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Short about ancient libraries

Ruins of Ephesus. Image: Michael Streich

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).

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Streich was a history instructor who had been involved in most levels of education since 1991. Streich received his first degree in Biblical Literature, studied law and business, and worked for several years in consumer finance with a specialty in bankruptcy laws. Streich earned an MA in History through the UNC system as well as post MA courses in Education. Streich taught American History, European History, and Global Studies, most recently at three college and university systems, private and state. As an instructor, Streich led many adult and student tours abroad, visiting most of Europe and the South Pacific. He is an expert on student travel. Streich is fluent in German. Streich was also a co-ordinator for foreign exchange students for several years and taught Global Studies. After attending a summer session at Davidson College through the Dean Rusk Center in the early 1990’s Streich founded and edited The International Teacher. He has written numerous articles on history and religion. For nearly 15 years, Streich was a faculty advisor with the Harvard University Model Congress program. Streich’s interests include American and European history, Islamic studies, globalism, and religion. Streich is a member of the North Carolina Association of Historians and the Southeast Regional Middle East Islamic Studies Seminar. Employment Forsyth Tech Community College Adjunct History Instructor, 1994 - 2011 High Point University Adjunct History Instructor, 2008 - 2010 A & T State University Global Studies Instructor, 2010 - 2011 Education University of North Carolina at Greensboro History - MA, 1988 - 1990

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