Roman Libraries

by Javier Rodriguez

The intellectual prestige of the Greek world was consolidated through the Hellenistic libraries, mainly the library of Alexandria and the one of Pergamum. The first became the greatest library of the Antiquity, and the fame of the wise people of the Museum extended across the Mediterranean world. The library of Pergamum, on the other hand, served as model to the Roman libraries in its organization.

The libraries of the Republican era

The first Roman libraries were private, and were constituted by the books that were seized by the glorious generals in the East campaigns, along with gold and jewels, sculptures and literate slaves. One knows that general Lucius Emilius Paulus, winner in the decisive battle of Pydna (168 b.C.), took as booty the books that constituted the library of the last Macedonian king, Perseus, soon to offer it to his sons, amongst whom was the famous Scipio the African.

Sulla, on the other hand, seized in Athens the books of Aristotle acquired by Apelicon. Also Lucius Licinius Lucullus, during its conquests in Asia Minor, collected a great amount of books. The new owners of the libraries opened them with generosity to those who wished to consult them and Cicero, according to his own accounts, devoured the books of the library of Sulla.

Although already in the 2nd Century BC Latin books circulated, these first libraries consisted of Greek works, that spread through the Roman world enhancing the glory of Greece. It was Horace, talking about Polibius and the thousands of hostages who were carried to Rome after Pydna, wrote its famous sentence: ‘Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit’ (‘overcome Greece, conquer a conqueror’). Also important were the conferences that Crates, director of the library of Pergamum, held in Rome with remarkable success, to such an extent that the public libraries that were constructed later in Rome were following the example of the one in Pergamum.

Standing next to a temple the library consisted mainly of a large storage room for books and a porch on which one might read, or from where one could take a walk in the gardens or from where works could be recited aloud to an audience. Meanwhile the building would be of splendid architecture and adorned with many paintings and busts.

Evidently at this time libraries did not include reading tables, since these were introduced during Middle Ages, when parchment rolls and papyrus began to replace by the book. Philosophical, historical and literary works abounded in this libraries, but so too other books, instructing the Romans to taking care of agriculture, the arts of war, the medicine or engineering. As for content they are classified in two sections, according to they were the books written in Greek or Latin. The idea to found a library with sections on Latin and Greek was Caesar’s, whom having spent time in Alexandria, wished to equip Rome with a great public library and ordered his friend Marcus Terentius Varro to acquire and classify the books. But Caesar never saw this project realised due to his premature death. It is arguable that Julius Caesar had sought to turn Rome into the intellectual center of the Mediterranean world.

Caesar´s idea for the library was carried out five years later, in the 39 BC, by Caius Asinius Pollio (in words of Saint Isidoro, Primus romae bibliothecas publicavit Pollio, graecas latinasque), general, historian and poet, of whom Pliny the Elder said that ingenio hominum rem publicam fecit, ” he made men’s talents a public possession “. Asinius Pollio introduced to Rome the custom of decorating the library with busts of dead writers, although it made an exception with Varro, whose bust included during the writer’s lifetime.

It is necessary to point out that the first libraries were not buildings specially designed to house books. Simply, the books were stored in shelves located in the rooms or warehouses, whereas the reading was made outdoors, taking a walk or simply seated under a porch. One important aspect of the diffusion of books, known also in Greece, but practiced foremost in Rome, were recitationes, in which works were read publicly. Nevertheless, according to the apparent idea that the books transmitted culture to their owner, and therefore prestige, one began to adorn the places in which the books were housed, with paintings, statues and mosaics. The public libraries, on the other hand, assimilated architectonic and sculptured canon of beauty, being beautifully constructed buildings with splendid colonnade facades, through which they were ascending beautiful stairs, so that, more than merely entering a library one ascended into a ” Temple of the Wisdom”.

The libraries of the Imperial era

Augustus, conscious that “a man is remembered by his works”, created in Rome two great libraries with corresponding sections of Latin and Greek: one on the Campus Martius, the Portico of Octavia, in the year 33 b.C. It was one of the architectually most beautiful buildings of Rome, locked by one double colonnade, in the interior of which there were two temples, one dedicated to Jupiter and another one to Juno. The other, founded in the year 28 b.C., was on the Palatine, next to the temple of Apollo, and was constructed, like the temple, to commemorate the battle of Actium. It contained on a great porch, pictures of famous writers and a colossal statue of Apollo. Its books of this one were the collection of the notorious Pompeyus Macer, although the library director was Iulius Higinius, a Spanish freeman of Augustus.

Also Tiberius created a library next to his palace. Already at this time, there by now being enough a sufficient number of imperial libraries, Tiberius created the position of Procurator bibliothecarum, main director of libraries. The idea that this position was very important is confirmed because it belonged to the administrative Cursus Honorum, at the some occasion, the director of the library of Alexandria was promoted to this position. But the most famous of all was the historian C. Suetonius, the author of The life of the Caesars.

Vespasian build another library in Rome, next to the temple of Peace. The most important library of all in Rome was the established by Traian (113 a.C.), well-known as the Ulpia, rival of Pergamum and Alexandría, sited in the Trajan’s Forum, to both sides of the famous Trajan’s Column. There were thousands of books and public documents. The books were classified in shelves named pegmata, the hollow sections of the shelves being called nidi, they were further divided into a sort of honeycomb structure with the individual hollows being called foruli or locumenta, hence the books were archived by nidi, foruli et locumenta.

In spite of such efforts, Roman libraries were not important to education, being generally small collections, and because the demand of public reading was limited, since the Romans preferred to work in their private libraries or those of their friends. Private libraries became widespread thoughout the empire in the 1st Century AD. Among most important ranks the Villa dei Pisoni, in Herculanus, buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the 79 AD, and in which were founded carbonized papyruses. Also we know the one that Pliny the Younger founded in his native city, Como. In Asia Minor it is possible that there was at least one library in each one of the great cities, like in Pergamum, although the most outstanding Roman library of which we know is the one of Ephesus, constructed in the days of Trajan, with its beautiful monumental facade. In Antioch we know of another important library, donated by Trajan. Also there are ruins of libraries in Nysa and Sagalassos,of which there are recent with recent studies. Hadrian, who was a great lover of Hellenistic culture, created an important library in Athens. Other important libraries were foudned in Patras, Tibur, Timgad, and probably some in Hispania, maybe in Emerita Augusta, Asturica Augusta or Tarraco.

Between the private libraries located in the city of Rome we know of the one Cicero and the one of Titus Pomponius Aticus, although most likely most of the wealthy possessed a library in one of their grand houses, be they senators, members of liberal professions, intellectual men, etc. The poet Aulus Persius Flacus had one of 700 volumes, and Epafroditus other one with 30.000, and we know thereafter of other collections. This fashion irritated Seneca, who said in ‘De tranquilitate animi’ that the book collections “are destined to embellishment the house walls”. Also Petronius in ‘Satiricon’, shows us Trimalcius ignorant though conceited of possessing numerous books.

The end of the Roman Empire

From the beginning of the third century AD, Rome suffered a series of internal crises, which was reflected in its cultural world. However, we know that in Constantine’s time there was twenty-eight libraries in Rome, among them the renamed Ulpia. And with the capital transferred from Rome to Constantinople, and Rome in decay, Amianus Marcellinus described the libraries as “closed like tombs”. The disintegration of the Roman Empire also brought about the collapse of the old traditional social order, and the light of the world that represented Rome first languished and finally it was extinguished for always.

The cities were left, and the libraries that conserved were set ablaze, destroyed or simply left to ruin. Many of the works that filled the libraries disappeared for always, and only few books, by different ways, was preserved until today. If the Romans had not acquired from the Greeks the taste to collect written works, an essential part of their universal culture would be have lost forever. For that reason one can but ask what our understanding of history might be if the many works which once lined those shelves had arrived at our hands…