Thursday, May 22, 2014

Libraries of Ancient Rome

Hello everyone! Yes, I know I'm supposed to just sit back here in Italy and let my previously scheduled posts go up, but I wanted to give you an update about how it's going - specifically tell you about a temporary exhibit that I saw at the Coliseum. So pardon any bad spelling, grammar, or formatting - I'm writing this from an iPhone touch screen keyboard. 

The exhibit was called La Biblioteca Infinita (the infinite library). The title was taken from a quote by Jorge Luis Borges: the library, the source of culture, has no boundaries because it corresponds with the universe; its main characteristic is thus universality.

A prime example of this infinity and universality are the first libraries of history - Alexandria etc. Here's the first panel of the exhibit - it's beautifully written:

Here's a scroll by the poet Posydippus of Pella, inscribed in Alexandria. You may have to click on it to zoom in. Or it may be humongous and stretch across the web page. Sorry - I can't preview things on my phone.

Scrolls - the ancient correlary to our books!

Here's how the scrolls were stored:

My mom and I assumed that the busts of the authors were in front of the scrolls for easy finding and reference. But that's just our hypothesis. 

So how did these ancient libraries work? Well, they weren't like modern libraries, where you can take out books. No, the books were there for patrons to enjoy inside the library. Anyone could go into the library and read the scrolls, they just couldn't remove them. Here are the rules of one such library - the library of Titus Flavius Pantainos:

What's that? You can't understand it? Well, for those of you who can't read Greek*, here's what it says:

No book is to be taken out of the library, for we have sworn an oath; the library is to be open from the first unto the sixth hour. 

So, as you saw, the scrolls were stored on tall shelves, and once Latin literature became a "thing" in 3 BC, they separated the scrolls by language. The Greek scrolls were in one hall, and the Latin in another. Apart from that, libraries also had a space for cataloging the texts, and an auditorium for orations. Speeches are very close relatives to essays, after all!

Here's a poster on how libraries were cataloged and run:

Remember what I said about everyone having access to the texts in a library? Well, that wasn't necessarily true. It wasn't until Julius Cesar opened the first public library that the populus had access to knowledge. 

Oh and here's a nice map of the ancient libraries of Rome. 

Wasn't that a cool exhibit? Oh and one more thing - I may have told you that this summer we are renovating my parents' old study into a reading/study space for me (oho, I get my own bookshelves! Woo!). At the end of the exhibit was this cool column, and my mom had the genius idea of possibly applying this sort of design to one of the walls of my new space. It has random classical art of people reading and writing. Fun, huh? 

So that's all for now. I'm off to Venice on the fast train, and if I see anything else interesting and bookish, I'll keep you posted. :)



(This is titled "the stele of Timocrates, a scribe capable of writing correctly". ) 

*for the record, I can't understand Greek either. There was a convenient translation on a sign nearby. :)


  1. Very cool! Thanks for sharing! I didn't realize libraries dates back so far! :-D

    1. You're welcome! I found it super interesting and am glad you did too! :)

  2. That was really interesting. I'm doing a Greek and Roman year w/ my kids this coming school year, so I am feeling excited about anything Ancient (and bookish).

    1. Very cool! I remember doing ancient history with my mom :) I'm glad you enjoyed the post!


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