Casson 2001

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Casson, Lionel. Libraries in the Ancient World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

The Beginnings: The Ancient Near East

Egypt: papyrus; Mesopotamia: clay tablets; Sumerians write in cuneiform on clay


Hattusas, capital of empire of Hittites from c17-13BC

  • mass of clay tablets uncovered from royal palace, most documentary
  • many have colophons identifying the title and scribe
  • series of tablets from c13BC containing detailed bibliographical entries -- an early library catalogue
  • repeated copying of well-known works built up collections for particular temple/palaces -- no book trade
  • library of this size only the prerogative of kings, who could create holdings by plundering other collections

Tiglath-Pileser I (reigned Assyria 1115-1077BC); founded library unearthed in temple of Assur at Ashur; mostly documentary and religious materials

Ashubanipal (reigned Assyria 688-627BC); boasted of his literacy (could read and write cuneiform); created large private royal library; probably acquired while plundering Babylon; tablets contain warnings against stealing or rubbing out the text

Near Eastern collections "were not the seed which engendered the libraris with their far wider horizons that were to arise in the world of Greece and Rome" (15)

Egypt surely had libraries, but none survive because of perishability of papyrus

The Beginnings: Greece

end of c5BC, Greeks begin mentioning "booksellers" (emerged in Athens); by the latter part of the c4BC, "the prerequitsites for the creation of the public library had been met" (28): scriptoria turning out multiple copies, dealers selling them, people collecting them

leading up to library at Alexandria:

  • c3BC, Aristotle amasses large personal library (28-9); student Demetrius of Phalerum was intimate with Ptolemies, may have suggested Aristotle's library as a model for Alexandria
  • then Athens passes law stating authorized versions of the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides must be maintained by the records offic

The Library of Alexandria

Ptolemy I founded Museum to entice scholars to the cultural wasteland of Alexandria; offered scholars handsome salary, free food and lodging, tax exemption, to come live and work in an area of his palace

library grew to meet demands of the scholars; Ptolemies sent buyers out with money, told them to buy the oldest copies (less copying); confiscated books coming in on ships, gave a copy to the owner and kept the original -- wanted to acquire everything

newly acquired books stacked in warehouse; authors name and ethnic added to tab at end of rolls

main library, 490,000 rolls; "daughter library", 42,800

first head librarian: Zenodotus

  • used Aristotle's system, presumably
  • first to organize library alphabetically (by author, within categories, only by first letter)
  • created first authorized text of Homer

Callimachus of Cyrene: produced the Pinakes, or Tables of Persons Eminent in Every Branch of Learning together with a List of Their Writings; brief biographical sketch of all authors with list of works in alphabetical order, organized by category (how to list authors who wrote across multiple genres?)

Eratosthenes, Director from ~245-205BC, learned in geography

(Philitas, created Miscellaneous Words, proto-dictionary of arcane terms in Homer; became wel-known)

thus first phase of Alexandrian scholarship created indispensable tools of scholarship: dictionaries, authoritative text editions, commentaries, grammars (45)

some believe library was destroyed by fire in 48BC; possibly only part was destroyed; after Rome took over Egypt in 30BC, Directorship and museum became political plum, and it degenerated; most likely was laid waste during fighting in Alexandria in 270AD

The Growth of Libraries

Pergamum, rivalled Alexandria; annoyed, Alexandria stopped exporting papyrus, so they produced more pergamena (paper of Pergamum) -- hence parchment

higher rates of education, literacy during c3-2BC; papyrus of everyday writing survives from Roman rule in Egypt

  • people read to pass the time, often Homer (mostly Iliad), then Euripides
  • major authors probably available in bookstores, the rest written to order
  • local libraries could provide copies to copy from

The Beginnings: Rome

by end of c3BC, two types of private libraries in Rome: general colelctions of Greek classics owned by wealthy families, and comprehensive collections of Latin and Greek drama owned by theater managers (Plautus example) (65)

fate of Aristotle's library, 68-9

highly trained Greek slaves kept as library personnel in large private collections (70)

people acquire books by borrowing from friends, copying them for themselves (example of Cicero 76-7; see also Johnson 2009); people acquired current books through gift copies given by the author or presentation copies

bookstore acted as a scriptorium, a shop that did copying (78)

Libraries of the Roman Empire: The City of Rome

Caesar planned to enhance Rome's cultural status by constructing a public library, but his assassination cut the project short; was revived by Asinius Pollio

two sections, one for Latin works, the other for Greek

Trajan's library

Greek libraries stored stacks in small rooms, with large colonnade that could act as a reading room; Roman libraries stored books where they were read, and were primarily designed for readers

libraries then incorporated into public baths (~c2BC); baths acted as public spaces for all Romans, so the public had access to the collections

emperors cared about libraries, continued to add more

freedmen given white collar library jobs; from time of Vespasian onward to c2AD, though, libraries governed by men for whom the position was a stepping stone to a higher office (freeborn) (98)

when short on space, libraries may have stored less valuable books elsewhere, or begun to specialize (100)

Rome's many libraries did for Latin works what Alexandria was doing in one library for Greek

in Republican times, booksellers mostly transcribed works from private libraries; with empire, bookdealers had expanded role, would have available for ready sale works of contemporary authors

  • no copyright, so authors didn't make much money from bookdealers, who could copy indefinitely

some libraries permitted limited borrowing

Libraries of the Roman Empire: Outside the City of Rome

graffiti preserved on walls of Pompeii (109-110)

"Claudian Addition" to Library of Alexandria, where a volume of Claudius' history was read annually

Athens had Roman libraries; Carthage, too

only library known west of Italy: Timgad (Thamugadi); probably because we don't have an historical record of others, since most towns had a literate population

From Roll to Codex

codex -- offspring of wax tablets; when more space was needed, multiple boards were bound together; then made from parchment, as notebooks (125)

four-sheet quire became norm (quaternio, foursome, ancestor of word "quire") (129)

codex had "profound effect upon the ease and pseed of research" (133-4); easier to copy from codices

Toward the Middle Ages

by c5AD, Roman Empire split into halves; both Christian

monasteries take over as scriptoria; papacy maintains archive

pagan literature has uncertain value

Cassiodorus; created model monastery named Vivarium after ponds for raising fish nearby; had library

Clarissa's notes:

Egyptians used perishable writing material (papyrus) so it is difficult to follow precisely what they do . However, Mesopotamia relied on clay tablets, which were rendered even more durable when burnt. Clay tablets were also used in Syria, Asia Minor, Persia, and also for awhile in Crete and Greece.

Writing was seen as a primitive form of book-keeping. Archaeologists often find clay tablets in batches, some batches big enough to number in the thousands. The batches consist mainly of documents of the types just mentioned; bills, deliveries, receipts, inventories, loans, marriage contracts, divorce settlements, court judgments and more. Archaeologists have also unearthed a number of administrative records. What is more important is that these libraries/archives were small enough so that one can know what to look for simply by looking at the clay tablets available. The tablets contain myths, hymns and laments. Among the prosaic handbooks to renderings of the Sumerian and Babylonian epics were found colophons, which are several lines of writing identifying the work in the same way title pages do today. The word is derived from the Greek kolophon. Each colophon has the number of the tablet that is on it. Up to the second century A.D., the library holdings were all in the form of rolls, some of parchment but a majority in papyrus.

Catalogue entries were made now and again to provide information on shelving. A good number of the works recorded in the entirety have turned up in the unearthed mass of tablets. Every entry started by having the number of tablets making up the work being recorded, just as the number of volumes in a multi-volume publication identified the work by giving the title.

Well-known works are repeatedly copied so that every master had on hand a collection of these works to serve as models, and the students could build up the collection on their own.

Among the documents unearthed in ancient libraries would be a mix of technical literature of religion and magic such as rituals, incantations, prayers, and the like, for warding off evil or calling for divine aid.

Some collections allowed privileges of borrowing (though these privileges were probably only extended to the elites of the society).

However, none of the collections from the Near East were much preserved at the tail end of their civilizations. Much of the older Greek cities were destroyed around 1200 B.C and knowledge of writing was lost. But by the 9th century B.C. a different kind of splendor arose that led to the creation of drama, history, philosophy and other celebrated intellectual Greek achievements.

Understanding of the literacy of the Athenians was found through the dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, which all held the pride of place in the city’s cultural life.

There were scenes showing persons seated on a chair with an open roll and reading from it (William Johnson was to argue about the provenance of such depictions in his paper mentioned in this list). There were arguments about how literacy of the lower class could be measured through their ability to decipher signs (such as by spelling out names).

The levels of difficulty in mastering certain writings delimited one’s ability to master that craft without arduous training.

Poems were not set down in writing until around 550 B.C. as trained bards presented and recited poetry long after the alphabet had arrived in Greece. Schools were established to teach mainly boys to appreciate the literary and philosophical texts of their civilization.

The level of literacy and access of books apparently were at such a stage that poets were able to refer to works of others in the composition of their on works.

The Greeks preferred writing on chunks of material other than clay tablets – these chunks are called ostraka. For more permanent forms of writing, such as a marriage contract or a book, the preferred material is paper made from the stalks of the papyrus. As far back as 3000 B.C., the Egyptians had learnt how to manufacture a form of paper from papyrus. By 1100 B.C., they were exporting papers to Levant, and a few centuries later, to the Greek world.

The ancient books are in the form of rolls around the beginning of the 5th century B.C. and readings were given, and their audience was introduced to these works. Booksellers were also beginning to exist, as they were probably in charge of the scriptoria where scribes churned out copies of works. There is little information on this but Casson speculated that the scriptoria produced copies in agreement with the authors if the latter were interested in an audience larger than their circle of friends. However, some scriptoria owners might also have gotten hold of manuscripts that they thought would sell and went ahead copying them without obtaining permission. The books could be bought at the market square and were affordable mainly to the elites. There were also second-hand copies of books on sale.

By the latter part of the 4th century BC, libraries were already created with works on a wide variety of subjects available. When books become more readily acquirable, people began to collect them. It’s nearest match in size is Ashurbanipal’s library which was mainly for the king’s use. The library of Alexandria was the first most public library ever to exist, though its patrons were more likely to be the town’s elites. It was the brain child of Ptolemy I, though it might not have come into being until the reign of his son. However, when Ptolemy III began to reign, there were two libraries, with the major one being in the palace serving the Museum (which was a temple of worship for the muses, for cultivating the arts they symbolized and was probably also an ancient version of a think-tank). This museum was supported through the endowment provided by Ptolemy I. The secondary library was located in the sanctuary of the God Serapis. Neither of these libraries had their own buildings.

One of the biggest issues faced had to do with acquisition. By then, there were many books to collect from neighboring states, and a premium was placed on the older copies, so much so that there arose an entire industry of forging ‘older’ copies. What Ptolemy III couldn’t buy he commandeered by seizing originals and having copies of them returned to the owners.

The newly acquired books were stacked in warehouses so that they could go through preliminary accessions. Each roll would have a tab bearing the author’s name and ethnic group. The ethnic was essential because Greeks had only one name and different people usually had the same name. The policy of the Alexandria library was to acquire everything, from epic poetry to cookbooks. Special attention was given to the classics. The rolls in the main library totaled to about 490,000 and that of the secondary library to about 42, 800. However, there were duplicates among them. We don’t necessarily know about the division of function between the libraries either. The library also recruited a large number of staff required – sorters, checkers, clerks, pages, copyists, repairers, and so on. However, there was little information about them.

A scholar, Callimachus, created a compilation called the Pinakes “Tables” or, to give it its full title, Tables of Persons Eminent in Every Branch of Learning together with a List of Their Writings. What was contained here was a detailed bibliographical survey of all Greek writings. This table filled around 120 books, which were five times as many as Homer’s Illiad. The existence of the library made this project possible. Callimachus divided Greek writers into categories “He made an initial basic division into poetry and prose, and broke each down into subdivisions. For poetry, there was a table of dramatic poets, with a breakdown into a sub-table of writers of tragedy and another of writers of comedy; a table of epic poets; a table of lyric poets, and so on (40).” However, we have no way in knowing how Callimachus dealt with writers that crossed genres and disciplines.

Many of the noted scholars of Alexandria were famous for their interdisciplinary interests. So there were as much interest in astronomy and geography as there were in literature and paleography.

The library was reputedly destroyed by fire in 48 B.C. The other libraries in existence besides the one in Alexandria were: A library in the capital of the Selucids at Antioch at the reign of Antiochus III (222 – 187 B.C.)

And then there was the library that was the creation of Attalids of Pergamum. Despite their lowly origins, they had compensated through their visible patronage of the arts. Attalus I started the first private art collection in record in the western world.

Much of the knowledge about the libraries came from discoveries made from archaeological excavations at Pergamum, so most of the knowledge known about the kingdom and their material culture were extrapolated from recovered remains, as is always the case with most very old kingdoms and civilizations, and especially when written records were found.

There were rivalries between the king Ptolemy and king Eumenes over their libraries.

Literacy was considered to be crucial to Ptolemy’s rule. Those who were literate did not limit their ability to utilitarian purposes. Apparently, there were ancients who used to read to pass the time. There were apparently a number of city libraries that were connected to the local schools/gymnasiums. At the closing decades of the third century BC and the opening decades of the second in Rome, there would seem to be two types of libraries: general collections of Greek classics owned by well-to-do families and comprehensive collections of Latin and Greek drama belonging to theater managers. Many Roman families, at the very least, put together a modest library of standard Greek authors.

Many collections for the libraries were commandeered through wars waged in Greece and Asia Minor. However, not all the notable libraries were acquired through plunder, but were put together by men devoted to literature and learning.

Varro, a man who was deemed to have a very fine library, was able to produce a wide variety of writings in all subjects such as agriculture, the Latin language, the history of the Roman people, religion, philosophy, geography and technology, though unfortunately, much of his works no longer survived. Highly-trained slaves were used as library personnel. Many of these slaves were particularly proficient in copying. The slaves took care of daily tasks such as reshelving rolls, repairing damaged rolls, keeping the catalogue up to date, and so on.

To carry out research during such a time, they would usually have recourse to each other’s libraries. We know what the libraries may have looked like by uncovering a chamber of a villa at the town Herculaneum, where Vesuvius had erupted in 79 A.D., with walls lined with bookcases and a tall freestanding bookshelf. Rolls, some 1,800, were found (74).”

The library at Palatine Hill is the closest to a Roman public library. Though scanty, they were important as they revealed that the Roman architects made their own version of a library building rather than ape Greek architecture. The Roman collections of books were mostly bilingual and the practice was to shelve the languages separately.

“In the case of the Palatine Library, the remains show that there were two identical chambers set side by side. In the center of the back wall in each was a large recess; it almost certainly was for a statue, probably of Apollo whose temple the library adjoined. On either side of the recess and along the side walls were niches measuring 3.80m in height, 1.80 in width, and .60 in depth; the indications are that there were eighteen in all. Under them ran a podium, which was broken by flights of steps that led up to the niches. The niches were for the books: fitted into them, as we know from illustrations and remarks in ancient writings, would have been wooden book cases – armaria, as the Romans called them – lined with shelves and closed by doors. The bookcases would have been numbered and the appropriate number entered in the catalogue alongside each title to indicate the location. The rolls of the library’s collection would have been laid horizontally on the shelves with the ends bearing the tag of identification facing outward (82).” The Romans were also the pioneers of reading rooms in the library, which was never a part of the Greek library plan. The Roman library was designed primarily for readers rather than just as a place to store books. There were also libraries at their public baths.

The Roman libraries were limited in their capacities. So they either resorted to building more or had designated storage areas for their books. There were also conjectures that the libraries had resorted to specialization to deal with space shortage. The way the libraries was built was that they were congregated in an organized way so as to enable a reader needing to consult several different volumes in different areas to walk from one to another easily.

During the time of the Roman Republic, books entered circulation through presentation by the authors of copies of their works to their friends, fellow writers, patrons, owners of private collections, and the like. This continued to be important for the creation of public libraries.

Before the creation of the Roman empire, the book trade had a poor reputation. But this changed when a fermenting cultural climate expanded the book dealer role who were now able to capitalize on having ready copies of popular and contemporary authors for sale due to the swelling ranks of book-buyers.

Some libraries permitted borrowing, though we have no idea as on the extend of the permission. There were public libraries found outside Rome that were part of the empire. These libraries were established through donations from the public. Most of the libraries built under Pax Romana revealed the impact of the Roman influence, in that all the libraries were build with reading rooms and books shelved along the walls. Some of the libraries were gifts, such as the library northeast of Pantainos which had a library that was a gift of the emperor Hadrian. Up to the second century A.D., the library holdings were all in the form of rolls, some of parchment but a majority in papyrus. Membranae was the name that the Romans give to the codices, which stand for skin. The codex was the offspring of the wooden writing tablet that the ancients had, for centuries, used for jotting down notes. The Romans also devised lighter and less clumsy notebooks by substituting parchment for wood or ivory tablets: two or more sheets were laid on top of each other, flded down the middle, pierced along the crease, and a cord is passed through to hold them together.

By the third century, the use of codices became widespread.