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Chapter 6
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries

by Rodolfo Lanciani

published by Houghton, Mifflin and Company

Boston and New York,

Text, maps and black & white illustrations are in the public domain.
Any color photos are © William P. Thayer.


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Chapter 8



The history of the public libraries in ancient and mediaeval Rome as not yet been written, and is only to be gathered in a fragmentary and imperfect way from isolated passages of the classics and from inscriptions. There is no doubt that, in ancient times, special books concerning these libraries were written and published. It appears that one of the eighty volumes which Varro is said to have written was entitled "De Bibliothecis." According to Suidas, Telephus, a school-teacher of Pergamon, issued a volume, a notitia librorum in their sections, one of which described minutely the leading libraries of his age. These special works, however, have not come down to us; and the subject which I have selected for this chapter has in a certain sense the attraction of novelty, in spite of the more or less successful attempts made up to the present time to illustrate it, as it were, piecemeal.

The essays on ancient libraries, published between 1606 and 1876 by Lipsius, Saint-Charles, Lomeier, Struve, Lürsen, Petit-Radel, Micaud, and others, are not only incomplete, but almost worthless, because we have gained more knowledge on this subject within the last few years, by the results of the excavations at Pergamon, Pompeii, and Rome, than the authors above named could gather in the space of two centuries and a half. An exception to the rule must be made in favor of a few absolutely recent publications, which, although relating to some special chapters  p179 in the history of ancient libraries, have still brought many new important facts and particulars under our knowledge. Such is the essay by Professor Alexander Conze, "Die pergamenische Bibliothek," read at a session of the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences on December 18, 1884; such also is the pamphlet by Carlo Castellani, "Delle Biblioteche nell' Antichità, dai tempi più remoti, alla fine dell' Impero Romano," published at Bologna in 1884. I have myself been a contributor to the history of public libraries, by describing in 1883 the one annexed to the palace of Augustus on the Palatine hill. All these publications, however, have been superseded by the latest work of Commendatore de Rossi, the title of which is "Commentaries on the Origin, History, and Catalogues of the Archives and Libraries of the Holy See."

The first important library in ancient Rome was that which L. Aemilius Paulus, the conqueror of Macedonia, brought over from the palace of King Perseus. Sulla, the dictator, when in Athens, laid his hands on a far richer collection, — on the library, namely, of Apellikon, which had belonged previously to Aristotle himself. The vicissitudes of this library were remarkably strange. Aristotle bequeathed it to his disciple Theophrastus, who largely increased its value and importance by the addition of his own works and of works of contemporaries, secured at a great sacrifice from various lands. Neleus, a disciple and heir to Theophrastus, removed the library to Scepsis in Troas, where it fell to the lot of some ignorant relatives of his. Strabo, the geographer, relates how these relatives, having heard that the king of Pergamon was collecting books for his new library, and fearing for the safety of their own, actually buried it under­ground in a damp place, in which it  p180 remained for some time, until Apellikon, of Teos, a Peripatetic philosopher, bought it, and carried the precious collection back to Athens. Strabo adds that Apellikon, when he found many manuscripts of the great master damaged by mildew and dampness, patched them up according to his own fancy, and published them, in course of time, as genuine works of Aristotle. Sulla, however, the purchaser or the usurper of Apellikon's library, seems to have guarded his books so jealously that when Tyrannio, Cicero's librarian, was asked by Andronikos, from Rhodes, to compare some passages in Aristotle's books, he could obtain admission into the sanctum only by bribing Sulla's librarian. Lucullus seems to have been more liberal in placing at the disposal of learned men the literary treasures he had brought home from the kingdom of Pontus. His munificence and kindness to scholars is highly praised by Plutarch, who says that Lucullus's house was more a temple of the Muses than a private mansion.

T. Pomponius Atticus, the faithful and intimate friend of Cicero, seems to have put together his library more from love of speculation than of literature. Cicero, in one of his letters (i. 7), reminds him not to forget his request for literary novelties; in another he asks Atticus to send over two bookbinders, with a supply of parchment, upon which the titles of the books could be written, or rather illuminated, in bright colors. Atticus dispatched two of his cleverest assistants, named Dionysius and Menophilus, and they put the whole of Cicero's library in order so skilfully and neatly that the illustrious orator actually wrote a letter of thanks and praise to his friend Atticus, the bookseller. Strange to say, even at this early stage of bibliophily there were stealers of books. In another letter, addressed by Cicero to P. Sulpicius (Ad fam. xiii. 77), he relates  p181 how one of his more trustworthy servants, named Dionysius, had run away with a certain number of valuable volumes, and begs his correspondent to try to discover the runaway in Dalmatia, to which province he was thought to have made his escape. Res ipsa parva, Cicero writes in despair, sed animi mei dolor magnus est. I will not describe other private libraries of imperial Rome: the one of Epaphroditus of Chaeronaea, the secretary of Nero; the one of the poet Persius numbering 700 volumes; the one of both Plinys, and so forth. I will relate a few anecdotes only which enable us to enter into the secrets of these private temples of learning.

According to Vitruvius, º the apartment of the house used as a library should be exposed towards the east, not only because such an exposure is the most convenient for reading in the early hours of the morning, but also because a southern or a western exposure would favor the development of moths and mildew and the deterioration of books. These apartments were, as a rule, of small size.

In 175, a private library was discovered at Herculaneum, with bookcases around the walls, and one bookcase in the middle of the floor. Although containing at least 1,700 volumes or rolls of papyrus, the size of the room  p182 did not exceed fifteen feet by twenty. This was due to the fact that libraries were never warmed, even in the depths of winter, either by steam, hot air, or open fires; not only so that the dangers of conflagration might be avoided, but also because heat is injurious to books and binding, and favors the development of moths. This is the reason why students in our own Vatican library have always been condemned to freeze for four months of the year. The ancients avoided both extremes, freezing and burning, by keeping their literary treasures in small rooms, such as the one discovered at Herculaneum.

With regard to the number of volumes collected in private libraries, it varied, of course, according to the taste and pecuniary resources of the owner. Persius, as I have just remarked, satisfied himself with 700 volumes; Q. Serenus Sammonicus, a physician of the third century, collected not less than 62,000, which afterwards became, by bequest, the property of the crown.​a As a rule, private collectors were exceedingly fond of rare and costly éditions de luxe, of dainty little volumes in which a skilful hand had concentrated the contents of an ordinary folio. Such were the three pocket volumes described by Martial, one of which contained the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, one of which the Metamorphoses of Ovid, one the opera omnia of Virgil: —

"Quam brevis immensum cepit membrana Maronem!

Ipsius vultus prima tabella gerit."

We learn from this epigram that the front or title page of these fashionable editions contained, as a rule, the portrait of the author. No wonder that rare or elegant editions would sometimes cost a small fortune. According to Gellius, Aristotle gave a sum corresponding to $3,300 for a copy of Speusippos; Plato, likewise, paid $1,833 for three volumes of Philolaos.

 p183  King Ptolemaeus Euergetes II, in his efforts to improve the stock of the two royal Alexandrian libraries of the Bruchion and of the Serapaion, sent messengers to Athens to collect new books, and to try to obtain, above all, copies of the tragedies of Aeschylos, Sophokles, and Euripides. He promised that as soon as copies of the tragedies could be finished by the Alexandrian amanuenses he would send back to Athens the original, and deposited fifteen Attic talents (or $16,500) as a guarantee for the restitution. It is needless to say that the $16,500 were willingly lost and forfeited; King Ptolemaeus kept therefore himself the originals, and sent back to Athens only the copies.

The great book market, the "Paternoster-row" of ancient Rome, was the Argiletum, a quarter situated between the Roman Forum and the Subura. Here the librarii and the antiquarii, booksellers and copyists of old works, kept their richly furnished shops, so often mentioned and described by Martial and Horace. On either side of the entrance door there were hung elaborate advertisements, giving the title and the price of literary novelties. Each of the leading booksellers secured the privilege of the works of a leading author. Thus the brothers Sosii were the agents for Horace, and Atrectus and Secundus were the publishers of Martial, Tryphon of Quintilianus, and Dorus of Seneca. Editions of one thousand copies were generally issued, as certified by Pliny the younger, and appeared in various literary markets at the same time: in Athens, where the great meeting-place of bibliophiles was in the orchestra of the theatre of Bacchus; in Alexandria near the Serapaion; in Lyons, and so on. So great was the demand for rare books that spurious ones were freely put into circulation, a practice strongly denounced by Galenus, who complains that he found in book-stalls volumes bearing the name of Hippocrates which had never been written by the great master.

 p184  The first public library in Rome was built and opened, about A.U.C. 717, by Asinius Pollio, the brilliant and spirited writer, so much admired by Horace and Catullus. The library was organized in the Atrium Libertatis on the Aventine, one wing being set apart for Greek, one for Latin, literature. Four years later, Augustus determined to carry into execution the project of Julius Caesar and of his literary counsel, Terentius Varro, to make of public libraries a state institution. He named Pomponius Macer director of the department, and put at his disposal large sums of money collected during the Dalmatian war. The first state public library, opened according to the new programme, was the Bibliotheca Octaviae, so called in honor of Augustus's sister, Octavia; and the first librarian was C. Melissus, of Spoletum. Than followed the Bibliotheca Palatina Apollinis, organized by the librarian C. Julius Hyginus, of which library I have already spoken in the chapter on the palace of the Caesars. Tiberius gave up a wing of his own palace for a third institution of the kind, which, although called by Gellius and Vopiscus Bibliotheca Tiberiana, seems to have contained state papers and documents, rather than books.

The fifth imperial library was established by Vespasian in his Forum Pacis; the sixth by Trajan in his own forum. This last, the richest and most magnificent in the metropolis, and famous for its collection of libri elephantini (books with leaves of ivory), was removed, at the end of the third century, by Diocletian, from Trajan's forum to his own thermae on the Quirinal.

I cannot enter into particulars of the material and scientific organization of these libraries, because I must confine myself to a sketch of their main features. The number of volumes which they contained must have been immense. p185 The two Alexandrian libraries of the Brucion and of the Serapaion contained more than 132,800 different works: making a total of more than 400,000 volumes, according to Kallimachos; 500,000 according to Flavius Josephus; 700,000 according to Gellius. This different between the number of works and the number of volumes is easily explained by the fact that it was customary, in ancient times, to subdivide each work into as many volumes as there were chapters or cantos. Thus the Iliad and the Odyssey could form a sheet of twenty-four volumes each, and the oeuvres complètes of Aristotle a set of many hundred. In 1821, a papyrus was discovered in the island of Philae, containing 677 verses from the twenty-fourth canto of the Iliad. The papyrus was eight feet long and ten inches wide. It is early to understand that this copy of the poem was distributed over forty-one rolls or volumes; and when we hear authors issuing a prodigious number of volumes, — of Kallimachos, for instance, to whom 800 volumes are attributed; of Didymos, who is asserted to have written 3,500, — we must never attribute to the phrase the modern meaning, but regard it simply as denoting chapters and paragraphs. From the library of Pergamon, M. Antonius, the triumvir, alone was able to steal 200,000 volumes.

Doubt has been expressed as to whether books could be borrowed from these libraries by private individuals; that is, for a definite length of time. Beyond doubt, I think, they could, and the librarians could lend books to trustworthy applicants. Aulus Gellius relates that, one day, being the guest of a distinguished friend in a villa near Tibur (Tivoli) a discussion rose amongst the company as to whether the use of iced water, as an ordinary drink in warm weather, was injurious to health. One of the personages present, in condemning the practice most decidedly, quoted the  p186 authority of celebrated physicians, and of the great Aristotle himself. As the audience expressed some doubt in regard to Aristotle's opinion, the gentleman ran to the public library of Tibur, borrowed a volume of Aristotle, and read the passage in which the use of iced water was strongly denounced as pernicious. Gellius adds that such was the impression created on the assembly by the words of Aristotle that they all decided at one to give up forever the habit of using water with ice or snow.

To come back to Roman libraries, we are tolerably well acquainted with the circumstances and date of their final destruction. The library of Octavia was destroyed by fire in the year 80, under the rule of Titus. The one in the palace of Tiberius appears to have met with the same fate in the great fire of 191, under the reign of Commodus. The one connected with the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus seems to have been annihilated at the same time from the effects of a thunder-bolt. The famous library of Apollo, on the Palatine, was likewise completely destroyed by fire in the night between the 18th and 19th of March of the year 363. As I have stated already in the fifth chapter, on the authority of Ammianus Marcellinus, such was the violence of the flames that only the Sibylline books could be saved out of many hundred thousand volumes.

We must not believe that these catastrophes could carry with them the complete destruction of ancient Latin literature. Not only hundreds and hundreds of private libraries were left intact, but, before these catastrophes took place, Christian libraries had already been established, and were flourishing in many places. That Christian communities, soon after the propagation of the gospel, provided themselves with libraries pertaining to sacred literature is proved by many passages in the Acta sincera Martyrum ("Annals  p187 of the Persecution of the Church") from the time of Nero to that of Julian the Apostate. In the "Acts" of Minucius Felix, from Cirta, now Constantine, it is related how the magistrates went to the house in which the Christians met, and opened the library to seize the books; but inventa sunt ibi armaria inania. Alfius Caecilianus, magistrate of Autun, is said to have found in the local Christian library epistulas salutatorias, namely, correspondence between the bishops. Mensurius, Bishop of Carthage, as soon as he heard of the imminent confiscation of the books belonging to the central library of his diocese, concealed codices pretiosos vel pretiosissimos, and put in their place scripta haereticorum, which he was only too happy to have seized.

The finest libraries of the first three centuries of Christendom were of course in Rome. They contained not only books and documents of local interest, such as the gesta martyrum, the matriculae pauperum, and so forth, but also copies of the official correspondence between the see of Rome and the dioceses of the Christian world. Such was the importance attributed to books in those early days of our faith that, in Christian basilicas, or places of worship, they were kept in the place of honor, next to the episcopal chair. Many of the basilicas which we discover from time to time, especially in the Campagna, have the apse trichora; that is, subdivided into three smaller hemicycles. The reason and the meaning of this peculiar form of an apse was long sought in vain; but a recent discovery made at Hispalis proves that, of the three hemicycles in those apses, the central one contained the tribunal or episcopal chair, the one on the right the sacred implements, the one on the left the sacred books.

The first building erected in Rome, under the Christian rule, for the study and preservation of books and documents  p188 was the Archivum (Archives) of Pope Damasus, who occupied the chair of S. Peter between 366 and 384. This just and enterprising Pope, the last representative of good old Roman traditions as regards the magnificence and usefulness of his public structures, selected for the site of his establishment the barracks or stables of the factio prasina, the green squadron of charioteers and riders of the Circus Maximus, and modelled it on the pattern of the typical library at Pergamon, of which the Palatine library of Apollo had been the worthy rival. He began by raising a basilica, or hall of basilical type, in the centre of the area, which he dedicated to S. Lawrence, and which corresponds to the temple of Minerva Polias in the library of Pergamon, and to the temple of Apollo in that of the Palatine. The hall of S. Lawrence, called still in our days S. Lorenzo in Damaso, or in Prasina, was surrounded by a square portico, into which opened the rooms or cells containing the various departments of the archives and of the library.

A commemorative inscription, composed by Damasus himself, in hexameters, seven in number, and engraved on marble by the skilful hand of Furius Dionysius Philocalus, the Pope's calligraphus, was set in the front of the building, above the main entrance. The text has been discovered in a MS. formerly at Heidelberg, now in the Vatican (n. 833). The first four hexameters do not bring out in a good light the poetical faculties of the worthy pontiff, — in fact, their real meaning has not yet been ascertained; but the last three verses are more intelligible: —

"Archibis, fateor, volui nova condere tecta

Addere praeterea dextra laeva columnas,

Quae Damasi teneant proprium per saecula nomen."

("I have erected this structure for the archives of the Roman church; I have surrounded it with porticoes on  p189 either side; and I have given to it my name, which I hope will be remembered for centuries.") These hopes have been splendidly realized, because, as I have already remarked, the church of S. Lawrence is still called "in Damaso." I may add that around the apse of the inner hall there was another distich of about the same poetical value, the text of which has been discovered by Commendatore de Rossi in a manuscript at Verdun: —

"Haec Damasus tibi, Christe deus, nova tecta levavi

Laurenti saeptus martyris auxilio."

("With the help of S. Lawrence the martyr I have raised, Lord Christ, this hall in Thine honor.") Mention of Damasus's archives is frequently made in documents of the fourth and fifth centuries. The official comptes-rendus of the council held in Rome in 369, together with the autograph signatures of the 146 bishops who attended the sittings, were certainly deposited in them. S. Jerome calls them chartarum ecclesiae Romanae, and asserts that the epistles, circulars, decrees, and constitutions of the Popes, the regesta Pontificum, as they were called in later ages, were shown to everybody, and could be copied on application to the keeper-in‑chief. Among those who have consulted the copious documents of the place, we can mention, on contemporary evidence, Pope Boniface I in 419; Pope Innocent I in 412; and the members of the Roman synod of 531.

I need not say that the library of Damasus has long since disappeared. The first blow aimed at the noble institution came from the centralization at the Lateran of all the documents connected with the Church, which took place in the seventh century. Finally the building itself, repaired and probably disfigured from time to time, was levelled to the ground, four hundred years ago (1486) by Cardinal  p190 Raphael Riario, nephew of Sixtus IV A new church was then built, two hundred feet east of the Basilica Damasiana, and incorporated by Riario in his magnificent Palazzo della Cancelleria.

Those who have visited Rome, or are otherwise acquainted with its prominent buildings, will recollect, I am sure, the wonderful court-yard of this Palazzo della Cancelleria, the chef d'oeuvre of Bramante, resting, as by a miracle of art, on a double tier of light columns of red Egyptian granite. These are the very columns which Pope Damasus carried from Pompey's theatre to his library, and which Cardinal Riario, in 1486, removed from the library to his palace.

During the fifth century we hear no more of literary institutions in Rome. In 535, however, Cassiodorius (commonly miscalled Cassiodorus), than prefect of the Praetorium, induced Pope Agapetus to institute a kind of university or higher school for Christian teaching, and to connect it with a select library. Pope Agapetus yielded to the suggestion, and gave up for the new institution his own paternal house, which stood on the Caelian, on the Clivus Scauri, the modern picturesque Salita dei SS. Giovanni e Paolo. The library was placed in the principal hall of the house, and above its entrance a commemorative inscription was set up, the text of which has been transmitted to us by the author of the well-known "Codex of Einsiedlen," and which begins as follows: "Here you see assembled, together with Agapetus, the founder of this library, the venerable array of the Fathers of the Church, ready to explain to you the mystic words of the Scriptures."

To understand the meaning of this sentence we must examine, although as briefly as possible, the material and practical organization of Christian libraries, from the fall of the Empire to the Renaissance of classical studies.

 p191  There is no doubt that the words of the inscription just quoted refer to the medallions or images of the Fathers of the Church, painted on the frieze of the cases which contained their works. This praiseworthy custom is of very ancient origin. In the chapter on the Palace of the Caesars, I have mentioned the medallions in repoussé work of brass or silver which ornamented the walls of the famous library of Apollo. But without resorting to the testimony of ancient authors, who very often allude to these iconographic galleries connected with public or private libraries, I can draw upon my own experience, and describe an ancient private library which I have seen with my own eyes. I think I am the only living man of letters who can boast of having been favored by chance with such rare good fortune. The discovery took place in December, 1883. A new road, the Via dello Statuto, was then in course of  p192 construction between the Piazza Vittorio Emmanuele, on the Esquiline, and the Via Cavour, in the Subura. Not far from the northeast corner of the church of S. Martino ai Monti, the remains of a private house began to appear in the trench, of which house some apartments were in the most wonderful state of preservation; others had been robbed even of their marble and mosaic pavements. To the intact portion of the building belongs — to cite only one instance — the lararium, or domestic chapel, and the Mithraeum (an under­ground cell, in which the secret mysteries of Mitras were performed), represented in the accompanying plates. In the chapel, besides the statue of Fortune, occupying the place d'honneur, there were some seventeen statuettes and busts of domestic divinities still standing upright on the side shelves. In the Mithraeum there were — there are still, because we have saved the place from destruction, and added it to the curiosities of Rome —  p193 the remnant of the seven torches, that is to say of sticks of fir-wood coated with tar, which were kept burning before the image of Mithras Tauroktonos. The ruined apartments, from which no more discoveries were expected, the excavation of which we did not watch with the same anxiety as we did that of the others, occupied the northern portion of the atrium, and consisted mostly of bath-rooms. I was struck, one afternoon, with the appearance of a rather spacious hall, the walls of which were plain and unornamented up to a certain height, but beautifully decorated above in stucco work. The decoration consisted of fluted pilasters, five feet apart from centre to centre, enclosing a plain square surface, in the middle of which there were medallions, also in stucco work, two feet in diameter. As always happens in these cases, the frame was the only well-preserved portion of the medallions. Of the images surrounded by the frames, of the medallions themselves, absolutely nothing was left in situ except a few fragments piled up at the foot of the wall, which, however, could be identified as having been representations of human faces. My hope that at last, after fifteen years of excavations, I had succeeded in discovering a library, was confirmed beyond  p194 any doubt by a legend written, or rather painted, in bright red color on one of the frames. There was but one name,


but this name told more plainly the purpose of the apartment than if I had discovered there the actual book-shelves and their contents.

The form, disposition, and ornamentation of book-shelves and book-cases, which the ancients called armaria, are well known from the authentic description we possess of the library of S. Isidorus at Hispalis. This library was divided into classes or departments of geography, natural philosophy, theology, and so forth. The books of each class were neatly arranged in separate armaria, on the frieze of which the portraits of the most famous authors were painted, together with an epigram explaining what the contents of the armaria were. On the book-case containing works on law there were the portraits of the famous jurisconsults Gaius and Paul, and of the Emperor Theodosius, the author of the Codex Theodosianus. The legend read as follows: —

"Conditur hic juris series amplissima legum

Veridico latium quae regit ore forum."

On the book-case containing historical works were the portrait of Eusebius and Orosius, with the legend: —

"Historias rerum et transacti tempora saecli

Condita membranis haec simul arca gerit."

Likewise, on the armarium set apart for works on medicine there were four pictures or medallions, representing Hippocrates, Galenus (misnamed Gallienus), and the brother saints Cosma and Damianus, with the epigram: —

"Quos claros orbe celebrat medicina magistros,

Hos praesens pictos signat imago viros."

 p195  The text of the other inscriptions of this well-organized library can be found in the manuscript formerly at Lauresheim, now in the Vatican (No. 1877). It appears from what I have said that the founders of Christian libraries in Rome and elsewhere followed faithfully the classic proto­types, not only in the general architecture of their buildings, but also in the minute details of interior arrangement; and the illustration above shows the force of tradition in such matters, the arrangement of the Vatican library to‑day being precisely that of the ancients.

The portraits of learned men were not always painted on the wood of the cases or on the plaster of the walls; there was an endless variety of arrangement. In a letter addressed to Eucherius, Bishop of Lyons, by Rusticus, Bishop of Narbonne, at the beginning of the fifth century, mention is made of a library in which Rusticus himself had studied  p196 classic literature in his younger years. In this library, exclusively devoted saecularibus litteris, there were many portraits of orators and poets in mosaic (expressa lapillis), or in terra-cotta (formata), or in a kind of pastel (ceris discoloribus), and each image was accompanied by a biographical inscription.

But the ancients by no means confined themselves to simple medallions, in their desire to honor the memory of learned men; they actually set up life-size statues in the vestibules and porticoes of their libraries, and hermae or busts in the inner halls. The taste for this display of literary luxury was introduced into Rome in the Augustan era, by Asinius Pollio. Asinius Pollio primus Romae bibliothecas publicavit (graecam atque latinam) additis auctorum imaginibus in atrio. In a fragmentary inscription discovered by Stevenson at Bolsena four years ago, the will of a gentleman is praised, who had bequeathed to his Volsinian fellow-citizens bibliothecam cum libris et statuis, with the books and statues. Statues and busts that have belonged to libraries can easily be recognized, at least in some cases, because the list of the oeuvres complètes of the authors they represent is generally engraved on the base of the bust, or on the plinth of the statue. Monuments of this kind, such as the famous Euripides of the villa Albani, have been illustrated by Ennio Quirino Visconti in the "Iconografia Greca," by Winckelmann in the "Monumenti Inediti," and quite recently by Comparetti and Di Petra in their volume on the "Villa dei Pisoni" and its library.

In spite of the decadence of art and refinement, in spite of the poverty of the age, the Christians followed classic traditions even in this particular, as we see from the famous life-size sitting statue of S. Hippolytus, doctor of the Church  p197 and martyr, on the plinth of which the catalogue of his works is engraved in minute Greek letters. The importance of this document has always been considered so great that when in 1756 the two learned brothers, Stephen Evodius and Joseph Simon Assemani, by order of Benedict XIV, published the first volume of the catalogue of the Vatican library, they began the preface with the list of S. Hippolytus, considering it as the oldest specimen of an index of sacred literature.

Books were not placed upright on the shelves, as with us, but horizontally. The first illumination of the volume offered by the Abbot Ceolfridus to the Holy See in 716, now in the Bibliotheca Laurenziana at Florence, of which book I shall speak again presently, represents an armarium with open shutters, and with the books lying horizontally on the shelves. The same particular is represented in one of the mosaics of S. Apollinare in Classe at Ravenna.

 p198  I have mentioned above the name of Cassiodorius as the one who suggested to Pope Agapetus the establishment of a Christian university on the Caelian, an institution which was enlarged and improved by S. Gregory the Great, and which has in a certain measure come down to our age, as the library of the convent of S. Gregorio at Monte Celio. Tired of his political career, Cassiodorius left the wicked world in 536, and retired to one of the most secluded spots in Calabria, to devote himself to monastic life; I ought to say, rather, to devote himself to his passion for rare books and well-organized libraries. The one he founded in his Calabrian monastery of Vivarium is spoken of so frequently and so passionately in his book, "De Institutione Divinarum Litterarum," that we know every particular connected with it. I shall mention one or two.

In the first place, great care and taste were displayed in binding the volumes; a body of docti artifices, clever bookbinders, was attached to the establishment, and a collection of models and specimens was placed at their disposition for instruction.

In the second place, some wonderful lamps were contrived for the assistance of students and copyists in their nocturnal work. Cassiodorius describes them as mechanicas lucernas quae, humano ministerio cessante, prolixe custodirent uberrimi luminis claritatem (mechanical lamps, which, even when left entirely to themselves, would continue to shine brilliantly for many hours), — lamps, I suppose, built on the modérateur or "Carcel" principle.

In the third place, the library was furnished with sundials and clepsydrae, horologium solare and aquatile, to regulate the hours of study and work by day or night, in clear or cloudy weather.

Lastly, a large staff of amanuenses and copyists, called  p199 antiquarii in classical times, was kept at work without interruption, like the printing departments of our libraries. A. Reiffersheid shows, in a pamphlet published at Breslau in 1882, what an incredible number of books was put in circulation by Cassiodorius at Vivarium, and by his friend Eugippius at the cenobium Lucullianum, near Naples. Their joint literary productions and copies of first-rate books inundated not only lower and central Italy, but even the African bishoprics, as proved by the epistles of S. Fulgentius to Eugippius. As to catalogues, in the strict modern sense of the word, we know they must have existed, but we have no positive evidence about them, except, perhaps, the unique passage in the ninth chapter of Seneca "De Tranquillitate," in which he mentions voluminum frontes, frontispieces; titulos, titles; and bibliothecarum indices, real catalogues. The titles, as Cicero describes them, were beautifully illuminated on a small piece of parchment, and pasted on the back of the volume. The oldest catalogue of a Christian library is that inserted by Eusebius in the third book of the life of Pamphilus. Others, anterior to the thirteenth century, have been quite recently collected and edited at Bonn by Professor Gustav Becker, beginning with the catalogue of the Fontanelles library, written in 745. The series of Professor Becker, although numbering 136 catalogues, is far from complete, and many important documents have escaped his attention. Such are, for instance, the index of books offered to the church of S. Clement in Rome, engraved on a marble slab in the vestibule of the church itself; the catalogue of the Cluny library, the first divided according to subjects; those of Anchin and Puy, the first in which books are regularly numbered, and so forth. But, as the proverb says, facile est inventis addere.

 p200  An interesting paper might be written on the exchange of manuscripts between Rome and the newly converted inhabitants of remote provinces, especially those of Anglo-Saxon countries. In 601, Pope Gregory the Great sent to S. Austin, then preaching the gospel in the British Isles, plurimos codices, of which only two seem to have come down to us, namely, the two evangeliaria preserved, one in the Cambridge, one in the Bodleian, library. Wanley, Westwood, Goodwin, and Garrucci agree in recognizing these two volumes as unique, rather than rare, specimens of the sixth-century palaeography. There is a third volume, which has long been considered as belonging to the set sent by S. Gregory to S. Austin, a psalterium now in the British Museum library, described on p. 8, Part II, of the catalogue printed in 1884. Bond, Thompson, Warner, and Delisle, however, have proved beyond dispute that the volume must have been written by an Anglo-Saxon amanuensis, towards the end of the eighth century, and is, accordingly, two hundred years younger than the evangeliaria of Oxford and Cambridge.

Demands for books from the Gallic, Spanish, and Alexandrine churches were not only taken into consideration at Rome, but granted as liberally as the resources of the archives and library of the Holy See would permit. Apostles and missionaries, sowing the good seed, especially in the northern regions of Europe, would constantly beg for copies of the sacred books. In 649, Amandus, Bishop of Trajectum, sent a messenger to Pope Martin I to obtain duplicates from the pontifical library. The answer of the Pope was: "Our library is absolutely exhausted, and we  p201 could not give your messenger a single duplicate. We authorized him, however, to transcribe some of them himself, but he left Rome in a hurry." The reason why no duplicates could be obtained is evident. In 649, the great Roman Council was assembled, and all available copies in the library had been distributed among the bishops, to help them in their inquiries about the heresy of the Monothelites.

The founders of monasteries in England showed a real passion for books and libraries, and in the course of the seventh century they did not spare time, labor, or money in securing rare manuscripts from Rome. Bede, in his biographies of abbots, relates how one of them, named Benedict or Biscopus, travelled the whole distance to Rome not less than five times between the years 653 and 684, for the purpose of increasing the literary supply of his abbey. And if we consider how difficult, fatiguing, disagreeable, and even dangerous a journey between the British Isles and Italy must have been in those days of anarchy and barbarism, we can appreciate the intensity of Benedict's passion for beautiful and costly volumes. From his third pilgrimage, in 671, he brought back a set of theological works vel pretio emptos vel dono largitos, bought of copyists or received as presents; on his fourth journey, in 678, he increased his collection with an "innumerable quantity of books in literature;" whereas the fifth journey was devoted again to the purchase of sacred and theological treatises. Even on his death-bed he could think of nothing but his library, and his last words were of earnest entreaty to his successor to preserve and enlarge his copiosissima et nobilissima bibliotheca, of which the chef d'oeuvre seems to have been a codex of geography, mirandi operis, of marvellous workman­ship, bought, like the others, in Rome.

 p202  The library contained also a valuable collection of pictures, of holy images, as Bede says, purchased during the fourth and fifth journeys. The most noticeable was a set of illustrations representing the concordia veteris et novi testamenti, the harmony between the old and the new testaments: for instance, Isaac carrying on his shoulder the fagots for his immolation, and our Lord carrying the cross for his crucifixion. This is, as far as we can judge, the earliest, or at least one of the earliest, records of a Bible illustrated with parallel pictures from both testaments. These Bibles, popularized at first by the work of hand and pencil, later on by the help of wood-cuts, are better known under the name of Bibliae pauperum.

Rome was the centre of this sort of literary and artistic industry; and there is no doubt that the earliest fresco-paintings in Anglo-Saxon churches and cloisters, representing Christ, the Virgin Mary, the Apostles, and so forth, were copied from models sent from Rome. To this class of original drawings belongs the codex of Cambridge, already mentioned, splendidly ornamented with illustrations of evangelical history, designed in Rome.

The successor of Benedict, named Ceolfrid, shared his passion for valuable manuscripts. He brought over from Italy a "pandect" of the sacred text, of which he ordered their copies to be made; and, being already far advanced in years, he undertook another journey to Rome to offer to the library of the Holy See the best of the three copies. Death overtaking him, near Lyons, in the spring of 716, his disciples and followers pursued the journey, and presented the precious volume, containing the translation of S. Jerome, to the Pope. The volume still exists; it is preserved in the Bibliotheca Laurenziana at Florence, to which it was carried from the monastery of Monte Amiata.

 p203  There is no doubt that the direct descent of Roman libraries and the transmission of classic and religious books from age to age, from generation to generation, can be followed uninterruptedly from the fall of the Empire down to the middle of the thirteenth century. We do not know how long the great library and central archives of Pope Damasus existed as a special and individual institution; we know, however, that as early as the eighth century the Lateran pontifical palace became the centre of the literary, historical, and religious libraries and archives belonging to the Holy See. There they remained undisturbed until the tenth century, in the course of which the most precious documents were transferred to a stronghold, especially built for the purpose, in the Turris Cartularia,​b a massive tower, to which the triumphal arch of Titus served as a buttress.1

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Remains of the Turris Cartularia.

The only means we possess of following the life and  p204 vicissitudes of this invaluable collection of sacred and classic books, in an age the history of which is absolutely obscure and fragmentary, are the regesta Pontificum; that is to say, the collection of official documents, epistles, constitutions, and canons issued by each Pope. The regesta are known to have existed, as a complete series and without any interruption, from the remotest ages down to the middle of the thirteenth century. Honorius III, who died in 1227, is the very last Pope who saw the volumes, who studied them carefully, and who makes express mention of them. None of his successors, so far as we can discover, mentions the library and the archives as an existing institution.

Not one of the volumes, of the documents, of the regesta, belonging to the incomparable collection formerly in the buildings of Damasus, then in the Lateran, and lastly in the Turris Cartularia, has escaped destruction, — not one has come down to us! Before the present learned and enterprising pontiff, Leo XIII, threw open to everybody the secret archives of the Vatican, many of us believed that the long-lost documents might be discovered there, in that mysterious den, which was inexorably closed to scholars, from the time of Pope Eugenius IV to the time of Pope Pius IX Our expectation has been completely disappointed: not a trace, not a particle, of the old collection has been found as yet, and most likely none ever will be. Therefore we are forced to believe that the catastrophe by which the collection was destroyed, and by which the link connecting modern with ancient libraries was severed, must have taken place soon after the death of Pope Honorius III; but we are absolutely ignorant of the precise date, the nature, the details, of the catastrophe. The only plausible explanation which we can offer is to be found in the history of the Turris Cartularia itself. This stronghold,  p205 built by the Frangipani family, as a detached work of their Palatine headquarters, and used by the Popes as a safe receptacle for their state documents, was handed over to the imperial faction in 1244. Its contents were doubtless burnt, or otherwise destroyed, out of spite and revenge towards the Popes and their faithful supporters, the Frangipani family.

The Author's Note:

1 This Turris Cartularia, or "Tower of the Archives," was dismantled at the beginning of the present century. What remains of its foundations is represented in the accompanying illustration.

Thayer's Notes:

a The comment of Jerzy Linderski, in "Libri Reconditi", Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 89:233: "Serenus Sammonicus floruit under Septimius Severus and was executed in 212 by Caracalla, perhaps as a familiaris of Geta. The author of the Historia Augusta (Gord. 18.2) equips him in jest with a library consisting of precisely 62,000 volumes, which some modern innocents take seriously."

b The obvious meaning of the building's name is "Tower for Charters" and supports Lanciani's opinion that the pontifical archives were kept there, but it is not universal. Hülsen, writing in 1905, agrees (see his brief article, Templum Iovis Statoris); Platner and Ashby's Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, as revised by Thomas Ashby in 1929, goes out of its way to point out that it does not (s.v. Aedes Jovis Statoris).

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