Ancient Libraries

Ancient Libraries
Ancient Libraries

The preconditions for a society to have a library are a writing script, a level of literacy, schools that foster literary skills, an educated and resourceful educated class, an interest in reading, and a publishing industry.

These conditions favored societies in the Near East and Greece in ancient times, though by the beginning of the Common Era libraries were not unknown in imperial China. The most successful early libraries offered the greatest public accessibility.

The seeds of libraries are found in the archives of ancient monarchies and governments. As soon as writing developed it was used by rulers for administration and record keeping. The tablets of Ebla (near Aleppo, Syria) provide an early example.

Here excavators found approximately 2,000 clay tablets dating back to 2300 b.c.e., recording information about food, clothing, and raw materials, apparently used as a palace archives. A similar cache was found at Ras Shamra, Syria, reflecting the 13th-century b.c.e. city Ugarit.


Here the writings are of a somewhat more intellectual nature: diplomatic correspondence, laws, history, a little poetry and incantations, and even a Sumerian-Ugaritic dictionary. These early collections were storage places for administrative information.

Pleasure reading and general reader access were not high priorities. The palace repository of Ashurbanipal (c. 650 b.c.e.) in Nineveh provides more of an ancient parallel for our topic. The collection included 1,500 titles in cuneiform texts.

The finding of the Epic of Gilgamesh suggests that the readers here were not merely interested in governing more efficiently, though the vast majority of texts are resources for Ashurbanipal’s palace bureaucrats.

Private and Specialized

In the ancient Greek world there is a long history of literacy, books, and education. However, libraries were at first decidedly private and specialized. In the fourth century b.c.e.

Aristotle’s personal collection of books was famous, and his Peripatetic school continued in his footsteps. Also, scholars recently discovered a catalog of books that indicates what an ancient library should offer: Homer, Hesiod, the tragedies, even cookbooks.

The prevailing attitude, though, was that book collections were for eccentric intellectuals. The foundation of a publicly used library goes back to the followers of Aristotle who migrated to Alexandria when Aristotle’s student, Alexander the Great, died.

Perhaps they persuaded the Diadochi monarchs, the Ptolemies, to establish a library like Aristotle’s but to make it available to all as a public resource. Or perhaps the Ptolemies, being Hellenized, simply wanted to subsidize Greek scholarship in Egypt. Thus, the library soon was associated with a circle of Greek thinkers called the "Mouseion" (the gathering place of the Muse inspired).

Demetrios Phaleron (345–283 b.c.e.) and a string of other Homeric scholars were Alexandria’s first chief librarians. The first critical edition of the Homeric epics was produced, as well as the first Jewish Bible in Greek.

Other library savants probably included Callimachus, Plotinus, and Philo the Jew. It is also likely that religious figures such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, the Gnostics, and proponents of Neoplatonism were patrons in later centuries.

Alexandria’s holdings were vast, consisting of at least 500,000 rolls (scrolls), or the equivalent of 100,000 books. The complex had 10 buildings, connected by colonnades and adjoining areas for reading and discussion.

The library survived until the days of the Muslim caliphate. One of the main rivals for Alexandria was Pergamum, a beautiful city in Asia Minor. Around the year 200 b.c.e. King Eumenes II or Attalus I founded a library to compete with Ptolemy’s.

The Egyptians were so threatened that they banned the export of papyrus, a raw material for book production, which only stimulated the production of parchment as a substitute. The library eventually contained around 200,000 scrolls. Other ancient libraries were also found in such Mediterranean areas as Rhodes, Cos, Pella, and Antioch.

The Roman Empire boasted a library institution that linked Greek traditions to the modern world. When Aemilius Paullus defeated Perseus of Macedon in 168 b.c.e., he ransacked the royal library and brought back its books.

He wanted to educate his sons in Greek culture, just like the Alexandrians. As Rome’s thirst for Greek learning increased, so did its desire for Greek tutors, books, and libraries. Evidence for first-century c.e. Roman libraries is abundant.

Cicero and Plutarch speak much about the procurement of books, the accessibility of books through lending and copying policies, the storage and organization of books, and the reading of books.

From the satires of Trimalchio, Seneca, and Lucian, we learn that rich Romans would use their libraries as a mask for their stupidity. They would make a display of their wealth and "high culture" by founding "public libraries".

In the time of Augustus Caesar the state started to take a role in making books available to the public. Emperors started to provide library benefits. Julius Caesar made the first plan of a library, though he did not live to see its implementation.

There is evidence for libraries erected in honor of Emperors Vespasian,  Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Caracalla, and Diocletian. By one count there were more than 28 libraries in Rome alone. Constantine the Great pillaged books from Rome in order to start in Constantinople a collection of 7,000 books. New Rome eventually had 120,000 books.

Roman libraries offered more amenities than their Hellenistic forebears. Romans provided reading rooms and easy access to the stacks of books. Ancient library planners advised that the structure should face east to catch the sun, should have green marble floors to reduce strain on the eyes, and be decorated with gilded ceilings to increase good light.

The still-standing library of Celsus in Ephesus shows that the facade would have busts of famous authors, and the central niche of the reading rooms might be graced with a statue of the library’s benefactor. Rules for lending and hours of service have been found inscribed in stone: "No book shall be taken out, for we have sworn ... Open from dawn to midday".

Three other libraries are worth noting. Origen’s third-century c.e. library in Caesarea was used by Jerome and Eusebius. Edessa and Nisibis were intellectual centers of Syriac culture and church, and by 485 c.e.

Nisibis had an extensive collection of Greek scientific and philosophy books that later made their way into the libraries of the Abbasid Muslims. Justinian I’s sixth-century c.e. library in Constantinople was a resource for his famous Code of Justinian.

The decline of libraries has sometimes been associated with the establishment of Christianity and its alleged disdain for the classics and Hellenistic culture. There are stories of anti-intellectual religious mobs burning down libraries, but there are also examples of Christian support for learning (such as the Cappadocians, Basil the Great, and Jerome).

In fact, the transmission of classical writings to the Renaissance was due to monastic libraries of the Middle Ages. Probably it is more accurate to say that the worst enemies of libraries were the forces of nature: the worm and fire. And unfortunately, the decline of Rome led to a decline in the economy and in education.