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  • Lynne Shelby

Scribes and Emperors - libraries in the ancient world

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

Almost as soon as ancient civilisations developed the earliest form of writing – cuneiform on clay tablets in Mesopotamia, hieroglyphics on papyrus in Egypt – scribes began to create archives to store records of important commercial transactions, information such as the best times to plant crops – and, unfortunately but somehow inevitably, who owed what taxes to whom!

These archives were the predecessors of libraries, while the scribes who possessed the then extraordinary skill of reading and could access the information, were the ancestors of librarians.

Probably the world’s oldest library as we would define it, was the Library of Ashurbanipal, located in Ninevah, in modern day Iraq. Ashurbanipal, one of the last great kings of Assyria, who reigned from 668 to roughly 627 BCE, was obviously one of the world’s first bibliophiles, as archaeologists have discovered over 30,000 clay tablets in his library, including texts that ranged from medicine to geography, and also some of the world’s earliest fiction: The Epic of Gilgamesh. Being a man of his times, without the option of a trip to the bookstore, Ashurbanipal stocked his library through plunder, but this did not prevent him warning off anyone who would do the same to him with the world’s first known book curse asking his gods to destroy the book thief’s ‘name and posterity in the land.’

While the earliest libraries were privately owned, it was the ancient Greeks who first came up with the idea of libraries that would be open to the public – or at least those considered to have the proper scholarly qualifications – and the various schools of philosophy that flourished in Athens at the time founded collections of books. With the exception of the Stoics, who refuted the idea of owning property of any sort - including libraries!

Around 300 BCE, the Greek ruler of Egypt, Ptolomy I, a former general of Alexander the Great, founded the Great Library of Alexandria, with the intention that it would hold copies of every book in the world, and at its height, the library was said to hold 750,000 papyrus and velum scrolls and was staffed by eminent Greek philosophers and scholars, and visited by many more such as Archimedes, who, while studying in Alexandria, invented his famous Archimedes Screw.

Ptolomy and his successors acquired much of the Great Library’s collection simply by asking other rulers for copies of the volumes in their own libraries, although they were not above confiscating books they did not already have from unwary travellers arriving in Alexndria’s port. Traditionally, the Library was said to have been accidently destroyed by Julius Caesar when his soldiers set fire to some enemy ships docked in Alexandria and the fire spread. As, a decade later, Caesar’s rival Mark Anthony was rumoured to have given Cleopatra 200,00 scrolls from the Library of Pergamum to replace the burnt books – in what was just possibly the first inter-library loan - it is now considered more likely that the Library at Alexandria continued in some form into the 3rd century CE. Incidently, arranging books alphabetically on shelves – something that seems blindingly obvious to us today – was invented by the first head of the Great Library, Zenodotus.

Meanwhile, in China, Liu Xin, a curator of the imperial library of the Han Dynasty, was the first bibliophile to establish a book classification system, with the library catalogue being written on scrolls of fine silk and stored in silk bags.

It was the Romans who established the first truly public libraries where readers had direct access to the scrolls without having to request a scribe to fetch them.

Julius Caesar was keen to build a public library that would rival the one at Alexandria (I know what you’re thinking, but there is no evidence that his bookish ambitions and his alleged burning of the Great Library are connected!), and it was one of his lieutenants, Asinius Pollio, who built the first public library in Rome. With each Emperor attempting outdo their predecessors in every sphere, including the building of libraries, by the height of the Roman Empire, these invaluable institutions were a common feature of most towns. Scrolls were kept on shelves built into the walls of a large room, often at the public baths, where readers browsed, read or copied books – and there even a (very) few mentions of books being borrowed.

I’ll just mention one more ancient library – the Library of Celcus at Ephesus, built 135 CE. I visited the ruins of the city of Ephesus in Turkey some years ago on a very hot day in August. Together with the other tourists, I walked along Ephesus’s main street, coming to an abrupt halt when I saw the magnificent façade of the Library towering above the crowds. It was an awesome sight, and no-one who sees it could ever doubt the importance of books and libraries in the ancient world.

Next time: Monks and Princes – the libraries of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance


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