Pliny the Elder and others on the first ancient library in Rome, that of Asinius Pollio

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!


Jerome’s Letter 33, listing the works of Origen

In my last post about the new find of homilies of Origen on the Psalms, I quoted a letter by Lorenzo Perrone.  He states that Dr Marina Molin Pradel “noticed that the list of the other homilies corresponded to a large extent to that presented by Jerome in his Letter 33 to Paula, the most important group being the series of nine homilies on Psalm 77.”

No complete translation of this letter from ca. 384 AD seems to be online.  I have therefore taken the partial 19th century Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers translation, and added to it the detailed list of the works of Origen from the Latin.[1]  The conditions under which I am working are far from ideal; errata would be gratefully accepted.

It makes interesting reading.  Not merely does it give a list of the works of Origen, which, however, must be incomplete since it doesn’t mention Contra Celsum or the Dialogue with Heracleides.  It gives a list of the Latin works of Varro also.


1. Antiquity marvels at Marcus Terentius Varro, because of the countless books which he wrote for Latin readers; and Greek writers are extravagant in their praise of their man of brass, because he has written more works than one of us could so much as copy. But since Latin ears would find a list of Greek writings tiresome, I shall confine myself to the Latin Varro. I shall try to show that we of today are sleeping the sleep of Epimenides, and devoting to the amassing of riches the energy which our predecessors gave to sound, if secular, learning.

2. Varro’s writings include:

45 books of antiquities, 4 concerning the life of the Roman people, 15 on Images, 76 “Logistorikwn”, 15 on the Latin Language, 9 of disciplines, 5 on Latin speech, 5 of Plautine questions, 3 of Annals, 3 on the origin of the Latin language, 3 of poetry, 3 on the origins of the stage, 3 on the actions of the stage, 3 on the acts on the stage, 3 on descriptions, 3 on the propriety of writers, 3 on libraries, 3 on readings, 3 on the similarity of words, 3 on embassies, 3 of “suasiones”, 3 on Pompey, 10 “singulares”, 3 on persons, 15 on the civil law, an epitome in 9 books from the 42 books of antiquities, an epitome in 4 books from the 15 books on Images, an epitome in 9 books from the 15 books on the Latin language, 9 books on the principles of numbers, 3 books on rustic matters, 1 book on preventative health, 3 books on his own life, 3 books on the form of philosophy, 3 books on urban matters, 150 books of Menippean satires, 10 books of poetry, 22 books of orations, 6 books of pseudo-tragedies, 4 books of satires and many others, which it would be wearisome to enumerate. I have barely listed half of the index, and it is overwhelming to the readers.

3. But by contrast our age has learned men, and they know in which waters fish were born, and on what shore an oyster grew. We have no doubts concerning the flavour of thrushes, Paxamus and Apicius are ever in our hands, our eyes on our possessions, our senses on the plates, and, if one of the philosophers or Christians, who are the true philosophers, with worn cloak and grubby tunic fails to pay attention to the reading, he is thrown out with a jeer as if mad.

4. But why, you ask me, have I thus mentioned Varro and the man of brass? Simply to bring to your notice our Christian man of brass, or, rather, man of adamant — Origen, I mean— whose zeal for the study of Scripture has fairly earned for him this latter name. Would you learn what monuments of his genius he has left us? The following list exhibits them. His writings comprise:

13 books on Genesis, 2 books of mystical homilies, excerpta[2] Exodus, excerpta on Leviticus, 10 books of “Stromata”, 36 books on Isaiah, likewise excerpta on Isaiah, 1 book on Hosea concerning Ephraim, commentary on Hosea, 2 books on Joel, 6 books on Amos, 1 book on Jonah, 3 books on Micaiah, 2 books on Nahum, 3 books on Habakuk, 2 books on Wisdom, 1 book on Haggai, 2 books on the beginning of Zechariah, 2 books on Malachi, 28 books on Ezekiel, excerpta on the Psalms from the start to [Psalm] 15, again 1 book on Psalm 1, 1 book on Psalm 2, 1 book on Psalm 3, 1 book on Psalm 4, 1 book on Psalm 5, 1 book on Psalm 6, 1 book on Psalm 7, 1 book on Psalm 8, 1 book on Psalm 9, 1 book on Psalm 10, 1 book on Psalm 11, 1 book on Psalm 12, 1 book on Psalm 13, 1 book on Psalm 14, 1 book on Psalm 15, 1 book on Psalm 16, 1 book on Psalm 20, 1 book on Psalm 24, 1 book on Psalm 29, 1 book on Psalm 38, 1 book on Psalm 40, 2 books on Psalm 43, 3 books on Psalm 44, 1 book on Psalm 45, 1 book on Psalm 46, 2 books on Psalm 50, 1 book on Psalm 51, 1 book on Psalm 52, 1 book on Psalm 53, 1 book on Psalm 57, 1 book on Psalm 58, 1 book on Psalm 59, 1 book on Psalm 62, 1 book on Psalm 63, 1 book on Psalm 64, 1 book on Psalm 65, 1 book on Psalm 68, 1 book on Psalm 70, 1 book on Psalm 71, 1 book on the beginning of Psalm 70 part 2 (?), 2 books on Psalm 103. 3 books on Proverbs, excerpta on Ecclesiastes. 10 books on the Song of Songs, and 2 other books (tomos), which he wrote on this in his youth, 5 books (tomos) on the Lamentations of Jeremiah, likewise 4 books “Monobibia, Periarchon”, 2 books on the resurrection and two other dialogues on the resurrection, 1 book on various questions on Proverbs, dialogue against Candidus the Valentinian, a book on martyrdom.

On the New Testament: 25 books on Matthew, 32 books on John, 1 book of excerpta on various parts of John, 15 books on Luke, 15 books on the letter of the apostle Paul to the Romans, 25 books on the letter to the Galatians, 3 books on the letter to the Ephesians, 1 book on the letter to the Philippians, 2 books on the letter to the Colossians, 3 books on the 1st letter to the Thessalonians, 1 book on the 2nd letter to the Thessalonians, 1 book on the letter to Titus, 1 book on the letter to Philemon.
Again homilies on the Old Testament: 17 homilies on Genesis, 8 homilies on Exodus, 11 homilies on Leviticus, 28 homilies on Numbers, 13 homilies on Deuteronomy, 26 homilies on Joshua son of Nun, 9 homilies on the book of Judges, 8 homilies on the passover [=Easter?], 4 homilies on the 1st book of Kings, 22 homilies on Job, 7 homilies on Parables, 8 homilies on Ecclesiastes, 2 homilies on the Song of Songs, 32 homilies on Isaiah, 14 homilies on Jeremiah, 12 homilies on Ezekiel.

On the Psalms: 1 homily on Psalm 3, 1 homily on Psalm 4, 1 homily on Psalm 8, 1 homily on Psalm 12, 3 homilies on Psalm 15, 1 homily on Psalm 16, 1 homily on Psalm 18, 1 homily on Psalm 22, 1 homily on Psalm 23, 1 homily on Psalm 24, 1 homily on Psalm 25, 1 homily on Psalm 26, 1 homily on Psalm 27, 5 homilies on Psalm 36, 2 homilies on Psalm 37, 2 homilies on Psalm 38, 2 homilies on Psalm 39, 1 homily on Psalm 49, 1 homily on Psalm 51, 2 homilies on Psalm 52, 1 homily on Psalm 54, 7 homilies on Psalm 67, 2 homilies on Psalm 71, 3 homilies on Psalm 72, 3 homilies on Psalm 73, 1 homily on Psalm 74, 1 homily on Psalm 75, 3 homilies on Psalm 76, 9 homilies on Psalm 77, 4 homilies on Psalm 79, 2 homilies on Psalm 80, 1 homily on Psalm 81, 3 homilies on Psalm 82, 1 homily on Psalm 83, 2 homilies on Psalm 84, 1 homily on Psalm 85, 1 homily on Psalm 87, 1 homily on Psalm 108, 1 homily on Psalm 110, 3 homilies on Psalm 118, 1 homily on Psalm 120, 2 homilies on Psalm 121, 2 homilies on Psalm 122, 2 homilies on Psalm 123, 2 homilies on Psalm 124, 1 homily on Psalm 125, 1 homily on Psalm 127, 1 homily on Psalm 128, 1 homily on Psalm 129, 1 homily on Psalm 131, 2 homilies on Psalm 132, 2 homilies on Psalm 133, 2 homilies on Psalm 134, 4 homilies on Psalm 135, 2 homilies on Psalm 137, 4 homilies on Psalm 138, 2 homilies on Psalm 139, 3 homilies on Psalm 144, 1 homily on Psalm 145, 1 homily on Psalm 146, 1 homily on Psalm 147, 1 homily on Psalm 148, excerpta on the whole psalter.

Homilies on the New Testament: 25 homilies on the gospel “kata Matqaion”, 39 homilies on the gospel “kata Loukan”, 17 homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, 11 homilies on the 2nd letter to the Corinthians, 2 homilies on the letter to the Thessalonians, 7 homilies on the letter to the Galatians, 1 homily on the letter to Titus, 18 homilies on the letter to the Hebrews.

1 homily on peace, an exhortation to Pionia, [a homily] on fasting, 2 homilies on monogramy and trigamy, 2 homilies on Tarsus, by Origen, Firmianus and Gregory, likewise 2 books of excerpta of letters by Origen and by others to him — the letter of Hesiphodorus on the case of Origen in 2 books — 9 books of his letters to various people, 2 books of other letters, likewise a letter in 2 books as an apologia for his works.

5. So, you see, the labors of this one man have surpassed those of all previous writers, Greek and Latin. Who has ever managed to read all that he has written? Yet what reward have his exertions brought him? He stands condemned by his bishop, Demetrius, only the bishops of Palestine, Arabia, Phenicia, and Achaia dissenting. Imperial Rome consents to his condemnation, and even convenes a senate to censure him, not— as the rabid hounds who now pursue him cry— because of the novelty or heterodoxy of his doctrines, but because men could not tolerate the incomparable eloquence and knowledge which, when once he opened his lips, made others seem dumb.

6. I have written the above quickly and incautiously, by the light of a poor lantern. You will see why, if you think of those who today represent Epicurus and Aristippus.

  1. [1]Latin text in CSEL 54, p.252 f, online here, partial NPNF translation here.
  2. [2]‘excerpta’=notes.