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Ancient Libraries: 300s CE

Let's explore the rise of imperial, school, and monastic libraries.

Specialty libraries began to arise to meet specific needs. This move toward specialization marks the end of the ancient libraries and the beginning of libraries of the early period.

Imperial Libraries

The last of the great ancient libraries were located in Constantinople (shown below during this time period), capital city of the Byzantine Empire. Education was valued and the court trained men in professions.

Constantinople Wikimedia Commons PD

Imperial Library of Constantinople
Constantinople, Turkey

Because most of the texts were written on papyrus they were rapidly deteriorating. Constantine the Great (272 CE-337 CE) began the process of transferring these documents to parchment. Because he converted to Christianity, Constantine was particularly interested in the Holy Scripture. However he proclaimed religious tolerance throughout his empire.

Constantius II (324 CE-337 CE) established a scriptorium and the library so the works of Greek literature could be copied and preserved. In 372 CE, Valens (364-375 CE) employed four Greek and three Latin scribes. In 425 CE Theodosius II established thirty-one professorial chairs creating a university. The library contained around 100,000 texts. The library continued for almost a thousand years until its destruction during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 CE.

Imperial Library at Nicomedia
Nicomedia, Turkey

The Imperial Library at Nicomedia was established by Roman Emperor Diocletian between 284 and 205 CE. Little is known of this library, however it was known that Diocletian had a passion for building.

Diocletian is also know for the Baths of Diocletian in Rome. The rectangular halls of the Baths likely contained book niches for book storage.

Theological School Libraries

Like the temples built during earlier times, Christian churches often contained libraries. Small collections were often housed in presses to the right and left of the apse. This is noted in a descriptions by Paulinus, Bishop of Nola (Clark 1901):

On the right of the Apse
Here are the sacred vessels stored, and here
The peaceful trappings of our holy rites.
On the left of the same
Here he whose thoughts are on the laws of God
May sit and ponder over holy books.

Theological Library at Caesarea

Wikimedia CommonsOrigen (184/5 CE-253/4 CE) was an early Christian scholar and theologian. On his deathbed, Origen donated his private library to the city establishing the core collection for the library. Saint Pamphilus of Caesarea (200s CE-309 CE) was a presbyter, bible scholar, and avid book collector who helped build what is considered the most comprehensive theology library and school of its time. Bibles were gathered from throughout the world. With over 30,000 manuscripts, many scholars came to study and the school and library. Unfortunately, little is known about the school and library because it was destroyed during an invasion in the seventh century.

The image on the right shows Origen.

Pamphilus oversaw the production of accurate copies of the Scriptures at the scriptorium. Known for his zeal and accuracy, he reflects the ideal of the library as an authoritative source of information. Saint Jerome described how Pamphilus supplied copies of the Scriptures to poor scholars as well as women.

Monastic Libraries

Some early Christians began joining small rural communities where they could live a simple life.

The Rule of S. Pachomius
Tabennisi, Denderah, Egypt

Between 292 CE and 345 CE, The Rule of S. Pachomius monastery kept books in cupboards inset into the walls. Books could be borrowed for one week and then returned. According to Clark (1901), an officer was charged with counting and storing books at the end of each day.

Lateran Palace and Papal Library
Rome, Italy

The first indication of a papal library is found during the fourth century. It was likely housed at the Lateran Palace which became the Basilica of St. John Lateran. The palace was given to the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) by Constantine. According to Gambles (1999),

"Excavations carried out at the beginning of the twentieth century in the Capella Sancta Sanctorum, the only surviving part of the ancient Lateran Palace, discovered among the foundations of the chapel the remains of a room of the earliest Lateran library. On one wall was a fresco of a reader, apparently Augustine, seated at a desk, an open codex before him. Beneath it was a legend referring to the writings of the fathers... Clearly this library contained theological literature, not merely archives. The painting dates from the fifth or early sixth century, but the room was probably a library much earlier."


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

Gamble, Harry (1997). Books and Readers in the Early Church. Yale University Press. Preview Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=2aEJfsXY57cC...

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