Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.10.25 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.10.25

Thomas G. Hendrickson, Ancient Libraries and Renaissance Humanism: the 'De bibliothecis' of Justus Lipsius. Brill’s studies in intellectual history 265. Brill’s texts and sources in intellectual history, 20.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2017.  Pp. 282.  ISBN 9789004338166.  $158.00.  

Reviewed by Yun Lee Too (

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E. J. Brill has produced a handsome volume with Thomas Hendrickson’s work on De bibliothecis, which provides us with the text in Latin and an English translation of the Renaissance work on libraries of the scholar Justus Lipsius that should be of considerable interest to scholars working in earlier book cultures.

Hendrickson’s work is a scholarly and careful edition of Lipsius’ work, containing an introductory section, which declares Lipsius’ work as ‘the first monograph on library history, proving a seminal work’ (p. 10) and justifying the current edition as necessary since previous texts are full of errors and do not contain the Latin text. Hendrickson then treats the text of De bibliothecis, discussing its overall purpose in making the case for a public and secular research library, the author’s sources and the subsequent print history of the work. Hendrickson follows that standard format of a textual commentary. He treats the career of Lipsius, and then discusses the precedents for such a work on libraries, surveying the relevant texts from late antiquity to the Renaissance. Then, there is discussion of the purpose of De bibliothecis, and of Lipsius’ ancient and contemporary sources with further consideration of the author’s Latin before the text proper with accompanying translation.

Of Lipsius Hendrickson notes that he was a somewhat opportunistic character in an age of religious unrest and transformation; his religious affiliation changed over time, now Catholic, now Calvinist and then, finally, Catholic, as he moved from the Jesuits with whom he studied, to the Lutheran University of Jena and then to the Catholic University of Leuven. Thus, we have ‘Lipsius Proteus’ (p. 4). As far as Lipsius’ work is concerned, the Renaissance scholar had an interest in Roman institutions, having written on the amphitheatre and gladiatorial contests with an ambition to write a universal history of the world. De bibliothecis is a departure from this other work in that it concerns an institution which had an overarching scope. It moved chronologically from consideration of book collections in the Near East and Egypt to those in Greece, in Pergamum, in Rome and in the provinces and it concludes with a discussion of the physical layout and the material culture of the Roman libraries.

A considerable portion of the book consists in a text of the De bibliothecis, which is accompanied by an English translation on the facing page in Loeb-style. This is followed by two brief works on libraries by other authors, an Epitome of Anastasius de Valle Quietis (1617) and an Epitome of Constantius a Monte Laboris (1628). Hendrickson’s copious commentary takes up the second half of the book, and is followed by various indices, manuscripts, of inscriptions and papyri, ancient authors and works, and a general index.

Hendrickson’s work demonstrates careful referencing and annotations throughout and I did not spot any typos! On page 57 the author declares that he hopes his commentary ‘will be a helpful resource for classicists and archaeologists’. He further comments ‘Since the commentary treats the majority of presently known evidence for ancient libraries, it should prove useful even for those scholars whose interest is only in ancient libraries rather than their Renaissance reception’. Hendrickson’s ‘even’ is perhaps too modest; I would suggest rather a ‘certainly’. As a classicist who has worked on ancient libraries, I can say that Lipsius’ De bibliothecis is indeed a very useful work, which I wished I had known about, and I certainly would have been very grateful to have had available the sources on ancient libraries when I was writing my book.

Hendrickson has researched the ancient sources on libraries and brought the materials together in his work. He has scrupulously considered the vocabulary of the ancient library—what do bibliotheca, foruli (cupboards, bookcases, pigeon-holes?), loculamenta, plutei, cunei and armaria, for instance, mean—and he refers to (p. 283) the geography and layout of different libraries, e.g. the Serapeum (p. 194), Trajan’s forum and libraries (p. 261). He provides insight into the persons who were associated with the original book collections and with the subsequent individuals who dealt with the historiography of the libraries.

Hendrickson’s focus appears to be antiquity and in particular, ancient Rome. But the work deals with a Renaissance text and Hendrickson takes some measures to address the relationship between the Renaissance and antiquity, as reflected in Lipsius’ work. De bibliothecis comes later than other minor works on libraries by humanists, and these humanists otherwise considered philological, topographical and/or antiquarian issues (p. 1). Notably, however, this Renaissance text does not necessarily offer itself as a clear lens through which the reader may observe the ancient world. Hendrickson notes that Lipsius was inclined to paraphrase his ancient sources rather than cite them word for word; he structured his text as a ‘prose cento’, that is, around quotations from ancient authors; and, most importantly, he twisted meanings, citing his sources selectively so that they might appear to say the opposite of what was intended (pp. 32-3). Thus, one must not assume that Lipsius can provide direct and reliable evidence of book collections in antiquity. After all, it must be borne in mind that Lipsius had a distinct purpose for his work. He wanted to persuade Prince Charles, the Duke of Croy and Arschot and also Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, to leave his own private book collection to the University of Leuven (pp. 1 and 26) and to fund a library where scholars might live and work, as they did at Alexandria (p. 2). Therefore, it can be assumed that Lipsius would have wanted to idealize the library as a place where learning was preserved and could be generated within a scholarly community.

I wonder if Lipsius’ earlier work on Roman institutions and his ambition to produce an overarching history of the world provides a further, interesting perspective on De bibliothecis. The work on the ancient library, after all, deals with more than the Roman libraries (although it does focus on them somewhat), to include the rest of the ancient world, including Egypt and Macedonia. What is the author’s attitude towards Roman institutions: are they paradigms for those of his time and culture? Or is the Roman library to be held at some distance given that the Hellenistic Museum-Library was more an ideal of the library for Lipsius with its community of scholar-librarians? Hendrickson has written a number of articles on intellectual culture in the Greek and Hellenistic worlds rather than in the Renaissance. so one assumes that the former is his focus, which may explain why there is not more discussion of the later context for the work.1

There is nothing said about the relationship of De bibliothecis to the two epitomes—the more fragmentary one of Anastasius de Valle Quietis (1617) and the more complete one of Constantius a Monte Laboris (1628). The commentary ends at the conclusion of De bibliothecis so one wonders if these two epitomes are juxtaposed as a mere afterthought, or instead as works which show the influence of Lipsius’ text on library writing. Or are they simply alternative ways of writing about book collections?

Overall, Hendrickson has provided a great service to scholars interested in (ancient) libraries. What Lipsius regarded as a ‘minor work’ (p. 1) should be elevated to a more prominent position. Hendrickson has identified a text, the De bibliothecis of Justus Lipsius, that would otherwise stand out of view of classicists/ has brought an important text, the De bibliothecis, to the attention of classicist and Renaissance scholars, and made it more easily accessible with a useful translation and commentary. There are a few caveats from Hendrickson about Lipsius’ treatment of ancient sources, but this is a work that may, and probably will, prompt further study of the ancient materials about book collections and also of the Renaissance context in which book collections were subsequently found. Hendrickson’s volume thus rightly deserves a place in the scholar’s library!


1.   See Hendrickson, ‘The Invention of the Greek Library’, TAPA 144 (20140, 371-413; ‘An Emednation to a Fragment of Varro’s De Bibliothecis (fr. 54 GRF Funaioli)’, CQ 65 (2015), 393-97; ‘The Serapeum: Dreams of the Daughter Library’, CP III (2016), 453-64; and (forthcoming) ’New Fragments of Book History: Varro and Zenodotus of Mallus’.

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