A Brief Outline of the History of Libraries/Chapter 8

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Of the Tiburtine Library; also of certain of the more important Private Libraries. These latter were sometimes found in the Baths, sometimes in the Country Houses.

CONCERNING the greater part of the Roman public libraries I have learned nothing, as I have said; not even of those within the city.

There was one at Tibur, near Rome, about which A. Gellius says, "We recall having found it written in that same book of Claudius in the library at Tibur." And again, "He brought it from the library of Tibur, which was at that time very conveniently located in the temple of Hercules." Here and elsewhere we note that the libraries were often placed in or near temples. And why should not the sacred productions of human genius be deposited in consecrated buildings? It is possible that the Emperor Hadrian established this library at Tibur, for it is well known that he took much pleasure in that spot, and spared no expense in adorning it with many and very beautiful buildings.

It seems evident to me that in all the cities and colonies of the empire libraries were found and the arts and humanities were cultivated.

Certain of the wealthy citizens, it appears, had their own private libraries, some of them very noble ones, partly for use and partly for the sake of the reputation for learning which they gave.

For example, there is Tyrannion the grammarian, in the reign of Sulla, who had three thousand volumes. Epaphroditus of Chaeronea, also a grammarian by profession, is another example. Suidas says of him that he lived at Rome from the time of Nero to that of Nerva, and was so assiduous a purchaser of books that he collected thirty thousand of them, and they of the best and rarest. I applaud this last example, not so much, of course, for the great number of books he collected as for the good taste he showed in choosing them. I should like to believe that this Epaphroditus was the one who had among his slaves Epictetus, the very head of the true philosophy. Certainly they were contemporaries. But the rank and occupation of the two men were very different, the book-collector being a grammarian, according to Suidas, while the owner of Epictetus was one of the bodyguards of Nero. Whoever he was, Samonicus Serenus surpassed him in his zeal for book-collecting, for he had a library in which there were sixty-two thousand volumes. When he died he left his books to Gordian the Less, afterwards emperor. The gift is reported by Capitolinus with these words of praise, "This has immortalized Gordian; for men of letters will never cease to speak of the gift of so vast and splendid a library."

Consider, O Most Illustrious Prince, how this love of books brings favour and high renown,—such favour and renown as should be granted without limit to great men like yourself.

Those I have named, and a few besides, are known to have had notable libraries. There were, of course, many others of whom we know nothing. Seneca shows that the habit of book-collecting was very common in his time, and condemns it. You ask, why did he condemn it? "Because," he says, "they acquired books not that they might enjoy them, but simply for show. To most of these newly rich, ignorant even of the elements of belles-lettres, books are not aids to study, but simply ornaments of dining-rooms." A little further on he adds: "Why, in the homes of the idlest of the rich you will find all that orators or historians have written, with bookcases built clear to the ceiling! Formerly a library gave a home an air of culture; one is now put in, like a bathroom, simply as a necessary part of the equipment of a house." A sad state of affairs, I admit. And yet it is to be wished that our own rich men had the same taste in luxuries; for a colIection of books can always be of use and value to some one, even if not to the owner.

We note that libraries were placed in the baths, as we did above in the case of the Ulpian library, which was in the Baths of Diocletian. If you ask why, I would say because the Romans, while caring for the body in the bath, found their minds at ease, and discovered that then was a favourable time, especially for those who were deeply engrossed in affairs, to read or to be read to. For a like reason they had books in their villas and country seats. There also they found a leisure and a freedom from care which were favourable to reading.

A decision of the jurisconsult Paulus calls attention to this custom of having libraries: "In a legacy of real estate any books and any library which are in the house pass to the legatee." Pliny says, speaking of his own villa, "A bookcase is built into the wall, thus forming, as it were, a little library." Martial praises the library at the country-place of a certain other Julius Martial, as follows:

Thou lovely country library,
Whence thy lord views the city nigh,
If, 'mongst his serious studys, place
My wanton muse may find, and grace,
To these sev'n books afford a roome,
Though on the lowest shelf, which come
Corrected by their author's penn."[1]

  1. Translation from a sixteenth century MS. Bohn.