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Ancient Libraries: 000s BCE

Let's example the libraries of Rome.

Julius Caesar began the process of commissioning a large library by directing Varro to collect books, but he died in 44 BCE before work was begun.

According to Kesting (1978, 8), "the two motives behind Caesar's plan were: to reduce all existing codes of civil law to a more simplified form by extracting only the essential features and combining them in a select series of legal documents; and, secondly, to throw open to public use as many libraries as possible, holding both Greek and Latin literature."

The image below shows the Roman Republic during this time period.

Roman Republic Wikimedia Commons PD

Gaius Asinius Pollio's Library

In 39 BCE, Gaius Asinius Pollio began organizing a collection based on the materials plundered during the Illyrian campaign. With this collection, he began the first public library of Rome just off the Forum. The library had Greek and Latin wings which became the standard in Rome's libraries. In addition to the books, the library also held an art collection. No trace is left of this library exists.

Literary Clubs

Bust of Julius CaesarPollio organized literary readings where authors were encouraged to read their own work. For instance, Virgil read his poems including Aeneid aloud and received praise from Augustus. It's unknown whether any of these meetings were held in libraries, however they did reflect the growing interest in literature.


Decorating libraries with busts and statues of departed authors and celebrated heroes was an important part of the Roman library.

The bust of Julius Caesar on the right was created in this time period.


At least a few of the libraries allowed patrons to borrow materials. According to Clark (1901, 20) a number of stories include references to borrowing materials. For instance, "he fetched a treatise by Aristotle out of the library of Tibur, which was then very conveniently accommodated in the temple of Hercules, and brought it to us, saying..."

Collection Development

With an increasing number of people using scriptoria or booksellers to access materials, it's likely that libraries became sensitive to the need for authoritative sources. In other words, many works sold by booksellers were copies of copies of copies that were filled with errors. The library sought quality, accurate works that they could reproduce and circulate. Most collections were created by copying quality works. It's likely that the libraries borrowed copies from people with high-quality personal collections.

Library of the Apollo (Palatine Library)
Palatine Hill, Rome

Roman Reading Wikimedia Commons PDOne of Augustus' first projects was the Library of the Temple of Apollo also known as the Palatine Library. The temple stood in the middle of a peristyle connecting two libraries: Greek and Latin. A hall linking the two was used as a reading room and Senate chamber.

The materials were organized based on format. The books were placed in niches along the walls fitted with wooden bookcases (armaria) with shelves and doors. Each bookcase would be numbered items would be entered on a catalog. Rolls would have been laid horizontally with an identification tag facing out. Portable steps would be used to reach the high shelves. Unlike the Greek style with small rooms for roll storage and other rooms for reading, the Roman style featured shelving along the perimeter and a reading area in the middle of the room.

The image above on the left shows a man reading a scroll from an armaria.

Gnaeus Pompeius Macer was hired to establish and organize the library collection. Once the library was completed Augustus appointed a freeman, Cailus Ilulius Hyginus as librarian to maintain the collection.

Porticus Octavia
Campus Martius, Rome

Built in 146 BCE then expanded by Augustus in 33 BCE, the complex was designed with two libraries behind the temples and schola: one for books written in Greek and the for Latin. A freeman, Gaius Maecenas Melissus was the first librarian of the library.

The building no longer exists.

Tabularium, Wikimedia Commons, PDTabularium
Rome, Italy

Housed inside the Forum Romanum, the Tabularium contained the archives of Republication Rome. The term Tabularium means record building. The archived housed both current and historical document.

According to Posner (1972), no attempt was made to distinquish between regularly used materials and historical documents. However there seemed to be a growing recognition of the value of maintaining records.

Libraries of Rome

Ultimately, Rome had twenty-six public libraries. The libraries were intended for reading and reference as well as a meeting place for literate men. The collections consisted of both old and new works, however most collections of the Roman libraries weren't large.


The libraries built by Augustus had a standard organizational structure. Each library had a general director called a Procurator Bibliothecarum Augusti and subordinator officers in charge of the Greek and Latin sections. At first, freeman were librarians, but later the positions became part of the government bureaucracy. Staff consisted of literate slaves and freeman. Educated slaves were tasked with copying of manuscripts. Scribe would have been a common staff position. The head of the staff was called the librarian (bibliothecarius). Rather than patrons browsing the shelves, it's likely that pages brought requested items to patrons. If a large number of rolls were requests, they were transported in a leather or wood bucket.


The size of the roll or scroll (volumina) in terms of length and width vary. The contents are written in columns running parallel to the long dimension. The reader would hold the roll with both hands. The section just read is rolled with the left hand and the next section is unrolled with the right hand. The end of the roll was attacked to a stick called an umbilicus. The sticks were sometimes decorated. A box was used to carry a number of rolls. It's not known if these types of boxes or capsa were used in libraries. The image below shows a book box or capsa (The Care of Books, 1901).

Capsa The Care of Books, PD

Collection Storage

Clark (1901) identified a number of fittings used in Roman libraries to display and store books.

A nidus is like a pigeon-hole for storing rolls. Clark references the use of this idea in a poem.

"O library of what well-appointed villa whence a reader can see the City near at hand - if among more serious poems there be any room for the wanton Muse of Comedy, you may place these seven little books I send you even in your lowest pigeon-hole."

A forulus is like the cells of a bee's honeycomb. In describing the Temple of Apollo, Suetonius states:

"He placed the Sibylline books in two gilt receptacles (forulis) under the base of the statue of Palatine Apollo."

A loculamentum is a long, narrow box open in one end. Roman scholar Seneca states that:

"You will find... in the libraries of the most arrant idlers all that orators or historians have written - bookcases (loculamentum) built up as high as the ceiling."

A pegmata are planks of wood framed into shelves or fixtures and fixed on a wall.

A pluteus is a board laying on its edge like a shelf.

dig deeperDig Deeper
Houston, George W. (2008). Tiberius and the libraries: public book collections and library buildings in the early Roman Empire. Libraries & the Cultural Record, 43(3), 247-269.


Boyd, Clarence Eugene (1915). Public Libraries and Literary Culture in Ancient Rome. University of Chicago Press. Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=KSZKAAAAMAAJ

Casson, Lionel (2001). Libraries of the Ancient World. Yale University.

Clark, John Willis (1901). The Care of Books. Cambridge University Press Warehouse. Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=uvQ_AAAAYAAJ

Kesting, J. G. (May 17, 1978). Qumram and the Quest for Modern Librarianship. University of Cape Town. New Series No. 52.

Posner, Ernst (1972). Archives in the Ancient World. Harvard University Press.

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