ElAnt v6n1 - REVIEWS: Libraries in the Ancient World

Volume 6, Number 1
July 2001

Libraries in the Ancient World, Lionel Casson. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-300-08809-4. Pp. xii + 177.

Reviewed by George W. Houston
Department of Classics, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Tracking ancient libraries is a tricky business. Consider, for example, some of the things we do NOT know about the most famous one of them all, the library in the Museum at Alexandria:

  1. When it was established. The closest we can get is "…around 300 B.C. or a few decades later" (page 31).
  2. Anything at all about its plan or physical arrangement (34).
  3. If the general public had any access to it (36).
  4. What happened to it in the most famous event relating to it, the fire of 48 B.C. (46).
  5. Any specifics about its staff and administration below the level of director. As for the directors, we do not know even their names for most of the library's history, much less what they did.
  6. If it grew at all after Augustus.
  7. When it ceased to exist. Casson argues for around A.D. 270, a better guess than most (47).

The list could be extended to a considerable length, but even this version will show that we really know almost nothing for sure about this library. The problem, of course, is that we have only literary evidence for the library at Alexandria. For others, we may have physical (archaeological) remains, a plan (for example on the great marble plan of Rome), epitaphs of staff members, references in written works, or some combination of these sources. But the evidence is always sparse, and as Casson notes we are often "…reduced to inference based on faint clues, or even, at times, to pure speculation" (ix).

We must then be grateful when a scholar attempts to treat the libraries of antiquity in a comprehensive manner, gathering the scattered bits and pieces of evidence into a more or less coherent whole. Lionel Casson (henceforth C.) has done that in this book, and he has produced an intelligent synthesis of the evidence available at present, in a readable and useful volume. He is well aware of the limits of our knowledge, and he steadfastly and laudably refuses to guess when there is no evidence. On the other hand, he is alert to methodologies that will allow us to extend our evidence by making reasonable inferences. Thus in a very interesting section he discusses early Roman writers such as Livius Andronicus and Plautus, points out that they were translating or adapting Greek works, suggests that they themselves could not have afforded to buy those Greek texts, and so argues that there must have been private collections or small libraries of Greek literature and Greek drama available in mid-Republican Rome (61-65).

C. aims his book at "…both general readers and scholars" (ix). I will therefore consider the book from two points of view: that of the general reader (which would include many classicists), and that of scholars, which I take to mean both specialists working on libraries and scholars who wish to refer to, and rely upon, Libraries in the Ancient World as an up-do-date and comprehensive treatment of the topic.

The Book as Aimed at the General Reader

Typical of C.'s published work, this book is logically organized and written with clarity and no little flair. C. proceeds chronologically. The first chapter is on the Near East, with particular emphasis on Ashurbanipal's library at Nineveh (9-15). The libraries of the Near East are perhaps the most completely known from antiquity, since in some cases we have both physical space and many hundreds of texts, and here an illustration of the reconstructed shelving at, say, Ebla (available in P. Matthiae's article in K.R. Veenhof, Cuneiform Archives and Libraries, 1986.62, cited by C.) would be welcome. Also, this is probably the place for an attempt at defining "library" and "archive." C. never offers a definition of either, though he pretty clearly believes that, to be a "library," a collection of texts must include at least some literature, not just (date-sensitive) documents (thus, e.g., 4, 8-9).

There follow three chapters on Greece: one on fifth- and fourth-century Athens, with a good summary of the social and intellectual conditions prerequisite to the emergence of libraries (18-28), a chapter on the library of Alexandria, and a third chapter on other Hellenistic libraries, both public and private. Chapters Five to Seven deal with Rome. C. considers early collections of books and the eventual growth of substantial private libraries, such as those of Atticus and Cicero. C. believes that both of these men had libraries large enough that they required maintenance by professional staffs. Perhaps that was true for Atticus, but it was not so for Cicero, who used ordinary household staff in his library. On this (and other points) C. overlooked the important work of Keith Dix: Private and Public Libraries at Rome in the First Century B.C. A Preliminary Study in the History of Roman Libraries, diss. Michigan 1986, with pages 133-37 specifically on this question. In Chapter Six C. deals with the public libraries of imperial Rome-their physical aspects, personnel, contents, acquisitions, and services-and in Chapter Seven he takes up libraries outside the city of Rome, both in the East where they are numerous, and in the western provinces where they are extremely rare.

In Chapter Eight C. briefly recounts the transition from roll to codex, and he notes some of the implications of the change: the codex made scholarship easier, since you did not need both hands to control it, as you did the roll (129), and codices could more readily be stacked upon and retrieved from shelves (134-35). The last chapter in the book, "Toward the Middle Ages," considers a series of interrelated phenomena, among them the destruction of libraries in the West through war and neglect, the relatively more secure status of libraries in the East and especially in Constantinople, and the early history of monastery libraries.

As he goes, C. deals with a considerable number of auxiliary topics. Some of these-a discursus on papyrus and papyrus rolls, for example (23-26)-provide background material, while others, such as his discussions of literacy (54-56 and 109-110), help to set the library-specific material within broader social and intellectual contexts. These sections also help to give the book a kind of narrative unity it might not otherwise have had. The principal topics of this sort that C. deals with are the following.

Much of Chapter Three, on the Alexandrian Library, has nothing to do with the library per se and is instead a useful summary of the early development of classical scholarship (36-45). Even Callimachus' famous pinakes were not in essence a library catalogue, but rather a work of bibliography, a kind of dictionary of writers and their works (40). C. repeatedly explores the ties between libraries, education, and literacy. He is much more optimistic about ancient levels of literacy than William Harris is, and he sees both papyri (54-56) and graffiti (109-10) as evidence for significant numbers of literate persons. C. gives useful summaries of the history of the book, both its material-papyrus or parchment-and its form, whether roll or codex (124-33). He considers the physical aspects of writing materials, including ostraka, wax tablets, and the papyrus roll (23-26), and much of Chapter Nine ("Toward the Middle Ages") has little to do with libraries, dealing instead with the question of how ancient literature was preserved. We learn about booksellers, especially as depicted by Martial (104-106, with some deft translations characteristic of C.), about early Greek schools (19-21), and numerous other topics.

In general, C.'s collection of material is comprehensive enough for the general reader. As we will see, he omits some things and seldom treats a given topic exhaustively, but he is responsible in his use of evidence, and the omission of some items does not distort the picture that results. C. does not use footnotes, but he provides support (generally accurate and to the point) in end-notes grouped by pages. In the main text he never gets involved in scholarly controversies, and instead simply presents what he feels is the most likely scenario. Only in the notes do we find any allusions to scholarly disagreements, and even there they are presented gently. Consider, for example, C.'s note on the topic of literacy: he simply presents references to the relevant bibliography grouped under "Widespread literacy" and "Limited literacy" (151, note to pp. 19-21) and does not himself engage in polemic.

In short, this is a fine book for the general reader. It will not lead one far astray, it gives a balanced picture, it covers all the main aspects of the topic, and it is a pleasure to read.

The Book as Aimed at Scholars

Scholars using the book as a reference, or hoping to cite it as the standard treatment of a given topic, will need to be more cautious. In his "Preface," C. states that the book "…presents whatever is known about [libraries] from their debut… down to the early Byzantine period" (ix). This is not really true, for C. tends to give a selection of examples rather than complete lists, and he omits marginal or problematic cases. I will discuss only the material for libraries of Roman date, since those are the ones I know best.

  1. The public libraries of Rome (80-92). C. omits entirely the library in Pantheo organized by Sextus Iulius Africanus early in the third century A.D. (J.-R. Vieillefond, Les "Cestes" de Julius Africanus, Paris 1970, 290-91 and 20-21). He does not discuss the shadowy library on the Capitoline known only from a reference to its destruction (Oros. Hist. 7.16.3; this might have been a records office, of course), nor the "Athenaeum," which various scholars have thought probably included a library, for example F. Coarelli in Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae 1.131 s.v. "Athenaeum." In his account of Pompeius Macer, who organized the library on the Palatine, C. seems to have overlooked the article of P. White, "'Pompeius Macer' and Ovid," CQ 42.1992.210-18: the librarian Pompeius Macer was almost certainly not a son of the "distinguished Greek statesman" (93), Theophanes of Mytilene. We do not know the origins of Macer the librarian.
  2. Libraries in Italy (109-11). C. missed the possible library, in what seems to have been either a villa or a spa, at Civitavecchia: Antike Welt 17.1986.no. 4.22-43, esp. 39. He omits Dertona (CIL 5.7376). At Pompeii, he accepts without discussion (110) the suggestion of L. Richardson (Archaeology 30.1977.394-402) that the building traditionally known as the lararium was a library. This is almost certainly incorrect and should certainly not be accepted uncritically: R. Ling, JRA 4.1991.252-53.
  3. Libraries in the Provinces (111-23). C. rightly calls attention to the striking difference between the East, where we know of many libraries, and the West, where we have only two, at Carthage and Thamugadi. He believes, however, that this is an accident of the survival of evidence, and that more libraries will be found in the West once other cities are excavated as thoroughly as Thamugadi (121). This seems to me to be wishful thinking. No certain library is known yet from Pompeii, Ostia, Aquileia, Lepcis, Vasio, or Glanum-all extensively although not completely excavated-nor anywhere in Spain. It is true that there must have been some libraries in provincial cities in the West, but they cannot have been anywhere near as numerous as those in the East, and cultural differences rather than completeness of excavations must be the explanation.

While C. includes all the libraries that are well known to us, he omits those that are known only from a single reference and those that present problems. In the eastern provinces, these are numerous, and a scholar using this book might well expect a complete list of all certain or possible libraries. Such a list would include, beyond the ten or so C. discusses, the following. (To save space, I do not here give references. The evidence for most can be found in J. Platthy, Sources on the Earliest Greek Libraries, Amsterdam 1968, a book C. cites in his list of Abbreviations.)

Aelia Capitolina = Jerusalem.
Antioch. C. mentions the Hellenistic library, but there were also two or three later libraries.
Delphi, probably a temple library.
Edessa, perhaps a public archive.
Nysa in Caria. The Homeric poems were here, probably in a public library.
Prusa ad Olympum.
Soloi, on Cyprus.

  1. Personnel of the Public Libraries in Rome (92-98). In his presentation of the administrative personnel of the public libraries of Rome, C. is selective, dealing with some but not all of the procurators. This enables him to present a tidy summary: at first the library directors could be freedmen, but from Vespasian on they were freeborn (98). There are, however, procurators whose inscriptions cause problems, or whose careers may indicate that the administrative system changed over time. The equestrian Annius Postumus, for example, is known to us from one inscription as procurator Augusti a bybliothecis (CIL 8.20684), from another as procurator bibliothecarum divi Traiani (CIL 14.5352). Was he then director of all the libraries under Trajan, or was he director of the Library of Trajan (i.e. the library in the forum of Trajan)? The matter should be considered, as it bears on the broader question of whether individual libraries had equestrian procurators as directors or not. Baebius Iuncinus (CIL 10.7580, Sardinia) and Aelius Largus (CIL 14.2916) held library procuratorships as their first or only posts. Were they directors of individual libraries? Or was there a change in the administrative system toward the end of the second century? And in the third century, we have the long title of a financial official assigned to the libraries (our one and only financial official), the procurator rationum summarum privatarum bibliothecarum Augusti (Veturius Callistratus, CIL 6.2132, a dedication to a Vestal Virgin). It is not easy to sort these men out, and one would not fault C. for eventually deciding that they are unsolvable problems, but a book aimed at scholars surely should at least mention them. In passing, we may note that C. also gives just a sampling of the lower-level staff, the slaves and freedmen who worked in libraries (97-98). A note with a list of all known such personnel is needed.

Thus there are pitfalls for the scholar who hopes to use Libraries in the Ancient World as an up-to-date or exhaustive treatment of libraries, or of some sub-topic. C. does not give all of the evidence on a given topic; he tends to ignore problematic items of evidence; and it would have been good to have here full treatments of the many problems that arise when one studies the libraries of antiquity. (There are naturally enough points on which one would disagree, too.) Still, this is our first broad treatment of the subject in many years, and we can be grateful that C. made the attempt and has presented us with a reasonably comprehensive, eminently sensible, and gracefully written introduction to the topic. It is a good start.

by Kaavya Giridhar