Ancient libraries are as old as the first early Near East civilizations. Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, boasted the largest ancient library. The rise of Greece and later Rome, however, witnessed the two most significant libraries, at Pergamum and Ephesus, both in Asia Minor, which competed with and attempted to rival the great library at Alexandria in Egypt. The great libraries of Rome may have gotten their start when Lucius Cornelius Sulla first carried Aristotle’s library to the city on the Tiber. Later, Julius Caesar became the patron of public libraries. Yet none matched Pergamum and Ephesus.
The Ancient Library at Pergamum
The Pergamum library was considered the second finest, after Alexandria. At its height, the library contained 200,000 volumes. Much of this success was due to the rulers of Pergamum, who were patrons of the arts and furthered the scope of the library. Under Eumenes II (197-159 BC), the library grew spectacularly, so much so that the curators of the Alexandrian Library in Egypt became concerned and placed an embargo on exported papyrus.
The rulers of Pergamum turned to using animal skins, “Partian leather.” The term “parchment” is directly traced to “Pergamum,” from which it was derived. Although the term “paper” may be more accurately derived from the Egyptian papyrus, Pergamum guides tell visitors that the term “paper” can be traced to the ancient city’s name. In Germany, as an example, “pergament paper” is butcher paper, thick sheets of wrapping paper that take the name from parchment paper, hence Pergamum.
The Pergamum library is also credited with developing the first Codex system. At the end of the Roman Republic, Marc Antony, the Triumvir of the eastern regions of Roman control, gave the library to Cleopatra. The ruins of this great library can still be found in Pergamum (the Turkish city of Bergama) beside the remnants of the Temple of Trajan and Hadrian.
The Ancient Library at Ephesus
It is fitting that the great city of Ephesus, also in Anatolia, had the third most prominent library in the Ancient Roman world. It was only one of four imperial cities to feature street lighting at night. According to Anna Edmonds, “Ephesus rivaled Rome in its magnificence.” Of the great library, Tony Perrottet writes that it was, “an architecturally unrivaled evocation of ancient time…”
The library was built at the end of the first century AD by Gaius Julius Aquila to honor his father Celsus, Roman Governor of that region of Anatolia. The “Celsus Library” contained over 12,000 volumes as well as the burial vault of Celsus, a singular honor since the dead were buried outside of city walls in the many necropoleis found beyond ancient city ruins.
Ancient Libraries Lost in History
As the Roman Empire sunk into eventual decay, many of the old libraries were lost. Earthquakes, barbarian invasions, and early Christians seeking to purge the land of pagan writings contributed to this loss of ancient literature and history. In Egypt, old papyri was used to teach young scribes and later discarded on garbage heaps, some of which have recently been discovered by archaeologists. Some surviving imperial correspondence alludes to documents destroyed by barbarian invasions, such as the account of Pontius Pilate’s tenure as governor of Palestine. Ancient libraries attest to the literary enlightenment of emperors, kings, teachers, and the everyday citizens of the Greek and Roman world. Their presence reflects a highly developed literary tradition that transcends mere record keeping.
Mary T. Boatwright, Daniel J. Gargola, Richard J. A. Talbert, The Romans From Village to Empire: A History of Ancient Rome from Earliest Times to Constantine(Oxford University Press, 2004).
Anna G. Edmonds, Turkey’s Religious Sites (Damko Publications, 1998) p 144.
Tony Perrottet, Royt 66 A.D. On The Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists (Random House, 2002) p 216.
“Pergamum,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, General Editor, Vol. IV (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1939).