Notes & Reviews

"Libraries in the Ancient World"
by Lionel Casson [2002]

Web Publication by Mountain Man Graphics, Australia

Libraries in the Ancient World - Lionel Casson

[Paperback edition: 2002] Amazon

Cover Review

This work tells the story of Ancient libraries from their very beginnings, when "books" were clay tablets and writing was a new phenomenon. Classicist Lionel Casson takes us on a tour from the royal libraries of the Ancient Near East, through the private and public libraries of Greece and Rome, down to the first Christian monastic libraries. He explains what books were acquired and how, who read them, how they were organized, and more.

NOTES & Comments


... the spread of Christianity and of monasticism fundamentally changed the course of library history.


1) ??? near Nippur in southern Mesopotamia: group of clay tablets dated c.2500 BCE

2)1980 archaeology: Ebla in Syria: 2000 tablets in the Abla's royal palace (destroyed c.2300-2250 BCE)

3) Hattusas, 200 miles SE of Ankara, capital of Hittite empire from 17th-13th century BCE (Royal palace archaeology)
   Evidence of use of tablet "catalogues": "practically all of the works listed in the catalogue have to do with religion"

4) Temple of Ashur, Syria - end of 12th century BCE lists the name of a founder of a library:
   Tiglath-Pileser I, one of Assyria's greatest rulers (1115-1077 BCE)

5) Later ruler Ashurbanipal (668-627 BCE): "first systematically collected library in the ancient near east".
   Archaeology (British) later half 19th century: two royal palaces
   "Epic of Gilgamesh"; "Epic of Creation": tablets acquired via conquest 

6) Diodorus writing 1st BCE describes a building complex of "Ozymandias" = Ramses II (1279-1213 BCE)
   Egyptian libraries used papyrus which does not survive.



1) Mycenaean Age (1600-1200 BCE): clay tablets (19th CE archaeology) with early form of Greek.
   None were literary, records of palace administration.

2) Dark age until 9th century BCE; Greeks borrowed Phoenician language and adapted it.
   Alphabetic script of 24 or so signs (easier to master) replaced cunieiform (difficult to master)
   Dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides [A,S,E] (650-600 BCE)
   Iliad and Odyssey: written form c.550 BCE - were comitted to memory and recital of trained bards
   Vases of 490 BCE show seated female person reading from scroll.
   Schools may be inferred from at least 5th century BCE
   Papyrus (Egyptian manufacture from 3000 BCE) exported to Greece: height (30-40 cms) and width (11-24 cms; commonly 16-18)
   Sheets then joined to form roll 3.2-3.6 m (some of 6m); writing on side with horizontal strips
   Book-sellers appear end 5th beginning 4th century BCE; mentioned by Socrates 399 BCE

3) Aristotle (d.322 BCE) creates large personal library: copied by Ptolemies of Egypt

4) Decree of Lycurgus (338-335 BCE): authoritative versions of the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides [A,S,E]

   "written versions of the tragedies [of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides] are to be preserved
    in the records office, and the city clerk is to read them, for the purposes of comparison, to  
    the actors playing the roles, and they are not to depart from them."




Ptolemaic Egypt         332–30 BC 
Roman & Byzantine Egypt 30 BC–641 AD 
Sassanid Egypt          621–629 CE

Ptolemy I Soter I, Macedonian general under Alexander the Great, ruled Egypt (323–283 BC)
Ptolemy II Philadelphus ruled Egypt (283-246 BCE) 
Ptolemy III Euergetes reigned 246–222 BCE
Ptolemy IV Philopator reigned 221–205 BCE
Ptolemy V Epiphanes reigned 204–181 BCE
Ptolemy VI Philometor reigned 180-145 BCE
etc ... Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II [Physcon]  

MASSIVE ACQUISITION OF BOOKS: solution = royal high-handedness = money (Egyptian grain [equiv. of modern oil] and papyrus)

Ptolemy I: created (brain-child) the Museum: "think tank"; writers, poets, scientists, scholars
        Massive inducements = Tax exempt, salary, lodging, food: sponsorship by the Ptolemies
        Ptolemy I asks Euclid whether there was a short-cut in learning geometry other than "Elements"?
        Euclid's response: "There is no royal road"
        Ptoley I: historian, Alexander's conquests, mathematics (Euclid), physics (Strabo)

Ptolemy II: zoologist, classics, disorder in texts of Homer (from Chios, Argos, Sinope, etc): standardised
            translation of Hebrew Bible to LXX {????????????} <<================== Eusebius/Aristeas Letter
            Rolls in main library totalled 490,000, in daughter library 42,800
            Main library part of palace, subsiduary library in religious sanctuary (Serapis)

Ptolemy III: patron of literature
             sought the original Athenian books of [A.S.E], Athenians wanted "15 talent" [millions of $$] bond
             sent the Athenians back deluxe copies instead of originals, allowing them to keep bond.
             got Eratosthenes (geographer, circumference of Earth), Herophilus (anatomy via Cos) + Archimedes


Zenodotus (of Ephesus)
 Head of Library, tutor of Ptolemaic children; (standardisation of Homer), pioneer of "library science"
 First to introduce alphabetical order to collections (after classification of genre)
 Only used the FIRST Alpha; full alphabetic order started 2nd century CE

Callimachus of Cyrene: (310/305–240 BC) 
 succeeded Zenodotus; created "Pinakes" [tables]  considered to be the first library catalog
 "Tables of Persons Eminent in Every Branch of Learninbg together with a list of their writings"
 Detailed bibliographical data + "shelf ref"
 These two figures served in the first half of the 3rd century BCE: focussed on literature
 Staff: sorters, checkers, clerks, pages, copyists, repairers (surmised) - likely slaves.

Apollonius of Rhodes was the successor to Zenodotus. 

Eratosthenes of Cyrene (c.245-205 BCE)
 succeeded Apollonius and compiled his "scheme of the great bookshelves." 
 focussed on science

Aristophanes of Byzantium (205-185 BCE)
Aristarchus (c.175-145 BCE)
 Focus back to literature and language: standardised works for Hessiod, Pindar & lyric poets
 Aristarchus prepared commentaries - ancestors of annotated editions
 They furthered lexicography, following the poet-scholar Philitas (c.300 BCE): rare and archaic words in Homer, etc
 Similar to a "Dictionary" - "Lexeis" or "words"

Didymus (nick="Chalkenteros" = "Bronze Guts" - second half of first century BCE (before Roman occupation)
 Produced commentaries (3500-4000 books); glossaries

Dionysius Thrax - Survey of Greek language in 50 pages Greek Grammar. (Remained standard until the 12th century)

Library destroyed 48 BCE (?) during Caesar's stay in Alexandria.
Accounts by Plutarch and Cassius Dio.

However "Bronze Guts" active after 48 BCE; 
 in 31 BCE Anthony gave Cleopatra 200,000 books from the library of Pergamum;
 Rome took over Egypt c.30 BCE
 Imperial appointment to the library under subsequent emperors;
 Claudius (41-54 CE) built an addition.
 Library now reserved for military people?
 End of library came 270 CE under Aurelian in the course of suppressing Palmyra uprising ????



Library at Antioch, capital of the Seleucids at least by rule of Antiochis III (222-187 BCE)
 Director = Euphorion (scholar-poet)
Library at Pergamum: 
Philetaerus an administrator in the employ of Lysimachus (one of Alexander's generals)
 Foresaw invasion by Seleucius 282 BCE: obtained control of Pergamum and treasure.
 Attalus I (241-197 BCE) sponsored the arts and sculpture.
 Eumenes II (197-160 BCE) created library: Pergamum became centre of literature and learning rivalling Alexandria
 Library constructed as an adjunct to the sanctuary of Athena (goddess of wisdom)
 Keen Competition between Alexandria/Pergamum: cessation of papyri trade gave rise to "parchment" (leather skins).



Some inscriptions attest to grants provided for cities school teachers.



Homer leads by a large margin, the Illiad favored over the Odyssey.
Euripides is runner-up.  These works were used in school rooms
Copies found (with deceased) often sourced from personal collections.


Inscriptions attest to donors for public libraries (eg: Cos, Athens, Rhodes)

Libraries also associated with "gymnasia" (standard in a Greek city);
This implies libraries in more than 100 cities where gymnasia are attested.



Livius Andronicus: First Latin literature (translations from Greek) c.240 BCE (Livius was a slave)
Horace (late first century BCE), Rome's great lyric poet, learned Livius at school.

By the middle of the second century BCE there were rich library sources in Rome.
They were private, scattered, but existed.

Plautus (end 3rd century BCE) - Roman literacist: Latin adaptions of "Greek New Comedy"
 Originally written for Athenian stage (350-250 BCE): entertainment at Roman festivals
 Plautus furnished scripts but was poor. (sources: Mendander, Philemon, Diphilus)
 The managers of the Roman entertainment purchaced Greek originals from booksellers in Tarentum or Syracuse
 Collections of Latin and greek drama - via private libraries of richer families +  theatre managers

Aemilianus Paulus: battle of Pydna (168 BCE) overthrew Macedonian empire.
His sons Scipio and X carried off the royal library as booty (started by King Archelaus mid 5th BCE)

Scipio Aemilianus (mid 2nd century BCE): final war 146 BCE Rome and Carthage - promoted Greek culture
 Many Roman private libraries benefited from this acquired library 
 Ennius (father of Roman literature) translated Euhemerus

C. Sulpicius Galus also used these sources: made specialised collections (astronomy)

Polybius brought to Rome by Scipio: wrote a history of the ROmans (Second Punic War: 218-202 BCE) to 168 BCE
 Introductory book states he starts "where Timaeus left off"


In the first half of the 1st century, via the booty of war, Rome's library sources were further enriched.
Sulla brought to Rome the collection of Aristotle (stored underground away from [Pergamum] King's agents).
Collection sold to bibliophine Apellicon in Athens.

86 BCE Sulla seized Athens and this collection: Aristotle and his successor Theophrastus.
Tyranio put the collection into good shape.

Lucullus (General) collected libraries via booty in military campaigns in northern Asia Minor.
66 BCE established libraries in his town house in Roma and in villas in country.
These libraries were laid out similar to the Pergamum library: complex of rooms + areas
Lucullus made these collections available to friends and Greek literati. (Cited by Plutarch)
Roman PRIVATE libraries of Cicero, Atticus, Varro (Latin book compiler)
Very large libraries staffed by slaves: copies made
Book acquisitions were made via friends and/or copying clerks.

Herculaneum library (entombed by Vesuvius 79 CE) a private collection 1800 papyrus rolls
Great majority are of the works of Philodemus (Epicuran philosopher 75-40 BCE) of Rome.
This "Villa of the Papyi" may have belonged to Caesar's father-in-law I. Calpurnius Piso.

Roman bookstores were extant at the time of Cicero but suffered "poor copies".
Bookstores were essentially sciptoria: kept copies for reproduction for customers
Perhaps took orders on speculation then sources books for the copying

Best book-sellers were in Alexandria or Rhodes or Athens

Shortly before his assination 44 BCE Julius Caesar planned to build a large public library.
One for Greek and one for Latin books - task entrusted to Marcus Varro (who had written "On Libraries")
Project completed a few years later by Asinius Pollio: new age for Roman libraries




Pollio "successful military expedition": spoils for Rome.
Funds for Rome's first public library: structure now disappeared
Centrally located just off the Forum: Greek and Latin 2 sections
Adorned with statues of famous authors (incl Varro - living)


28 BCE Temple of Apollo and adjacent library on Palatine Hill: Rome's 2nd pubic library. 
A 3rd constructed a 3rd a few years after: Southern part of Campus Martius, west of the Forum: two sections
Remnants remain of the Palatine Library only: had 2 identical chambers side by side (Grek/Latin).
Tiberius (14-37 CE) added one (possibly 2) libraries on the Palatine Hill,
Vespasian added one after the Jewish War 70 CE: near the Forum. 
Trajan added a library with a new Forum c.112/113 CE: remnants exist: alongside the Capitoline Hill.
Capacity of Trajan's library estimated at 20,000 rolls (half Greek, half Latin): Trajan's column nearby.
These libraries were lavish structures.


Libraries attached to PUBLIC BATHS

BCE Public baths in Rome > 200 existed BCE: privately owned and fees were charged.

First free public baths built by Nero.
Baths of Trajan built 109 CE: provision for library containing many rolls (poor remains)
Baths of Caracalla built 212-226 CE: 
Massive Baths estabished by Diocletian 305-6 CE: (unexcavated lying under buildings and streets)
Public baths patronised by all Romans, mean and women, youg and old, rich and poor: library available.



The first Roman public libraries were started from scratch by Pollio and Augustus.
Seutonius: Administrators were often manumitted slaves: Maces, Melissus, Hyginus.
Later admin and personnel via incriptions (epitaphs and honorary decrees)
14-54 CE: (rules of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius): Pappus, Scirtus 
[Post created Tiberius (5 libraries at this time): "procurator bibliothecarum" = Director of the Libraries]
Roman white-collar work left to slaves and freedmen of the emperor: "familia Caesaris"

Vespasian appoints Dionysius of Alexandria (freeborn men of upper economic and social classes)
Hadrian (117-138 CE) and Anoninus Pius (138-161 CE): half a dozen Directors of the Library.
The staff of these freeborn Directors were slaves and a sprinkling of freedmen.

Aulus Gellius: "Attic Nights" - good source of information about libraries 


"During Roman Republican times the chief way in which books entered circulation
had been through the presentation by authors of copies of their works to friends,
fellow writers, patrons, owners of private collections, etc": then via donation
to the Public Library.



Information via Martial (end 1st, beginning 2nd century CE)
There were so many of them that they were able to specialise.

Reference to codex, at one such speciality book store (Secundus's shop).
Public Libraries schedule times: probably from sunrise to about midday. (Std Bus HRS)
Books were fetched from shelves for the public by trained pages: buckets were used for many rolls.


LIBRARIES: outside of the City of Rome

Libraries sponsored by donors: attested by surviving inscriptions
Public libraries in Italy: Pompeii, Comum, Suessa Aurunca, Volsinii, Tibur

Eastern Empire - In reign of Hadrian: 
* on outskirts of Pergamum a sanctuary of Asclepius - donor = Flavia Melitine
Athens: two libraries early 2nd CE, private donor = Celsus; + Hadrian's Library
Ephesus: privately sponsored by Polemaenus (perhaps 3000 rolls) - still largely extant
Three female statues: Wisdom, Virtue and Knowledge (exemplified by Celsus) 

Western empire: two instances of evidence - Carthage in Tunisia, Timgad in Algeria
Roman raised to the ground the original Carthage library 146 BCE; Augustus rebuilt.
Timgad (Thamugadi) founded by Hadrian c.100 CE: 
The library via archaeology constructed 3rd CE or later (private sponsor)
It is presumed that other libraries existed in the west; but no evidence yet found.
Some evidence of local town libraries in honor of local Greek authors:
Rhodiapolis (physician author); Halicarnassus (birthplace of Heroditus)



Earliest reference Martial: "Ovid's Metamorhposes on Membranae" [skins]
"This bulk mass of multiple fold all fifteen poems of Ovid holds"
Other couplets indicate (parchment) codices of Vergil, Cicero, Livy.
Parchment codices indicated in gift of Homer "leather in many folds".
But they were also made up of sheets of papyrus.

Codex was offspring of wooden board writing tablets: stacked together by drilling holes
and passing a cord through the holes = some instances of ten at a time.
The Roman name for a tablet notebook (timber and ivory) was "codex".


"The finds from Egypt enable us to trace the gradual replacement 
 of the roll by the codex. It made its appearance there not long
 after Martial's day, in the second century CE, at the very earliest
 toward the end of the first.  Over 1,330 pieces of Greek literary,
 scientific, and other such writings have been discovered that date
 to the first and second centuries; all are on rolls save less that
 twenty, a mere 1.5 %, on codices. In the third century the percentage
 rises from 1.5 % to about 17%: clearly the codex was gaining favour.
 Around 300 CE the percentage has climbed to 50% ..... By 400 CE it
 is up to 80% and by 500 CE to 90%."

Eventually the 4 sheet quite, which produced 8 leaves and 16 pages, became the norm.
The Latin name "quaternio" (foursome) in the etymological ancestor of the word "quire".

Wht did the adoption of the codex take so long: "the heavy weight of habit".
Readers were accustomed to rolls; the codex was new and strange.



"The finds from Egypt demonstrate unequivocally that from the very beginning
 Christians used only the codex for their copies of the Bible and strongly
 favored it for their other religious writings. The earliest preserved copies
 of the Bible date to the 2nd century or the beginning of the 3rd: there are
 eleven that belonmg to this period (6 containing parts of LXX, 5 containing
 parts of the NT) and every one of these is a codex. This is in striking 
 contrast to the examples of pagan ... works from the same period: out of a
 total of more than 1,200 a mere 30 are codices, less than 3%.

 If we move further down in time to include Bibles dating up to the beginning
 of the 5th century, the figure rises from 11 to around 170: among them are a
 few on rolls, 14 to be precise - but 13 of the 14 can be explained by special
 factors, leaving a sole exceptional instance of a roll bearing Christian 
 This favoring of the codex by the Christians may well have originated where 
 the codex itself seems to have, in Rome. By the second half of the 1st century
 CE, the time when the Gospels were being put down in writing, an important
 Christian community had been built up in the city"


 ".. the codex of parchment makes its appearance there [in Egypt] at the same'
 time as the codex of papyrus, the 2nd century CE. Although the 11 codices of
 the Bible dating to that century .. happen to be of papryus, there are some 18
 codices of the same century with pagan writings, and of these 3 are of parchment.
 Moreover, an illuminating bit of information turns up in a more or less 
 contemporary letter that was recovered from an Egyptian village; in it a son
 tells his father that:

    'Delos came to us and showed us the six parchment codices.
     We didn't choose any but we collated eight others for which
     I gave 100 drachmas on account.'

 Delos, apparently an itinerant bookseller, was peddling a stock of no less that
 14 parchment codices, and these were of interest to a resident of an Egyptian village.
 The parchment codex had travelled far and briskly from Martial's Rome.

 In the 3rd century when the use of codices became widespread, the parchment codex
 held its own. The total number of surviving codices that date to this century is more
 than 100, at least 17 of these are parchment, around 16%.  In the 4th century the
 percentage rises to about 35% - of some 160 codices, some 50 are parchment.


No such statistics are available for the Greco-Roman world outside of Egypt,
because too few codices from the relevant centuries have survived there.

The oldest codices to have survived from outside Egypt are no earlier that the 4th
and 5th centuries and in number but a handful - several of the Bible, several of
Vergil, one of Homer, a few others. All are parchment.



Western empire subject to invasions, Constaniple lasted to Turkish conquest 1453 CE
Emperor's palace plus one of the four patriarchs of the east: Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem
Theodosius II 425 CE established 31 professorial chairs: Greek & Latin rhetoric, Law = University
Justinian compiled the Codex Justinianus: three major city libraries
1) Secular library at the University for the facult and students (remained extant until the Middle Ages)
2) Palace library for the royal family & civil service (remained until the Turks 1453 CE)
3) Theological library at the seat of the patriarchy
These 3 libraries ended up as the ranking ones: rival libraries ceased to exist under Arabs (636-642 CE)

Alexandria Museum Library: destroyed by Aurelius c.270 CE?
Alexandria Serapion Temple Library: destroyed by Theophilus 390 CE (orders of Theodosius: close pagan temples)

After 642 CE the Patriachy's library at Constantinople: eastern empires greatest theological collection.

Jerusalem Library: early 3rd century - housed in the church of the Holy Sepulchre (Alexander, via Eusebius)
Caesarea library: 2nd half 3rd century - over 30,000 volumes collected by Pamphilus, had scriptorium.
Inherited by Eusebius, used by Jerome
Rome had no theological collections of great importance: 
Damasus I (366-384 CE) established papal library in Church San Lorenzo (at his family mansion).
Sometime later it was transferred to the Lateran Palace: papal archives there 7th CE
These archives were strictly Christian; Jerome's dream, Heavenly judge asked "What religion"? 
A=Christian, Response: "You lie: you are no Christian, you are a Ciceronian.
Other Churchmen were hostile: Pope Gregory the Great (590-604 CE) rejected pagan literature.

Isidore, Bishop of Seville (600-636 CE): had a great many Christian (sacred and secular) and pagan books.
Isidore considered the pagan books unfit for reading by his monks.
Bookcases for Origen, Eusebius, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome
Book cases for Roman jurists: Paulus and Gaius; Greek medical: Hippocrates and Galen
Book case for "quotations from authors: Isidore was well acquainted with Greek and Latin writers


"We dont know what happened to Isidore's books; chances are they were dispersed and lost."


Pachomian rule: monks must be literate, and if they could not read, they were taught.
"It follows that the monasteries must have had books".
"The second-in-command of the monastery was charged with taking care of the books; locked away at night.

Monasteries of Constaninople: perhaps had 100 books in its collection.
Monastery on island of Patmos founded 1088 CE by Christodoulos (private collection donated)
An inventory of 1201 amounted to 330 books: minor role played by monasteries of East

Western monasteries: Monte Casino estblished 529 CE by Benedict (midway between Rome and Naples)
Rules mandated the regular reading books by the monks; but there was no scriptoria.
Books were donated and often the source were booksellers.

"The spread of Christianity did not put the booksellers out of business; it added business."
Sulpicius Severus c.400 CE commented over new book to arrive in Rome by Martin of Tours.
   "I saw the booksellers exulting that it was the greatest source of profit they had;
    nothing sold faster, nothing sold for a better price."

c.600 CE Rome was still centre of book trade: Pope Gregory required books for a mission to Britain.

Cassiodorus founded a monastery ("Vivarium") 540-550 CE, and authored the "Institutiones"
Emphasised the role of monks as scribes; created library (via donation) and scriptorium.
Produced Latin and greek authors (Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Hippocrates, Galen, et al)
After he died 575-585 CE his monastery ceased to exist: but his "Institutiones" circulated widely.

  "Under the influence of the "Institutiones" monasteries gradually moved toward becoming research libraries.
   They set up scriptoria and resorted to inter-library loan to expand their holdings."

612 CE St. Colomban founded a monastery at Bobbio near Pavia with library and scriptioria.
St. Gallen in Switzerland; Fulda in Germany; and a good number of other places. 

These [monastery] libraries, whether founded by scholars who gloried in reading books,
such as Petrarch, or by nobles who glories in collecting them, such as the Medici family,
mark the opening of a new age of library history.

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