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Ancient Libraries: 100s CE

It's interesting to compare the Greek and Roman libraries.

Beyond the great libraries of Alexandria and Pergamon, many local libraries began to emerge during this time period in Greece, Roman, and elsewhere.

Libraries of Greece

Much evidence can be found in the records of individuals who made donations to local libraries. However, the exact physical locations of these libraries is more difficult to identify. According to Casson (2001), evidence shows that many cities maintained a library within the gymnasium. Located at the center of most cities these facilities were places where people went to engage in physical activities as well as promote thinking and literacy. Unfortunately, other than a few stones reflecting donations made by contributors from cities such as Athens and Rhodes, little physical evidence exists.

Below is an image of the ruins of a gymnasium on the Greek Island of Kos.

Kos wikimedia commons Karelji  PD

Kos Library
Kos, Greek Island

A good example of a provincial library is on the island of Kos. This island became a center for learning during the Ptolemaic dynasty. Hippocrates, Apelles, Philitas and possibly Therocritus came from this area. An inscription lists people who made contributions to build the library.

The Ptolemaion
Athens, Greece

In the center of town, the library was likely part of the gymnasium. Inscriptions indicate that books were donated. In addition, lists of authors and titles indicate that someone was organizing the collection.


Library of Hadrian
Athens, Greece

Created by Roman Emperor Hadrian in 132 CE, the building was located on the north side of the Acropolis of Athens. Designed in the Roman Forum architectural style, the building included lecture halls and reading rooms. The rolls were kept on the eastern side of the building. The library was damaged during the Herulian invasion of 267 CE and later repaired. Three churches were also built on the site. The photo below shows the location.

Hadrian Library Wikimedia Commons PD

Learn more at about the Hadrian Library at Wikipedia.

The Library of Rhodes
Rhodes, Greece

The Library of Rhodes was likely part of the gymnasium. Evidence indicates that the library had a trained librarian. Part of a catalogue was found carved on a wall listing authors in alphabetical order, the titles of their works, and the number of books in the work. Books were organized by subject.

Library of Pantainos
Athens, Greece

Built south of the Stoa of Attalos, the building inscription indicates that the Library of Pantainos was dedicated to Athena Archegetis, the emperor Trajan, and the Athenian people. It had a large room on each side with marble walls. Titus Flavius Pantainos was the son of the head of the philosophical school and considered himself to be a priest of philosophy. A surviving inscription tell the library rules, "no book is to be taken out because we have sworn an oath. The library is to be open from the first house until the sixth."

Libraries of Rome

The libraries of Rome were very different in design than those of Greece. In Greece, they generally followed the Pergamon model of an open area with adjacent small rooms for the stacks. Roman libraries were designed with a large open space for reading with bookcases around the perimeter. These libraries probably served professionals interested in literature or seeking information.

Forum of Tragjan The care of books, PDLibraries may also have been found in Roman Baths. Although open to the public, these baths were privately owned and charged a fee. During his reign, Augustus opened baths that were free to the public. Later emperors continued the trend adding amenities to the baths including libraries. Evidence indicates that niches may have been used for book storage. However it's not clear if these were formal libraries or simply a few books intended for bath visitors.

Forum of Trajan or Ulpian Library
Rome, Italy

Like other libraries in the city, the Greek and Latin libraries at the Forum of Trajan were separated by a small court. Built around 114 CE, this library was also the public record office of Rome. The library was fitted with presses for roll and book storage and probably contained about 20,000 rolls. Traces of these presses were found during excavation.

The image on the right shows the layout of the Forum of Trajan or Ulpian Library.

On the left side of the floorplan below you can see the two library rooms.

Trajan Wikimedia commons CC A-SA 3coma14

Baths of Caracalla
Rome, Italy

Built in the early 200's CE, the Baths of Caracalla contained a library with bronze screens that could be closed during off-hours. Like other libraries of the times, a podium ran along the perimeter to provide access to the niches containing bookcases.

Although not as popular as Greek gymnasium, there was a gymnasium in Pompeii.

The image below shows that Pompeii Gymnasium.

Palestra Pompeii  CC-A-SA Haiduc

Libraries in Other Areas

In addition to those in the Greek and Roman libraries, other libraries were being established.

Library of Celsus
Ephesus, Anatolia (modern Selcuk, Turkey)

Built by Celsus' son and completed in 135 CE, the library was built to store 12,000 scrolls and serve as a tomb for Celsus. Bookcases lined the back and side walls and were elevated from the floor. Built to reflect the Greek influence on Roman architecture, Celsus left money to construct the building and library materials. After fires destroyed the content and an earthquake destroyed the building, the front facade was reconstructed. The image below shows the reconstruction of the Library of Celsus.

Library of Celsus Wikimedia Commons PD

Learn more at about the Library of Celsus at Wikipedia.

Dig DeeperDig Deeper
Read Finley, Susan (2014). Census Library of EphesusL The man and the city behind the famous facade. Libra, 64(3), 277-292.

Library at Thamugadi
Timgad, Algeria

Timgad was a Roman town founded by Emperor Trajan around 100 CE. Located a few blocks from the forum, the library was easily accessible to users. An inscription indicates that the library was constructed with funding from a wealthy benefactor. The large building contained a U-shaped portico with entry into a main room with wall niches. Other rooms were found on the side that could have been reading rooms or scriptoria. A podium runs around the room providing access to elevated bookcases.

The image below shows the Library at Thamugadi.

Wikimedia Commons PD


Casson, Lionel (2001). Libraries of the Ancient World. Yale University.

Clark, John Willis (1901). The Care of Books. Cambridge University Press Warehouse. Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=uvQ_AAAAYAAJ

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