Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.04.56 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.04.56

George W. Houston, Inside Roman Libraries: Book Collections and Their Management in Antiquity. Studies in the history of Greece and Rome.   Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 2014.  Pp. xvi, 327.  ISBN 9781469617800.  $59.95.  

Reviewed by Scott G. Bruce, University of Colorado at Boulder (


George Houston’s primer to the contents and organization of Roman libraries from the late Republic to the time of Constantine is a valuable work of scholarly outreach intended for students and scholars new to the study of ancient book culture. More expository than argumentative, it discusses in clear and accessible prose “everything that one might find in a Roman library” (p. 1) from the book rolls themselves to the furniture, storage containers, buildings, and personnel that facilitated their use by Roman readers. The introduction to the book lays out basic information on the physical characteristics of papyrus scrolls in antiquity and provides the reader with a vocabulary of technical terms used throughout the study, including opisthograph (a scroll with writing on both sides), sillybon (a tag denoting the author and title of a work, usually attached to the end of a scroll), and stichometric counts (evidence for the enumeration of lines copied by professional scribes, perhaps to calculate their rate of pay). There follow six chapters on the assembly of Roman book collections, the papyrological evidence for ancient book lists, two case studies of the physical remains of book collections from Herculaneum and Oxyrhynchus, the storage facilities that housed ancient libraries, and the personnel who worked in them.

Chapter 1 shows how Roman readers amassed libraries both by accumulating individual volumes over time and by acquiring whole collections at once. The most reliable way to obtain a book was to copy it yourself from an exemplar owned by a friend or available in a library. Wealthy people could forego the personal labor by employing slaves who had been professionally trained as scribes, or by buying the books they desired directly from a book dealer or renting them for a short time for the purpose of copying them. In all cases, the quality of the exemplar and the resulting copy were of the utmost importance to avoid the corruption of texts, a matter frequently lamented in antiquity. Opportunities to buy entire book collections were not uncommon. Some libraries changed hands as bequests; others appeared on the market because they had been confiscated as a penalty for the criminal activity of their owners. At the height of the Republic, large collections of Greek books arrived in Rome as war booty acquired through Roman conquests in the eastern Mediterranean.

Chapter 2 discusses the lists of books found on ancient papyri that may have served as inventories or bibliographies. Of the nineteen extant lists, Houston considers five in detail and three in passing. All of his examples come from Egypt. These lists provide very little information on the collections they describe—usually only the names of authors alongside the titles of their works—but Houston is able to glean some insights into the character of these lost collections based on the following principles: the inclusion of individual book numbers of long works suggests that the collection included only the enumerated books and not the entire work; the appearance of the title of a work in the genitive case suggests that book numbers followed the titles, thus indicating that the entire work was not represented; and the use of the nominative for a book title is suggestive that the work was present in toto. There follow detailed descriptions of the lists in question, which range from specialized collections of works of Old Comedy to inventories that combine literary texts, personal documents, and domestic objects. The conclusions of this chapter are modest: some collections of books were clearly focused on particular genres, while others were not. As a pedagogical tool, this chapter benefits from the inclusion of black and white plates of the papyrus lists. Moreover, Houston helpfully provides the Greek texts of these lists with English translations in Appendix 1.

Chapters 3 and 4 consider the physical remains of book collections found in two locations: a Roman house in Herculaneum buried during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE and concentrations of discarded scrolls found at Oxyrhynchus in late Roman Egypt. Unlike the laconic book lists examined in Chapter 2, these finds delineate in much greater detail the contents of Roman book collections. In the so-called Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, archaeologists have found thousands of fragments of books rolls from an impressive collection of Greek works by Epicurean authors on ethics and rhetoric, which originally numbered many hundreds of scrolls. Dozens of scribes contributed to this collection. The presence of stichometric counts in over half of the surviving scrolls suggests that they were produced commercially rather than by the labor of household slaves. The evidence from Oxyrhynchus is different. Here we are dealing with five collections of scrolls that had been discarded in late antiquity. Despite their modest size, each concentration retains “a more or less distinct personality … shaped, in large part, by a single intelligence and in response to specific interests” (p. 132 ). One of these concentrations (Breccia + GH3, described on pp. 146-148) was an impressive sampling of major authors representing every genre in prose and poetry, including epic, lyric, tragedy, comedy, elegiac, history, rhetoric, philosophy, and fiction; in short, a serious library of professionally prepared scrolls. Equally interesting are the remains of a book collection that belonged to the family of Aurelia Ptolemais, a woman who lived in Oxyrhynchus whose name is known from several documents, including a will from 276 CE. This is one of the only examples in antiquity of a woman associated with a Roman library. One of the common features of the finds at Herculaneum and Oxyrhynchus is the surprising age of the scrolls at the times of their deposition. Most of them were over 150 years old when they were lost or discarded and a few had been in use for over 500 years.

Chapters 5 and 6 move from the physical remains of ancient books to the spaces where they were used and the personnel who made them useable. Chapter 5 describes the literary, archaeological, and artistic evidence for the boxes and containers that held scrolls and the shelving and cabinets that housed them. The libraries of Celsus at Ephesus and Rogatianus in Thamugadi in Algeria are discussed briefly as spaces where books resided, but Houston provides little information about the history of the libraries themselves. The remainder of the chapter treats the furniture and equipment commonly found in Roman libraries, as well as the presence of sculpture and other adornments. Chapter 6 focuses on the evidence for the people who managed Roman book collections, from the owners themselves (Cicero is the prime example here), to the learned individuals hired to organize collections and oversee other works, to the professionals (librarioli and glutinatores) who performed specialized tasks, including the preparation of sillyba and the repair of books, to common laborers, who were most likely slaves. There follows a discussion of the function of imperial libraries and the evidence for the individuals appointed to oversee these collections. The chapter concludes with a useful discussion of the dangers posed to public and private book collections in antiquity, from incompetent scribes and irresponsible staff to the threat of theft and fire.

Inside Roman Libraries is an excellent resource for historians with little to no background in the culture of ancient book collecting in the age before the codex. It provides a straightforward introduction to the production and procurement of book rolls in antiquity, the character of Roman libraries, the life span of book rolls, the reading interests of ancient book enthusiasts, the function of private and public book collections, and the perils that threatened these precious resources. Houston’s study will be especially useful as preliminary reading in introductory courses on Roman literary culture or in seminars on the history of the book.

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