Drew Longacre on George W. Houston’s Inside Roman Libraries
In the fall of 54 BCE, Cicero wrote to his brother Quintus, “After a lot of effort I have accomplished nothing…” He was speaking about the difficulty of assembling a good collection of books, which he found particularly challenging. With exorbitant book prices, limited storage space, and the proliferation of junk in written form, the bibliophiles among us can easily empathize with his plight. Building up and maintaining a library is arduous and expensive, and yet love compels us to accumulate beyond our means and our ability to read all the books we acquire. There is a certain timelessness to the worries of the learned, but just how different are we really from our ancient predecessors?
In his 2014 book Inside Roman Libraries: Book Collections and Their Management in Antiquity, George W. Houston sets out to understand ancient Roman scholars in their own historical and material contexts. Like Cicero, Houston has put in a lot of effort, but he has accomplished something truly significant — a comprehensive survey of the evidence for ancient Roman book collections. With a broad three-pronged assault, he synthesizes documentary, literary, and archaeological evidence to pry open the secrets of Roman libraries from the first century BCE to the fourth century CE, and in so doing produces a handy reference work and provides a great service to contemporary readers. Houston’s aim throughout is to inform our imaginations not with an idealized or typical Roman library, but a range of possibilities indicated by the sources. Well-written in understandable prose, the book prepares readers to imagine themselves walking in the shoes of ancient scholars and using a wide variety of different types of Roman book collections. Houston is to be commended for bringing ancient Roman libraries alive in all their diversity to modern readers, and all those who study ancient literature will be much enriched with a greater appreciation of the realia of ancient book culture.
Houston avoids using the terms “public” vs. “private,” because “public” tends to connote to modern readers ideas of public funding, secular contexts, universal access, and borrowing rights, none of which necessarily applies to ancient Roman libraries. Instead, he sets out to examine the specific evidence for funding, context, and access for each attested book collection. Even the largest libraries were typically funded by private means, such as patronage or endowments. They were frequently located in temple complexes. And it is often unclear who had access to them, but we should probably not imagine masses of people checking out freely accessible books from these libraries.
The first task for any Roman book collector was to assemble a collection. Depending how much time, skill, money, and authority collectors had, they could: write their own works; copy texts themselves from exemplars belonging to friends, book dealers, or the emperor’s collections; assign literate slaves to do so; purchase books from friends or book dealers; borrow them from friends; receive them as gifts or inherit them; purchase them en bloc from pre-existing collections; confiscate collections from convicted owners; or seize them as war booty. While the time-consuming act of copying out a book by hand and the seizure of books by Roman authorities may be relatively unfamiliar to many modern readers, there is a strange sense of general familiarity created by this list. For Houston, it means that we cannot make sharp distinctions between categories of collections, because collections of all types and sizes accumulated books in similar ways and were composite in nature.
The size and contents of Roman book collections likewise varied greatly, depending on the means, needs, and interests of their collectors. Some collectors were more concerned with practicality and keeping costs low, while others were more concerned with the beauty and elegance of book rolls as status symbols. Some sought broad collections of well-known classics, while others specialized in topics, genres, or authors of particular interest. Houston documents everything from small collections containing only a few dozen books to larger collections containing many hundreds or even thousands of books, and the combined imperial collection in Rome likely had many more. Collections of hundreds or thousands of books are not unimpressive by modern standards, but prior to the mass production of books such large collections indicate a particularly vibrant literary culture.
The evidence collected by Houston also gives insight into the physical storage spaces and organization of Roman libraries. Rolls could be stored in rooms in private houses or structures specifically built as libraries. They could be placed vertically in rectangular or cylindrical boxes, either for storage or for transportation. Alternatively, they could be stacked horizontally on shelves, either built into niches in walls or in special wooden cabinets. Reading rooms would likely have been equipped with chairs for readers. There may have been other items as well, such as ladders or stools, low tables on which to place things, and assorted scribal equipment for working on manuscripts. Most libraries would also have been decorated with marble, mosaics, paintings, and/or sculptures, both for aesthetic reasons and to make political or status statements. Many collectors made written inventories of their collections, but Roman book collections had no comprehensive, organized catalogs with complicated referencing systems. Instead, they were probably organized by author, title, and book number, as well as the language and genre. The books themselves regularly had end titles and/or initial titles (listing authors, titles, and book numbers) and frequently had title tags protruding from their ends when rolled up for easy reference. Much of this would seem quite familiar to modern readers, though the format of the literary roll and the minimalistic cataloguing system might require some getting used to.
Houston also repeatedly returns to the perennial question of the useful lifespans of ancient manuscripts, which will of course be of particular interest to textual scholars. Most of the rolls from Grenfell and Hunt’s first find from Oxyrhynchus were probably around 75-100 years old when discarded. Those from Grenfell and Hunt’s second find averaged around 150-250 years old when discarded, but several were around 300-500 years old. Most of those from Grenfell and Hunt’s third find (further excavated by Breccia) were approximately 100-200 years old when discarded, though some appear to have been younger than 100 years and others slightly older than 200. Most of the rolls from the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum were 120-160 years old when Mt. Vesuvius erupted, but some were 200-350 years old. All in all, Houston reckons an average useful lifespan of around 150-200 years for a papyrus roll, though some would have worn out or been discarded significantly sooner, and others could have lasted centuries longer. Actual material remains from Roman book collections, therefore, suggest that papyrus was far more durable than is commonly assumed, and the needs and means of owners were at least as likely to limit the useful lifespans of books as was physical deterioration.
Houston remains very descriptive throughout the book, so it is hard to find more than an occasional quibble about the details of his conclusions. The only big picture stance that is likely to leave him open to attack from the more minimalist among us is also one of the strengths of the book: his ability and willingness to tell a story. Houston remains close to the evidence throughout, but he does use pragmatic sense to connect the dots and occasionally allows himself room for informed and restrained speculation about aspects of Roman library culture for which there is no explicit evidence. To my mind, this is simply unavoidable, given the very minimal amount of evidence that is actually preserved. Inside Roman Libraries lays out an evidentially based, readable narrative that can guide readers into imagining in their minds’ eyes numerous types of Roman book collections. The same readers would be well-served by keeping a critical eye focused on distinguishing evidence from speculation. Houston reveals the familiar, yet unfamiliar world of Roman libraries with a nuanced appreciation for the uniqueness of each collection, without falling into the trap of overgeneralization and oversimplification around a single ideal. He helpfully illuminates the actual material contexts of ancient book culture — a practice literary scholars would do well to incorporate into their own studies.
As I daydream with Houston about Roman libraries, I am struck again by the difficulty of comprehensively analyzing any book collections —let alone all the Roman ones — but Houston has bravely and successfully taken up the impossible challenge. I look around my office and see books strewn about on my desk, stacked neatly on bookshelves, and yes… even lying in piles on the floor. And I find myself inspired by the words of Cicero to Atticus, “Now that Tyrannio has organized my book rolls, it seems that my house has recovered its intelligence.” Perhaps it is time for some spring cleaning in the Villa Longacre. I wonder whether Tyrannio is available these days…