Sunday, November 01, 2009

The administration of Roman libraries

Until the time of Tiberius, that is to say in the three libraries which existed when Augustus died, the libraries seem to have been run independently. There is no evidence of a central administration, and Ovid, in Tristia 3.1, imagines a work of his written in exile approaching first the Palatine Library, then the Porticus Octaviae, and then that in the Atrium Libertatis, only to be rejected each time. This suggests that around AD 10, at least, there wasn’t one person in charge of all of the libraries.

We know the names of about two dozen lower-level slave and freedman personnel from epigraphic sources (all save one dating from the Julio-Claudian period). Of 26 men, 5 are certainly freedmen, 11 certainly slaves, and the other 10 probably slaves. Six of the slaves are called uilicus, which probably means they had some administrative or supervisory duties. Five of the slaves are assigned to the Palatine Library, and five to the Porticus Octaviae; no other libraries are named. Nine of the slaves and four of the freedmen belonged to the familia Caesaris, and at least two were public slaves, both of whom worked in the Porticus Octaviae. The men associated with particular libraries were assigned either to the Greek or Latin section. There is no indication that the slaves were specialized in any way, except for the title uilicus already mentioned for some of them. The assignment to one of the two libraries was presumably made based on language skills, since the main duties would have been organization, perhaps retrieval, and likely a great deal of copying both of new acquisitions and to replace damaged copies.

We know of 13 freeborn men who were involved with the libraries of Rome. Six of these men seem to have been commissioners who were in charge of the libraries at Rome. There doesn’t seem to have been such a position under Augustus. The first is Tiberius Julius Pappus who was appointed by the emperor Tiberius. Dionysius of Alexandria comes from Egypt to Rome in the second half of the first-century. Early in the second-century we find Roman equestrian commissioners, among whom was the biographer Suetonius. This seems to fit with a pattern that took place under Trajan and Hadrian to appoint equestrians to administrative posts instead of freedmen. Fergus Millar (1977) suggests that it is not so much a transition from freedmen to equestrians as it is from Greek to Roman intellectuals, which fits the pattern as we can reconstruct it from the few inscriptions. George Houston (2002) suggests that the commissioners were in the first place assistants to the emperor, rather than administrators, that is to say, that the uilici would have supervised the day-to-day operations of the library, while the commissioner dealt with matters affecting the emperor.

For those interested in the commissioners, see Lorne Bruce (1983) "The procurator bibliothecarum at Rome." Journal of Library History 18: 143-162. For more on the epigraphic evidence, see George Houston (2002) "The Slave and Freedman Personnel of Public Libraries in Ancient Rome." TAPA, v.132, n.1/2: 139-176. For a reappraisal of the role of Tiberius, see Houston's recent article (2008) "Tiberius and Libraries: Public Book Collections and Library Buildings in the Early Roman Empire." Libraries & the Cultural Record, v.43, n.3: 247-269


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