1902 Encyclopedia > Libraries > Libraries - Ancient Period

(Part 1)



Libraries, in our modern sense of collections of printed or written literature, imply an advanced and elaborate civilization. If the term be extended to any considerable collection of written documents, they must be nearly as old as civilization itself. The earliest use to which he invention of inscribed or written signs was put was probably temples, and the earliest librarians priests. And indeed before the extension of the arts of writing and reading the priests were the only persons who could perform such work as, e.g., the compilation of the Annales Maximi, which was the duty of the pontifices in ancient Rome. The beginnings of literature proper in the shape of ballads and songs may have continued to be conveyed orally only from one generation to another, long after the record of important religious or civil events was regularly committed to writing. The earliest collections of which we know anything therefore were collections of archives. Of this character appear to have been such famous collections as that of the Medians at Ecbatana or the Persians at Susa. It is not until the development of arts and sciences, and the growth of a considerable written literature, and even of a distinct literary class, that we find collections of books which can be called libraries in our modern sense. It is of libraries in the modern sense, and not, except incidentally, of archives that we are to speak.

The researches which have followed the discoveries of Botta and Layard have thrown unexpected light not only upon the history but upon the arts, the sciences, and the literatures of the ancient civilizations of Babylonian and Assyria. In all these wondrous revelations no facts are more interesting than those which show the existence of extensive libraries so many ages ago, and none are more eloquent of the elaborateness of these forgotten civilizations.

In the course of his excavations at Nineveh in 1850, Layard came upon some chambers in the south-west palace, the floor of which, as well as of the adjoining rooms, was covered to the depth of a foot with tablets of clay, covered with cuneiform characters, in many cases so small as to require a magnifying glass. These varied, in size from an inch to a foot square. A great number of them were broken, as Layard supposed by the falling in of the roof, but as the late Mr George Smith thought by having fallen from the upper story, upon which he believed the collection to have been placed. These tablets formed the library of the great monarch Assur-bani-pal-the Sardanapalus of the Greeks-the greatest patron of literature amongst the Assyrians. It is estimated that this library consisted of some ten thousand distinct works and documents, some of the works extending over several tablets. The tablets appear to have been methodically arranged and catalogued, and the library seems to have thrown open for the general use of the king’s subjects. A great portion of this library has already been brought to England and deposited in the British Museum, but it is calculated that there still remain some 20,000 fragments to be gathered up. For further details as to Assyrian libraries, and the still earlier Babylonian libraries from which the Assyrian drew their science and literature, see Babylonia, vol.iii. p. 191.

Of the libraries of ancient Egypt our knowledge is much less full and precise. It seems to be ascertained that the oldest hieroglyphic writings now extant run some centuries farther back than 2000 B.C. We possesses a papyrus manuscript which is assigned to the age of Amenophis I. of the 18th dynasty, perhaps about 1600 B.C., and the fabric is so perfect as to point to a much earlier invention. With the invention of papyrus came the age of books. The temples were the centers of literary activity, and to each of them were attached professional scribes who occupied a very respectable position. their function was regarded as a religious one, for the distinction between religion and science had not yet been made. The sacred books of Thoth- forty two in number-constituted as it were a complete encylcopaedia of religion and science. But they did not forbid speculation, or a wider development of the principles contained in them. So there arose a great mass of literature in the shape of exposition and commentary. The such an extend did this increase that at the time of Greek conquest of Egypt the Thoth literature is said to have amounted to 36,525 books. Books were collected not only in the temples but also at the tombs of kings. The most famous of these libraries dates from the 14th century B.C. and was the so-called library of King Osymandyas, described by Diodorus Siculus, who related that it bore an inscription which he renders by the Greek word YXHEIATPEION, "the dispensary of the soul." Osymandyas has been identified with the great king Ramses I., and the seat of the library is supposed by Wilkinson to have been the Ramesseum, the magnificent palace temple near Thebes. Lepsius thinks he has found the tombs of two of the librarians of Osymandyas. According to Eustathius there was also a great collection in a temple at Memphis. A heavy blow was dealt to the old Egyptian literature by the Persian invasion, and many of their books were carried away by the conquerors. They were only delivered from the yoke of Persia to succumb to that of Greece, and henceforward their civilization was dominated by foreign influences. Of the libraries of Greece under the Ptolemies we shall there fore speak a little further on.

Of the libraries of ancient Greece we have very little knowledge, and such knowledge as we possess comes to us for the most part from late compilers. Amongst those who are known to have collected books are Pisistratus, Polycrates of Samos, Euclid the Athenian, Nicocrates of Cyprus, Euripides and Aristotle (Athenaeus, i. 4). At Cnidus thre is said to have been a special collection of works upon medicine. Pisistratus is said to have been the first of the Greeks who collected books on a large scale. Aulus Gellius, indeed, tells us in language perhaps "not well suited to the 6th century B.C." that he was the first to establish a public library. The authority of Aulus Gellius is hardly sufficient to secure credit for the story that this library was carried away into Persia by Xerxes and subsequently restored to the Athenians by Seleucus Nicator. Plato is known to have been a collector; and Xenophon tells us of the library of Aristotle was bequeathed by him to his discipline Theophrastus, and by Theophrastus to Neleus, who carried it to Seepsis, where it is said to have been concealed underground to avoid the literary cupidity of the kings of Pergamus. Its subsequent fate has given rise to much controversy, but, according to Strabo (xiii. pp 608,609), it was sold to Apellicon of Teos, who carried it to Athens, where after Apellicon’s death it fell a prey to the conqueror Sulla, and was transported by him to Rome. The story told by Athenaeus (i. 4) is that the library of Nelus was purchased by Ptolemy Philadelphus. The names of a few other libraries in Greece are barely known to us from inscriptions; of their character and contents we know nothing. If indeed we are to trust Strato entirely, we must believe that Aristotle was the first person who collected a library, and that he communicated the taste for collecting to the sovereigns of Egypt. It is at all events certain that the libraries of Alexandria were the most important as they were the most celebrated of the ancient world. Under the enlightened rule of the Ptolemies a society of scholars and men of science was attracted to their capital. It seems pretty certain that Ptolemy Soter had already begun to collect books, but it was in the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus that the libraries were properly organized and established in separate buildings. Ptolemy Philadelphia sent into every part of Greece and Asia to secure the most valuable works, and no exertions or expense were spared in enriching the collections. Ptolemy Euergetes, his successor, is said to have caused all books brought into Egypt by foreigners to be seized for the benefit of the library, while the owners had to be content with receiving copies of them in exchange. Nor did the Alexandrian scholars exhibit the usual Hellenic exclusiveness, and many of the treasures of Egyptian and even of Hebrew literature were by their means translated into Greek. There were two libraries at Alexandria; the larger, in the Bruchium quarter, was in connection with the Museum, a sort of academy, while the smaller was placed in the Serapeum. The number of volumes in these libraries was very large, although it is difficult to attain any certainty as to the real numbers amongst the widely varying accounts. According to a scholium of Tzetzes, who appears to draw his information from the authority of Callimachus and Eratosthenes, who had been librarians at Alexandria, there were 42,800 volumes or rolls in the Serapeum and 490,000 in the Bruchium. This enumeration seems to refer to the librarianship. This enumeration seems to refer to the librarianship of Callimachus himself under Ptolemy Euergetes. In any case the figures agree tolerably well with those given by Aulus Gellius (700,000) and Seneca (400,000). It should be observed that, as the ancient roll or volume usually contained a much smaller quantity of matter than a modern book-so that, e.g., the history of Herodotus might form nine "books" or volumes, and the iliad of Homer twenty-four-these numbers must be discounted for the purposes of comparison with modern collections. The series of the first five librarians at Alexandria appears to be pretty well established as follows: - Zenodotus, Callimachus, Eratoshenes, Apollonius, and Aristophanes; and their activity covers a period of about a century. The first experiments in bibliography appear to have been made in producing catalogues of the Alexandrian libraries. Amongst other lists, two catalogues were prepared by order of Ptolemy Philadlephus, one of the tragedies, the other of the comedies contained in the collections. The of Callimachus formed a catalogue of all the principal books arranged in 120 classes. When Caesar set fire to the fleet in the harbor of Alexandria, the flames accidentally extended to the larger library of the Bruchium, and it was destroyed. Antony endeavored to repair the loss by presenting to Cleopatra the library from Pergamus. This was very probably placed in the Bruchium, as this continued to be the literary quarter of Alexandria until the time of Aurelian. Thenceforward the Serapeum became the principal library. The usual statement that from the date of the restoration of the Bruchium under Celopatra the libraries continued in a flourishing condition until they were destroyed after the conquest of Alexandria by the Saracens in 640 A.D. can hardly be supported. It is very possible that one of the libraries perished when the Bruchium quarter was destroyed by Aurelian, 273 A.D. In 389 or 391 an edict of the Theodosius ordered the destruction of the Serapeum, and its books were pillaged by the Christians. When we take into account the disordered condition of the times, and the neglect into which literature and science had fallen, there can be little difficulty in believing that there were but few books left to be destroyed by the soldiers of Arm. The familiar anecdote of the caliph’s message to his general (vol. i p. 494) rests mainly upon the evidence of Abulfaragins, so that we may be tempted to agree with Gibbon that the report of a stranger who wrote at the end of six hundred years is overbalanced by the silence of earlier and native annalists. It is, however, so far from easy to settle the question that a cloud of names could easily be cited upon either side, while some of the most careful inquirers confess the difficulty of a decision.

The magnificence and renown of the libraries of the Ptolemies excited the rivalry of the kings of Pergamus, who vied with the Egyptian rulers in their encouragement of literature. Despite the obstacles presented by the embargo placed by the Ptolemies upon the export of papyrus, the library of the Attali attained considerable importance, and, as we have seen, when it was transported to Egypt numbered 200,000 volumes. We learn from a notice in Suidas that in 221 B.C. Antichus the Great summoned the poet and grammarian Euphorion of Chalcis to be his librarian.

The early Romans were far too warlike and practical a people to devote much attention to literature, and it is not until the last century of the republic that we hear of libraries in Rome. The collections of Carthage, which fell into their hands when Scipio sacked that city (146 B.C.), had no attractions for them; and with the exception of the writings of Mago upon agriculture, which the senate reerved for translation into latin, they bestowed all the books upon the kinglets of Africa. It is in accordance with the military character of the Romans that the first considerable collections of which we hear in Rome were brought there as the spoils of war. The first of these was that brought by Aemilius Paulus from Macedonia after the conquest of Perseus 9167 B.C.). The library of the conquered monarch was all that he reserved from the prizes of victory for himself and his sons, who were fond of letters. Next came the library of Apellicon the Teian, brought from Athens by Sulla (86 B.C). This passed at his death into the hands of his son, but of its later history nothing is known. The rich stores of literature brought home by Lucullus from his eastern conquests (about 67 B.C.) were freely thrown open to his friends and to men of letters. Accordingly his library and the neighboring walks were much resorted to, especially by Greeks. It was now becoming fashionable for rich men to furnish their libraries, well, and the fashion prevailed until it became the subject of Seneca’s scorn and Lucian’s wit. The zeal of Cicero and Atticus in adding to their collections is well known to every reader of the classics. Tyrannion is said to have had 30,000 volumes of his own; and that M. Terentius varro had large collections we may infer from Cicero’s writing to him: "Si hortum in bibliotheca habes, nihil deerit." Not to prolong the list of private collectors, Serenus Sammonicus is said to have left to his pupil the younger Gordian no less than 62,000 volumes. Amongst the numerous projects entertained by Caesar was that of presenting Rome with public libraries, though it is doubtful whether any steps were actually taken towards its execution. The task of collecting and arranging the books was entrusted to varro. This commission, as well as his own fonfness for books, may have led Varro to write the book upon libraries of which a few words only have come down to us, preserved by a grammarian. Varro also appears to have been the first to ornament a library with the statues and busts of learned men, though the idea is sometimes attributed to Asinius Pollio. The greater honor of being the first actually to dedicate a library to the public is said by Pliny and Ovid to have fallen to Pollio, who erected a library in the Atrium Libertatis on Mount Aventine, defraying the cost from the spoils of his Illyrian campaign. The library of Pollio was followed by the public libraries established by Augustus. That emperor, who did so much for the embellishment of the city, erected tow libraries, the Octavianand the Palatine. The former was founded (33 B.C.) in honor of his sister, and was placed in the Proticus Octaviae, the lower part of which served as a promenade, while the upper part contained the library. The charge of the books was committed to C. Mellisus. The other library formed by Augustus was attached to the temple of Apollo on the Palatine hill, and appears from inscriptions to have consisted of two departments, a Greek and a Latin one, which seem to have been separately administered. The charge of the Palatine collections was given to Pompeius macer, who was succeeded by Julius Hyginus, the grammarian and friend of Ovid. The Octavian library perished in the fire which raged at Rome for three days n the reign of Titus. The Palatine was, at all events great part, destroyed by fire in the reign of Commodus. The story that its collections were destroyed by order of Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century is now generally rejected. The successors of Augustus, though they did not equal him in their patronage of learning, maintained the tradition of forming libraries. Tiberius, his immediate successor, established one in his splendid house on the Palatine, to which Gellius refers as the "Tiberian library," and Suetonius relates that he caused the writings and images of his favorite Greek poets to be placed in the public libraries. Vespasian established a library in the Temple of Peace erected after the burning of the city under Nero. Domitian restored the libraries which had been destroyed in the same conflagration, procuring books from every quarter, and even sending to Alexandria to have copies made. He is also said to have founded the capitlone library, though others give the credit to Hadrian. The most famous and important of the imperial libraries, however, was that created by Ulpius Trajanus, known as the Ulpian library, which was first established in the Forum of Trajan, but was afterwards removed to the baths of Dicletian. In this library were deposited by Trajan the "libri lintei" and "libri elephantine," upon which the senatus consulta and other transactions relating to the emperors were written. The library of Domitian, which had been destroyed by fire in the reign of Commodus, was restored by Gordian, who added to it the books bequeathed to him by Serenus Sammonicus. Altogether in the 4th century there are said to have been twenty-eight public libraries in Rome.

Nor were public libraries confined to Rome. Besides a library at Tibur, which is twice mentioned by Gellius, and was probably founded by Hadrian, the younger Pliny mentions that he had himself dedicated a library to his fellow-townsmen at Comum; and an inscription discovered at Milan proves that he also contributed a large sum to the support of a library there. Hadrian established a library at Athens; and Strabo mentions the library of Smyrna. Gellius also mentions a library at Patrae. From one of his references (xix. 5) to the Tiburtine library we may infer that it was not unusual for books to be lent out from these libraries. Considerable care was bestowed by the Romans upon the placing of their libraries. The room or building generally had an eastern aspect. The books or rolls were arranged upon the shelves of presses running round the walls, with additional presses placed in the middle of the room. Thus the library discovered at Herculaneum contained 1756 MSS. placed on shelves running round the room to a height of some 6 feet, with a detached central press. These presses in large libraries were numbered. They were often made of precious woods and richly ornamented, while the room was adorned with portraits and statues.

As the number of libraries in Rome increased, the librarian, who was generally a slave or freedman, became a recognized public functionary. The names of several librarians are preserved to us in inscriptions, including that of C. Hymenaeus, who appears to have fulfilled the double function of physician and librarian to Augustus. The general superintendence of the public libraries was committed to a special official. Thus from Nero to Trajan Dionysius, an Alexandrian rhetorician, discharged this function. Under Hadrian it was entrusted to his former tutor C. Julius Vestinus, who afterwards became administrator of the Museum at Alexandria.

When the seat of empire was removed by Constantine to his new capital upon the Bosporus, the emperor established a collection there, in which Christian literature was probably admitted for the first time into an imperial library. Diligent search was made after the Christian books which had been doomed to destruction by Diocletian. Even at the death of Constantine, however, the number of books which had been brought together amounted only to 6900. The smallness of the number, it has been suggested, seems to show that Constantine’s library was mainly intended as a repository of Christian literature. However this may be, the collection was greatly enlarged by some of Constantine’s successor, especially by Julian and Theodosius, at whose death it is said to have increased to 100,000 volumes. Julian, himself a close student and voluminous writer, though he did his best to discourage learning among the Christians, and to destroy their libraries, not only augmented the library at Constantinople, but founded others, including one at Nisibis, which was soon afterwards destroyed by fire. From the Theodosian code we learn that in the time of that emperor a staff of seven copyists was attached to the library at Constantinople under the direction of the librarian. The library was burnt under the emperor Zeno in 477, but was again restored.

Meanwhile, as Christianity made its way and a distinctively Christian literature grew up, the institution of libraries became part of the organization of the church. When the church of Jerusalem was founded in the 3d century a library was added to it, and it became the rule to attach to every church a collection of the books necessary for the inculcation of Christian doctrine. The largest of these libraries, that founded by Pamphilus at Caesarea, and said to have been increased by Eusebius, the historian of the church, to 30,000 volumes, is frequently mentioned by St Jerome. St Augustine bequeathed his collection to the library of the church at Hippo, which was fortunate enough to escape destruction at the hands of the Vandals.

The removal of the capital to Byzantium was in its result a serious blow to literature. Henceforward the science and learning of the east and West were divorced. The libraries of Rome ceased to collect the writings of the Greeks, while the Greek libraries had never cared much to collect Latin literature. The influence of the church became increasingly hostile to the study of pagan letters. The repeated irruptions of the barbarians soon swept the old learning and libraries alike from the soil of Italy. With the close of the Western empire in 476 the ancient history of libraries may be said to cease.

Read the rest of this article:
Libraries - Table of Contents

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-19 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries