BMCR 2014.08.28

Ancient Libraries

, , , Ancient Libraries. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. xx, 479. ISBN 9781107012561. $120.00.


It is easy to forget that the Library of Alexandria was not the only library in the ancient world. Its reputation, carefully cultivated by the ancients and burnished through generations of scholarship, has obscured the existence of other collections, some larger and more or less official, like that of Alexandria itself, some smaller and more personal, like that in the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum. It is therefore good to have this new collection, the product of a conference held as long ago as 2008. Its 22 contributions cover a huge range. Although Rome with her empire takes the lion’s share of the attention, ancient Assyria and Egypt (and Alexandria), Athens and Pergamum and Herculaneum, are all represented too.

What were the role and function of libraries in the ancient world, both the classical world and its neighbors? How did they operate, arrange their holdings and know and make known to others what they held? Who enjoyed access to them, and for what purposes? Who funded them and why?

The answers to such questions are surprisingly varied. Libraries and even books—the most basic terms in this area—prove decidedly slippery categories, whether in ancient Assyria or the Greek world. Collections of books might be small and very private, as in temples, and accessible only to a tiny class of initiates for ritual and similar purposes; small collections might be found in gymnasia (like the libraries of gentlemen’s clubs in London today); or they might be huge, in dedicated buildings, and more or less public—though devoting one’s leisure to intellectual improvement was very far from widespread in the ancient world. Even if we leave aside the problem of the extent of literacy, aristocrats were the main public for libraries, even, probably, in places like Carthage with its municipal libraries. Royal or imperial support for libraries was more complicated than the mere desire for undying fame.

In a rich introduction, Greg Woolf lays out the questions with which the book is concerned, identifying the role of the library as, in a striking neologism, “miscellenistic”, the production, organization and transmission of knowledge through space and time. He points here to the period of the 4 th to the 7 th centuries as critical for loss or survival of libraries of Latin literature, though he also stresses overall the joint roles of luck and deliberate choice in the survival of texts: thus we have Pliny’s Natural History, in plenty of copies, but only a few hundred fragmentary lines of Ennius. He stresses the inclusion here of some non-Greek and non-Latin collections, raises questions about the users of libraries, and points valuably to the existence of distinct literary and reading traditions based on reading or textual communities who were largely ignorant of each other. It is odd, then, that he suggests (p. 13) that Tacitus “could easily have consulted either the Septuagint or Josephus’ Antiquities before composing the first chapters of book five of the Histories if he had wanted to” and that he chose not to do so. As he explains, a key element in how the views of these communities were expressed was in the contents of their libraries, and these were neither comprehensive nor randomly selected. For Tacitus to have consulted those works would have required a very deliberate stepping out from his own community, in the basic sense of discovering that such works existed.

A couple of contributions look at non-classical collections. Kim Ryholt, discussing ancient Egyptian libraries, mainly in temples and holding principally sacred or magical texts, suggests, tentatively but excitingly, that we should view the creation of the Alexandrian library in Egypt as possibly influenced by the model of temple libraries there. Eleanor Robson reminds us that labels like library tend to shape our assumptions about functions and meanings, and stresses the variety in both contents and functions in ancient cuneiform collections. She notes that they lacked such apparently obvious accoutrements as catalogues and librarians and that, kept most often in temples, they had very restricted user (and hence production) communities.

Christian Jacob uses close readings of some ancient sources to uncover more of the meaning of ancient libraries. On the relationship between Callimachus’ pinakes and the Alexandrian library, he argues that rather than aiming to be a catalogue of that collection, the pinakes functioned as an inventory of extant Greek literature. Pasquale Massimo Pinto, similarly, studies through selected texts the path from the introduction of the papyrus roll to its use for the storage and transmission of cultural artefacts in the relatively new medium of prose in fourth-century Athens.

Annette Harder return to the Alexandrian library and seeks to trace its impact on poets in the third century BCE. She suggests that the library’s holdings, including variant readings of Homer, were necessary for poets’ awareness and use of rare vocabulary. She may be right, but the evidence that she cites in support of this proposition seems not quite strong enough to bear the interpretation that she puts upon it. Similarly, when she discusses the place of Callimachus and Apollonius Rhodius—both of them with ‘indisputable’ connections with the library—in the larger Greek literary tradition, we may be sure that they used the resources of that great collection without feeling a need to go beyond that to argue, with her, that their learning is “hard to imagine without the help of the library”. Homer and Euripides and Pindar, whom she refers to here, might equally have formed part of the private collections or personal reading of such poets. The role of the library in such activity seems less easy to trace. She appears to be on stronger ground when she suggests more generally that the very broad learning of these and other writers must have depended on the richness of the library’s holdings.

With Gaëlle Coqueugniot we leave texts for libraries. Excavations in the nineteenth century seemed to have produced the remains of the other great library of the ancient world, that at Pergamum. Since that time, however, as she shows, opinion has veered back and forth, and currently it is thought that that identification is mistaken. The error matters because the old identification has served as the basis for reconstructions of other ancient libraries, and these now need to be reconsidered.

Michael Affleck sees a possible link between collections of documents and books in temples and the growth of libraries at Rome in the last two centuries BCE. Daniel Hogg argues that particular conditions in Rome enabled and encouraged the writing of Kollosourgiai, ‘colossal works’. Prime among these conditions was the foundation of libraries, alongside creative intent, by which he means a sense of “concern, despair and revolution, which created a drive for order and systematisation”. At the same time the gaze turned inward, and what was written was concerned with the urbs as co-extensive with the orbis. Considerations of space lead him to believe that a long book such as that of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, occupying huge numbers of rolls, might have been found only in a few public libraries.

Fabio Tutrone uses the fate of Aristotle’s library as a case study for circulation. He stresses, partly via an examination of Cicero and Philodemus, that the originals were not the only versions of the Aristotelian texts available, and that copies or epitomes were found too, helping to create a lively intellectual life in libraries.

Myrto Hatzimichali re-examines the fire that is said to have destroyed much of the Alexandrian library in 48 BCE and its impact on literary activity, identifying that event as highlighting for contemporaries the need for preservation and transmission of scholarly resources alongside the more normal activities of writing and scholarship.

Examination of actual collections is illuminating. George W. Houston provides a study and catalogue of the non-Philodeman works in the Villa of the Papyri, one of the few collections of whose contents we know something in detail. He identifies 64 Greek and 10 Latin works. Given what we hear from Hogg, 74 books may not seem so very few. But then T. Keith Dix analyses Cicero’s correspondence to study the collection and peripeties of his much larger library. Like all libraries it suffered losses, including theft by a slave — but that will have paled next to its fate after Cicero’s death when it was probably seized.

Ewen Bowie explores related questions, asking about library provision in first- and second-century Rome. Imperial establishments abounded, some with religious ties, founded by rulers to mark their rule much as French presidents create monuments to their tenure of office. He finds a number of librarians, some of them scholars like the early librarians in Alexandria, others with solid administrative experience, but concludes that there is no real pattern of qualifications or aptitude for the job.

Matthew Nicholls and David Petrain explore libraries as cultural institutions. Libraries were often also buildings, and like other public or semi-public structures contained works of art and hosted cultural activities beyond reading. Pier Luigi Tucci explores, in more detail than some readers may desire, construction—we learn that Flavian blocks were lifted by means of forceps, Severan ones by means of lewis irons. He also makes good use of Galen’s recently re-discovered work On the Avoidance of Grief for the damage caused by the fire of 192 CE, which destroyed many libraries in Rome.

Richard Neudecker returns to the slipperiness of categories: we need to study the use of space in and around libraries, as storehouses for books, as archives for administrative documents, as sanctuaries and temples of the gods, as “information centres”. Here we find the deliberate collecting of books in both Latin and Greek, catalogues of holdings and pictures of authors, control of access to the holdings (Cicero complained of the difficulty he had in seeing state documents), and even a map of Rome, the Severan Forma Urbis Romae in 150 marble slabs.

In the end, though, libraries mean books and books mean reading. Who read? William A. Johnson challenges Packer’s great images. He mentions an “almost eerie silence” about public users in our sources, and sees the thinness of our evidence as implying a link between libraries and the construction of elite circles and exclusivity. This argument may be less ground-breaking than it seems: when have books and reading, especially in the pre-modern world, not been tied to relatively narrow circles? Formal access to collections of books may be less important than, say, literacy or the leisure necessary for reading.

A different kind of exclusivity appears in the contribution of Michael W. Handis, who considers the creation of the image of the Alexandrian library. Sometimes a kind of dog-in-the-manger selfishness got in the way too: we learn about Galen’s frustrated attempt to read the writings of a famous physician, Numisianus. No one would let him — neither the man’s son, nor even Galen’s own teacher who had been a pupil of Numisianus. And when Numisianus’s son died, he ordered the texts to be burned.

Alexei Zadorojnyi considers the importance of libraries for the relationship between paideia and power. While libraries are one aspect of ancient euergetism, they are very far from the default: Herodes Atticus, for example, among all his other generosity, apparently did not endow libraries.

Finally, Victor M. Martinez and Megan Finn Senseney ask about special libraries from the point of view of modern library science. They tease out some traces of specialized collections, especially for lawyers and physicians, and, like others, also push hard at the distinction between archives and libraries.

The readability, immense variety and breadth of learning of the contributions to Ancient Libraries set a new benchmark, at a time when this subject is undergoing a welcome renaissance.