Terentius Varro had large collections we may infer from Cicero's writing to him: " Si hortum in bibliotheca habes, nihil deerit." Not to prolong the list of private collectors, Serenus Sammonicus is said to have left to his pupil the young Gordian no less than 62,000 vols. Amongst the numerous projects entertained by Caesar was that of presenting Rome with public libraries, though it is doubtful whether any steps were actually taken towards its execution. The task of collecting and arranging the books was entrusted to Varro. This commission, as well as his own fondness for books, may have led Varro to write the book upon libraries of which a few words only have come down to us, preserved by a grammarian. The honour of being the first actually to dedicate a library to the public is said by Pliny and Ovid to have fallen to G. Asinius Pollio, who erected a library in the Atrium Libertatis on Mount Aventine, defraying the cost from the spoils of his Illyrian campaign. The library of Pollio was followed by the public libraries established by Augustus. That emperor, who did so much for the embellishment of the city, erected two libraries, the Octavian and the Palatine. The former was founded (33 B.C.) in honour of his sister, and was placed in the Porticus Octaviae, a magnificent structure, the lower part of which served as a promenade, while the upper part contained the library. The charge of the books was committed to C. Melissus. The other library formed by Augustus was attached to the temple of Apollo on the Palatine hill, and appears from inscriptions to have consisted of two departments, a Greek and a Latin one, which seem to have been separately administered. The charge of the Palatine collections was given to Pompeius Macer, who was succeeded by Julius Hyginus, the grammarian and friend of Ovid. The Octavian library perished in the fire which raged at Rome for three days in the reign of Titus. The Palatine was, at all events in great part, destroyed by fire in the reign of Commodus. The story that its collections were destroyed by order of Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century is now generally rejected. The successors of Augustus, though they did not equal him in their patronage of learning, maintained the tradition of forming libraries. Tiberius, his immediate successor, established one in his splendid house on the Palatine, to which Gellius refers as the " Tiberian library," and Suetonius relates that he caused the writings and images of his favourite Greek poets to be placed in the public libraries. Vespasian established a library in the Temple of Peace erected after the burning of the city under Nero. Domitian restored the libraries which had been destroyed in the same conflagration, procuring books from every quarter, and even sending to Alexandria to have copies made. He is also said to have founded the Capitoline library, though others give the credit to Hadrian. The most famous and important of the imperial libraries, however, was that created by Ulpius Trajanus, known as the Ulpian library, which was first established in the Forum of Trajan, but was afterwards removed to the baths of Diocletian. In this library were deposited by Trajan the " libri lintei " and " libri elephantini," upon which the senatus consulta and other transactions relating to the emperors were written. The library of Domitian, which had been destroyed by fire in the reign of Commodus, was restored by Gordian, who added to it the books bequeathed to him by Serenus Sammonicus. Altogether in the 4th century there are said to have been twenty-eight public libraries in Rome.

Nor were public libraries confined to Rome. We possess records of at least 24 places in Italy, the Grecian provinces, Asia Minor, Cyprus and Africa in which libraries had been established, most of them attached to temples, Roman usually through the liberality of generous individuals. l The library which the younger Pliny dedicated to his townsmen at Comum cost a million sesterces and he contributed a large sum to the support of a library at Milan. Hadrian established one at Athens, described by Pausanias, and recently identified with a building called the Stoa of Hadrian, which shows a striking similarity with the precinct of Athena at Pergamum. Strabo mentions a library at Smyrna; Aulus Gellius one at Patrae and another at Tibur from which books could be borrowed. Recent discoveries at Ephesus in Asia Minor and Timegad in Algeria have furnished precise information as to the structural plan of these buildings. The library at Ephesus was founded by T. Julius Aquila Polemaeanus in memory of his father, pro-consul of Asia in the time of Trajan, about A.D. 106-107. The library at Timegad was established at a cost of 400,000 sesterces by M. Julius Quintianus Flavius Rogatianus, who probably lived in the 3rd century (R. Cagnat, " Les Bibliotheques municipales dans 1'Empire Remain," 1906, Mem. de I'Acod. des Insc., torn, xxxviii. pt. i). At Ephesus the light came through a circular opening in the roof; the library at Timegad greatly resembles that discovered at Pompeii and possesses a system of book stores. All these buildings followed the same general plan, consisting of a reading-room and more or less ample book stores; the former was either rectangular or semi-circular in shape and was approached under a stately portico and colonnade. In a niche facing the entrance a statue was always erected; that formerly at Pergamum a figure of Minerva is now preserved at Berlin. From a wellknown line of Juvenal (Sat. iii. 219) we may assume that a statue of the goddess was usually placed in libraries. The readingroom was also ornamented with busts or life-sized images of celebrated writers. The portraits or authors were also painted on medallions on the presses (armaria) in which the books or rolls were preserved as in the library of Isidore, of Seville; sometimes these medallions decorated the walls, as in a private library discovered by Lanciani in 1883 at Rome (Ancient Rome, 1888, p. 193). Movable seats, known to us by pictorial representations, were in use. The books were classified, and the presses (framed of precious woods and highly ornamented) were numbered to facilitate reference from the catalogues. A private library discovered at Herculaneum contained 1756 MSS. placed on shelves round the room to a height of about 6 ft. with a central press. In the public rooms some of the books were arranged in the reading-room and some in the adjacent book stores. The Christian libraries of later foundation closely followed the classical prototypes not only in their structure but also in smaller details. The general appearance of a Roman library is preserved in the library of the Vatican fitted up by Sextus V. in 1587 with painted presses, busts and antique vases.

As the number of libraries in Rome increased, the librarian, who was generally a slave or freedman, became a recognized public functionary. The names of several librarians are preserved to us in inscriptions, including that of C. Hymenaeus, who appears to have fulfilled the double function of physician and librarian to Augustus. The general superintendence of the public libraries was committed to a special official. Thus from Nero to Trajan, Dionysius, an Alexandrian rhetorician, discharged this function. Under Hadrian it was entrusted to his former tutor C. Julius Vestinus, who afterwards became administrator of the Museum at Alexandria.

When the seat of empire was removed by Constantine to his new capital upon the Bosporus, the emperor established a collection there, in which Christian literature was probably admitted for the first time into an imperial library. Diligent search was made after the Christian books which had been doomed to destruction by Diocletian. Even at the death of Constantine, however, the number of books which had been brought together amounted only to 6900. The smallness of the number, it has been suggested, seems to show that Constantine's library was mainly intended as a repository of Christian literature. However this may be, the collection was greatly enlarged by some of Constantine's successors, especially by Julian and Theodosius, at whose death it is said to have increased to 100,000 vols. Julian, himself a close student and voluminous writer, though he did his best to discourage learning among the Christians, and to destroy their libraries, not only augmented the library at Constantinople, but founded others, including one at Nisibis, which was soon afterwards destroyed by fire. From the Theodosian code we learn that in the time of that emperor a staff of seven copyists was attached to the library at Constantinople under the direction of the librarian. The library was burnt under the emperor Zeno in 477, but was again restored.

Meanwhile, as Christianity made its way and a distinctively Christian literature grew up, the institution of libraries became part of the ecclesiastical organization. Bishop Alexander (d. A.D. 250) established a church library at Jerusalem, and it became the rule to attach to every church a collection necessary for the inculcation of Christian doctrine. There were libraries at Cirta, at Constantinople and at Rome. The basilica of St Lawrence at Rome contained a library or archivum founded by Pope Damasus at the end of the 4th century. Most of these collections were housed in the sacred edifices and consisted largely of copies of the Holy Scriptures, liturgical volumes and works of devotion. They also included the Gesta Martyrum and Matriculae Pauperum and official correspondence. Many of the basilicas had the apse subdivided into three smaller hemicycles, one of which contained the library (Lanciani, op. cil. p. 187). The largest of these libraries, that founded by Pamphilus (d. A.D. 309) at Caesarea, and said to have been increased by Eusebius, the historian of the church, to 30,000 vols., is frequently mentioned by St Jerome. St Augustine bequeathed his collection to the library of the church at Hippo, which was fortunate enough to escape destruction at the hands of the Vandals. The hermit communities of the Egyptian deserts formed organizations which developed into the later monastic orders of Western Europe and the accumulation of books for the brethren was one of their cares.

The removal of the capital to Byzantium was in its result a serious blow to literature. Henceforward the science and learning of the East and West were divorced. The libraries of Rome ceased to collect the writings of the Greeks, while the Greek libraries had never cared much to collect Latin literature. The influence of the church became increasingly hostile to the study of pagan letters. The repeated irruptions of the barbarians Gaul.

soon swept the old learning and libraries alike from the soil of Italy. With the close of the Western empire in 476 the ancient history of libraries may be said to cease.

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

Privacy Policy | Cookie Policy | GDPR