Every book that mentions ancient libraries tells us that Asinius Pollio was the first to organise a public library at Rome. It’s always interesting to see what the source for the claim is. When we look, sometimes we find other interesting details as well. Here’s what I have found.
Pliny the Elder, Natural History, book 35, chapter 2 (from Perseus):
There is a new invention too, which we must not omit to notice. Not only do we consecrate in our libraries, in gold or silver, or at all events, in bronze, those whose immortal spirits hold converse with us in those places, but we even go so far as to reproduce the ideal of features, all remembrance of which has ceased to exist; and our regrets give existence to likenesses that have not been transmitted to us, as in the case of Homer, for example. And indeed, it is my opinion, that nothing can be a greater proof of having achieved success in life, than a lasting desire on the part of one’s fellow-men, to know what one’s features were.
This practice of grouping portraits was first introduced at Rome by Asinius Pollio, who was also the first to establish a public library, and so make the works of genius the property of the public. Whether the kings of Alexandria and of Pergamus, who had so energetically rivalled each other in forming libraries, had previously introduced this practice, I cannot so easily say.
That a strong passion for portraits formerly existed, is attested both by Atticus, the friend of Cicero, who wrote a work on this subject, and by M. Varro, who conceived the very liberal idea of inserting, by some means or other, in his numerous volumes, the portraits of seven hundred individuals; as he could not bear the idea that all traces of their features should be lost, or that the lapse of centuries should get the better of mankind.
Thus was he the inventor of a benefit to his fellow-men, that might have been envied by the gods themselves; for not only did he confer upon them immortality, but he transmitted them, too, to all parts of the earth; so that everywhere it might be possible for them to be present, and for each to occupy his niche. This service, too, Varro conferred upon persons who were no members of his own family.
So Varro recorded the facial likeness of his contemporaries in pictures in copies of his works. Isn’t that interesting? It is a great pity that only two out of the list of Varro’s works recorded by Jerome in letter 33 have survived, and those works — On the Latin Language and On Rural Affairs — are those unlikely to contain such portraits.
The habit of inserting busts of authors into libraries is one that has survived to our own day. The difficulty today is more likely to be to find a library with room for such.
Another witness to Asinius Pollio’s efforts is Isidore of Seville (ca. 630 AD), in his Etymologies book 6, chapter 52. An English translation does exist, but sadly I have no access to it. From the Latin at Lacus Curtius:
5. De eo qui primum Romam libros advexit. Romae primus librorum copiam advexit Aemilius Paulus, Perse Macedonum rege devicto; deinde Lucullus e Pontica praeda. Post hos Caesar dedit Marco Varroni negotium quam maximae bibliothecae construendae. Primum autem Romae bibliothecas publicavit Pollio Graecas simul atque Latinas, additis auctorum imaginibus, in atrio quod de manubiis magnificentissimum instruxerat.
5. On those who first brought books to Rome. Aemilius Paulus first brought a mass of books to Rome, after defeating Perseus, King of Macedon; then Lucullus brought them as loot from Pontus. After these Caesar gave Marcus Varro the duty of constructing huge libraries. But Pollio was the first to make libraries at Rome, both Greek and Latin, which were public property, and after adding images of authors, he magnificently set [them] up in the Atrium [= the Atrium Libertatis] from his manubia (= the general’s share of the loot).
Suetonius, Augustus, ch. 29:
More than that, he [Augustus] often urged other prominent men to adorn the city with new monuments or to restore and embellish old ones, each according to his means. And many such works were built at that time by many men; for example, the temple of Hercules and the Muses by Marcius Philippus, the temple of Diana by Lucius Cornificius, the Hall of Liberty by Asinius Pollio, the temple of Saturn by Munatius Plancus, a theatre by Cornelius Balbus, an amphitheatre by Statilius Taurus, and by Marcus Agrippa in particular many magnificent structures.
But returning to Pliny, in book 7, chapter 31, as well as a mention of Asinius Pollio’s work, we get more interesting and little known snippets on ancient life and books:
The elder Africanus ordered that the statue of Ennius should be placed in his tomb, and that the illustrious surname, which he had acquired, I may say, as his share of the spoil on the conquest of the third part of the world, should be read over his ashes, along with the name of the poet.
The Emperor Augustus, now deified, forbade the works of Virgil to be burnt, in opposition to the modest directions to that effect, which the poet had left in his will: a prohibition which was a greater compliment paid to his merit, than if he himself had recommended his works.
M. Varro is the only person, who, during his lifetime, saw his own statue erected. This was placed in the first public library that was ever built, and which was formed by Asinius Pollio with the spoils of our enemies.
I cannot resist adding a remark of Caesar on Cicero and his oratory from the same passage:
Great father, you, of eloquence and of Latin literature! as the Dictator Caesar, once your enemy, wrote in testimony of you, you required a laurel superior to every triumph! How far greater and more glorious to have enlarged so immeasurably the boundaries of the Roman genius, than those of its sway!