[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

p202 Bibliotheca

Article by Alexander Allen, Ph.D.,
on pp202‑203 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

BIBLIOTHECA (βιβλιοθήκη, or ἀποθήκη βιβλίων), primarily, the place where a collection of books was kept; secondarily, the collection itself (Festus, s.v.). Little as the states of antiquity dealt with the instruction of the people, public collections of books appear to have been very ancient. That of Peisistratus was intended for public use (Gell. VII.17; Athen. I p3); it was subsequently removed to Persia by Xerxes. About the same time, Polycrates, tyrant of Samos, is said to have founded a library. In the best days of Athens, even private persons had large collections of books; the most important of which we know any thing, belonged to Euclid, Euripides, and Aristotle. Strabo says (XIII.1) that Aristotle was the first who, to his knowledge, made a collection of books, and taught the Egyptian kings the arrangement of a library. The most important and splendid public library of antiquity was that founded by the Ptolemies at Alexandria, begun under Ptolemy Soter, but increased and re-arranged in an orderly and systematic manner by Ptolemy Philadelphus, who also appointed a fixed librarian and otherwise provided for the usefulness of the institution. The library of the Ptolemies contained, according to A. Gellius (VII.17), 700,000 volumes; according to Josephus, 500,000; and according to Seneca (De Tranq. An. 9), 400,000.º The different reckoning of different authors may be in some measure, perhaps, reconciled by supposing that they give the number of books only in a part of the library; for it consisted of two parts, one in the quarter of the city called Brucheion, the other in the part called Serapeion. Ptolemy Philadelphus bought Aristotle's collection to add to the library, and Ptolemy Euergetes continued to add to the stock. A great part of this splendid library was consumed by fire in the siege of Alexandria by Julius Caesar: some writers say that the whole was burnt; but the discrepancy in the numbers stated above seems to confirm the opinion that the fire did not extend so far. At any rate, the library was soon restored, and continued in a flourishing condition till it was destroyed by the Arabs A.D. 640 (see Gibbon, c51).a Connected with the greater division of the library, in the quarter of Alexandria called Brucheion, was a sort of college to which the name of Mouseion (or Museum) was given. Here many favoured literati pursued their studies, transcribed books, and so forth; lectures also were delivered. The Ptolemies were not long without a rival in zeal. Eumenes, king of Pergamus, became a patron of literature and the sciences, and established a library, which, in spite of the prohibition against exporting papyrus issued by Ptolemy, jealous of his success, became very extensive, and perhaps next in importance to the library of Alexandria. It remained, and probably continued to increase, till Antonius made it a present to Cleopatra (Plut. Anton. 58).

The first public library in Rome was that founded by Asinius Pollio (Plin. H. N. VII.30; Isid. Orig. VI.5), and was in the atrium Libertatis on Mount Aventine. Julius Caesar had projected a grand Greek and Latin library, and had commissioned Varro to take measures for the establishment of it; but the scheme was prevented by his death (Suet. Jul. 44). The library of Pollio was followed by that of Augustus, in the temple of Apollo on the Mount Palatine (Suet. Aug. 29; Dion Cass. LIII.1), and another, bibliothecae Octavianae (so called from Augustus's sister Octavia), forming part of the Porticus Octaviaeb (Dion Cass. XLIX.43; Plut. Marcell. 30). There were also p203libraries on the capitol (Suet. Dom. 20), in the temple of Peace (Gell. XVI.8), in the palace of Tiberius (Gell. XIII.18), besides the Ulpian library, which was the most famous, founded by Trajan (Gell. XI.17; Dion Cass. LXVIII.16), called Ulpian from his own name, Ulpius. This library was attached by Diocletian, as an ornament, to his thermae (Vopisc. Prob. 2).

Private collections of books were made at Rome soon after the second Punic war. The zeal of Cicero, Atticus, and others in increasing their libraries is well known (Cic. ad Att. I.7, 10, IV.5; Ad Quint. Fr. III.4). The library of Lucullus was very extensive, and he allowed the public free access to it (Plut. Lucull. 42). Towards the end of the republic it became, in fact, the fashion to have a room elegantly furnished as a library, and reserved for that purpose. However ignorant or unstudious a person might be, it was fashionable to appear learned by having a library, though he might never even read the titles of the books. Seneca (De Tranq. An. 9) condemns the rage for mere book-collecting, and rallies those who were more pleased with the outside than the inside. Lucian wrote a separate piece to expose this common folly (πρὸς ἀπαίδευτον καὶ πολλα βιβλία ὠνούμενον).

A library generally had an eastern aspect (Vitruv. VI.4). In Herculaneum a library fully furnished was discovered. Round the walls it had cases containing the books in rolls [Liber]; these cases were numbered. It was a very small room; so small that a person by stretching out his arms could touch both sides of it. The cases were called either armaria (Plin. Ep. II.17; Vopisc. Tacit. 8), or loculamenta (Seneca, De Tranq. An. 9), or foruli (Juv. Sat. III.219), or nidi (Mart. I.118.15, VII.17.5). Asinius Pollio had set the fashion in his public library of adorning the room with the portraits and busts of celebrated men, as well as statues of Minerva and the Muses. This example was soon followed in the private libraries of the rich (Juv. III.219; Plin. Ep. III.7, IV.28; Cic. ad Fam. VII.23; Plin. H. N. XXXV.2; Suet. Tib. 70; Mart. IX. Ep. ad Turan.; Lipsius, De Bibliothecis Syntagma, in Opera, vol. III; Becker, Gallus, vol. I p160, &c.)

Thayer's Notes:

a There is no single topic touching Antiquity, I think, about which there is more current controversy than the destruction of the library of Alexandria, with the opinions depending chiefly on the politics of those holding them. If the subject is new to you, tread warily, and don't believe anything you read!

At least three and maybe as many as five separate disasters befell the library during its long history. The main debated points are: which one qualifies as its destruction? and: was the destruction intentional?

The most certain things that can be said are that (1) a large number of books were burned in the civil wars of Caesar's time — although some claim that it wasn't the Library at all, but a commercial warehouse that burned — and (2) the last one hears of the Library was at the time of the Arab conquest in 640: here some are most vehement in laying to the door of the Arabs the near-total destruction of the sum of ancient knowledge, while others say that by that time the great repository was nothing but a shell, the books themselves having perished long before, at the hands of Romans, Egyptians, Christians, or Jews; if you are so inclined, name your villains.

One statement can certainly be made, however. Whenever it happened, whoever did it, accidentally or on purpose, the contents of the Library are no longer with us. Often the books deposited in the Museum were unique copies, and apparently the keepers of the Library had a monopoly on copying them. Had there been no monopoly, many of these works of Antiquity would have been widely disseminated, and they would have survived to our own day.

Simply put, the desire to keep knowledge to oneself, (to take one example each from Alexandria, the early days of Rome, and our own time: books, the contents of laws, or operating system source codes) stemming ultimately from a very insecure need for power — the stuff of all bureaucracies — proved itself, as almost always, pernicious to all. As Pliny the Elder wisely wrote:

Turpissima causa raritatis <scientiae> quod etiam qui sciunt demonstrare nolunt, tamquam ipsis periturum sit quod tradiderint aliis.

"The most shameful reason for the poor dissemination of knowledge is that those who know things don't want to present them openly, as if somehow in the process they would lose whatever they shared with others."

(N. H. XXV.16)

b The 1875 edition actually has "porticus Octavia", a different porticus. This seems to be a typo. See both articles in Platner & Ashby's Topographical Dictionary, and the sources cited: Octavia Octaviae.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 31 Aug 09