A Brief Outline of the History of Libraries/Chapter 3

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Libraries in Greece, especially those of Pisistratus and Aristotle. That at Byzantium.

CONCERNING the libraries of Egypt I have given few and unimportant facts, though the collections themselves were perhaps many and of great importance. But history here is dimmed by the mists of time. The same must be said also of the history of the libraries of Greece. Athenaeus incidentally refers to the more important of them when he praises his friend Laurentius for his skill in classifying books, and says that in this art he surpassed Polycrates of Samos, Pisistratus the Tyrant, Euclid the Athenian, Nicocrates the Cyprian, Euripides the poet, and Aristotle the philosopher. I have little of detail to say about any of these men. Of Pisistratus it should be noted that A. Gellius gave to him the honour of being the pioneer in this art of forming a library; though Polycrates had one at about the same time. A. Gellius says, to quote his very words, "Pisistratus the Tyrant is said to have been the first to make for public use in Athens a collection of books on the liberal arts." Here, then, was indeed a great man,—he was called the "Tyrant," but the word did not convey at that time the odium it does to-day,—and to him we owe the text of Homer collected and arranged as we now have it. At that period critical studies, as we now call them, that is, the collation and emendation of texts, were much followed by princes, and even by kings. This library, founded by Pisistratus, was added to from time to time by the Athenians, until Xerxes carried it away when he captured Athens. Many years afterwards Seleucus Nicanor, King of Syria, very generously caused the books of this library to be returned to Athens. They remained there until the time of Sulla, who captured and plundered the city. But even after that, I am sure we must believe the library was again established; for how could a city be, as Athens was, the mother of the arts without the aid of books? Indeed there must have been many libraries there in later years. Hadrian, for example, so Pausanias wrote, erected in Athens a temple to the Panhellenic Jove, and placed in it a library.

Of Euclid, Athenaeus says that he was an archon and one of the more learned of the magistrates; nothing more.

Of Aristotle, Strabo speaks in terms of highest praise, and I have already quoted his words. I also cited the statement from Athenaeus that Aristotle's library came finally into the possession of the Ptolemies. Strabo and some others, however, seem to question this statement. "The books of Aristotle," says Strabo, "which were left to Neleus, were finally handed on to certain descendants of his who were men of no learning. By them the books were kept under lock and key, and were not used. Then they were buried under ground and much injured by worms and mould; but finally were purchased at a great price by Apellicon of Teos. He had the books, now sadly worm-eaten and tattered, transcribed, though not faithfully or with good judgement, and published. On his death Sulla, then master of Athens, seized the books and sent them to Rome, where Tyrannion the grammarian made use of them and, so it is reported, rearranged them and to some extent corrupted their text." Plutarch tells the same or a very similar story in his life of Sulla. If it is true, how could the books of Aristotle have come from Neleus to Philadelphus, as Athenaeus says they did in the passage quoted above? Perhaps we can reconcile the two statements, and this is my conclusion, by supposing that Neleus retained Aristotle's own writings, his original manuscripts, as a precious heritage for his own family, and sold the rest of the books, written by others, to Philadelphus.

I do not recall any other matters worth relating about the libraries of Greece. I do not need to say that the Romans, after they conquered the country, undoubtedly took to Italy many collections of books.

Perhaps I should simply mention the Byzantine library of the time of the Emperors. Zonaras and Cedrenus say that under the Emperor Basiliscus, the library in Byzantium, into which had been gathered a hundred and twenty thousand volumes, was destroyed by fire. Among the books was the gut of a great dragon, one hundred and twenty feet long, on which was written in letters of gold the whole of the Iliad and the Odyssey. But this library, being in Thrace and not in Greece, ought not to be considered as among the Grecian libraries.