A Brief Outline of the History of Libraries/Chapter 11

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A word about the Alexandrian Museum. Learned men dwelt in it supported from the Public Funds. Kings and Emperors made this Museum their special Care.

I HAVE nothing further that seems worth saying on this subject of libraries, except a few words about their use. If they stand empty, or with only an occasional visitor; if students do not frequent them and make use of their books, why were they ever established, and what are they save that "idle luxury in the garb of scholarship" to which Seneca alludes? The Alexandrian kings saw to it that there were students to make use of their library, for they built near it a Museum, so called because it was, so to speak, a temple of the Muses, in which it was possible to follow the Muses, to cultivate the humanities, free from all cares, even from the labour of providing food and lodging, since the students in it were supported from the public funds. How admirable an institution! Strabo gives us the best description of it:

"Part of the royal palace is a Museum, in which one may stroll or sit at ease, with a great hall, in which men of letters, who are members of the Museum, hold meetings and take their meals together. Moreover, this college, as we may call the Museum organization with its students, has a foundation or common fund for its support; and a priest, who is president of the Museum, formerly appointed by the kings of Egypt, but at the present time by the emperor."

He says this was part of the royal palace. Doubtless the kings wished it to be near their own apartments that they might have at hand the learned men who were its inmates, and converse with them when they pleased; thus acquiring knowledge and training their minds. It had porticoes and exedras, the former being more for the exercise of the body, the latter for the training of the mind, as in them the students gathered, conferred, and held discussions. There was also a hall, where they ate together. Philostratus says the same thing in speaking of Dionysius, who was, he writes, "received into the Museum;" and then adds, "The Museum is the Egyptian banquet-hall of learning, which brings together all the men of letters from all parts of the world."

Note particularly the words, "all the men of letters from all parts of the world," for even if not to be taken literally they show that the number was very large and the expense very great. Timon the satirist calls our attention to the same points when he says, in his satirical and carping way, "Many people are supported at public expense in Egypt the populous, that they may idly browse among books and quarrel over them in the cave of the Muses." Athenaeus, commenting on this passage, says, "Timon spoke of the Museum as a cave or cage, thus making sport of the philosophers maintained there, as if they were so many rare birds."

Athenaeus, we see, calls them philosophers; but Strabo uses the more general phrase, "men of letters and savants;" and no doubt scholars of every sort were admitted. Strabo puts special stress on the word "men," showing that boys and youths and those beginning their studies were not taught in the Museum, as they would be in a similar place to-day; but that admittance was rather a reward for erudition already attained, an honour rightly earned. At Athens, following a similar custom, those who deserved the honour were supported in the Prytaneum at public expense.

What think you of that, O Prince of to-day? Does not the wish rise within you to establish again this noble custom?

Continuing Strabo's account of the Museum: he says a priest was appointed to manage its affairs, who was selected by the kings or emperors. The position must have been of great dignity, and one which it was thought the emperor himself should fill. One may ask if the emperor did not appoint all the officials? Philostratus seems to imply that he did, when he says, speaking of Dionysius the sophist, "The Emperor Hadrian appointed him satrap or governor of many people, and named those who should receive public honours, and those also who should be maintained at public expense in the Museum." Again, speaking of Polemon, he says, "Hadrian made him a member of the Museum, where he lived at public expense." Let me add that, though I have not so indicated in my translation, Philostratus uses in the phrase I have quoted a word meaning "circle," from which it would seem that members were admitted in a certain order and in proper turn, some even being chosen before any vacancy had occurred. These no doubt waited in confidence and entered in due course, in the order of their appointment. A like custom prevails to-day among princes in conferring favours.

Athenaeus throws light on this matter of appointments to the Museum by the emperor when he says that a certain poet, Pancrates, very cleverly praised Hadrian's favourite, Antinous, and that the emperor, delighted with the subtle flattery, ordered the poet to be supported free of expense at the Museum.

So much for the reports of Strabo and others on the Museum and its management.

Let me add that the inmates of the Museum by no means lived therein an idle and useless life (how could they, being men who were dedicated, as it were, to public service?), but were diligent in writing, in arguing, and reciting their own works. Spartianus testifies to this in his remark about Hadrian, to the effect that he propounded questions to the savants in the Museum at Alexandria, and in turn answered those they presented to him.

Let me note that Suetonius says that the Emperor Claudius added a second Museum to the original one and ordered that certain books be read there every day, and I close,
O Most Illustrious Ruler, with the wish that you, a descendant of great men and born to do great things, may long continue in that work, worthy of the highest praise, which you have already begun,—the work of encouraging the production of books and the cultivation of the liberal arts among men, and so make your name for all time revered.