A Brief Outline of the Histories of Libraries/Chapter 5


Roman libraries; private ones; and the first public library, that of Asinius Pollio.

HAVING spoken of such libraries of foreign peoples as seem worthy of mention, let us pass to those of Rome, which are nearer to us in both place and time.

Slow enough at first was the growth of love of books and interest in the humanities among the Romans; for the Romans were children of Mars, not of the Muses. But at last, by God's grace, here also culture took root and refinement gained in esteem, though slowly at first, as it always does. Isidore notes that Aemilius Paulus was the first to bring to Rome any large number of books, and this he did after he had conquered Perseus, King of the Macedonians; then Lucullus did the same after the pillage of Pontus. Thus he names two who brought books to Rome. But they did not make them accessible to the public. Concerning Aemilius I have read nothing further; of Lucullus, Plutarch speaks at great length. He says:

"His delight in books and his free expenditure for them should be highly praised. For he acquired many of them, and very beautifully written ones; and showed the same liberality in respect to their use that he showed in respect to their chase. His library was open to every one; and in the adjoining colonnades and exedras learned Greeks were especially made welcome. Here they came, as to a temple of the Muses, and passed the time pleasantly together free from all cares. And often Lucullus himself came to these colonnades and walks, and joined the learned in their conversations, and took part in their philosophical discussions."

From which you may see, Most Illustrious Prince, how free and open this library was; and that though he retained the title to it himself, he gave the unrestricted use of it to the learned, just as you so generously do with your own.

To Aemilius and Lucullus one may add the name of Cornelius Sulla, afterwards dictator, as a founder of libraries. He brought from Greece and Athens to Rome a very large number of books and arranged them to form a library. About this Lucian has written, as well as Plutarch.

But after all these things were done, a true public library for Rome had not yet been established. The thought of such an institution was first conceived by the great and glorious Julius Caesar, and would by him have been carried to its conclusion had not the fates forbidden. Suetonius says, "He planned to open to the public libraries formed of as many books in the Greek and Latin languages as he could bring together, and to give to Marcus Varro the duty of organizing and managing them." This was truly the plan of a generous spirit, and of a wise one also; for who in all the world was better fitted than Varro, most learned in Greek and Roman letters, to carry out such a scheme? But Caesar was not destined to realize his thought. Augustus, his adopted son, added a library to the other adornments and glories he gave to the city. At his suggestion and inspired by him, Asinius Pollio, orator, senator, and noble, erected a temple of liberty, so Suetonius says, and placed in it a library which he made free to all. Isidore says, "Pollio was the first to establish a public library in Rome, one composed of books in Greek and in Latin, and decorated with busts of famous authors. He placed it in the public hall, which he magnificently adorned with the spoils of war." "Spoils of war" refers to those taken from the Dalmatians, whom he had just conquered. Pliny remarks that Asinius Pollio was the first to establish a library which made free to all the wisdom of all.

It seems plain from these writers that this library was in the Hall of Liberty, on the Aventine Hill. I think it was rather rearranged or reconstructed for the library than built especially for it. It had been in existence a long time before Pollio's day. Plutarch and other writers say that it dated from the time of Tiberius Gracchus, father of the Gracchi. Pollio, it would seem, refitted it and dedicated it to this glorious use. Ovid's words should be noted here, for he says,—his book, Tristia, is supposed to be speaking,—"Liberty did not permit me to enter her hall; that hall in which were first opened to the public the books of the wise." I do not think the words he uses in these lines have reference, as some think, to a gathering of poets. The book—for, as I have said, it is a book which Ovid's verse makes us suppose is speaking—frankly complains that it was not received into the library of Asinius, that library which was the first to open to public use the writings of learned men.