Inside Roman Libraries: Book Collections and Their Management in Antiquity

Inside Roman Libraries: Book Collections and Their Management in Antiquity

Inside Roman Libraries: Book Collections and Their Management in Antiquity

Inside Roman Libraries: Book Collections and Their Management in Antiquity


Libraries of the ancient world have long held a place in the public imagination. Even in antiquity, the library at Alexandria was nearly legendary. Until now there has been relatively little research to discover what was inside these libraries, how the collections came into being and evolved, and who selected and maintained the holdings. In this engaging and meticulously researched study, George Houston examines a dozen specific book collections of Roman date in the first comprehensive attempt to answer these questions.
Through a careful analysis of the contents of the collections, Houston reveals the personalities and interests of their owners, shows how manuscripts were acquired, organized, and managed, and identifies the various purposes that libraries served. He takes up the life expectancy of manuscripts, the sizes of libraries, and dangers to books, as well as the physical objects within libraries from scribal equipment to works of art. The result is a clearer, more specific, and more detailed picture of ancient book collections and the elements of Roman libraries than has previously been possible.


There is no lack of interest in, and scholarly study of, ancient book collections. Even in antiquity, the library at Alexandria entered the public imagination and became a virtual myth; and in modern times the royal library at Pergamum, the carbonized rolls from the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum, and the great imperial libraries in the city of Rome are all well known and much studied. in general, interest has centered on these collections as institutions, on their building histories and architecture, and on their functions. Much less attention has been paid to the actual collections of book rolls, the titles and authors represented in them, the age and condition of the rolls, and the interests of the owners implied by the nature of their collections. These are the sorts of questions that most interest me and that I propose to explore in this study. We will begin with a brief description of the ancient book roll and its characteristics, then consider a number of specific Roman-era book collections, and finally turn to the equipment and personnel needed to tend such collections. Our subject, in short, is everything that one might find inside a Roman library. These matters have seldom been studied in detail, and no single study has considered them together.

My hope is to obtain a better understanding of several matters. How did Roman-era book collections come into existence, and how long did they stay together as coherent bodies of material? When we can identify specific ancient book collections, what do we find? Did all collections include a more or less predictable range of works in Greek and Latin, or were there different sorts of collections, some general, others specialized? To what extent are the tastes and interests of individual collectors evident in the books they brought together? Did collectors care if there were mistakes in their

1. We will come across specialist studies that touch on these topics and libraries in the course of our study, but here we may note a few more general items. On Alexandria: Canfora (1993); Bagnall (2002); Berti and Costa (2010), 49–159. Pergamum: Coqueugniot (2013). Villa of the Papyri: Sider (2005), Houston (2013). Rome: Fedeli (1989), Dix and Houston (2006). Ancient libraries in general: Blanck (2008), 181–303. Among the many studies of the architecture of libraries, we may note here those of Callmer (1944) and of Strocka, Hoffmann, and Hiesel (2012). Note also Nicholls (forthcoming), on all aspects of Roman public libraries.

2. the papyrological materials that provide much of the evidence in chapters 2, 3, and 4 have not previously been exploited systematically in the context of library history. Much of the literary evidence has been studied repeatedly, but not from the point of view that I will adopt.

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