A Brief Outline of the History of Libraries/Chapter 7

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The Libraries of Tiberius, of Trajan, of Vespasian; also the Capitoline; other unknown Libraries.

WE have seen that two libraries were established in Rome by the Emperor Augustus, a most zealous patron of the arts and sciences. What may be said of other Roman libraries? Certainly there were others; and there even seems to have been a spirit of rivalry among the rulers of that time in regard to them, each contending for the palm as founder of libraries. For example, Tiberius, soon after the death of Augustus, established one within the limits of the royal palace itself, on that part which fronts on the Via Sacra. Students of the subject think that here were Tiberius's own special apartments; and A. Gellius locates the library in them when he says, "While Apollinaris and I were sitting in the library in the house of Tiberius." Vopiscus makes the same statement in effect, for he tells us that he used the books in the Ulpian library and also those in the apartments of Tiberius.

It seems that in due course Vespasian also collected a library and placed it in the temple of Peace, as we gather from A. Gellius's remark, "We sought very diligently for the Commentary of L. Aelius, the teacher of Varro, and found it, and read it, in the library in the temple of Peace." Galen also mentions it in his Treatise on the Compounding of Medicines.

Another library was gathered by Trajan, of which A. Gellius also speaks. "We happened," he says, "to be sitting in the library in the temple of Trajan." This is the one which is commonly called the Ulpian, from the family name of the Emperor Trajan. Vopiscus says, "I learned these things from the elders; and I read them also, in the books of the Ulpian library;" also, "If you are still in doubt, consult the books in Greek, then look up also the linen books, the ancient chronicles, which the Ulpian library can show to you whenever you wish."

I am of the opinion that this Ulpian library was at first in the forum of Trajan, where the other monuments erected by that emperor were placed; and was afterwards moved to the Viminal Hill to adorn the Baths of Diocletian. If so moved, why not by Diocletian himself? Vopiscus would lead us to think it was, for he says, "I make use especially of the books of the Ulpian library, which in my time was in the Baths of Diocletian." When he expressly says that in his time it was in a certain place, he plainly implies that it had previously been in another place.

Let us pass now to the Capitoline library, concerning which Eusebius says, in speaking of the reign of the Emperor Commodus, "The lightning struck the Capitol and started a great fire, which consumed the library and the houses near it." Orosius relates the incident more at length: "Upon the city falls the punishment for the crimes of the emperor. The Capitol was struck by lightning, and a terrible conflagration burst forth, which devoured both the library, which had been gathered by men of old with so much zeal and care, and all the adjoining dwellings."

Who was the founder of this library? We cannot be sure, but we may surmise that it was Domitian. At one time he narrowly escaped death in the Capitol, and there, after he became emperor, he erected a temple; and if the temple, why not the library within it? No record, it is true, remains to prove that he did. Suetonius speaks of the matter in a very vague way where he says, "He, Domitian, was at great pains to reëstablish the library which had been burned, and at large expense sought for books in all parts of the world, and sent savants to Alexandria to copy and edit books there for his library." We note from this that even then the Alexandrian was looked upon as the source and very foster-mother of all other libraries, and that these others sought from her carefully edited and beautifully written books to replace their corrupted versions. Moreover, these other and later libraries were preserved through the enlightened interest of the princes of their day, for if this had not been so, how could there have been so many libraries at the time of P. Victor, that is, in the reign of Constantine? Victor says that he noted, among other remarkable things in Rome, twenty-nine public libraries; two of which were especially noteworthy, the Palatine and the Ulpian.

Alas, of how many of these have we no record whatsoever! Out of all the twenty-nine we discovered, for all our diligence, traces of seven only, and of these have rescued from oblivion hardly more than their names.