Ancient Libraries of Greece and Rome
A Summary of Research Findings 1999

Jacalyn C. Spoon

Book Material
Cataloging - Organization
Shelving Systems
Architectural features
Private or Specialized Libraries
Public Libraries
Political Upheaval
Web sources

Remains of the Celsus Library at Ephesus 135AD (Ramage and Ramage 1996:196)


The purpose of this document is to summarize my research efforts over the past 8 months. While my initial investigations into the subject of ancient libraries brought me to many dead ends and made me wonder if there were any sources to be had, my current investigations have lead me to believe that one could easily devote a life time to learning and researching this topic. If I wish to pursue the study of ancient libraries further I would first read some of the ancient texts referred to.  I have never read Homer, Plutarch, or any of the other renowned literary genius of ancient times. 

Book Material

The importance of literacy and books to the Roman people is clear in the portraits created. Sometime before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD an average middle class married couple from Pompeii had their portrait painted. He holds a roll of paper, possibly their marriage document. She holds a stilus (writing implement) and a wax tablet. Both hold the evidence that reading and writing were of some importance, if not to themselves at least to those persons who might view their portrait. It was important to appear to be literate or at least appear interested in literature. During the Republican period it was common for a wealthy citizen to have a new home constructed with a library, regardless of the importance of books in that individuals life. Books were considered a very valuable commodity.What materials a book was made from was dependent upon the place of residence of the author or copyist. Books were most often written on papyrus and stored rolled on a scroll. Sometime around the mid 7th century BC trade between Greece and Egypt was well established. Papyrus, a fibrous aquatic plant grown in the Nile Delta area of Egypt, was available since that time. Paper made from pulp of plants or rags was used as a less expensive alternative to papyrus.  Parchment or Vellum made from sheep or goat skin was another more expensive alternative that could be used in place of papyrus or paper. Pergamum, part of the original Greek root for the word parchment, is credited as the first place to substitute parchment for papyrus in the making of paper. I find this difficult to believe as people would have been skinning sheep and goats and using the skins in various and sundry ways long before Pergamum was in need of writing paper. Pergamum may have had more goats and sheep than rags and plant pulp thus used parchment regularly as their source of writing material. At the library of Constantinople deteriorating Papyrus rolls were replaced by parchment codices beginning in about 340AD. Parchment lasted longer than the delicate papyrus paper.

Cataloging - Organization

The library organization system designed by Callimachus in ancient Greece is very similar to our library of congress cataloging system. Sometime around 296 B.C. in Alexandria, Callimachus designed the first cataloging system (alphabetical subject classification) This particular system was in continuous use during the third century BC throughout the Roman Empire. His blueprint for library organization had “6 main divisions of poetry (epic, elegy, iambics, melodrama tragedy, comedy), and 5 in prose (history, rhetoric, philosophy, medicine, law)” (Pages 1963:34). A third division was created for varia which included fishing, cake baking and other works of this type. Scrolls were put in alphabetical order by author, title and then the number of rolls in that set. When an author was unknown a book was classified under a symbolic author. A medical paper written by an unknown author may have been organized under the name Hippocrates. When an individual manuscript was attributed to several authors or had several titles, this was noted in the catalog to prevent further confusion. In this cataloging system it was also important to know where a book came from, who or where it was confiscated from. Acquisition of a collection in ancient times often meant the confiscation of books from their owners, often through force. Acquisitions will be discussed later.  It was also important in very early times to note if a book were a copy of an original. A mixed collection consists of copies and originals. This designation is necessary when considering the value of a collection, original texts of course had a higher value. Copies could have lost or gained information in the copying process.

Terentius Varro, the organizer of the first Roman public library, wrote De bibliothecis, a 3 volume book about technical arrangement and the history of libraries. Conceivably this book was based upon Greek libraries. He may have intended it to be used as a guide for the construction of the first library. He died in 27 BC before the library was completed. Varro was the writer of 620 books, on various subjects. He probably spent a considerable amount of time in libraries.

Shelving Systems

Literary references as well as archaeological evidence help us to reconstruct and understand ancient library shelving systems. Shelving systems consisted of a niche or hole in the wall that held either shelves directly in it or was large enough to hold a storage cabinet, called an armaria.  Armaria had doors to protect the books from damaging light. In  larger libraries they were built into the walls. Books in the armaria were arranged in alphabetical order by author and the “finding facilitated by the tituli hanging from the rolls” (Pages 1963:135). Tutuli I assume to mean a call numbering system. Niches were common in libraries both public and private, as well as in other buildings. In 1885 the Greek Archaeological society excavated a museum (museum or museion is comparable to our use of the word university) in Athens built under emperor Hadrian in 131A.D.. The back wall of the museum contained a large central niche and four book-cupboard niches on both sides.

Lora Lee Johnson (1984) created a chart (see page    ) that lists the width, depth, height, height above the podium (the podium will be discussed later) and height above the floor of 9 libraries and 8 buildings not considered to be libraries. Using Johnsons chart, I have calculated the average dimensions of a rectangular library niche to be; 1.56 meters wide, 3.22 meters tall and, 64.63 centimeters deep. The average height above the floor is 1.74 meters. The average dimensions of a niche in a non library building is: width 1.53 meters, height 2.77 meters and depth 39.28 centimeters. The average height above the floor is 28.09 meters, an untelling number, since these heights range from 1.35 to 70meters. While these heights and widths are not significantly different, the depths of the niches do say something. The niches measured in the libraries were more standardized ranging between 50 and 76 centimeters. The niches in the non-library buildings were ranging from 1 centimeter to 77. This wide range of differences could be attributed to poor estimations or incorrect data. Niches did “not appear in Greek libraries” (Makowiecka 1978:33) but the appearance of niches in Roman libraries has been traced to Caesars being influenced by the library at Alexandria in Egypt. The Egyptians use of  niches was traced back to shelves in cut rock and stone tombs then to later forms of Egyptian architecture. Wood being such a scarce and thus costly material would have led to the creation of shelves as well as other objects being made out of alternative materials. The appearance of niches in Roman libraries may or may not be traced to a specific date of Egyptian influence. 


Podia were used extensively in Roman libraries as well as other buildings. Some for support of interior columns others were used as sculpture bases. It was suggested that the podiums found in libraries served as a location for book cases or armaria. A podium was used at the Pergamum library, built by Eumenes II (197 - 159 BC). A large library its holdings in 32 BC were documented at 200,000 books. Pergamum was actually a  complex consisting of four buildings. The largest of the buildings had a podium along 3 of its 4 walls at a “distance of .5 meter from the inner face of the wall”(Makowiecka 1978:17). The podium “one meter high and wide” was not solid but had a “stone casing with a hollow channel inside”(Makowiecka 1978:17). The podium grows “broader forming a rectangle, pedestal-like ledge”(Makowiecka 1978:17) on the wall opposite the entrance.  

Makowiecka (1978) summarizes the use of the podium as a step stool type device that could have been used by the librarian restricting access to books from library visitors. Patrons were not allowed to approach the armaria but had to ask the attendant for a book and then return it to the attendant. The podium being one meter is about the height of the average kitchen counter top. It is difficult but possible to climb up on to a kitchen counter and as such could have been used to restrict access. But more likely the main purpose of the podium was as a counter, a place to roll out a book and stand and read it. Reference shelving in modern libraries often has an area built into the shelving unit that is specifically for just that purpose, a place to stand and read. The area of the podium that was two meters high was certainly too high for the average person to easily climb up on to or to reach over and as such was probably the site of a statue, this area being directly across from the main door.

The average depth of the library niche being about 64 centimeters is probably a little longer than the average sized scroll, allowing for differences in size as the height of our current books vary. The width of the podium being 1 meter allows a patron to have a bit of elbow room so to lean on the podium,  35 centimeters of extra podium space, approximately the same distance between my body and my computer monitor. I believe that the podium may have been used as a reading area. This idea seems to be original and as of yet has not been explored in any of the books I have used in my research.

Book shelves most likely lined the walls. At Pergamum a series of rectangular marks at a height of 1.2 meters from the top of the podium left by “some sort of cramp-irons or flat clamps”(Makowiecka 1978:17). Perhaps this large room in the Pergamum complex was the reference reading room.

A water duct runs along the side of the podium, ending in a deep pit. This pit has been interpreted as a place for the sacrificial blood to drain to. Religious rites as we think of them were not always restricted to the temple.

 Architectural Features

I found it interesting that the library of ancient times could generally be identified by its architecture (see page  ). During the end of the first century AD the Pantainos’ library in Athens was erected. Archaeological evidence is  insufficient regarding the details of the structure but the dedicatory inscription on the building identifies the building as having a portico, a peristyle and a library with books and equipment. Greek libraries during this period were based upon the general design of the gymnasium. The architectural style of the gymnasium is basically a  square or rectangular courtyard surrounded by a columned peristyle. In the architectural examples I have seen of libraries, a simpler portico sometimes replaces the peristyle. See the plan of Trajan’s forum with its separate Greek and Latin Libraries flanking Trajan’s column (see page    ).

When the library was part of a gymnasium it often took the form of an excedra, a room added to the exterior back wall of the gymnasium with a row of columns in front. Most gymnasium library plans of Roman antiquity use the ˝  round excedra of the Roman style to house the library, as in the Plan of the Baths of Diocletian (see page   ). In the plan of the Baths of Caracalla a rectangular Greek excedra was used (see page    ).

To protect the books from dampness, a double wall, called a peristasis surrounded the central area of the Celsus Library (see page    ) (Johnson 1984:200 ). Other buildings employed the use of a peristasis especially when the building abutted a hillside or was subject to possible rain runoff problems. While other sources consider the peristasis to be a library feature, Lora Lee Johnson advises that “insulation corridors and peristasis should not be considered a standard feature in library architecture” (Johnson 1984:133). The peristasis at the Celsus library may also have provided access to a tomb on the north side of the building.

Separated Greek and Latin libraries housed in the same building or considered part of the same collection and housed in separate buildings as in Trajans forum,  seems to have been the norm in Rome after Greece was brought under Roman rule.

Standard library policies did not allow for the circulation of books. Books were generally to be used at the library. Standard library features included front double doors that opened to give the main room reading light. The Pantaenos library was open 6 hours every beginning at sunrise (Pages 1963).In 14 BC Vitruvius included in his book on architecture, information for the construction of a library. He advised upon planning a library building to profit by admitting the morning sun. This top is a standard feature of ancient libraries, an Eastern entrance to catch the morning light.


Libraries,  public as well as private were ornately decorated inside and out (see Celsus Library, cover picture). Beautiful decorations had adorned the libraries of Rome. When found in situ statuary and portraiture would help to identify the remains of a building as a library. Libraries often contained a statue of Athena, the goddess of wisdom and the arts. A Colossal statue of Athena stood at  the north wall at Pergamum. As well as statues of Athena, portraits of renowned philosophers and authors are typical of library statuary. The likeness of Herodotus the Greek historian was also found at Pergamum. Libraries were usually part of a larger complex. Often they were established for the use of a particular temple or wealthy person. Libraries attached to a gymnasium were sometimes built to honor an Emperor or act as a propaganda message. The particular honoree or god would have had his statue in a prominent, central location.

At the medical school library in Ephesus, the library hall contained the sarcophagus of Ti. Julius Celsus Ploemaenus (a Roman consul) who died 117 AD. Dio Chrysostom (a Greek orator) erected a library with a stoa in the city of Peusa. He placed the tombs of his wife and son in the library hall, granting them hero worship. A sarcophagus is not what we today would think of as typical library decoration and it was not typical then either, but was reserved for a highly influential person such as the Roman consul (who had probably been associated with the library during his life time). Dio Chrysostom found himself in political hot water after moving his wife and son into the library.

In a letter written during the 5th century, Rusticus of Gaul recalls a private library he had seen as a boy: “pictures of orators and poets in mosaics or in wax colors decorate walls, each identified by an epigram below it” (Pages 1963:103). When he writes, wax colors decorate the walls, he refers to a wooden board painted with colored pigments mixed with bees wax. According to Pages (1963), fragments of oval portraits were found in the remains of a building beside the church of San Martino ai Monti on the Esquiline. One had a frame inscription with the name Apollonius of Tyana (a wandering peacher) this helped to identify that area of the building as a private library. Portraits were not simply for decorative purposes, they had a practical purpose as well. Portraits were set up close to the books or painted on the walls to serve as guides to related topics, following the same order as the catalog.



The libraries of ancient Roman Empire were the core of all knowledge. The individuals who worked in them were some of the most respected persons in the Empire. The buildings, large and impressive, required large numbers of trained staff. Those staff persons who worked in the ancient libraries were for the most part slaves. In the palace of Antium there was such a large number of personnel that the slaves formed a collegium (a union of sorts).  Private as well as public libraries had large staffs of slaves. According to Cicero“Atticus employed so numerous a library staff that he could lend Cicero several trained Greeks for sometime”(Pages 1963:138).

From tombstones, the names of the imperial slaves that worked at the Paletine library during the 1st century are known. The tombstone of a freedman was found as well. He served as the physician for the entire library personnel, evidence of a sort of medical plan for the library slaves.

Let me not steer you wrong, the life of the library slave was not so similar to a union laborer. Slaves were used as bargaining pawns. Ancient libraries did have fines but not as we have been taught to think of them. One library patron in Athens who would not return an original ancient text to the library was fined for his misdeed. He was punished with the non-return of 15 skilled slaves. Hoping to appease the librarian he sent the library a copy of the original (Pages 1963).

The scholar or librarian was responsible for acquisitions and cataloging.  In the 4th century procuratorship passed into the hands of the prefect of the city. Slaves were responsible for copying and mending damaged books. Copying would have provided ample opportunity to read large quantities of literature. Waiting upon the visitors was also the responsibility of the slaves.

 Freed slave C. Melissus of Spoletum (a poet and grammarian (a grammarian is a person who specializes in the study the structure of language)) was entrusted with the administration of the library of Augustus sometime after 23BC. The library staff slaves had hope for a future. Slavery was different in the Roman world as there was hope for freedom and changes in social ranking. In 71 BC Tyranno was captured during war was given or sold to Lucullus Licinius Murena. Tyranno was an esteemed Greek grammarian. Surely Murena understood the value Tyranno could be to him. Tyranno was forced to travel with him throughout the remainder of his military campaign. He was freed after that, but was then permanently connected and required to identify himself a freeman (Dix 1986).


Having already touched on how library staff was acquired, so too were books, as prizes of wars won. According to Pliny, Vespian erected a library at the same time as the erection of the Temple of Peace, filling it with the spoils of the Jewish war. “Lucius Aemilius Paullus the Roman Conqueror of Greece took the library of King Perseus of Macedon”(Dix 1986:19). The library was the only war prize he kept. It was used to educate his children, thus his respect for the Greek literature and culture earned him the respect of most Greeks. Sulla obtained the library of the Apellicon, Aristotle’s library,  in 84 BC as a war prize. This acquisition quite possibly  had a political message, to discourage resistance. The scholar Aristotle had been an active resistor to Rome. Resist me and loose your library.

Libraries, however they had been acquired, were left to heirs. The library of Sulla was inherited by Faustus Cornelius Sulla. During the early part of the first century A.D., lawyers argued on how far a library was included in the inheritance of a villa. To what extent should books be inherited along with the armaria. Books were a valuable commodity and a loophole in the law might mean additions to the library of the emperor or possibly the tax collector.

 The library of Faustus Cornelius Sulla, formerly of Aristotle, was auctioned off to pay his debts incurred in political campaigns. Cicero helped with this auction and possibly profited from it as well.

The Attalids, whose kingdom capital was at Pergamum between 283 - 133BC, confiscated books from ship  passengers, quickly copied them and then returned the copies to the owners. The confiscated originals were then brought to their library at Pergamum. The writings of Aristotle and Thophrastus were hidden in a basement during the time of the Attalids book hunts. These books suffered much damage from dampness and pests, while the books at the library of Pergamum remained well taken care of and in use.

Not all books were acquired by such dastardly means. Copying books was big business. Librarians in Antiquity consulted specialized bibliographies. Bibliographies published by authors and grammarians, such as Atremon and Telephos of Pergamum, Herennius Philon of Byblos and Bythynian Damophilos advertised new acquisitions to purchase. Bookshops abound in the Roman forum during the reign of Caesar.

Private or Special Libraries

Just as libraries today specialize, the corporate library, the University library or the government document archives, so too did ancient libraries. During the 5th century BC, outside the city of Pergamum on the island of Cos, the great sanctuary of Asclepius, a medical school complex was built and with it came the library. The first medical school known to have existed, it could be credited with the first specialized library.

The private library in the villa of L. Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus at Herculaneum (Pages 1963:95) contained philosophical books. The rolls, buried at Herculaneum by volcanic debris were then preserved, as was other organic material there. More than 2/3 of this collection contains the writings of the Epicurean (devoted to the pursuit of pleasure especially good tasting food and wine) Philodemus of Gadara. Several copies of the same volume were found and they were marked with explanatory comments. This library may have been place where  students gathered for personal instruction, perhaps specializing in the teachings of the Epecures.

During the 2nd century AD the public forum for Roman law was in the vicinity of the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine hill this is where this is where the law schools evolved and so did the specialized Law libraries.

Hardians villa contained a private library probably both Greek and Latin libraries. He had a great respect for the Greek culture and surrounded himself with Greek sculpture it would make sense that he had a great collection of Greek literary works having been schooled in Greece.

The library of Jerome established around 386 AD was considered to be an important private library. Jerome, a  student of rhetoric and grammar in Rome w as an avid collector of the pagan classics, had a large number of theological books. These are just a few of the many examples of special libraries in ancient Greece and Rome.

 Public Libraries

During the time of Constantine Rome possessed 28 public  libraries many of these libraries would have been found in a gymnasium. A gymnasium was much more during the time of the ancients than what we think of them today. A gymnasium was equivalent to our idea of a university. A gathering place for scholars and their pupils, complete with a library. The gymnasium library is somewhat equivalent to our idea of a public library. In later times two libraries were the norm, a Greek and a Latin library. In 275 BC Ptolemy Philadelphus presented the city of Athens with a gymnasium and the people were ordered by popular mandate to increase the library holdings by a hundred rolls annually. The people of Cos erected a public library in the already existing gymnasium. The library building and 100 rolls (about 100 books) were donated by Diocles and his son Apollodorus, wealthy citizens. Other citizens were expected to provide, 150 rolls or 200 Dracmas. Public support for the place of higher learning is clearly seen.  Both are examples of a dedicated library tax, something that few communities today can boast of.

At the Pantaenos library in Athens, a public library “users were forced to pledge themselves by an oath from refraining to take a book along” (Pages 1963:136) public libraries were non lending. There were always exceptions to the rule people of high authority or power could usually bribe a librarian. The library of the Pantheon was the first public library of the city to contain religious books.

Political Upheaval

Many personal libraries were confiscated or destroyed when their owners found themselves on the wrong side of the political fence. Books, the great store of knowledge, became the enemy in the fight to win the minds of the people. Mankind has suffered great losses over the centuries due to the malicious burning of books.

We have all heard how Antony burned the Alexandrian Library. Several sources write that he did not intend to burn the Alexandrian Library but simply the ships in the harbor. The fire spread to the near by town and soon the great Alexandrian library was lost. This is not necessarily the case. The Museum at Alexandria held a large  number of volumes some copies and some originals. Many books had been copied at the time of lending and there was a huge book trade in copies. These copies had definitely made it into other libraries regardless of  wether they were private or public libraries. In restitution Antony offered to give Cleopatra the Attalid Library at Pergamum 200,000 original works, not copies. The Attalid Library was documented as having 700,000 rolls including duplicates prior to their being destroyed by fire (I assume of a nonmalicious intent) in 47BC.

In 642AD Amru the conqueror of Alexandria had the great library that he found there burned by order of the Caliph Omar. This must only mean that the library had been rebuilt once again to be destroyed.

Beginning in 303AD Diocletian destroyed the majority of the Christian church libraries established during the first 3 centuries AD. He had churches destroyed and sacred books burned. The works of heretics,  medical books were in some cases substituted by Bishops being forced to turn over books. They then hid the sacred scriptures in private homes.

The library of Jerome an important private library was burned by Pelagian fanatics in 416 AD.

Under Justinina in 533 AD all but 3 law schools in Constnatinople were dissolved their juridical literature made obsolete and discussion of earlier controversies forbidden. The effect this must have had on the history of law must have been enormous.

 Later the Pagan libraries and book collections were burned by the Christians. During the final hours of the Roman Era books the vast store of knowledge were the hostages for political and social upheaval. We have suffered great losses due to malicious behavior in the name of God or Country.


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