This is the history of the libraries of Ancient Rome.


    For the first five hundred years of their history, the Romans had no libraries. In the tradition of their oral culture, public readings were the pastime of the intellectual classes.  Until the end of the Republic in the first century B.C., scholars and writers customarily simply copied their works themselves, or had it done in the home of a patron, so to have the manuscripts distributed to friends. This was the only way an author could reach his audience but the drawback was that he could not go any furthur.1 

     The Romans became familiar with the concepts of books and libraries through their contacs with the Greeks. The first Roman libraries were private collections acquired as spoils of war from the conquests of the Greek states. Later conquests would bring back books as spoils of war from Asia Minor and Syria. Majority of these books found thier way into the private collections of victorious generals or whoever funded the war.2

     The earliest libraries were private collections of historical records and laws. One of these collections was the "Annales Pontificum,"  that appeared in eighty volumes around 120 B.C. This collection consisted strictly of brief accounts of major happenings in the Roman Republic and were kept in the official residence of the "Pontificus Maximus," or chief priest. Much earlier than this, according to legend, the Twelve Tablets of Roman law were engraved on bronze and exhibited to the public about 450 B.C. Another early collection was the "Libri Magistratum"  or "Books of the Magistrates," recording their names and official actions over a long period of time. Some of them were recorded on linen, known as "libri lintei," and were on display in the Temple of Moneta, the goddess of memory, on Capitol Hill. As was the practice in Egypt and Babylonia, the temples of early Rome had their schools for priests and problably had collections of books as well as copies of formal religious works kept in the sanctuary.3

     The first notable Roman library of which there is recorded information was the library of Paulus Aemilius. He was a Roman general, who was also a scholar, he defeated King Perseus of Macedonia in 168 B.C. He ransacked everything of value but kept the library for himself. He stated that he preferred it to gold for the benefit of his sons.4

     Following in his footsteps, it was common for Roman conquerors to bring back books as spoils of war. One notable collection was that of Cornelius Sulla who conquered Athens in 86 B.C. and seized the library of Appellicon of Teos. This collection contained part of Aristotle's library. It is believed that Sulla opened the library to his scholar friends and became a literary expert himself. He passed it to his son, Faustus, in whose home Cicero saw the collection in 55 B.C. Its later history is unknown.5

    By 50 B.C., private collections were becoming commonplace among Roman families but the only public collections were in the temples and government buildings.6

     Julius Caesar originated the idea of founding public libraries in Rome but this was brought to reality by his successor, Augustus. Caesar appreciated the value of public libraries having been inspired by the libraries of Asia Minor, Greece, and Egpyt and saw the importance of them for Rome.7

     The Roman historian Suetonious describes Caesar's motive as twofold: First, to reduce the existing codes of civil law to a more simplified form of extracting only the essential features into a select series of legal documents. Second, to open to public use as many libraries as possible with both Latin and Greek collections. Before his plan could be carried out the political climate changed and Caesar was assassinated. His successor, Augustus, had literary ambition as well as political supremacy. Emphasizing the demand of literature and culture, Augustus began at an early date to bring Caesar's original plan to fruition with regard to public libraries. With inspiration and encouragement from Augustus, C. Asimus Pollio opened the first library in Rome devoted to the interests of the public and performed the duties originally assigned by Caesar to Marcus Terentius Varro. Two other libraries were established during the administration of Augustus and additional libraries were established by subsequent emperors. Public libraries were in existence in Rome until the fourth century A.D. and then closed forever. This was due to the influence of the church as library buildings were converted into sanctuaries. Some of Rome's libraries stayed open after that time. The era of Roman libraries was over. Also, the popularity of the libraries had died. This period also marked the passing of the great period of Roman literature and learning and the classical era was gone. There were a few places in the western world where learning was still active. Libraries were still being established in the eastern end of the empire. In Spain, France, and England private libraries were still in use. In Italy, the monastic system that would preserve learning and culture had begun.8  







John L. Hasha Email:

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