A Brief Outline of the History of Libraries/Chapter 6

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The Libraries of Augustus, the Octavian and the Palatine. Their Librarians and Custodians.

IT was, then, under Augustus that this the first public library was established. Soon there were two others, also due to him. The first, the Octavian, he founded in honour of his sister, and gave it her name. Of this Dion Cassius says, in his chronicle of the year 721, "Augustus built a colonnade and in it established a library, which he named after his sister Octavia." Plutarch seems to ascribe this work to Octavia herself, when he says, "In honour of Marcellus, his mother Octavia built a library and dedicated it to his memory; Augustus built a theatre and gave to it the name of Marcellus." I think Plutarch is here in error, for the note of Dion's places the erection of the Colonnade of Octavia ten whole years before the death of Marcellus. He adds that these memorials were erected from spoils of the Dalmatians, and his words draw attention to the remarkable fact that the first and second libraries of Rome were both due, in a certain sense, to barbarians.

Suetonius, in speaking of Melissus the grammarian, says that after he was freed he soon became intimate with Augustus, and at the latter's request undertook, and very efficiently, the task of arranging the library in the Colonnade of Octavia. It is my opinion that it was in the upper part of the colonnade, as safer and more appropriate, since the lower part was used as a promenade. Ovid again makes his little book of verse say, "I seek another temple, near the theatre; and this also was forbidden to my feet." The book complains that it is spurned by the library, and incidentally tells where the library was,—near the theatre of Marcellus. He calls the building, which was in fact a portico, a temple, because in it, as Pliny says, was an altar to Juno, and certain beautiful statues.

Still another library was xxxed by this same Augustus, the Palatine, so called because it was in the royal palace itself. Suetonius says, "He built the temple of Apollo in that part of his house on the Palatine Hill which had been struck by lightning, and was thereby, as the priests interpreted the fact, marked out as a spot dear to God. To the temple he added porticoes, in which he placed a library of books in Latin and in Greek." This happened in the seven hundred and twenty-sixth year of the city, as one may learn from the opening lines of Dion's History, book liii.

It seems, then, that Ovid followed the order of the dates of their establishment in his reference to the libraries of Rome, when he named, in the following quotation, first the Asinian, next the Octavian, and last the Palatine.

From thence we to Apollo's temple went,
To which by steps there is a faire ascent:
Where stand the signs in faire outlandish stone,
of Belus and of Palammed the sonne.
There ancient bookes, and those that are more new,
Doe all lye open to the Reader's view.
I sought my brethren there, excepting them.
Whose haplesse birth my father doth condeme.
And as I sought, the chiefe man of the place,
Bid me be gone out of that holy space.[1]

Here Ovid shows, among other things, that there was a librarian or custodian of the Palatine library. Suetonius tells us he was C. Julius Higinus. In his Celebrated Grammarians he says, " This man presided over the Palatine library; though meanwhile he followed his profession and taught many." Later there was a special custodian for the books in Greek, and another for those in Latin. On an ancient marble tablet are inscribed these words:


On another:


There are other similar inscriptions.

To this Palatine library Pliny refers when he says, "We may see in the library in the temple of Augustus a Tuscan statue representing Apollo, fifty feet in height." This quotation, however, may point to the library of Vespasian Augustus, which was in the temple of Peace. But Pliny refers very plainly to the Palatine library when he says, "The old Greek letters were almost the same as the Latin letters of the present time, as is shown by an ancient Delphic tablet of bronze, dedicated to Minerva, which is now in the Palatine—that gift of emperors—in the library." I am led to believe, from the words of John of Salisbury, that this library was in existence in Rome for a very long time, since he writes, "The learned and most holy Gregory not only banished astrology from the court; but also, as is reported by them of old time, gave to the flames those writings of approved merit, and whatever else the Palatine library in Apollo's temple possessed. Preëminent among these were some which seemed designed to reveal to men the will of the celestial beings and the oracles of the higher powers."

This quotation is worthy of note.

  1. W. Saltonstall's translation, 1637.