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Tablets to Books

Libraries in the Ancient World

By Lionel Casson 

(Yale University Press, 177 pp., $22.95)

One of the inscribed clay tablets in the library of Ashurbanipal, who was the king of Assyria from 668 B.C. to 627 B.C., reads as follows: "Clay tablet of Ashurbanipal, King of the World, King of Assyria, who trusts in Ashur and Ninlil....Whoever removes [the tablet], writes his names in place of my name, may Ashur and Ninlil, angered and grim, cast him down, erase his name, his seed, in the land." Evidently the earliest libraries (and writing on clay tablets dates from before 3000 B.C.) had to deal with the problem that still bedevils their successors: theft, Another tablet shows that a private library, which allowed friends to take a tablet home, had to deal with late returns: "He who fears Anu and Antu will return it to the owner's house the same day." And deliberate damage was a problem too, as another tablet testifies in detail:

He who breaks this tablet or puts it in water or rubs it until you cannot recognize it [and] cannot make it be understood...may the gods of heaven and earth and the.., gods of Assyria [the tablet names ten of them] curse him with a curse that cannot be relieved, terrible and merciless, as long as he lives, may they let his name, his seed, be carried off from the land, may they put his flesh in a dog's mouth.

These intriguing documents (and many more like them) appear in the first chapter of Lionel Casson's comprehensive and engrossing survey of the evidence for the history of the library from the clay tablets of Uruk, Ebla, Hattusas, Ashur, and Niniveh to the parchment manuscripts in the monasteries of the late Middle Ages, which had preserved much of the literature of Greece and Rome for the scholars of the Renaissance and the printing press. That evidence, literary and archaeological, published and discussed in books, periodicals, and excavation reports in many languages, is not abundant; and its interpretation is often disputed. In many cases, as Casson points out, "we are reduced to inference based on faint clues, at times to pure speculation,'' But Casson is a reliable guide, and when he does turn to speculation the result is always persuasive. With the general reader in mind, he has relegated reference to sources and scholarly debate to seventeen pages of bibliographical citations following his text, which, uncluttered by footnotes, offers a fast-moving, informative, and often entertaining narrative enriched by thirty carefully selected illustrations that offer vivid images of ancient books, their readers, and their libraries.

The clay tablets of the Sumerians and of their successive conquerors—Akkadians, Babylonians, Hittites, Assyrians-were not designed for easy reading. Patterns of wedge-shaped indentations in the clay represented syllables, not letters (alphabets did not appear until the first millennium); and the same sign often represented two or more different sounds. But the clay tablets had one great advantage:fire, the usual accompaniment to sack and conquest, only hardened them, conferring upon them the permanence that allows us to read them still.

Most of the tablets that have surfaced in one excavation after another are single documents, administrative, legal, or financial—"bills, deliveries, receipts, inventories, loans, marriage contracts, divorce settlements, court judgments and so on." Yet it was on clay tablets that the great Sumerian epic Gilgamesh was preserved through the centuries, to appear in the library of Ashurbanipal "written down and collated in the palace of Ashurbanipal, King of the World, King of Assyria." The tablets remained the only medium for the preservation of records, and of religious and literary texts, until the conquest of the region by Alexander in the fourth century B.C. and its rule by Hellenistic kings, whose Greek bureaucrats used papyrus for their documents. The tablets were then discarded as useless and they disappeared, to be discovered by archaeologists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The new medium introduced by the Greeks was papyrus, and it was as old as the day tablets: it had been in use in Egypt from about 3000 B.C. Papyrus was a plant that grew in profusion in the Nile. Its thick stalk was cut along its length into razor-thin slices, and they were glued end-to-end to form a roll. On the inside of the roll, letters were written in vertical columns from left to right, and the completed roll, with a title tag attached, could be stored with others in a box or a bucket and shelved. Many Egyptian papyrus documents-administrative, literary, and especially religious documents—have survived; but we have no information about libraries, except a passage in a Greek historian writing long after Egypt had become a Roman province. He mentions a library of Ramses II (1279-1213 B.C.), a "sacred library" that was described on an inscription as a Clinic for the Soul.

The most famous library of the ancient world was located in Egypt, at Alexandria; but it was the creation of a Greek-speaking king, Ptolemy I, who, when Alexander died in Babylon in 323 B.C. and his generals staked their claims to the vast territories he had conquered, took Egypt as his share. When he founded the library at Alexandria, the Greek-speaking world had been literate for a long time. Its twenty-four-letter alphabet, adapted some time in the eighth century B.C. from a North Semitic model (it had signs for consonants only), had made possible the preservation—and possibly the creation-of the two Homeric epics. The bookstalls in the marketplace at Athens in the late fifth century offered copies of the lyric poets Sappho and Alcaeus as well as the plays of the tragic and comic poets of Athens.

There had been private libraries in Greece before Ptolemy's government-funded institution. Euripides had a large collection of books, as we know from a passage in The Frogs of Aristophanes, and Aristotle had an even larger collection in his philosophical school, the Lyceum. But Ptolemy's library was the first that had the resources of a powerful state to support it. The library was a part of the Mouseion, or "home of the Muses"; this installation housed poets, scholars, and scientists invited from all over the Greek world, supported them royally, and gave them access to the library. A cynical Greek poet (one suspects that he had hoped to be invited but was not) described these visitors (in Casson's lively version) as

...the scribbling bookworms who are found in Egypt's populous nation in endless debate as they flock around the muses' feeding station

This prototype of the modern think tank, with its own library, soon became, under the second and third Ptolemies, the intellectual center of the Greek world. Scholars, poets, and scientists from other cities were installed there, and the library's holdings increased in geometric progression as its agents scoured bookshops wherever Greek was spoken. The dock officials at Alexandria confiscated all books found on board incoming ships, replacing them with copies and keeping the originals in the Library. In the pursuit of older (and therefore more accurate) copies, the Ptolemies would go to any lengths.Ptolemy III asked the Athenians to lend him, for copying, the official versions of the plays of the great Athenian dramatists of the fifth century B.C. The Athenians demanded and received an immense cash deposit to ensure their safe return, but Ptolemy sent back the copies and kept the originals.

The scholars living at the Mouseion worked on the material that poured in from every quarter to produce standard texts of the great poets of the Greek past, notably of the Iliad and the Odyssey, of which many different versions were in circulation. Under Ptolemy II, the poet Callimachus drew up what was, as far as we know, the first library catalogue; it filled 120 papyrus books, five times as many as the Iliad. This catalogue has not survived, but quotations from it show that it divided the books into sections—dramatic, epic, and lyric poets; orators, philosophers, and historians, and a miscellaneous category that included cookbooks. The authors in each category were listed in alphabetical order (of the first letter of the name only: full alphabetical order is an innovation of the second century A.D.). Each entry gave the author's name, city, and a brief biographical sketch followed by a list of the author's works in alphabetical order. The list of the seventy-three titles of the plays of Aeschylus that has come down to us almost certainly reproduces Callimachus's catalogue entry.

Alexandria was not the only city in the Hellenistic world with a library. The Greek city of Pergamum, built on a splendid site on the coast of what is now Turkey, also had a library, which under the city's kings, the Attalids, tried to compete with Alexandria. When, in the first century B.C., Mark Antony, the ruler of the eastern half of the Roman empire, gave all its books to Cleopatra for her library in Alexandria, they numbered 200,000. (When Callimachus made the catalogue for the library of the Mouseion, the total was 490,000). But the Pergamum library, though outpaced and shortlived, had made an important contribution to the future of books and libraries. Perhaps because Alexandria slowed or stopped supplies of papyrus, perhaps because papyrus became too expensive, Pergamum began to copy its texts on a material that had long been in use in the region: treated animal skins, or parchment—a word ultimately derived from the Latin pergamena, the Roman name for it. Unlike papyrus, it does not disintegrate when wet, nor does it wear and fray with constant use; and so it became the material on which the remains of Greek and Roman literature survived to be printed in the Renaissance.

PERGAMUM IS IMPORTANT for the history of libraries for another reason, too. Its building, or rather the ruins of its building, survived, to be uncovered by the archaeologist's spade: it is the earliest library building that we can study. It was part of a temple of, appropriately enough, the goddess Athena, whose huge statue stood in the largest room, which was designed for receptions, lectures, and conferences. The books were stored, on shelves fitted into niches in the walls, in three smaller rooms, 13.4 meters long and from 7 to 10 meters wide. A rough calculation suggests that they may have held about 200,000 scrolls, the quantity that Antony sent off to Cleopatra. All three rooms had access to an open-air roofed space where, between the columns and in good light, the books could be read.

Both of the great libraries were designed for the use of scholars and a privileged elite. Casson raises the interesting question of whether there were any such facilities for the general public. The evidence is scattered and fragmentary, but it suggests that in the second and first centuries B.C. there were libraries, great and small, that in many places in the Greek world served a larger public.One of them, on the island of Cos off the west coast of Asia Minor, was supported by local citizens with gifts of money and books. The evidence consists of an inscription recording the names of the donors; and similar inscriptions have been found in Athens, on the island of Rhodes, and elsewhere.

Casson suggests that these publicly supported libraries were connected with the city's gymnasium, an institution for young men with facilities for athletic training that in many cities had become by Hellenistic times centers for education with rooms for lectures and conferences. In Athens, in the center of town near the Agora, stood the Ptolemaeon, evidently a gift from one of the Ptolemies; it was a gymnasium with a library. Inscriptions record donations to the library, especially an annual gift of a hundred books by the epheboi, or young men of good family originally enrolled for military training but later for civic education. An inscription that almost certainly concerns this library gives an idea of its contents: it was primarily a literary collection, including plays of Euripides and Sophocles as well as by Diphilus and Menander, the stars of the fourth-century comedy of manners.

In the course of the second century B.C., most of these Greek-speaking cities and kingdoms had lost their independence and become part of the Roman empire; and the most important exception, Egypt, became a Roman province in 30 B.C. Still, as the Roman poet Horace was to put it: "Greece, once captured, captured her wild conqueror/and brought the arts to rustic Latium." The Roman upper classes learned Greek and read the Greek writers. Latin literature began in 240 B.C. with a translation of some Greek plays by Livius Andronicus, a Greek prisoner of war; and later he translated the Odyssey, creating for it a Latin equivalent of the Homeric hexameter line, the meter of Lucretius and Virgil. Romans bought Greek books, and there must soon have been many private libraries in Italy.

We know of one library that was not bought but appropriated. In 168 B.C., the Roman general Aemilius Paulus defeated Perseus, the king of Macedon, and added to the Roman empire a country that had been ruled by Philip and his son Alexander the Great, and before them by Archelaus, at whose court the Athenian tragic poets Agathon and Euripides spent the desperate final months of the Peloponnesian War. Both of Aemilius's sons (one of them, Scipio Aemilianus, would later command the army that destroyed Carthage) were enthusiasts for Greek literature, and their father allowed them to ship the whole of the royal library home for their own personal use and that of their friends.

There were other huge private libraries in Rome that had been acquired in similar fashion. Sulla returned from the sack of Athens in 86 B.C. with the library of Aristotle, and later Lucullus returned from campaigns in the Middle East with a huge collection that he, and later his son, threw open to visitors. There were also huge private libraries that were built up by purchase or by copying from the holdings of friends—Cicero's library, for example, or the even larger collection of his friend Atticus, who lived in Greece. Cicero's collection was large enough to need the skills of a Greek specialist named Tyrannio, who had organized the library of Sulla.

YET THE IDEA of a public library must be credited to Julius Caesar. It makes its first appearance as one of his projects when, with the defeat of the last republican army in Spain in 45 B.C., he returned to Rome as its dictator. His design called for two separate rooms: one for Latin, one for Greek. His assassination, on the Ides of March in 44 B.C., scuffled the project; but it was revived and brought to completion by Asinius Pollio, a supporter of Caesar and a friend of the poets Catullus, Horace, and Virgil, who returned from a campaign in the East with enormous booty in 39 B.C. Its separate rooms for Greek and Latin served as the model for all subsequent Roman libraries.

When Octavian, later to assume the title Augustus, became the ruler of the Roman empire in 30 B.C., he built not one but two public libraries. One of them was on the Palatine hill, where Augustus himself lived in a palace complex. Enough of this library remains to show that it was a new model, the pattern of the future. Instead of small rooms opening onto a patio or colonnade, it had two large rooms, their inner walls containing niches for shelves and plenty of floor space for tables, chairs, and readers. More libraries were built under Augustus's successor Tiberius, and Vespasian built one after the sack of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The remains of Trajan's library, which was created in 112 A.D., lie under the surface of the street on both sides of his column in Rome.

But there were many other public libraries in Rome. Just as the Athenians had libraries in their gymnasiums, the Romans had them in their public baths. There had been many bathing establishments in Rome under the Republic, but they were for people who could pay. As part of the imperial policy of keeping the population of Rome quiet-the famous policy of "bread and circuses"—the emperors built free public baths on a lavish scale. Unlike the Greek gymnasium, these institutions were open to men and women alike; and in addition to the essential warm rooms, hot rooms, sweat rooms, cold plunges, massage rooms, and the rest, they offered gardens, courts for exercise or games, rooms for meetings, recitals, or lectures, and libraries. The ruins of the baths of Trajan (109 A.D.) include the remains of the usual twochambered library; and an even larger one, with rooms measuring 36.13 meters by 21.9 meters, was built in the baths of Caracalla (212 A.D.), where, in the Roman tradition of entertainment in the baths, on a warm moonlit night on July 7, 1999, the Three Tenors performed the first of their many concerts before an audience of {5,000 Romans.

There were public libraries outside Rome, of course, not only in Italy but all over the empire. Hadrian gave one to Athens; and visitors to the site of Ephesus, an important Roman administrative center on the coast of Asia Minor, can see the magnificent library building that has been reconstructed from the ruins. We know also that there was a library and a university at Carthage, which had been rebuilt after Augustus resettled it. In these libraries all over the empire, a slow but momentous change in the format of the book was under way.

That change was the replacement of the scroll by the codex. Codex is the Latin word for writing tablets—thin wooden boards of equal size, covered with a thin layer of wax on which letters could be inscribed. These boards were held together by string passed through holes at the top of the boards.The papyrus codex or the parchment codex was made by placing sheets of the material in a pile, folding it over and sewing it along the fold. The usual number of sheets was four, which produced eight pages; these units could be sewn together to produce a large book.

In one of his short poems known as epigrams, the Roman poet Martial, writing in the first century A.D., tells his readers to buy his new book at the shop of Secundus, and he also tells them why. The book is a novelty--it is not only parchment, but also in codex form.

You want to take my poems wherever you go as companions, say, on a trip to some distant land? Buy this. It's packed tight into parchment pages, so, leave your rolls at home, for this takes just one hand.

A codex was easier to read, turning the page rather than unrolling one side and rolling the other up; it was more convenient for reference back and forth; and it was easier to copy. In fact, copying from papyrus to papyrus must have been extremely difficult; it was surely done by dictation. Another advantage of the codex was its compactness: Martial mentions a parchment codex that contains all fifteen books of Ovid's Metamorphoses, which would have needed several rolls in the older format.

Still, for all the obvious superiority of the codex to the roll, ancient readers were slow to embrace it."It took a long time;' says Casson, "from about A.D. 100 to after 400, for the codex to supplant the roll." But there was one very significant exception to the almost unanimous rejection of the codex:the Christian community. The earliest preserved Bibles are dated to the turn of the second to the third centuries, and they are all codices. And over the following centuries the codex continued to serve as the standard form for Christian writing. It could furnish a preacher with all he needed in a single volume, in which reference from one passage to another was easy.

There was a large Christian community in Rome in Martial's time, and it may well have been that the bookseller who offered Martial's book as a codex had taken his cue from the Christians. And as the centuries went by, one more important change took place on the library shelves: the replacement of the perishable papyrus by the more durable parchment. Casson cites one instance, in fact, of large-scale replacement: Jerome's account, written about 385 A.D., of a library that "was partially ruined, and Acacius and Euzoius, priests of the church, undertook to renew it in parchment."

In the second half of the third century A.D., the Roman empire was torn apart by civil wars between claimants to supreme power, and was also engaged in wars against new aggressive kingdoms in the East. By the end of the century, the empire had broken in half—the West, ruled from Milan or Ravenna, the East from Constantinople, the new city built by the emperor Constantine, who decreed tolerance for the Christians and enlisted them in the organization of his empire, which lasted until 1453 A.D., when the city was taken by the Turks. It was there that a selection of the literary treasures of ancient Greece had been preserved—the two Homeric epics, a small selection of Attic drama, the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides, and the complete works of Plato and Aristotle. In the century before the city's fall, teachers of Greek and copies of the manuscripts reached Renaissance Venice, Florence, and Rome, and this remnant of a great literature was studied, expounded, and eventually printed.

But the western half of the Roman empire had no such long life. By the beginning of the fifth century A.D., France, Spain, Italy, and Roman North Africa had been overrun by successive hordes of peoples from the North and East—Goths, Visigoths, Ostrogoths Suevi, Vandals-who left destruction in their wake. In the ensuing chaos—the breakdown of civil government, the sack of cities—the preservation of libraries and books was not a major concern. Rome itself was sacked, and by the late sixth century its population had dropped to 30,000 from more than a million, the figure for the first and second centuries.

But one type of library did survive—in the monasteries. Pacomius, the founder of monasticism, ordered that every monk should be, or become, literate. It was a rule adopted also by Benedict, the founder of the great monastery on Monte Cassino. Many monastic libraries were small, their holdings limited to sacred and patristic texts; but this was not true of the library founded in the last years of the sixth century by Cassiodorus, a rich and cultivated Roman who had held high political office but late in life founded a monastery in southern Italy that "encompassed breadth of knowledge along with religion."

Cassiodorus emphasized writing as well as reading; his monastery included a scriptorium for the copying of manuscripts, both religious and secular. His private library, which he donated, contained texts of all the major pagan Latin authors, and also Homer, Plato, Aristotle, and Hippocrates as well as his own book, the Institutiones, which emphasized the importance of reading, the liberal arts, and copying, and had an enormous influence on monastic life. Later monasteries founded at Bobbio near Pavia, St. Gallen in Switzerland, and Fulda in Germany followed his recommendation. It is to the holdings amassed in such monasteries, Casson observes, that "we owe.., most of what has survived of the writings in Latin and Greek from the ancient world, particularly in Latin."

And what happened to the library in the Mouseion at Alexandria, the greatest collection of books in the ancient world? Our sources differ, but it seems most likely that it was destroyed sometime around 270 A.D., when the troops of the emperor Aurelian fought those of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra in the palace area, where the Mouseion was located. According to Ammianus Marcellinus, our main historical source for the period, the whole area was devastated. The other large library in Alexandria, in the temple of Serapis, was demolished and its books were burned by a Christian mob urged on by the patriarch Theophilus in 391 A.D. Yet Arabic sources speak of a library still in existence in 640 A.D., when the city was taken by the Muslim Arabs, conquerors of the Middle East. Arabic and Greek sources describe the attempt of John Philoponos, an aged Aristotelian scholar, to persuade the conquerors to spare the books. He was unsuccessful. An order came from the Caliph Omar to send them to the public baths of Alexandria (of which there may have been as many as four thousand) to be used as fuel. Only the books of Aristotle were to be preserved. The library must have been large, because the books kept the fires blazing for six months.

Bernard Knox was an American classicist whose books include The Oldest Dead White European Males: And Other Reflections On The Classics.

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