An excerpt from The Literature of Collecting
The Literature of Collecting & Other Essays by Richard Wendorf explores the world of books, libraries, and the visual arts. He investigates the relationship between theoretical texts devoted to collecting and rich fictional texts that also take collecting as their focus. This excerpt comes from the chapter devoted to the origins of the Boston Athenæum. It discusses some of the earliest origins of the library.
An athenaeum was not, strictly speaking, a library (there were several of these in Rome, created both before and during Hadrian’s reign), but an athenaeum was certainly a site that contained a number of books. At one point Sidonius writes to a friend that there are “books in any number ready to hand” in the villa he is visiting: “you might have imagined yourself looking at the shelves of a professional scholar or at the tiers in the Athenaeum or the towering presses of the booksellers.” The rhetorical triplet speaks volumes, for it indicates that the Athenaeum was simply one of several places where substantial book collections could be found during the empire’s golden age. The central sources for such books—such scrolls, we should remind ourselves—would be formal libraries, either those that were privately owned (by Aristotle or Pliny, for example) or those that had been established for more public purposes (most notably by Pollio, Augustus, Trajan, and Hadrian). The earliest known remains of a library are to be found at Pergamum in Turkey, and although this library was erected as an adjunct to the sanctuary of Athena, the history of ancient libraries is actually quite separate from the establishment of Hadrian’s athenaeums. The properties of these early libraries are worth noting, however. In Pergamum, for instance, a large chamber was used for meetings and receptions, and three consecutive alcoves served as stacks for the library’s collection of scrolls. These scrolls would then be consulted in a long covered space located between the alcoves and the open atrium of the complex. A statue of Athena dominated this central public space, and busts of literary figures—including Homer and Herodotus—were placed on pedestals within the library. The three alcoves are thought to have held as many as 200,000 books, which is the number of scrolls Mark Antony was said to have taken from Pergamum as a gift for Cleopatra. The Romans embraced Greek culture as early as the third century BCE, and Greek texts remained a staple of Roman libraries almost wherever they were created. Perhaps the most important exemplar is Rome’s first public library, established by Asinius Pollio and the writer Varro in the Roman forum around 39 BCE. Here is Matthew Battles’s recent description of it:
“Following Caesar’s wishes, they built a library with two reading rooms—one for Latin books, another for Greek—decorated with statues of appropriate poets and orators. This is the pattern all subsequent Roman libraries take, from the great imperial repositories of Augustus and Trajan to the more modest public libraries and to the little collections of the provincial cities. It marks a strict departure from the Greek model, with its prototype at Alexandria, which had no reading rooms as such. The bilingual nature of the Roman library expressed the Mediterranean heritage to which Rome laid claim, while the emphasis on the reader’s experience gives proof of its republican origins.”
Part of Hadrian’s own library at Tivoli has been reconstructed at the Museo della Civiltà Romana, and it should not be a surprise for us to learn that the smaller part of it was Roman rather than Greek. With books arranged along the walls and accommodation for readers created in the center, these Roman libraries functioned much like modern reading rooms—and some of them were very grand indeed. A reconstructed view of one of the libraries in the Forum of Trajan looks very much like an imperial prototype for Anglo-American libraries in the nineteenth century. These, then, are the classical models for our modern institutions. Ancient libraries and athenaeums were both devoted to the preservation of classical learning, and both enjoyed considerable cultural status within the extended empire. Hadrian’s athenaeums in Athens and Rome were certainly well stocked with books, but they were primarily sites for instruction, composition, declamation, and performance. Roman libraries were heavily invested in Greek as well as Latin literature, and they were furnished with reading rooms, statuary, colonnades, and galleries and administered by a professional staff. Surely it is not entirely fanciful to imagine the ways in which our modern English and American institutions—with their classicizing architecture, galleries and busts, readings and lectures, and collections based on European as well as native sources—reflect the attributes and aspirations of these ancient establishments. It would be fanciful, however, to argue that these Roman libraries and academies enjoyed any kind of influence, direct or indirect, on the rise of the modern subscription library in England and America. What gradually evolved in London and Philadelphia, Newcastle and Newport, Liverpool and Boston, deserves a history of its own, even though the shadow of Athena (and Minerva) will never entirely disappear.
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