Monday, January 21, 2013

Early Roman Public Libraries

Early Roman Public Libraries
     Rome’s first public library was established by Asinius Pollio. Pollio was a lieutenant of Julius Caesar and one of his most ardent supporters. After his military victory in Illyria, Pollio had enough fame and fortune to create what Julius Caesar had sought for a long time: a public library to increase the prestige of Rome and rival the one in Alexandria(Casson, 2001; Ewald, 2004; Buchanan, 2012).

     Pollios’s library, the Anla Libertatis (Ewald, 2004, p.9), and housed in the Atrium Libertatis, was centrally located near the Roman Forum. It was the first to employ an architectural design that separated works into Greek and Latin. All subsequent Roman public libraries will have this design (Casson, 2001, p. 80). Inside were numerous busts of literary greats of the pasts and one living author, the polymath M. Terentius Varro (Buchanan, 2012, p. 61). Nothing remains of Pollio’s library today (Casson, 2001, p. 80).

     At the conclusion of Rome’s civil wars following the death of Mark Antony in 30 B.C., the Emporer Augustus sought to reconstruct many of Rome’s damaged buildings. During this construction, Augustus created two more public libraries. The first was the library of the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine, often called the Palatine library, and the second was the library of the Porticus of Octaviae (Casson, 2001, p. 81; Buchanan, 2012, p. 61).
(The library on the Palatine hill. Courtesy of

     The Palatine library was completed in 28 B.C. and was steps away from the home of Augustus. A few years later, the library at the Porticus of Octaviae, a square named in honor of Augustus' sister Octavia who died in 23 B.C., was built in the southern part of the Campus Martius, more centrally located and just west of the Forum (Casson, 2001, p.81). Both these libraries followed the architectural design by Pollio and divided their Greek and Latin works into separate rooms (Buchanen, 2012, p.61).

     Two more libraries were added by the Emperor Tiberius on Palatine Hill (Casson, 2001, p.84) and one by Vespasian after 70 A.D. Vespasian’s library was constructed in the Forum of Peace and became one of Rome’s principal libraries (Buchanan, 2012, pp. 61-62). The Bibliotheca Pacis was built along the traditional model and had two large halls with rooms for Greek and Latin libraries containing the works of Galen and Lucius Aelius.

    One of the best preserved was the ancient Ulpian Library built by the Emperor Trajan. Completed in 112/113 A.D., the Ulpian Library was part of Trajan’s Forum built on the Capitoline Hill (Ewald, 2004, p.10; Buchanan, 2012, p.62). Trajan’s Column separated the Greek and Latin rooms which faced each other (Casson, p.61). The structure was approximately fifty feet high with the peak of the roof reaching almost seventy feet (Houston, 2008).

(Photo retrieved from
These public libraries were essential to Roman culture (Murray, 2009, pp.20-21). Literacy was important part of civil life in Rome in order to keep the administration of a large empire efficient(Lyons, 2011, p.15).

Buchanan, S. (2012). Designing the Research Commons: Classical Models for School Libraries. School Libraries Worldwide, 18(1), 56-69.
Casson, L. (2001). Libraries in the ancient world. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Ewald, L. A. (2004). Library Culture in Ancient Rome, 100 B.C. - A.D. 400. Kentucky Libraries, 68(1), 9-11.
Houston, G. W. (2008). Tiberius and the Libraries: Public Book Collections and Library Buildings in the Early Roman Empire. Libraries & The Cultural Record, 43(3), 247-269.
Lyons, M. (2011). Books: A living history. London: Thames and Hudson.
Murray, S.A.P.(2009). The Library: An illustrated history. New York: Sky Horse Publishing.

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