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In 168 BC, the same year that parchment may have been introduced to Rome by a visiting delegation from Pergamum, L. Aemilius Paulus returned with the royal library of the King of Macedonia. In 86 BC, Sulla brought from Athens at least some of Aristotle's own library, and Lucullus, who had fought under Sulla, claimed as a prize of war the library of Mithridates, the King of Pontus. Collections such as these, the plundered book rolls of Greece and Asia Minor, mark the beginning of libraries in Rome, both private and public. Aemilius later was to bequeath the books to his sons: one who later would rebuild the Basilica Aemilia, after whom it is named; the other, Scipio Aemilianus, who defeated Carthage, saving only one book for himself, a treatise in Punic on agriculture and wine that became the source of all subsequent Roman writing on the subject. Sulla, too, bequeathed his library to his son, Faustus, whose Falernian wine was so renown.
Literacy was high among the patrician class (although overall literacy in Rome and Italy probably was less than 15%), and, by the middle of the first century BC, private libraries were becoming common among wealthy families. Cicero remarks on visiting the library of Faustus Cornelius Sulla, and Lucullus opened his to scholars, although it was the Greeks in Rome who availed themselves of the opportunity. Libraries, too, could be simply for ostentatious display. In the Satyricon, Petronius has Trimalchio boast of his Greek and Latin libraries but is completely ignorant of the books they contain. Seneca, who deplored the gladiatorial games, also complained of this vulgar show of literary conceit.
"What is the use of having countless books and libraries, whose titles their owners can scarcely read through in a whole lifetime?....What excuse have you to offer for a man who seeks to have bookcases of citrus-wood and ivory, who collects the works of unknown or discredited authors and sits yawning in the midst of so many thousand books, who gets most of his pleasure from the outsides of volumes and their titles? Consequently it is in the houses of the laziest men that you will see a full collection of orations and history with the boxes piled right up to the ceiling; for by now among cold baths and hot baths a library also is equipped as a necessary ornament of a great house....as it is, these collections of the works of sacred genius with all the portraits that adorn them are brought for show and a decoration of their walls."
Catullus, too, in the earliest description of the appearance of the book roll, chides another poet for not using palimpsest to compose his rustic work but writing on large sheets of Augusta, in new books with new ivory handles wrapped in red parchment and tied with red thongs. Ovid also describes the roll, lamenting his exile from Rome.
"Go, but go unadorned, as becomes the book of an exile; in your misfortune wear the garb that befits these days of mine. You shall have no cover dyed with the juice of purple berries—no fit colour is that for mourning; your title shall not be tinged with vermilion nor your paper with cedar oil; and you shall wear no white bosses [cornua] upon your dark edges. Books of good omen should be decked with such things as these."
Aside from the public archives of official documents (such as those in the Tabularium), there were no public libraries in Rome before the first century BC. Julius Caesar intended to establish one, and even commissioned Varro to gather books for it, but was assassinated before his plan could be realized. In 39 BC, several collections, including those of Sulla and Varro, were consolidated by Asinius Pollio, who founded the first public library in Rome, thereby, says Pliny, making "works of genius the property of the public." Asinius also was the first to place bronze busts in the library "in honour of those whose immortal spirits speak to us," the only contemporary figure of which was Varro.
The real impetus for the public library, however, came from Augustus, who established the Bibliotheca Apollinis Palatini on the Palatine adjacent to the Temple of Apollo, both of which were dedicated in 28 BC. Ovid writes of it, "All that the learned minds of ancient or of modern authors have produced lies there open for the readers to consult." Another, the Porticus Octaviae, was part of a complex of building (opera Octaviae) in the Campus Martius (the library, itself, was founded by Octavia, the emperor's sister) that contained a collection of art and sculpture, including an Eros by Praxiteles. Both were annexed to temples and divided into separate Greek and Latin collections, together with a hall or reading room. Vitruvius advises that libraries face east, to provide good morning light and to prevent damp, and all Roman libraries, save one, did face east. This plan was followed by later emperors, and Tiberius, Vespasian, and Trajan all built libraries in Rome.
Vespasian established the Bibliotheca Pacis in the Templum Pacis (Temple of Peace), which was dedicated in AD 75 and considered by Pliny to be one of the three most beautiful buildings in Rome. Josephus writes that treasures from the Temple of Jerusalem were deposited there, spoils from the Jewish War that had ended the year before with the fall of Masada (the seven-branched menorah still can be seen on the Arch of Titus). There, too, were placed the works of Galen and the finest masterpieces of Greek art. "Indeed," says Josephus, "into that shrine were accumulated and stored all objects for the sight of which men had once wandered over the whole world, eager to see them severally while they lay in various countries." The library was destroyed by the fire of AD 191 (which also burnt down the Palatine library) but restored by Severus, who ordered that a plan of Rome, the Forma Urbis Romae, be affixed to an adjoining wall (the holes where it was attached still can be seen). Incised on 151 marble slabs, the value of the Severan map for the topography of Rome is that the surviving fragments show details of public and private buildings that otherwise would be unknown.
The greatest of the imperial libraries was part of the Forum of Trajan, the last and most magnificent of the fora. To provide level ground, the base of the Quirinal Hill was cut back 125 feet, a figure commemorated in the height of Trajan's Column. At the end of the forum, opposite its entrance, was the Basilica Ulpia (the name derives from Trajan's nomen, Ulpius), and, beyond it, was the Bibliotheca Ulpia. Founded in AD 114, the two libraries faced one another across a courtyard, the Latin collection on the east and the Greek on the west, each enclosing two floors that held about 20,000 rolls. Between them rose the Columna Trajani. After Alexandria and Pergamum, the Bibliotheca Ulpia was the most famous library of antiquity and, of all the Roman libraries, the only one to have survived at least until the mid-fifth century AD.
Twenty-eight libraries had been enumerated in the Constantinian topographical survey of Rome. Now, writing sometime after AD 378, Ammianus laments, "the libraries are like tombs, permanently shut." In AD 392, pagan worship was forbidden and the ancient temples closed. Two decades later, Rome fell to the Visigoths and, although the Bibliotheca Ulpia would survive, a dark age was about to begin.
The library recreated above is in the Museo della Civiltà Romana (Rome).
References: "Book Production" by Susan A. Stephens, in Civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean (1988) edited by Michael Grant and Rachel Kitzinger; The Birth of the Codex (1983) by Colin Roberts and T. C. Skeat; Cambridge History of Classical Literature (1982) edited by E. J. Kenney and W. V. Clausen; Books and Readers in Ancient Greece and Rome (1951) by Frederic G. Kenyon; Ancient Libraries (1940) by James Westfall Thompson; The Oxford Classical Dictionary (1996) edited by Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth; Ancient Literacy (1989) by William V. Harris; Roman Imperial Architecture (1981) by J. B. Ward-Perkins; A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome (1992) by L. Richardson, Jr; Urbs Roma (1967) by Donald R. Dudley.
Pliny, Natural History (1960) translated by H. Rackham (Loeb Classical Library); Seneca: Moral Essays (1932) translated by John W. Basore (Loeb Classical Library); Ammianus Marcellinus: The Later Roman Empire (1986) translated by Walter Hamilton (Penguin Classics).
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