With widespread literacy, books were important in ancient Greece and Rome. However, books had to be painstakingly written by hand, usually on fragile, hard-to-care-for papyrus*, which was the preferred writing material in the Mediterranean area from about 500 B.C. to A.D. 300. Libraries arose as places to store and protect fragile manuscripts, as well as places where works of literature could be collected and used for scholarly purposes. Libraries were often built in association with schools, cities, or rulers, and they came to rank among the grandest of civic monuments.

* papyrus writing material made by pressing together thin strips of the innerstem of the papyrus plant

Greek Libraries. By 400 B.C. books were in wide circulation in Greece. Athens had booksellers, and books were exported as far away as the Black Sea. Some individuals had large private collections of books, typically the works of the best-known poets and philosophers. The philosopher Aristotle had a very famous collection, which he made accessible to students at the Lyceum, his school in Athens. This library—and those that were established later in association with other Greek schools of philosophy—served the same purpose as university libraries of today.

The first truly public libraries in the Greek world were established by the Hellenistic* kings who followed Alexander the Great. The most famous library of ancient times was the Library in Alexandria in Egypt, which was said to be modeled after Aristotle’s library. The Library of Alexandria was established by the kings of the Ptolemaic dynasty*, and it contained the greatest collection of books in the ancient world. The Ptolemies obtained copies of all books carried on ships that docked at Alexandria, and they borrowed books from libraries in Athens and other cities and had them copied. According to legend, Ptolemy II confined 72 scholars on an island until they produced the first known Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. This translation became known as the Septuagint.

The Library at Alexandria eventually came to hold a copy of every existing scroll known to Greek scholars. It housed as many as half a million papyrus rolls, the equivalent of about 100,000 modern books. Its librarians were leading scholars, and its director, a writer named Callimachus,developed a 120-volume catalog, which made the contents of the library more accessible to scholars. The Library became famous for the scholarly studies it supported as well as for its huge collection of books.

* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.

* dynasty succession of rulers from the same family or group

However, no trace remains of the Alexandrian Library, which was destroyed by fire.

Large libraries were built in other major cities as well. For example, a well-known library was founded in the 100s B.C. at Pergamum in what is now Turkey. It was said to house at least 200,000 papyrus rolls. Smaller cities also had their own libraries, sometimes attached to gymnasia. In addition, special libraries grew up around medical schools, synagogues*, and churches.

Roman Libraries. The ancient Romans continued the library-founding tradition of the Greeks, and as in Greece, the earliest Roman libraries were private collections. By 100 B.C. large private collections of books existed in Rome, of which the best-known collection belonged to the Roman statesman Cicero. In fact, the possession of a personal library became a status symbol for wealthy Romans. The bulk of these private collections consisted of Greek literature, which the Romans admired, and at least some of the books came directly from libraries in Greece. For example, the Roman general Sulla was said to have obtained Aristotle’s books when he conquered Athens in 84 B.C.

In the tradition of the earlier Hellenistic monarchs, the Roman soldier- statesman Caesar planned the first public library in Rome. The library was actually built in 39 B.C. by his close friend and patron of literature, Asinius Pollio. Caesar’s example was followed by the first Roman emperor, Augustus, who built two libraries, and by the emperor Trajan, who built another. Trajan’s library had separate buildings for Greek and Latin books. By the A.D. 300s, Rome had 28 libraries, with a head librarian to oversee the entire system.

The Romans also encouraged the establishment of libraries throughout their huge empire. For example, the emperor Hadrian built a library at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens about A.D. 125. When the new Roman capital was built at Constantinople in the A.D. 300s, a library was one of the first institutions to be provided. It eventually contained 120,000 books.

The great libraries of the Roman Empire disappeared like those of ancient Greece. However, one private collection, which belonged to a Roman nobleman, has survived. The nobleman lived in the town of Herculaneum, which was at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius. When Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79, the town was buried under lava, which partially preserved the library and its contents. In the 1750s, excavators uncovered the library and the remains of about 1,800 papyrus scrolls. (See also Alphabets and Writing; Books and Manuscripts; Literacy; Ptolemaic Dynasty.)

* synagogue building of worship for Jews


If you visited a public library in ancient Rome you would not need a library card because books could not be borrowed. Instead, you would have to read the books in the library's reading room. If you had a lot to read, you would want to arrive at the library early. [The library was likely to open at dawn and close at midday.) You would not be allowed to browse through the library's collection because books were stored in cupboards to protect them. Instead, you would select books from the library's catalog, which listed authors under broad subject headings, and then ask an attendant to fetch them for you.

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