The Tribune - Spectrum

, April 7, 2002

The role of ancient libraries of the West
V. N. Datta

WE are so obsessed with our national history and its allied problems that we tend to ignore what lies outside in the world. We have adopted the democratic mode of governance but have failed to imbibe its spirit, a lacuna that has created enormous problems for us in the country. Due to our lack of curiosity, combined with a limited understanding of world problems, we do not appreciate the previous legacy of western culture to humankind.

The Greeks and the Romans had laid the foundation of western culture and civilisation, and the whole of western philosophy is regarded as mere footnotes to Plato's system of thought.

The Romans were known for building their empire, roads, and baths, but the Greeks were inward-looking people, famous for their poets, philosophers, historians, dramatists and promoters of learning and knowledge. To the Greeks and the Roman goes the credit of setting public libraries for the diffusion of knowledge among the reading public and thereby extending the frontiers of knowledge. The book under review is Libraries in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson, Yale University Press, London/New Haven. Rs. 300. Pages X+ 177.


This, small and unpretentious work gives a close view of the private and public libraries established in Greece and the Roman empires from the third millennium down to the break-up of the Roman hegemony, the early Byzantine period, 4th and 5th century AD when the spread of Christianity and Islam had changed the course of history. The portion dealing with the destruction of libraries by militant Arabs in the Eastern Empire is most illuminating. The study demonstrates a first-class meticulous scholarship in identifying the ancient Roman and Greek libraries by using closely the archaeological and literary evidence. The notes, covering 17 pages, give vital information on the places and personalities connected with the libraries. They are copious but, regrettably, there is no bibliography. Nor is there a concluding chapter summing up the author's research-findings on the subject.

A library is not a mere building but a place which provides a variety of books to the readers for their delight, instruction, and what Francis Bacon calls ornament. The ancients were quite conscious of the space problem for the libraries which even faces us today. That is why the libraries were built on a grand scale as to give to the readers' sufficient place, away from the book-shelves in order to provide it for, their best use.

According to the author, the practice of writing existed in Egypt and Mesopotamia before 3000 BC which the Sumerians were to perfect later. In the libraries there was an extensive use of clay tablets in Mesopotamia, Syria, Asia Minor, Persia, Greece and Crete which broadly remained in use from the half-a-millennium down the beginning of the Christian era. The clay tablets referred to myths and religious rites, and there existed a few catalogues giving some idea of the holdings. This first library was set up by Tiglath, Assyrians great ruler, 1115 to 1077 B.C. which was extended by Asharbanipal, Assyria's last important ruler (668-627).

The Greeks had a deep and abiding interest in intellectual endeavour, and threw up a galaxy of outstanding poets, philosophers and dramatists. By the middle of 5th century BC Athens became a cultural centre of Greece. Reading was common by the end of 5th century, and Homer's poetry was popular. By the end of this century, a public library was set up in Athens. Aristotle had the unique distinction of owning a personal library, and he taught the kings how to build a library and organise it. But the most glorious of libraries was that of one public library established in Alexandria around 200 BC, the greatest of its kind promoting anti-disciplinary studies. Casson states that it was due to the initiative of the Ptolemies that quite a number of leading men, writers and scientists settled in Alexandria including Euclid, Strato, the foremost physician Hippocrates, Eratosthenes, the distinguished geographer, and even Archimedes. By this time a striking change had occurred in the library system, switching from the clay tablets to rolls for the use of readers. The rolls in the main Alexandria library totalled 4,90,000 and in the ‘daughter library’ 42,800. The first director of the public library in Alexandria was Zenodotus, a pioneer in library science who introduced the classification system by arranging books author-wise which became the basis of cataloguing in libraries: It was during his tenure that several Homer's texts were prepared. The next director, Callimachus's ‘Tables of persons eminent in every branch of learning together with a text of writers’ filled no less than 120 books. There was a special focus in the library on literature and languages from the first half of the 3rd century. Casson shows how the advancement of learning had led to the expansion and consolidation of libraries. Glossaries and annotated editions of standard works began to be prepared. Dionysius presented just in 50 pages a succinct survey of the Alexandrian scholarship. The public library in Alexandria was in active use, though partly destroyed, in Julius Caesar's times but its end came probably in AD 27 or so when Emperor Aureolius suppressed the insurgency of the kingdom of Palmyra government which resulted in bitter fighting. These developments took place until Rome's occupation of Egypt which brought in reign of the Ptolemies to a close.

The Greek empire known as Hellenistic, lasted until the end of 1st century BC by which time the Romans had finished swallowing it up. The Seleucides had set up the empire at Antoch with a library at which Mark Antony had donated 2,00,000 books. There were enlightened views in the air and reading habits were fast developing. A catalogue of books in alphabetical order was prepared.

Casson gives detailed information about the existing libraries during the ascendancy of the Roman Empire. The upper class Romans had a passionate love of Greek literature and history. Towards the end of the 3rd century BC, Plautus adopted at least 50 comedies from Greek literature. Polybius, a great military and political leader, compiled a lengthy history of the Romans on the Second Pubic War (218-202 BC). Literary exchanges between the Greeks accentuated the use of libraries. Before his assassination in 49 BC, Julius Caeser had made the decision to build a public library one of Greek books, and the other of Roman, both as big as possible, but his assassination finished off this grandiose project.

After the end of the civil war Angustus Caeser became the unquestioned ruler of the Roman world and he built the public libraries. The most important and popular of these was the Palentine library close to the temple of Apollo. The Romans provided spacious reading rooms for the reading public in congenial surroundings, and the books were kept out of their way. In Rome 20 libraries were set up by 35 AD Augustus Caeser appointed well-trained librarians to do the job. Rome had become by then the centre of excellence for learning, and it drew writers, men of letters, scholars and students and teachers and the like. The author throws light on the way books were acquired, classified, arranged and made available to the readers. For Latin the best place was Rome, and for serious study of Philosophy and Science, it was Alexandria. Literacy was widespread and pervasive as in the Greek speaking parts of the empire, and school masters were teaching elementary classes in all major towns. But there was a striking change in the mode of keeping the reading material and this was due to the switching from rolls to the codex system. This took place before the end of the 4th century. By 400 to 500 AD codex rise to 90 per cent of the acquisition, though it took time to getting used to them. The change from rolls to codex was a revolutionary step, and had a profound effect, and its ease and spread of research is comparable to that of the introduction of the xerox copies of our day. Casson makes illuminating comments on the Roman official Pliny who had lived in 1st century AD when the books existed in the 'form of rolls' Pliny wrote so much on a massive scale—including an encyclopaedia as well as other lengthy works. By this time a new method was evolved of integrating new-acquisitions in codex form with the rolls in the shelves.

By the end of the 5th century the Roman Empire was split up into Ravena or Milan as its capital in the west, and Constantinople in the east. Casson provides a vivid portrait of how the libraries in the western part were destroyed by the invasion of the Goths, Vandals and others. The eastern empire lasted until 1453 with the Arab conquest of Constantinople which had been founded in 324. The Roman Empire had established numerous libraries in the past, especially in Constantinople, and professional chairs too in various disciplines were set up. But the celebrated library and the museum at Constantinople were gone by 270. All this occurred due to the Arab invaders. Caliph Omar's remarks when approached not to allow the destruction of the library are pertinent. He said: "If these writings of the Greeks agree with the book of God, they are useless and need not be preserved, but if they disagree, they are perverse and ought to be destroyed." And destroyed they were at the command of Omar!

This work closes with a brief account of the way the Christian literature amounting to 30,000 volumes was kept exclusive of the 'pagan-works' at Jerusalem. In our country we know little of the state of ancient learning and far less about the libraries, this outstanding work of the ancient libraries of western and eastern Europe may serve as an excellent model for undertaking such a venture for our benefit.

NOTE: Henceforth, this column has been scheduled for the first week of every month.