ANCIENT LIBRARIES

Edited by Jason König, Katerina Oikonomopoulou and Greg Woolf

CUP (2016) p/b 500pp £24.99 (ISBN 9781316628843)

This paperback edition, originally published in 2013, includes how libraries and their collections formed the engine room of classical civilisation, how they gave voice to intellectual life and culture and how they provided essential, additional primary source material for contemporary historians and writers from Herodotus to, for example, Aulus Gellius and Galen via Cicero. Its achievement is to bring our knowledge of ancient libraries, and book-collecting generally, up to date and in doing so it challenges traditional beliefs about the size of collections, their function (were they ever centres of research?) and the extent of devastating fire on the survival of ancient texts.

The editors achieve this by bringing together 22 contributors for 21 chapters to form an impressively international group of authors from the UK (6), USA (5), Italy (3), France (2) and one each from Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia. The book is divided into three distinct but complementary sections. ‘Part One: Context’ has the expected chapters on Egypt, Assyria and Babylonia, and an interesting essay based on 7 fragments from which one can adduce what comprises an ancient library, eschewing traditional evidence from archaeology and inadequate literary references to tease out the intrinsic evidence discernible from each fragment .

‘Part Two: Hellenistic and Roman Republican Libraries’ offers 9 chapters covering this pivotal period. ‘Men and Books in 4th C Athens’ establishes the cultural background with the rise of the book and the pre-eminence of papyrus as the writing material of choice for all manner of topics. The library at Alexandria features in two essays: one analysing how it influenced Hellenistic poetry; the other, ‘Ashes to Ashes’, describing the library’s apparent destruction in 48 BC. A third chapter balances this with an archaeological and architectural description of the library at Pergamum. Works not by Philodemus in the important Villa of the Papyri excavated at Herculaneum are examined by G.W. Houston. M. Affleck’s ‘Priests, Patrons and Playwrights’ reminds us how Rome was, amazingly, very much a library-free zone until Aemilius Paullus had the prodigious library collection of the Macedonian court shipped back to Rome lock, stock and catalogue as booty after Pydna in 168 BC; if nothing else, Paullus showed the Romans how to do libraries. Other chapters use Dionysius of Halicarnassus as a case study for the intellectual library-user in Rome, the ‘Aristotelian Corpus’ and the finds at the Villa of the Papyrus as at AD 79. The section closes with a fascinating look at Cicero as a book collector, his collection development and holdings losses, and speculation on what might have happened to his books.

Part Three comprises 9 chapters on libraries and book collecting in the Roman Empire, ranging from E. Bowie’s survey of libraries in the early empire, through the public service role and public perception as covered in two chapters—how public and inclusive were they? How could they ever be just libraries when their capacious halls were filled with statuary and artworks with the papyrus rolls relegated to perimeter walls, storage rooms and cupboards—until, that is, the invention of the ‘armaria’ cabinet to display properly the decidedly shelf-unfriendly rolls, eliminating their annoying tendency to roll uncontrollably. This is discussed in the chapter on visual supplementation and metonymy, where D. Petrain describes the paradox that libraries hitherto were unwilling and unable to display and make accessible their very raison d’être, describing Greek-style libraries as ‘schizophrenic places’. Before this we have chapters on Flavian libraries, and archives, books and sacred space covering the Atrium Libertatis, the Temple of Apollo and the Bibliotheca Tiberiana and the Templum Pacis.

A useful chapter on reading culture adumbrates the differences between modern libraries and library use in the Empire, focussing on what Fronto, Aulus Gellius and Galen have to say; Galen gets a chapter of his own covering the mythologizing of the Alexandrian library. There is more Galen, with Plutarch, in ‘Libraries and paideia in the Second Sophistic’ and some illuminating analysis of Galen’s recently unearthed ‘On the Avoidance of Grief’ on the destruction wreaked by the library-devastating fire of AD 192 in Rome. The book concludes with a refreshing chapter on special libraries, written by a classicist with the welcome collaboration of an information scientist.

We certainly need more of this fusion of disciplines to introduce a broader perspective and a more real-world view on aspects of the ancient world—no better place to have it than in a book on ancient libraries. The authors pose the old question: what really does define an ancient library—but with the added benefit of someone contributing who can add professional expertise on the essentially library side of things.

So, if you want to know (a lot) more about why you can take for granted your Terence and Tibullus, your Pausanius and your Plutarch, then read this book. It benefits further from an impressive 44 page bibliography, 15 pages of indexes and 26 photographs, diagrams and maps.

Paul Chrystal: www.paulchrystal.com

 

 

 

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