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Ancient Libraries: 100s BCE

Let's examine the rise of villa libraries, the role of women in libraries, and libraries in popular culture.

Beginning in the third century BCE, individuals and governments began to support the idea of educating citizens and the rate of literacy increased dramatically. Casson (2001) notes that papyrus in the arid lands is well-preserved and that many thousands of documents indicate the emergence of a literate society under both Ptolemaic and Roman rule between 300 BCE and 700 CE.

Although much of the correspondence found was related to business and government work, evidence was also found of an interest in literary works. Works by Homer and Euprides were particularly popular. Casson found that people copied works of literature themselves, commissioned the works to be copied at a scriptorium, or purchased works through booksellers.

While the Greeks took a cavalier attitude toward organization and preservation, the Romans reflected a "passion for order, bureaucracy and ostentation." (Kesting, 1978, 8).

The Rise of Villa Libraries

Increase in the availability of books led to collections in homes and other buildings. Informal libraries and private libraries were on the rise. Casson (2001, 65) notes that during the second and third centuries BCE, there were two types of private libraries: "general collections of Greek classics owned by well-to-do families; and comprehensive collections of Latin and Greek drama owned by theater managers".

Many individuals such as Scipio Aemilianus acquired collections through purchases or in the case of Scipio through the spoils of war. Some of these people likely developed specialty collections like Sulpicius Galus who focused on science and Polybius who specialized in history (Casson, 2001). Aemilius Paullus and Cornelius Sulla brought Greek libraries into Rome as their personal collections.

Cornelius Sulla Library

Sulla (138 BCE-78 BCE) acquired the collections of Aristotle and Theophrastus from Apellicon of Teos. Appellicon himself had stolen many of the documents from archives in Athens and other Greek cities. The materials included an old copy of the Iiad. Much of the collection was in poor conditions after being stored in a cellar. Sulla directed Tyrannio of Amisus to make copies and recover the documents. An emancipated slave, Tyrannio amassed a considerable library himself.

Villa Papyri Wikimedia Commons

Lucullus Villa Library
Tusculum, Rome, Italy

Libraries were seen as fashionable. Many homes had library rooms. Lucullus (117 BCE-57 BCE) even built a hotel-and-library complex for scholars and philosophers in the highlands of Tusculum where people could spend time reading and thinking. The complex was likely built in the style of Pergamum with reading rooms, work rooms, and areas for scroll shelving.

Villa of Papyri
Herculaneum, Italy

Owned by Julius Caesar's father-in-law Calpurnius Piso, the villa is located on the slope of the volcano Vesuvius and was covered in ash in 79CE. Excavations revealed 1785 carbonized scrolls known as the "Herculaneum papyri." The rolls were located inside wooden capsae, on wooden shelves along the walls, and also on bookshelves in the middle of the library room. However at the time of the eruption, it was packed in crates to be moved. The collection was probably selected by a family friend, Epicurean Philodemus of Gadara.

The image on the right shows a school from the Villa of Papyri.

Villa Adriana (Hadrian's Villa)
Tibur, Italy (modern Tibur)

Used as a retreat for the Roman Emperor Hadrian (76 CE-138 CE), the villa housed at least two libraries including Greek and Latin libraries. The language libraries were connected by a porch.

The images below shows Villa Andriana.

Adriana Wikimedia CommonsAdrian Wikimedia Commons

Much of our understanding about the lives of the Romans comes from letters written among friends. For instance Atticus, Cicero, and Varro were friends and shared their experiences expanding their personal libraries. Wealthy Romans used literate Greek slaves to organize their libraries.

Library Shelving

According to Clark (1901), the building of library shelving was an ongoing activity in both public and private libraries. The shelves seem to be open with holes large enough to slide rolls in and out. The walls above the bookcases were often decorated with images of authors, philosophers, family members, or friends. These walls also contained inscriptions. In a letter from Cicero to Atticus, a project is planned.

"I wish you could send me any two fellows out of your library, for Tyrannio to make use of as pasters, and assistant in other matters. Remind them to bring some vellum with them to make those titles."

The next letter reads:

"Your men have made my library gay with their carpentry-work and their titles. I wish you would commend them."

The final letter reads:

"Now that Tyrannio has arranged my books, a new spirit has been infused into my house. In this matter the help of your men Dionysius and Menophilus has been invaluable. Nothing could look neater than those shelves (illa tua pegmata) of yours, since they smartened up my books with their titles."

The image below showing rolls arranged on shelves was drawn from a piece of sculpture attributed to the camp of Constantine the Great (The Care of Books, 1901).

Roman Shelving Care of Books PD

Titus Pomponius Atticus Library

A friend of Cicero, Atticus was an excellent student and enjoyed travel to Athens. Using his staff of slaves as copyists and book-binders, he published works of himself and his friends. Little is known about this library other than his correspondence with Cicero.

Marcus Tullius Cicero Library

Cicero (106 BCE-43 BCE) enjoyed reading as a child. He was able to speak both Latin and Greek. He persuaded Tynrannio to organize his collection.

Cicero was known to complain about the poor quality of booksellers and copyists who were both known as librarii. For high quality copies, Cicero used Atticus because he knew the copies would be of high quality. Atticus had experience in the book trade and used a staff of trained librarii.

The image below shows The Young Cicero Reading (Fresco 1464, Wallace Collection).

Cicero Wikimedia Commons

Marcus Terentius Varro Library

Sometimes called the "most learned of the Romans," Vacco (116 BCE-27 BCE) was known to have an extensive library. He even wrote a work called "On Libraries" (Casson, 2001). Caesar appointed him to oversee the public library he was developing in 47 BCE, but he lost his library when Mark Antony took power. Augustus later supported his study and writing writing more than 74 Latin works on a wide range of subjects.

Women and Libraries

Woman reader painting PDAlthough educated women were unusual, wealthy families often educated their daughters. Unfortunately, these women are often a footnote in the literature and little is known about their personal libraries. For instance, Cicero refers to a woman of a minor Roman family by the name of Caerellia who enjoyed philosophy. Pompey, Cicero, and Atticus all educated their daughters.

The image on the right is called Favourite Poete depicting a Roman woman reading (Lawrence Alma-Tadem, 1888)

Library of Asklepieion

Beside a health center, Flavia Melitine added a library. The location in a sanctuary is different than most other libraries of the time. An inscription recorded her donation. The inscription reads, "The council and people of the metropolis of Aris, twice neokoros, the first city of the Pergamenes, have honoured Flavia Melitine, wife of Flavius Metrodorus, Prytanis, and mother of Flavius Metrodorus, Prytanis, as she has set up the library in the sanctuary of Asklepios the Saviour."

According to Petsalis-Diomidis (2010, 216), her donation of the library

"follows a vogue in library foundations by prominent provincials in the Eastern Roman empire during the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian, including the library of Pantainos in Athens (100 CE), the library of Ti. Julius Celsus Polemaenus at Ephesos (113 CE), and, if correctly identified as a library, that of T. Flavius Serverianus Neon at Sagalassos (120 CE), all of which in some way commemorate relatives of donors. The absence of comparable foundations in the Western empire suggests that the Classical and Hellenistic literary culture of the Greek East was the bedrock on which this form of public giving stood. Library foundations enabled donors to associate themselves and their families with the general culture of paideia and with the canon of authors held within in the form of texts and portraits. This may have tapped into a Greek sense of civic pride in local literary connections and traditions."

The library was built in the Roman style with a rectangular room with niches for bookcases along the walls. The collection was accessed by a wooden podium running around the room. The library contained windows, marble walls, and colorful flooring.

Library as Fashion

Roman Roll Wikimedia Commons PDThere were those that decried the idea of libraries for fashion only. According to Clark (1901), Seneca wrote about this around 49 CE.

"Outlay upon studies, best of all outlays, is reasonable so long only as it is kept within certain limits. What is the use of books and libraries innumerable, if scarce in a lifetime the master reads the titles? A student burdened by a crowd of authors, not instructed; and it is far better to devote yourself to a few, than to lose your way among a multitude."

"Forty thousand books were burnt in Alexandria. I leave others to praise this splendid monument of royal opulence, as for example Livy, who regards it as 'a noble work of royal taste and royal thoughtfulness.' It was not taste, it was not thoughtfulness, it was learned extravagance - nay not even learned, for they had bought their books for the sake of show, not for the sake of learning - just as with many who are ignorant even of the lowest branches of learning books are not instruments of study, but ornaments of dining-rooms. "

"Procure then as many books as will suffice for use; but not a single one for show. You will reply: 'Outlay on such objects is preferable to extravagance on plate or paintings.' Excess in all directions is bad. Why should excuse a man who wishes to possess book-presses inlaid with arbor-vita wood or ivory; who gathers together masses of authors either unknown or discredited; who yawns among his thousands of books; and who derives his chief delight from their edges and their tickets?"

"You will find then in libraries of the most arrant idlers all the orators or historians have written - book-cases built up as high as the ceiling. Nowadays a library takes rank with a bathroom as a necessary ornament of a house. I could forgive such ideas, if they were due to extravagant desire for learning. As it is, these productions of men who genius we revere, paid for at a high price, with their portraits ranged in line above them, are got together to adorn and beautify a wall."

It would be interesting to see what Seneca would have to say about the Internet.

The image above left shows a reader with a roll from Pompeii (The Care of Books, 1901).

Read Casson (2001, 61-79)


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.

Petsalis-Diomidis, Alexia (2010). Truly Beyond Wonders: Aelius Aristides and the Cult of Asklepios. Oxford University Press.

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