INSIDE ROMAN LIBRARIES: Book Collections and their Management

By George W. Houston

North Carolina (2104) h/b 352pp £47.50 (ISBN 9781469617800)

This volume has been meticulously researched and the extensively detailed subject matter is well organised. It is a book to be revisited time and again to extract gems of knowledge relating to ancient libraries, their organisation and the people using them.

Following an introductory chapter entitled, ‘Assembling a Collection’, there follow two striking chapters, the first relating to the manuscript collection located at the Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum , the second relating to the book collections of Oxyrhynchus. Further chapters are included on ‘Spaces, Storage, Equipment and Art’ and ‘Personnel and their Activities’. There is a thorough concluding chapter. followed by a number of appendices, itemising lists of books on papyrus and a checklist of books in the Villa of the Papyri collection. This is altogether a comprehensive analysis and an erudite exploration of the subject.

A vast concentration of details of libraries and writers is contained within its pages. We learn that ‘Roman papyrus book rolls varied considerably in length. A long book of Thucydides or Livy might fill a roll of about 15 metres’; ‘The Villa of the Papyri collection is a specialised collection with an emphasis on Epicurean texts. However, a broad range of subjects to include geometry, mathematics and literary criticism is represented and there are strong interests in theology, aesthetics and ethics and also a particular interest in rhetoric and oratory with the Villa containing at least four books of Philodemus’s On Rhetoric at its destruction in AD 79, but probably all ten’.

The structure of the libraries of Celsus at Ephesus, and of Rogatianus at Timgad (Numidia) is explored. In his Laurentine villa, Pliny the Younger tells us, ‘the reading room, with its cabinet of books, had curved walls with windows so placed that sunlight shone through one or another of them all day long’ (Ep.2.17.8). Much information relating to libraries is distilled from the writings of Cicero, who remarked that assembling a good collection was hard work, and people of his rank were inclined to entrust the task to men who were both learned and in need of a salary: scholars, teachers, and other literary men. This relates to the events of 57-56 BC, just after Cicero’s return from exile. His book collection had been damaged and partially destroyed or dispersed while he was away, and to repair and reorganize his collection he engaged the Greek scholar Tyrannio of Amisus.

This is a highly readable and informative overview of the subject.

Anne Blaseby

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