The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Libraries, Ancient

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The Encyclopedia Americana
Libraries, Ancient
Edition of 1920. See also List of libraries in the ancient world on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

LIBRARIES, Ancient. The written word in some form or other is of immemorial antiquity. Discoveries in Crete and Assyria-Babylonia and at Susa (Persia) have proved that relatively advanced civilizations were in existence as nearly as 6000 years B.C., and that the art of writing had been developed at that time. Some of the collections of stone and clay tablets unearthed at Knossos (Crete) and Nippur (Babylonia), seem to have the characteristics of libraries, even according to the strict definition of the term library (Latin liber, book): a collection of books or other literary material preserved for reference or study; the designation also, by association, of the place or building wherein they are kept. This doubtless cannot be said of many finds of ancient cuneiform tablets for these were merely legal, commercial or sacerdotal archives, but others are historical, philosophic or epical, — pure literature in fact. The fact that stone and clay records have been preserved does not prove that more perishable materials were not used, for there is an example of Egyptian hieratic writing dating back to 3,000 years B.C. in the Louvre. The incised stone records of Egypt, many of them of immense antiquity, contain references to papyrus rolls. The roll (Latin volumen, volume) was the first stage in the development of the book, the second being the codex or the book as familiarly known, consisting of separate sheets bound together. This was probably a development of waxed tablets, used by the Greeks, the adoption of which has been traditionally ascribed to the kings of Pergamus who were forced to use parchment (Pergamentum) for their books, the Egyptians having placed an embargo on papyrus. Just when paper supplanted parchment is not definitely known, but the indications are that the Arabs were the first to make and use paper, Arabian manuscripts of the 9th and 10th centuries being in existence. Paper mills were in operation during the 12th century. Paper was known to the Chinese at a very early date, but the ancient Chinese book is a phase of the subject yet to be investigated. Recent explorations have added a most astonishing store of knowledge regarding the ancient world and there is little obscurity now regarding the existence and constitution of the libraries of the Classic Orient. The investigations of Paul Émile Botta, Sir Austen Henry Layard, Dr. John P. Peters and his successors, Dr. John Henry Hayes and Dr. H. V. Hilprecht of the University of Pennsylvania, have proved that a library in the strict sense of the term formed a part of nearly every temple and probably every royal palace. More than 50,000 tablets have been found, comprehending historical and traditional records, epical narrations, folksongs and ballads, hymns and prayers, medical lore and philosophy. Thus the temples were centres of literary as well as religious activity, the temple of Enlil at Nippur, that of the Sun-god at Sippar and others in Babylonia possessing large collections of tablets.

Assyro-Babylonian Empire. — Asur-banipal (668-626 B.C.), known in Greek history as Sardanapalus, the grandson of the Biblical Sennacherib, was the first ruler of Assyria recorded to have taken an interest in the collection of literature. “Being endowed with an attentive ear, and inclined to the study of all tablets,” he commanded that a great collection be gathered together in Nineveh to form the royal library. This was classified and indexed, and fortunately left undisturbed when Nineveh fell into ruins. Thousands of tablets from this library are in the British Museum and constitute one of the great sources of knowledge regarding Assyro-Babylonian civilization.

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Egypt. — It is impossible to say whether the libraries of ancient Egypt antedate those of the Assyro-Babylonian empires or not. Scribes, however, were known in Egypt as early as 6000 B.C. As in Assyria-Babylonia, the temples were centres of learning in which were gathered records and literary productions of all kinds. The rulers often encouraged learning and made collections as is evidenced by hieroglyphic inscriptions on their tombs and monuments. A reference of this nature is contained in an inscription on a tomb near the Pyramid of Cheops (Khufu), and another inscription refers to the library (collected works) of Khufu. Papyrus was undoubtedly used in Egypt at a very early date, one of the most ancient examples being a roll relating the acts of King Assa (3580-3536 B.C.). An early example of a purely literary papyrus is the Prisse papyrus, composed about 2500 B.C. Professor W. Flinders Petrie, during his researches in Fayûm, discovered papyri in mummy cases that dated back 3000 or more years B.C. That clay tablets were also used by the Egyptians is proved by his discovery of a collection of the reign of Amenophis IV (Amenhotep, 1466 B.C.). These were unearthed at the site of the king's palace in the city founded by him, Tel-el-Amarna. Heliopolis, the city of the Sun God, prior to the rise of Alexandria, was the centre of Egyptian culture. Here were numerous temples, each of which had its library of papyri, among them the famous Sacred Books of Thoth, an encyclopedia of ancient wisdom. Brugsch, in his ‘True Story of the Exodos’ (p. 204), states that there was a library in the temple at Edfu, on the walls of which was a list of the works contained in the collection. The most noted library of ancient Egypt was that formed by King Osymandyas, who has been identified with the Biblical Rameses II (1300-1236 B.C.). This collection was in the palace of the king, the Ramesseum, Thebes, and is described by Didorus Siculus (I, 58 Wessling ed.) as “the dispensary of the mind.” The Persian subjugation under Cambyses (527 B.C.) marks the close of Ancient Egyptian culture and undoubtedly many collections of literature were destroyed during that period. The Persian influence was succeeded by the Greek and then the Roman, hence the later library history of Egypt properly belongs to those nations.

Ancient Greece. — Greek papyri of great antiquity have been found in Egyptian tombs, one of these, discovered at Abusir, near Memphis, dating as early as 4000 B.C. We do not know just when collections of literature began to be made, for classic historians state that libraries were first developed when Greece had already reached a very high degree of civilization. Thus Aulus Gellius asserts that the first library of Greece was founded by Pisistratus (605-527 B.C.). The same tradition is repeated by Athenæus. That Pisistratus was a notable patron of learning is unquestioned, yet collections undoubtedly antedated his. The tradition that he founded the first library doubtless arose from the fact that he was responsible for the collecting and editing of the various poems of the Homeric cycle. Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos (d. 522 B.C.), and friend of the poet Anacreon, was also a patron of letters and is said to have formed a library. Others known to have been collectors and lovers of books were Nicocreon of Cyprus, the kings of Pergamus, Euripides the poet, Euclid the mathematician, Aristotle the philosopher and Neleus, his biographer (Athenæus, ‘Deipnosophistæ,’ lib. c. 4). Strabo asserts that it was Aristotle himself, who formed the first library in Greece and gives a graphic description of its vicissitudes, which included its burial for many years to keep it out of the rapacious hands of the kings of Pergamus, antiquity's prototypes of the modern bibliomaniac. The most famous libraries of Greek antiquity, however, were those at Alexandria, developed during the régime of the Ptolemies. See Alexandrian Library.

Pergamon Libraries. — Hardly less famous than the Alexandrian libraries were those founded by the kings of Pergamus. During the two centuries prior to the Christian era, Greek civilization reached an astonishing height in the cities of Asia Minor. Among these, Pergamon was the most noted for its love of art and letters. Under Attalus I (241-197 B.C.) and his son, Eumenes II (197-159 B.C.), the city was beautified, objects of art were created or imported in great numbers and learning in every form was encouraged. It is probable that Attalus founded the libraries of Pergamon, but it was his successor that developed them, seeking throughout the world to obtain texts by any means and from any source. It has already been noted that Aristotle's library, according to Strabo, was hidden away in a cave in order to prevent its falling into the hands of the agents of the kings of Pergamon. Strabo, however, wrote more than a century after these happenings and, as he is often in error, this story is interesting more for the light it throws upon the methods pursued in developing the libraries of Pergamon. At any rate they grew until they rivaled those of Alexandria, causing, it is said, an embargo on papyrus, so that the Pergamoi were forced to resort to parchment (pergamentum). This tradition also may be accepted with caution, for sheepskin had long been used for manuscripts in Greece.

How many rolls and codices were in the libraries of Pergamon it is impossible to estimate. About the only reference to their number is the passage from Plutarch, wherein Antony is accused in Rome of presenting Cleopatra with the collections of Pergamon, — “more than 200,000 separate volumes.” The Acropolis of Pergamon was excavated in 1878 and the rooms assigned to the library determined. They form the subject of a monograph by Couze — ‘Die pergamen Bibliotek’ (1884).

Ancient Rome. — There is little evidence in ancient literature indicating Roman interest in libraries prior to the wars with Greece. Rome conquered Greece, but in turn was conquered by Greek culture. It is narrated that Lucius Æmilius Paulus, who defeated Perseus and overthrew the Macedonian Empire in 168 B.C., carried the library of Perseus to Rome, “the first that was seen in the capital of the world.” Thus Sylla, after subjugating Athens, gathered from Athenian books a library alike extensive and choice. (Consult Bacmeister, ‘Essai sur la Bibliothèque de l'Académie des Sciences de Saint Pétersbourg,’ quoted in Edwards, ‘Memoirs of libraries,’ Vol. II, p. 544). Lucullus (110-57 B.C.) who had been a general in the Mithridatic wars and had returned to Rome under the spell of Greek and Oriental civilization, is the first Roman distinguished as a collector of books. Plutarch, in his life of Lucullus, says: "His furnishing a library, however, deserves praise and record, for he collected very many choice manuscripts; and the use they were put to was even more magnificent than the purchase, the library being always open and the walks and reading-rooms about it free to all Greeks, whose delight it was to leave their other occupations and hasten thither as to the habitation of the Muses." Pliny states that Caius Asinius Pollio (76 B.C.-6 A.D.) founded the first public library in Rome. It has been seen that the library of Lucullus was open to readers but they were mainly his friends, the library thus never wholly losing the character of a private collection. Pollio, in founding the public library, was undoubtedly carrying out a plan of Julius Cæsar, to form libraries throughout all Rome, unfortunately miscarried by his death. (Suetonius Jul 44). Cæsar, apparently, had planned a system of public libraries, and placed the execution of this in the hands of the famous scholar, Varro. That Varro was enthusiastic in furtherance of the enterprise is indicated by the fact that one of his lost works was a treatise upon libraries and their development. It would seem that under Pollio the scheme finally assumed a definite form, and we know that in the library Varro was honored by the erection of a statue to him. Caesar's dream of establishing a widespread system of libraries was in part realized by Augustus. Two new collections were founded by him in Rome: the Octavian and the Palatine, the former founded and named in honor of his sister, Octavia. This was housed in a splendid building constructed for the purpose. C. Melissus was the first librarian. The Palatine, according to Suetonius, was housed in two additions made to the temple of Apollo. “On either side of the Temple of Apollo stood libraries, one Greek and the other Latin, which contained none but works of special merit, with medallions of their authors embossed in either gold, silver or bronze.” (Consult Thomas, ‘Roman life under the Cæsars’). Of this Pompeius Macer was the first librarian, who was succeeded by Julius Hyginus. The Octavian Library was destroyed during the great fire which raged for three days during the reign of Titus (79 A.D.). Records are extant of some 28 libraries in the Roman provinces and other dependencies of the empire, notably at Milan, Comum, Tibur, Potræ, Athens, Smyrna, Pompeii and Herculaneum. “There was moreover in Timgad a unique public library. It has been identified exactly through an inscription to the following effect: ‘Out of the funds bequeathed by Marcus Julius Quintianus Flavus Rogatianus, of Senatorial memory, by his will to the colony of Thamagudi, his mother city, the erection of a library has been completed at a cost of 400,000 sesterces, under the direction of the city authorities.’ The building in question consists of a rectangle of 77 by 80 feet, with recesses for receiving volumes or rolls of papyrus, with benches and seats for readers. There are also side rooms and evidently two upper galleries for book ‘stacks,’ the great central hall having a kind of skylight to facilitate reading. It seems to have been the custom in Rome as in America, for wealthy and distinguished citizens, Carnegie-like, to start the ball rolling, so to speak, in the matter of municipal libraries. We are reminded of the fact that the public library was a Roman institution, and that there were 28 public libraries in Rome in the 4th century. Some ingenious calculator has measured the space of the Timgad library, avowing that it contained at least 23,000 volumes.” (Consult Cooper, C. S., in The Boston Transcript, 2 Jan. 1918). Emperor Domitian expended vast sums in restoring the Roman libraries. He collected manuscripts from all parts of the empire, even sending scribes to Alexandria and other places to copy books when the originals themselves could not be obtained. Plutarch refers to a library founded by Octavia in memory of Marcellus, and Aulus Gellius to the collection in the palace of Tiberius, another in the temple of Peace, founded by Vespasian, and Dion Cassius gives an account of the famous Ulpian Library, founded by Trajan, which was first housed in the Forum of Trajan, but afterward transferred to the Baths of Diocletian. The library of Tiberius was burned in 191 A.D., during the reign of Commodus; the Palatine in the great conflagration of 363 A.D. (recorded by Ammianus Marcellinus, xxiii-3-3). That there were numberless private collections there can be no doubt. That of Lucullus has already been referred to, while Tyrannion, a Greek scholar captured by Lucullus in the Greek wars, was employed in arranging the library of Apellicon the Teian, seized by Sylla at Athens. This was, according to tradition, the original library of Aristotle which was hidden in the cave to prevent its falling into the hands of the king of Pergamus. (Cf. Plutarch, ‘Sylla’). Suidas asserts that Tyrannion formed a library of his own, numbering more than 30,000 rolls. This, however, may refer to the library of Apellicon. That Cicero was an ardent collector of books we know from many allusions in his writings, and Serenus Sammonicus, a physician of the 3d century A.D., possessed a library of 62,000 volumes. (Capitolinus, Gord. xviii, 2). The excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum verify the fact that many residences had provision for libraries. In a few cases the cabinets and the rolls therein were still intact, from which a very accurate image of an ancient library has been obtained. The rolls were kept in cupboards (armaria) usually against the walls of the apartment, but sometimes detached. These were often elaborately decorated. As a guide to the contents of the different cases, the names of the authors were placed on the doors, sometimes surmounted by gold, silver or bronze medallion portraits. The walls of the room were often ornamented with frescoes or mosaics, statuary and other works of art. The public library doubtless had the same characteristics, but on a more extensive scale. Greek and Latin works were usually separated, the books in each division being subarranged according to subject: law, theology, philosophy, geography, medicine, belles-lettres, etc. Consult Cagnat, ‘Les bibliothèques municipales dans l'empire romain.’

Byzantine Empire. — The division of the empire was a serious blow to library development. Rome lost its interest in Greek literature and Constantinople cared little for the Latin. Furthermore, the spirit of the early Christians was opposed to the pagan writings, and many valuable collections were destroyed by narrow-minded fanatics. Constantine I is said to have possessed a royal library, but it could not have numbered more than a few hundred items, and those mainly theological. Julian, essentially a student and a lover of classic literature, is said to have added many books to the palace library, which numbered, according to some authorities, 120,000 volumes. This was burned by the iconoclasts during the reign of Leo the Isaurian (8th century), but later rebuilt. The Byzantine emperors of the 9th to the 11th century were patrons of learning and probably collected libraries. Little, however, is known about them. Under Leo Sapiens and Constantine Porphyrogenitus it is said that the libraries were restored, and undoubtedly members of the Commenian dynasty found time in the midst of their intrigues to collect books.

Monastic Libraries. — The attitude of the early Fathers of the Church was rather inimical to any books save those of a religious nature, as has been indicated by the destruction of the Alexandrian libraries (q.v.) under Theophilus, archbishop of Alexandria, during the reign of Theodosius. This was owing to the fact that they were mainly pagan works. Soon, however, a body of Christian literature arose, and it was not long before the churchmen became as ardent collectors of books as their predecessors. Each monastery had its archivum, as had many churches. Skilful copyists were employed in transcribing religious books. According to the Theodosian Code, seven copyists were attached to the library at Constantinople. The Basilica at Cæsarea, founded by Pamphilus (A.D. 309), contained about 30,000 volumes.

Edwin Wiley,
Librarian, United States Naval War College.