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A survey of ancient libraries - Lionel Casson, LIBRARIES IN THE ANCIENT WORLD (Yale University Press, New Haven, CT 2001). Pp. 189, 30 ills. ISBN 0-300-08809-4. $22.95.

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 February 2015

T. Keith Dix*
Dept. of Classics, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602


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Copyright © Journal of Roman Archaeology L.L.C. 2002

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1 Pedersén, O., Archives and libraries in the Ancient Near East 1500-300 B.C. (Bethesda, MD 1998) 3 Google Scholar: The term ‘archive’ here … refers to a collection of texts, each text documenting a message or a statement, for example, letters, legal, economic, and administrative documents. In an archive there is usually just one copy of each text, although occasionally a few copies may exist. ‘Library,’ on the other hand, denotes a collection of texts normally with multiple copies for use in different places at different times, and includes, e.g., literary, historical, religious, and scientific texts. In other words, libraries may be said to consist of the texts of tradition. With rather broad definitions of the terms ‘document’ and ‘literary text,’ it may be simplest to say that archives are collections of documents and libraries are collections of literary texts.

2 The University of Mosul in Iraq has announced plans to revive the Library of Ashurbanipal. With the recent opening of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt, perhaps we can look forward to a modern version of the Hellenistic rivalry between Alexandria and Pergamum.

3 The word bibliotheca (Greek βιβλιοθήκη) goes unmentioned before chapt. 9. The Greek word means ‘bookcase’, which suggests a rough definition: when you have enough books to require a bookcase, then you have a ‘library’. In any case, βιβλιοθήκη also comes to mean ‘library’, that is, a collection of books, and the room or building in which those books are housed and used. The Romans took over the Greek word and its range of meanings. In both Greek and Latin, the application of the word, at least in literary and historical sources, seems to be restricted to collections of literary texts. The same restriction does not apply to administrative terminology, at least in Roman Egypt, where each nome capital had an archive for public documents (ἠ βιβλιοθήκη τῶν δημοσίων λόγων) and an archive for private property (ἡ βιβλιοθήκη τῶν ἐνκτήσεων): see Burkhalter, F., “Archives locales et centrales en Egypte romaine,” Chiron 20 (1990) 191216 Google Scholar.

Perhaps we all recognize a library when we see it; but unexamined assumptions about the identity of ancient and modern libraries can mislead.

4 Casson says of it: “The collection Aristotle put together, despite its extent and variety, was strictly personal, a tool for his multifarious studies” (31). What exactly was the ‘library of Aristotle’? Strabo (13.1.54 C 608-9) says:

And from Skepsis came the Socratics Erastos and Koriskos and Neleus the son of Koriskos, a pupil of Aristotle and Theophrastus, who received the library of Theophrastus, in which was the library of Aristotle; for Aristotle gave his library to Theophrastus, to whom he also left the school; he was the first we know of to have collected books and he taught the kings in Egypt the arrangement of a library. And Theophrastus gave it to Neleus; and he carrying it away to Scepsis gave it to his descendants.

Strabo implies that the ‘library of Aristotle’ consisted of Aristotle's works, to which Theophrastus then added his own; the clear implication of Strabo's remarks, later in this passage, on the decline of the Peripatetic school is that Theophrastus left to Neleus, and Neleus removed to his home town of Skepsis, unique copies (perhaps even autographs) of most of the works of Aristotle and Theophrastus. Plutarch likewise (Sulla 26.1-3) describes the library of Apellicon (who acquired the collection from the descen¬dants of Neleus) as ‘the writings of Aristotle and Theophrastus’. Strabo and Plutarch view the collection as one which can be traced back directly to the hands of Aristotle and Theophrastus; both connect this collection with the alleged disappearance and rediscovery of a (perhaps the) major portion of the corpus of Aristotle and Theophrastus and with the revival of Aristotelian studies in the late 1st c. B.C. Strabo's aside on Aristotle, ‘he was the first we know of to have collected books and he taught the kings in Egypt the arrangement of a library’, suggests a wider significance for the ‘library of Aristotle’, as Casson points out (28-29). Books do seem to have been particularly important to Aristotle and his philosophical school. Plato is supposed to have called Aristotle ὁ ἀναγνώστης (the reader) (Vita Marciana 6-7), presumably because Aristotle was a voracious reader; although, since the anagnostes was usually a slave, it may also be a matter of Aristotle engaging in a pursuit normally left to slaves. Aristotle recommended the consultation of written works as a first step in the process of dialectic (Top. 1.14.105 b 12), and his own work as doxographer, illustrated in titles attributed to him such as “On the Philosophy of Archytas”, “On the Philosophy of Speusippus and Xenocrates”, and “Problems from the Works of Democritus” (Diog. Laert. 5.25-26), must have required a collection of books. Indeed, Aristotle is reported to have purchased the books of Speusippus, Plato's successor in the Academy, after Speusippus' death for a price of 3 talents (Diog. Laert. 4.5; Gell. 3.17.3); this exorbitant price fits the picture of a book-collector so avid that he might be called ‘the first to have collected books’. The school's research activities, such as collecting constitutions and official records, would also have added to its store of texts. The possession of a library seems to have played a much more critical rôle in the development of the Peripatetic school than it did in the development of any other philosophical school; we hear nothing, for example, of the ‘library of the Academy’ or the ‘library of the Stoics’.

5 The following statements appear to contradict one another: “In 405 B.C., the year the Frogs was presented, Euripides would have had no trouble acquiring an armful of books; by then works of all sorts were available in both prose and verse” (23); “in 405 B.C., book collecting was still so uncommon that Aristophanes could poke fun at Euripides for going in for it” (28).

K. Reckford compared Aristophanes' bibiion-jokes to computer jokes: “Although books may in practice have concerned only a philosophical, scientific, and artistic elite in the later fifth century BC, they still were recognizable instruments of change” ( Aristophanes' Old-and-New Comedy [Chapel Hill 1987] 404)Google Scholar. In Aristophanes, the new technology of literacy seems to have fallen into the wrong hands, those of false and self-serving prophets and meddlesome officials (as in Birds, where a prophet, an Athenian inspector, and a salesman of public decrees each arrives with biblion in hand) and of a poet (Euripides) who brings harm to the city (Frogs). Aristophanes may be depicting literacy as the Athenians are most likely to have encountered it — first, as the tool of bureaucratic public administration, and second, as the tool of pamphleteers seeking to disseminate collections of oracles, maxims of philosophers, and other new and disturbing forms of expression. The biblion serves as a comic prop in Aristophanes: characters bearing scrolls are invariably tricksters, and often a source of annoyance to the city and Demos. On Aristophanes and literacy, see Lowe, N. J., “Aristophanes' books,” Annals of Scholarship 10 (1993) 6383 Google Scholar.

6 The ‘Letter of Aristeas’ includes the story of the Septuagint, the translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek at Alexandria; it purports to be a letter written by one Aristeas, commander of the bodyguard of Ptolemy II Philadelphus, to his brother Philocrates. Aristeas says that Demetrius of Phalerum suggested to Ptolemy II Philadelphus that he ask for a translation of the Jewish Law. In response to Philadelphus's request, 72 (or 70) learned Jews were sent from Jerusalem. Taking up residence on the island of Pharos, these scholars produced a Greek translation of the Law for the Library in 72 days. The letter of Aristeas is considered to have been written not in the 3rd (during the reign of Ptolemy II) but in the 2nd c. B.C. See Jobes, K. H. and Silva, M., Invitation to the Septuagint (Grand Rapids 2000) 3337 Google Scholar.

7 I know of only one story in ancient literature that involves the consultation of the Alexandrian Library (discussed by Casson on 38), and it nicely illustrates the quality of our evidence. The story comes from Vitruvius (7 praef. 4-7), who begins with the mistaken assertion that the kings of Pergamum founded their library even before the Ptolemies founded the Alexandrian library and that the Pergamene example inspired the Ptolemies to build a library. Here, as at other times in Roman history, the Pergamene propaganda machine seems to have been much more effective at Rome than the Alexandrian one. Vitruvius reports that Ptolemy established public contests in honor of the Muses and Apollo. He selected 6 men to judge the contests, then turned to ‘those in charge of the library’ (qui supra bybliothecam fuerunt) for help in finding a seventh judge (thus bringing the number of judges up to the ‘canonical' number). They suggested one Aristophanes (of Byzantium), who spent his days reading all the books, and he was appointed. Poets were first to compete. The other 6 judges voted to award the first prize to the poet who had received the most applause from the audience. Aristophanes, however, said that the prize should go to the poet who had least pleased the audience. In response to the indignation of the king and the audience, Aristophanes said that the only true poet was the man he had chosen, that the rest had recited things not their own, and that judges ought to approve original compositions, not thefts. Relying upon his memory, Aristophanes brought out texts from certain bookcases and forced the poets to confess their borrowings. The king had the poets tried for theft, then sent them off in disgrace; and he rewarded Aristophanes with gifts and made him head of the Library. In its outcome the contest of the poets becomes a contest for the Librarianship.

8 For a summary of the various proposed reconstructions of these rooms, see Radt, W., Pergamon: Geschichte und Bauten einer antiken Metropole (Darmstadt 1999) 165–68Google Scholar. On the problems with the traditional identification, see Johnson, L. L., The Hellenistic and Roman library: studies pertaining to their architectural form (Ph.D. diss., Brown University 1984) 4461 Google Scholar, and Mielsch, H., “Die Bibliothek und die Kunstsammlung der Könige von Pergamon,” AA 1994, 765–79Google Scholar.

9 Isid., Orig. 6.5.1. The magnificent gesture of Aemilius, choosing to take a Greek library in preference to the splendid treasures of a Macedonian king, clearly caught the imagination of those Greeks who praised the philhellenes among their conquerors. Plutarch (Aem. 28.6) says that Aemilius took nothing from the royal treasures and allowed his sons, Fabius Maximus and Scipio Aemìlianus, to choose out only the books of the king. That they took the entire collection of Perseus is generally assumed, although Plutarch's use of the verb ἐκλέγω might be taken to mean that they were allowed only to pick out some books from the collection for themselves. Plutarch calls the sons φιλογραμματοῦντες; Aemilius had given his sons a Greek education, in grammar, logic and rhetoric, sculpting and painting, and hunting and athletics (Plut., Aem. 6.8). His gift to his sons suggests one reason why Roman aristocrats began to assemble libraries — in order to further the education of their children.

10 For Lucullus’ library, see now Dix, T. K., “The library of Lucullus,” Athenaeum 88 (2000) 441–64Google Scholar.

11 Fam. 13.77.3, Cicero to P. Sulpicius Rufus, governor of Illyricum, August 46: … Dionysius, servus meus, qui meam bibliothecen multorum nummorum tractavit, cum multos libros surripuisset nec se impune latitrum putaret, aufugit; Fam. 5.9.2, P. Vatinius, governor of Illyricum, to Cicero, July 45: tuus servus anagnostes; Fam. 5.11.3, Cicero to P. Vatinius, Dec. 45; Fam 5.10a.1-2.1, P. Vatinius to Cicero, Dec. 45/Jan. 44. Cicero implies that fear of imminent detection of his theft led Dionysius to flee, and he seems to believe that the books were still in the slave's possession; on the other hand, Dionysius may have stolen the books specifically to finance his escape, and may have left a trail of sold-off books behind him as he made his way to Illyricum and Dalmatia.

12 For detailed discussion and references, see my Private and public libraries at Rome in the first century B.C. (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Michigan 1986) 133–37Google Scholar.

13 Cicero's letters on this project are Att. 4.4a.1, 2; 4.8; 4.5.4. For my reconstruction of events and bibliography, see Dix ibid. 114-16, 127, 135-37.

14 Turner, E. G., “Sniffing glue,” CronErc 13 (1983) 714 Google Scholar; Dorati, T., “Glutinatores,” ZPE 50 (1983) 2528 Google Scholar. Turner remarks that Cicero used the word sittybae for the book-labels but perhaps should have written sillybi.

15 See Dix, T. K., “‘Public libraries’ in ancient Rome: ideology and reality,” Libraries & Culture 29 (1994) 282–96Google Scholar.

16 See Starr, R. J., “The circulation of literary texts in the Roman world,” CQ 37 (1978) 213–23Google Scholar.

17 Suet., Aug. 29.3; POxy. 2435 verso; Tac, Ann. 2.37; Dio Cass. 58.9.3; F. Millar, G. B., The emperor in the Roman world (London 1977) 19, 120 Google Scholar; Castagnoli, F., “Sulla biblioteca del tempio di Apollo Palatino,” RAL ser. 8.4 (1949) 382 Google Scholar.

18 Thompson, D., “The meetings of the Roman Senate on the Palatine,” AJA 85 (1981) 335–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 In fact, we know neither the precise location nor the plan of the Palatine library built by Augustus. The preserved remains identified as the Palatine library are Domitianic in date and presumably represent a rebuilding of the library in connection with the construction of his palace. The Augustan library, according to G. Carettoni, lies c.7-9 m beneath the Domitianic portico and library, on the level of the lower terrace of the House of Augustus; further excavation will be necessary to establish the location and plan of the Augustan library and to determine whether the Domitianic building repeats its plan. See Henzen, G., “Scavi palatini,” BdI 1862, 228 Google Scholar; de Gregori, G., “Biblioteche d'Antichità,” Accademie e Biblioteche d'Italia 11 (1937) 1315 Google Scholar; Nash, E., Pictorial Dictionary vol. 1, 204–5Google Scholar; Carettoni, G., “Le costruzioni di Augusto e il Tempio di Apollo sul Palatino,” ArchLaz 1 (1978) 72 Google Scholar. Richmond, O. L. (JRS 4 [1914] 201)Google Scholar argued that the Augustan library had one hall, rather than two, because most ancient writers refer to it in the singular; Horsfall, N. (“Empty shelves on the Palatine,” G&R 40 [1993] 67, n.53)Google Scholar questions the value of the evidence for the Augustan library

Augustus could not claim to be the first to open a public library in Rome; that title had already gone to Asinius Pollio. So why did Augustus give Rome its second public library? If Pollio's library was indeed a ‘Capitoline library’ (see next note), an intriguing answer suggests itself. Augustus developed the Palatine triad as a parallel and rival to the Capitoline triad; he built a magnificent home for the triad on ‘his’ hill, as part of an architectural complex which included his own residence; and he even moved the Sibylline books from the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline to the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine. We can place Augustus’ Palatine library, attached to the porticoes of the Temple of Apollo, in this context, and view his library as a rival to Pollio's. Just as Augustus carried out Caesar's plans for a theater, although at a much reduced scale, he also carried out Caesar's plan for libraries in a setting Caesar could not have imagined.

20 Casson does not discuss Purcell's, N. proposal (“Atrium Libertatis,” PBSR 61 [1993] 125–55)Google Scholar that the Atrium Libertatis is the building we have come to call the Tabularium on the Capitoline. If the Atrium Libertatis was on the Capitoline, we can think of Pollio's public library, the first in Rome, as the ‘Capitoline Library’. Pollio may have been laying claim not only to completion of one of Julius Caesar's unfinished projects but also to a locale and building which figured in Caesar's plans to ‘adorn and build up’ the city of Rome. The building that lay in the saddle between the two summits of the Capitoline would have provided a link between the ‘theater of Caesar’ on the Capitolium and the Senate House and Forum of Caesar below the Arx. This putative Caesarian complex would have matched Pompey's complex with its own theater, Curia, and Temple of Venus, but would also have outdone it: in location, on a site embracing the Capitoline and the Roman Forum; in divinity, by replacing Venus Victrix with Venus Genetrix; and in cultural significance, by incorporating Rome's first public library. One might even suggest that this swathe of Caesarian territory was intended to isolate Pompey's complex and shut it off from the heart of Rome.

21 Dix, T. K. and Houston, G. W., “Libraries in Roman baths?,” Balnearia 4 (1995) 24 Google Scholar; Kahler, J., “Die Terme Taurine bei Civitavecchia,” RömMitt 106 (1999) 374–76Google Scholar.

22 Conversely, not every building with niches in its walls can be identified securely as a library: see, for example, Russell's, J. review in JRA 10 (1997) 541–42Google Scholar, discussing the building of T. Flavius Neon at Sagalassos (Pisidia).

23 When Pliny the Younger gave a library to his home town of Comum, he delivered the dedicatory speech to the town councillors of Comum in their council building, thus (he says) avoiding the favor and acclamation of the mob and even the appearance of seeking their favor (Ep. 1.8). Pliny's audience represented at one and the same time those most able and most likely to bestow gifts upon Comum, those most likely to fear the courting of popular favor by other members of their own class, and those most likely to avail themselves of a municipal library. Pliny announced a second benefaction to Comum in the same speech, an annual contribution towards the maintenance of freeborn children; he realized, he says, that such a benefaction did not offer the pleasures for eyes and ears provided by the public entertainment that often accompanied the dedication of a public building. Perhaps he realized the same might be true of the library itself. See my “Pliny's library at Comum,” in Davis, D. G. Jr. (ed.), Libraries and philanthropy (Library History Seminar IX; Austin 1996) 85102 Google Scholar (repr. from Libraries and Culture 31 [1996])Google Scholar.

24 See El-Abbadi, M., The life and fate of the ancient Library of Alexandria (Paris 1990) 167–78Google Scholar.

25 See O'Donnell, J. J., Cassiodorus (Berkeley 1979) chapt. 6Google Scholar, “Vivarium;” now available in a “Postprint” (1995), at On the remains identified as the ‘Library of Agapetus’, see LTUR vol. 1, 195–96Google Scholar, s.v. “Bibliotheca Agapeti” (S. Panella, C. Pavolini).

26 Editing appears nigh perfect. I found only 3 typographical errors, all in figures: the labels for the maps of “The Greco-Roman world: the west” (xi) and “The Greco-Roman world: the east” (xii) have been switched; fig. 8.4 should read “Galla Placidia.”

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A survey of ancient libraries - Lionel Casson, LIBRARIES IN THE ANCIENT WORLD (Yale University Press, New Haven, CT 2001). Pp. 189, 30 ills. ISBN 0-300-08809-4. $22.95.
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