A couple of words can’t do the subject justice so here we go with a few notes on ancient roman libraries:
The Romans were a notoriously practical culture. In comparison the Greeks were highly inquisitive of the world about them almost to the point of being interested in the mathematical method of this or that problem rather than its actual result. Great deals of knowledge were also amassed in Egypt which with its thousands of years of investigation had gathered a considerable body of knowledge in a number of scientific areas, including the heavens. The greatest library of the age was at the famous city of Alexandria in Egypt
Rome’s strength in terms of knowledge per se obviously came from its economic wealth and position as centre of the Empire. The great wealth meant that many of the most learned men of the known world gravitated about the city. That is not to say that important centres of learning didn’t exist elsewhere so much so that it was quite common from the end of the Repubblican period onwards to travel abroad to perfect your education in places such as Rhodes to gain your “Masters” degree in Oratory (not that there were such certificates at the time).
A particularly interesting episode occurred around the last quarter of the first century AD: Emperor Vespasian saw what a significant outflow of money this foreign schooling meant and proceeded to import many of the greatest tutors of the time at the state’s expense. Vespasian’s own son, the tyrant Diocletian is remembered even by his detractors for having made great efforts in ensuring that the city libraries should not be wanting of books (scrolls actually) and to have dispatches sent as far as Alexandria in search of this or the other rare text.
During the imperial period, from Caesar onwards, many public libraries were built in Rome to which we should add the libraries held in the villas of the rich. Emperor Augustus founded two libraries and a few others were built by his successor Tiberius and then the Colosseum’s builder, Vespasian. Around 130AD Emperor Hadrian built a wonderful library in Athens. We know from Suetonius in his book dedicated to Tiberius (ch.70) that the emperor, as lover of poetry….
“made Greek verses in imitation of Euphorion, Rhianus, and Parthenius, poets of whom he was very fond, placing their busts in the public libraries among those of the eminent writers of old“.
From this detail we can easily deduce that the Roman public libraries were frequently adorned with the busts of the most famed writers of old.
A library worth particular note is that built by Emperor Trajan, just by his famous Trajan’s column. Trajan’s library was actually divided into two: one either side of the column. One half held texts written in Greek whilst the other held texts in Latin. The column itself is interesting because it is devised as a long scroll relating actual historical events.
Structure of Ancient Roman libraries
Ancient Roman libraries tended to be built into a semicircular room accessed by way of a portico. The library room was lit by natural light entering through the roof. The scrolls were kept in wooden boxes up the walls which could be accessed by way of wooden ladders and balconies. One or more tables towards the centre of the room were used for reading of the texts. Being scrolls they had to be unrolled in order to be read.
A scroll such as the famous tabula Petingeriana road map measured about a foot (35cm) in height and 23ft (7m) in length.
Other mentions of Roman books and Libraries:
I am collecting anecdotes and mentions about Roman libraries and some of the books which would have been found in them, here are a few:
Julius Caesar is rumoured to be the cause of the burning of the great library at Alexandria. This reputedly happened when he started fires in the city as a diversion when under attack from Cleopatra’s brother. However this is unlikely to have been the end of the great library since there are later references to it, for example the christian destruction of heretical books several hundred years later.
Emperor Claudius, great lover of the Etruscan civilisation and husband of the Etruscan princess Urgulanilla died. Claudius was supposedly the last speaker of the ancient language and used his access to the private libraries to write 20 books entitled “Tyrrhenika” on the history of the Etruscan people (now sadly lost).
The “Augustan history”, itself a collection of works by various authors suggests that Marcus Claudius Tacitus, a descendant of Tacitus the historian, became emperor and mandated that his ancestor’s works should be made available in all public libraries.
Gaius Julius Hyginus, a freed slave of emperor Augustus, friend of Ovid. Became the librarian to the library of the temple of Apollo on the Palatine. Wrote a variety of books (scrolls) including Fabulae which included mythological tales largely inspired by Greece.
Books (scrolls) you might find in an Ancient Roman library:
- A variety of books on Roman medicine and herbal remedies, for example Galen
- Tacitus’ histories – mandated into libraries by his descendant Emperor Tacitus
- Sulla’s autobiography
- Homer’s epics Iliad and Odissey which inspired Virgil’s Aenid
- Vitruvius’ De Architectura
- the list continues….feel free to send us your suggestions!