Learning about the ancient libraries of Rome

Yesterday I started looking at Lanciani’s Ancient Rome.  Chapter 7 of this deals with the ancient libraries of Rome.

It’s quite fascinating stuff, if you’re interested in books.  (I think it is a reasonable assumption that anyone reading this blog is so interested!)  But it is also frustrating.  Some of the statements are ones that you see repeated endlessly, but never referenced:

The first public library in Rome was built and opened, about A.U.C. 717, by Asinius Pollio, the brilliant and spirited writer, so much admired by Horace and Catullus. The library was organized in the Atrium Libertatis on the Aventine, one wing being set apart for Greek, one for Latin, literature. Four years later, Augustus determined to carry into execution the project of Julius Caesar and of his literary counsel, Terentius Varro, to make of public libraries a state institution. He named Pomponius Macer director of the department, and put at his disposal large sums of money collected during the Dalmatian war. The first state public library, opened according to the new programme, was the Bibliotheca Octaviae, so called in honor of Augustus’s sister, Octavia; and the first librarian was C. Melissus, of Spoletum. Than followed the Bibliotheca Palatina Apollinis, organized by the librarian C. Julius Hyginus, of which library I have already spoken in the chapter on the palace of the Caesars. Tiberius gave up a wing of his own palace for a third institution of the kind, which, although called by Gellius and Vopiscus Bibliotheca Tiberiana, seems to have contained state papers and documents, rather than books.

The fifth imperial library was established by Vespasian in his Forum Pacis; the sixth by Trajan in his own forum. This last, the richest and most magnificent in the metropolis, and famous for its collection of libri elephantini (books with leaves of ivory), was removed, at the end of the third century, by Diocletian, from Trajan’s forum to his own thermae on the Quirinal.

Yes, but how do we know all this? Well, I’ve been trying to find out.

I started, inevitably, with this Asinius Pollio chappie.  Equally inevitably I found myself at Lacus Curtius, looking at Platner‘s Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, complete with detailed references to the ancient sources on each of the libraries.  For Asinius Pollio, Pliny the Elder is our main source.  But a passage in Isidore of Seville is also referenced by Lanciani, in the course of a discussion on the images of authors in libraries.

Asinius Pollio primus Romae bibliothecas publicavit (graecam atque latinam) additis auctorum imaginibus in atrio.

Looking for this, I found a useful handout here by Matthew Nicholls headed Libraries in the classical world, with quotations.  And, in the end, I found C. E. Boyd, Public libraries and literary culture in ancient Rome (1915), which goes through the subject in detail.  Boyd, indeed, gives everything we might wish to know about the statements of Lanciani and others.  Of course he doesn’t know about Galen’s Peri Alupias, discovered a few years ago; but we need not worry about that.

1 Response to “Learning about the ancient libraries of Rome”


  1. Kinship

    A good book on ancient libraries is Lionel Casson’s Libraries in the Anceint World.



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