The libraries of antiquity

Erudition, study and textual transmission in the cultural centers of the Greek and Roman world

It was with a deception that Ptolemy III succeeded in obtaining from the Athenians copies of the tragic works of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides: the agreement, sanctioned by a bail of fifteen coins, foresaw that, once copied in Alexandria, they would be returned to the hands of their original owners. The story is told by the doctor Galen who reveals to us that after a scrupulous copy phase, the king of Egypt handed over to the Athenians the new drafts instead of the originals, which he succeeded in retaining. An escamotage that led to a conquest no less epic than that of Troy, if we consider that precisely with these continuous acquisitions Alessandria became the largest library ever known in the ancient world. Paradoxically, the library does not have physical descriptions, but what remains of the archaeological evidence of other important libraries contemporary to it, such as that of the Asklepieion of Pergamo, or later, such as the library of Celsus in Ephesus, tells us of the greatness and of the importance that was attributed to these places not only of culture, but real institutions inserted in the dynamics of the state, even if mostly reserved for few scholars. In the Greek world, in which literature preceded writing, the birth and formation of the polis had triggered a mechanism of recognition of historical and political authenticity, and consequently the search for a collective memory that had its roots in the poems Homeric and in tragic works. Fertile ground for the proliferation of libraries was that of the gymnasiums, a place of formation for the good citizen. The philosophical schools saw in the library an indispensable endowment from which to draw for edification. Emblematic cases were that of the Ptolemaion, a gymnasium founded in Athens in the 3rd century, and of the Aristotelian Lyceum. For the Roman world the library was largely an acquisition from the Greek world. If in Rome the library was initially seen only as a tendency to create a place of storage for books, to be a sign of the cultural greatness of the Roman aristocratic families, it, however, had the embryonic stages of the “public library”. The discovery and study of the Villa dei Papiri in Ercolano, buried with the eruption of 79 d. C., gives a clear example of the layout of the rooms used as a library and allows to largely reconstruct what was the cultural activity that took place there. Along with private collecting, the idea that literature had a political and civil value, therefore representative, developed in imperial times, in particular with the great building works started by the emperor Augustus. From the first public library, born from the collection of Asinio Pollione, a republican man, and from the Palatina of Augustus, inaugurated in 28 a. C., the library in Rome begins to acquire its own internal physiognomy and its own monumentalization, becoming the center of literary life, and often also political. Paradigm of this identity will be the Ulpia Library, commissioned by the emperor Trajan.