Saturday, October 31, 2009

Greek and Roman libraries

I have long been interested in book production and collection in the Greek world, and especially with the great library projects at Pergamon and Alexandria, but I only recently undertook to read about Roman libraries for a presentation in a seminar on Roman topography. In coming to the project, I had in mind the conventional notion that the genesis of libraries in Rome was based on their encounters with the libraries of Pergamon and Alexandria. Suetonius tells us that Julius Caesar planned to open the first public library, and entrusted the task to Varro, but that it was cut short by his assassination. Most writers assume that he was inspired to create something like the library at Alexandria, which he had seen first-hand. But after studying the libraries that did come into existence at Rome starting in the first-century BC, the most surprising thing was how different they were than their Greek forerunners.

The first public library in Rome was established by Asinius Pollio in the Atrium Libertatis, from wealth gained in his eastern campaigns. Nothing of this library remains. It fits into the scheme of manubial projects at Rome, whereby leading individuals would make dedications to the public after great exploits abroad, and they increasingly involved giving the public access to luxuries enjoyed by the wealthier classes: gardens, sculpture, and later baths. It seems only natural that public libraries would be established.

Augustus opens the next two public libraries soon afterward. The first was attached to the temple of Apollo on the Palatine; the second to the Porticus Octaviae. It is the of the Palatine Library that we have the first remains, although they date from the reconstructions in the reign of Dominitian after it was damaged by fire. Tiberius is credited with opening one or possibly two, and Vespasian opens one in the Temple of Peace. The most famous library for us, because it is best preserved, is that in the Forum of Trajan. The grand Roman baths also contain libraries. The Regiones tell us that in the fourth-century, there were 28 (one manuscript says 29) public libraries in Rome.

These libraries are fascinating for many different reasons, literary, social, political, architectural, and administrative, but I just wanted to point out some of the ways in which they are innovative. In the first place, Roman libraries from the very beginning (and even in the conception of Julius Caesar, if we are to take Suetonius literally) are different from Greek libraries in that they consist of two wings: one for Latin literature and one for Greek literature, reflecting a bilingual culture. The Palatine library has two adjacent but separate wings, and that in the Forum of Trajan has two wings facing each other, in the middle of which stands the column of Trajan. They are always mirror images of each other, and this becomes a motif of library architecture, which will take new forms in the symmetrical designs of the Roman baths, which seem to contain libraries. I suspect that the size of the libraries was determined by the space needed for Latin literature, which was then mirrored for the Greek section. It was perhaps out of national pride that the Greek sections were not larger. This is the second way in which Roman libraries differed from the Greek examples at Pergamon and Alexandria: scale. The library at Alexandria famously attempted to collect all books, and its holdings have been estimated at between 200,000 and 700,000 rolls, with one ancient estimate 490,000 being commonly cited. In comparison, the library in the Forum of Trajan, which is larger than other examples, was capable of holding about 20,000 rolls (10,000 in each of the two sections). There was clearly no attempt to create a complete archive of world literature. There was also a difference in function. The library at Alexandria was a research institution which drew scholars from around the world to study, with lodging and food provided. The Roman libraries were never designed with this in mind, but rather to make books available to the public (although what "public" means in this context is another topic altogether).

It is clear that the library at Alexandria and the public libraries at Rome, despite what some people have claimed, were two completely different projects. I say this not to minimize the Roman project; it is not that they attempted a similar project and failed. From the beginning they had a new and admirable plan, creating something which the Greek libraries did not offer.