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Ancient Libraries: 300s BCE

Woman reading scroll Wikimedia PDLet's explore libraries in ancient Greek culture.

During the Greek Classical period between 500BCE and 323BCE, thinkers, teachers, and philosophers like Socrates (469BCE-399BCE), Plato (424BCE-348BCE) and Aristotle (384BCE-322BCE) promoted the quest for knowledge.

Schools, government archives, and personal collections attest to an interest in information. However despite the focus on literacy and the increased demand for books, little evidence has been found of formal libraries during this period.

There is evidence of private and personal libraries.

According to Kesting (1978, 7), "Ancient Greek libraries tended to be small and private." In addition, many of the cultural activities were spontaneous and preservation wasn't a concern.

The image on the right shows a woman reading a scroll during this time period.

The Academy
Athens, Greece

Eretria Painter, Wikimedia Commons, PDWith this movement, the popularity of books and literacy rates increased dramatically. The Academy in Athens as well as many other schools arose in Greece and the demand for books increased giving rise to the book trade. Scriptoria were developed for the production of works.

In addition, there may even have been laws that encouraged education for all with the cities contributing to teaching salaries. Evidence exists of many individuals providing endowments to schools and teachers. However, the existence of school libraries is unclear.

The image from the 400s BCE on the right shows Linos holding a papyrus roll while his pupil holds tablets.

Aristotle's Library
Athens, Greece

During this time, being literate became fashionable. As many as 60 per cent of men and 40 percent of women were literate (Kesting, 1978). Many wealthy citizens owned copies of plays and poetry that were performed in open air areas. Unfortunately, the emphasis on spontaneous cultural activities meant that people had little regard for preservation. It's estimated that 90 percent of the documents from this period have been lost.

Many works of art portray people reading and writing. Evidence shows that many individuals created private collections of books. For instance, Aristotle developed a large personal library. References to books can also be found in the plays of the day. In the play The Frogs of Aristophane, Aeschylus exclaims:

Come, no more single lines - let him bring all,
His wife, his children, his Cephisophon,
His books and everything, himself to boot -
I'll counterpoise them with a couple of lines.

Many references can be found in the literature to Aristotle's library. It's thought that he developed a system for organizing materials. However, his collection was scattered at this death, so no direct evidence has been found. Upon the death of Aristotle his collection was inherited by Theophrastus of Lebos. The collection next went to his nephew Neleus of Scepsis. The collection was buried for safe keeping, but unfortunately it was damaged in storage. The remnants were purchased by Appelicon of Teos. Some of the items ended up at Alexandria.

Athens Archives
Athens, Greece

The Athenian government established an archive to maintain official versions of important government documents. In addition, Lycurgus introduced a law to preserve original, written versions of tragedies such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides in the record office. A clerk was assigned to check the authenticity of each work.

Read Casson (2001, 17-30) for more information.

Archives of the Athenian Cavalry
Athens, Greece

It's difficult to know how many archives and libraries existing during this time period. However evidence shows that they did exist. Hundreds of lead tablets from the third and fourth centuries have been found in what is known as the Archives of the Athenian Cavalry. They contain information about horses and their owners. Some of the tablets had been reused.

Lead tablets were common during this time period. They were cheap, permanent, and easy to inscribe making them a popular option for private papers, correspondence, and public documents.


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

Harris, Michael H. (1999). History of Libraries in the Western World. 4th Edition. Scarecrow Press.

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