A Brief Outline of the History of Libraries/Chapter 4

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The Attalic Library, of which Eumenes was the founder. Certain errors of statement about it made by Pliny and Vitruvius. Its size and the length of time it existed.

THE Attalic or Pergamene library, in Asia, was almost as illustrious as the Alexandrian. When the Attalic kings, minor powers at first, became great and rich through an alliance with the Romans, they adorned their capital city in many ways and erected in it a library. Strabo regarded Eumenes, the son of King Attalus, as the founder of this collection. "Eumenes," he says, "built the city and beautifully adorned it as it now is, with temples and a library." Pliny says, "According to Varro there was a rivalry over their respective libraries between Ptolemy and Eumenes, and the former forbade the exportation of paper from his kingdom, and the latter of parchment from his." Jerome, in his letter to Chromatius, and Aelian, made similar statements, though they say it was Attalus who was jealous of Ptolemy, and not Eumenes. Concerning neither of them, however, can the story be true; for, as a comparison of dates will show, they both lived almost a century after Philadelphus. How, then, could there have been between them the jealousy which Pliny speaks of? Unless, indeed, "Ptolemy" is used simply in reference to the kings of Egypt in general, and refers here not to Philadelphus but to Ptolemy the Fifth, generally called Ptolemy Epiphanes, who was a contemporary of Eumenes. He perhaps, though he was not at all distinguished for his zeal in regard to libraries, forbade the exportation of paper, in fear lest another new library should rival his own more ancient one.

The erroneous or careless statement just noted is still more crudely put by Vitruvius. He says, to quote him directly, "After the Attalic kings, led by their great interest and delight in literature, established for general enjoyment a superb library at Pergamum, Ptolemy, stirred to a boundless zeal by their example, and rivalling them in activity, endeavoured to establish at Alexandria a library equal to theirs." How absurd the statement! As if the Attalic kings antedated the Alexandrian in this art! As if, in this field of books, the latter caught from the former their zeal, or looked to them for example! Why, the exact opposite was true; for the Ptolemies practised the art of establishing libraries long before the Attalic kings had ever thought of it. It is possible, of course, that here again the writer alludes, without naming him, to one of the later Ptolemies. But even then it remains true that the Pergamene library never rivalled the Alexandrian in either resources or age. Plutarch writes to this effect where, mentioning both libraries, he says that Antony the Triumvir, fascinated by the charms of Cleopatra, gave to her the library at Pergamum, in which were two hundred thousand volumes. I use the word "volumes" and not "titles," for I think the word which Plutarch uses refers to several works bound together in one volume, and that these several works are not counted in giving the size of the library.

This Pergamene library ceased to exist, then, soon after the destruction of the first Alexandrian one; but lived again in the latter when it was reëstablished. Was it set up again in its own city? Certainly Strabo's words, quoted above, if carefully considered, seem to imply that it was. For he says, "was erected where it now is." What does he mean by "now"? Plainly the time when he, Strabo, was writing, which was in the reign of Tiberius. So it appears that the victorious Augustus, who annulled much that Antony did, either brought the library back to its old home in Pergamum, or, what is more probable, caused it to be copied again and reëstablished it. But on this point I do not venture to speak with certainty.