This page cannot be viewed in frames

Go to page

If you have found a spelling error, please, notify us by selecting that text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

Public libraries in Roman world

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Ruins of the Library of Celsus in Ephesus
Ruins of the Library of Celsus in Ephesus | Photo:

The word “libraries” (Gr. βιβλιοθήκη, derived from the Greek words βιβλίον and θήκη, successively translated as book and reservoir) functions in Polish as a name for a large collection of books, both private, being the work of an independent collector, and public, in the form of a state institution with free access to the collection, which is regulated by the rules set for a given institution. This 20th-century definition significantly differs from how libraries functioned and were understood during the existence of ancient Rome.

Institutionalized collections of books, such as libraries, appeared in the Roman Empire relatively late, around the second half of the 3rd century BCE. Even younger, from the 2nd century BCE there are written sources telling about the existence of the first libraries. Such a cultural delay, visible especially when compared to Hellenistic libraries, such as the Library of Alexandria, already at the peak of development, is puzzling. How did a civilization as advanced as Rome wait so long for libraries to appear?

This was primarily due to the policies of the royal and republican periods, focusing on military rather than cultural aspects. Despite the existence of high literary culture in those times, as evidenced by the writings of Cicero and the idea of ​​Cicero’s rhetoric initiated by him, the priority for the state authorities at that time was to resolve the crisis created by civil wars. The military expansion carried out at that time by the Roman state effectively prevented the lasting interest in the topic of a public place dedicated to scrolls and intellectual conversations, which, with some exceptions, did not arouse the excitement of ordinary citizens of the empire. The personal beliefs of the Romans, who originally approached literature with much distrust, treated it at best as entertainment for effeminate men afraid of a real fight, and at worst – with disdain and contempt, also had an impact on the situation.

This specific approach to literary culture relates to the circumstances in which the first “libraries” were brought to Rome, which arrived there in the third century BCE as spoils of war. The first cases of such actions are known from the period of wars waged by Rome – after the victory in the Third Macedonian War Lucius Aemilius Paulus did so. So did Scipio the Younger African after the defeat of Carthage in 146 BCE – then brought 28 scrolls of the Carthaginian Magon’s treatise in order to translate it into Latin. Other examples of a library taken as war booty were: taken in 168 BCE the book collection of the kings of Macedonia (the royal library of Perseus), the collection of Apellikon from Teos brought from Athens, captured by Sulla in 80 BCE and, in 67 CE, the library of Mithridates the Great, king of Pontus, brought by Lukullus after winning the battle. The Hellenization that the empire experienced from the 2nd century BCE particularly strongly manifested in cultural aspects. HoraceGraecia capta ferum victorem cepit>would be a good summary of the situation. When it comes to libraries and their approach to them, there is definitely a grain in them. truth – the Romans took over the sensitivity and love of literature from the Greeks, which became visible in the following decades.

In Rome itself, there were private collections – dominating over public collections – widespread especially among patricians who wanted to enrich themselves with Greek and Latin scrolls. This fact could not always be combined with the naturally occurring hypothesis of a high level of education – in the homes of some members of the wealthy elite, they were more a fashionable piece of equipment than evidence of the owner’s intellectual affinities.

The role and social significance of libraries in this period are also beginning to be understood by the state – this is the moment of the slow birth of the idea of ​​a common library. The first of them recorded in written sources was supposed to be founded in 47 BCE. on the initiative of Gaius Julius Caesar. It would be the only public library established in the era of the Republic, but the finalization of this project never came to fruition – due to the sudden death of the originator, and the prescription by Marcus Antony responsible for the construction of the Marcus Terence Varro library, the plan to create a public library was delayed by almost a decade.

Despite this, the idea of ​​a reading community was strongly rooted in Roman society – Caesar’s heir, later known as Octavian Augustus, saw the need to create a library available to free citizens – in 28 BCE. in the portico of the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill, he founded the Bibliotheka Palatina, a bilingual collection containing both Greek and Latin texts, and a few years later another one, in the Portico of Octavia, which he built.

Before Octavian came to power, the first official public library, known as the Atrium Libertatis, was founded in 39 BCE by the politician and writer Gaius Asinius Pollio. It was also characterized by a bilingual collection, separated into Latin and Greek parts, which in later times was characteristic of libraries established in the imperial territory. The scrolls in it were stored in the rooms that made up the library. On its walls, however, there were portraits of scholars, including Pollio himself.

The popularity of libraries as cultural centres and meeting places increased significantly during the imperial period. The development of the idea of ​​a reading space continued to manifest itself in the establishment of libraries – apart from Octavian, we also learn from the works of Suetonius about the librarianship of Tiberius, who located the library at the temple of Augustus. Unfortunately, archaeological research remains largely helpless in terms of the functioning of public libraries at the beginning of the principate period. As a result of the Great Fire of Rome during the reign of Nero in 64 CE, their material remains were not preserved, and their reconstruction took place only during the reign of Emperor Domitian.

The number of public libraries increased with each subsequent century – in the 3rd century CE there were twenty-eight of them. We have a single, fragmentary information about many of them. Importantly, both written and material sources in the form of architectural remains have been preserved, testifying to the general intellectual prosperity and the great role that libraries played in Roman society – not only in the political centres of empires but also in the provinces.

The Library of Celsus, located in Ephesus (today’s Turkey), deserves special attention, if only because of the fame it currently enjoys among tourists and researchers of antiquity. It is extremely interesting and unique in several aspects – despite its public character, it was founded not only in the provinces but also by a private person, consul Gaius Julius Aquila. The founder did not create it for completely altruistic reasons – the main purpose of its creation was to honour Aquila’s father, Tiberius Julius Celsus, from whom the library took its name, and to subtly mark his own position of the politician who held the consulate in the year of ordering the construction of the library. The work lasting over 20 years, according to the inscription inside, was completed by the descendants of Aquila – he died before he could see the final effect of the architectural project.

Virtual reconstruction of the Ephesus Library

The Celsus library was very different from other buildings of this type – instead of two rooms, it had only one room measuring 10.9 x 16.7 m. The book collection was protected against moisture and other destructive factors by thick, double walls. In the walls, there were niches hiding wardrobes in which scrolls were stored. This architectural scheme was important because staying in the library required close contact with other users. One room forced integration, especially taking into account the fact that ancient libraries did not allow collections to be borrowed outside their precincts – the use of books was possible only on-site. In the case of the Library of Alexandria, this led to the establishment of philosophical schools and active philological scientific discussions conducted by the users of the institution. It must have been the same in Ephesus – one of the most important provincial centres of culture, which led the intellectual lead among other cities of Asia Minor.

The Celsus library stands out from other collections of books also in another aspect. It was not only a treasure of knowledge – it also performed social functions related to an attempt to raise the prestige of the family. The proof of this is its role as the tomb of Celsus himself, but also a meeting place for the community – the sources confirm the celebration of the birthday of Gaius Julius Aquila, who held the ceremony in its building. The library ceased to be a place of scientific disputes and became an arena for political debates, concluding all kinds of agreements and a general field of manoeuvre for the founder-consul, which definitely differed from its role as an educator of the society.

The exact content of the library collection is not known to us. Most likely, it was a reflection of contemporary reading trends, which allowed the inhabitants of the province to be present in current philosophical and historical discussions. The number of scrolls is estimated at about 3,000. Among them could be provincial documents, which would make the Library also considered in the category of the local governors’ archive. If this hypothesis is true, we would be dealing with another manifestation of the social role of the provincial book collection.

Throughout the Roman Empire, many libraries have been created over the centuries. Despite the primacy of the role of the educator that ancient libraries played among the upper social strata, one cannot ignore or omit their other function – social, manifested by integration through intellectual considerations conducted between library users, but also by using their space as a meeting place for local communities within different occasions. The difference in understanding the idea and character of the library between ancient and modern times cannot be overlooked. Currently, these have become a place intended rather for the wider public, who in silence, often order to maintain silence in reading rooms, where talking is perceived with great reluctance by employees and other users, who devote themselves to individual work on a given book. The ancient reality was quite different – the social, sometimes even sociable spirit of the library encouraged discussion, and exchanging views on all topics – for us, people living in the 21st century, it is something almost unimaginable.

Author: Nell Sypniewska (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • AlGhunaimi, H. 2019. Public Libraries as Public Notary Office: Bookkeepers as Notary Officers.
  • Boyd, C. E. 1915. Public Libraries and Literary Culture in Ancient Rome - Public Libraries and Literary Culture in Ancient Rome. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Leszek, K. 2018. Prywatne i publiczne biblioteki Imperium Romanum, ,,Echa Przeszłości” XIX.
  • Musialik, R. 1996. Wybrane przykłady bibliotek na tle historii. ,,Zeszyty Naukowe Politechniki Śląskiej: Architektura” 36: 161-229.
  • Pianko, G.. 1955. Praca pisarza, księgarza i bibliotekarza w starożytności, Warszawa: PWN.
  • Sadowska, J. i Zimnoch, K. 2015. Biblioteki i ich użytkownicy – od elitarności do powszechności? Białystok: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu w Białymstoku.
  • Sochocka D. 2011. Biblioteki starożytności, czyli o tym co było pomiędzy IV dynastią a Konstantynem I, „Nowa Biblioteka” 1.8: 7–22.

IMPERIUM ROMANUM needs your support!

If you like the content that I collect on the website and that I share on social media channels I will be grateful for the support. Even the smallest amounts will allow me to pay for further corrections, improvements on the site and pay the server.



Find out more!

Check your curiosity and learn something new about the ancient world of the Romans. By clicking on the link below, you will be redirected to a random entry.

Random curiosity

Random curiosity

Discover secrets of ancient Rome!

If you want to be up to date with newest articles on website and discoveries from the world of ancient Rome, subscribe to the newsletter, which is sent each Saturday.

Subscribe to newsletter!

Subscribe to newsletter

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: