Public libraries in the Roman Empire

Classical Bulletin
Special Issue 2, 2018
doi: 10.33909/cb/94.2018.02.45
Public libraries in the Roman Empire

By: Hunter Bernstein, Sean
Univ St Thomas, St Paul, MN 55105 USA.

If the libraries of Rome are inspired by the Hellenistic model incarnated by the two famous rival libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum, they innovate by their objectives and their architectural disposition. They are no longer, in fact, solely in the service of the sovereign and the privileged community of scholars he protects and maintains. Henceforth, taking into account the palatability of literature and knowledge, they are open to a wide audience. Separated from places of power, they become autonomous "living spaces" (W. Marx) by confusing reserves, consultation and meeting rooms. Finally, they willingly juxtapose two sections of equal importance, one Greek, the other Latin. The architectural translation of this program, elaborated in its fullness from the middle of the second century AD, is distinguished by rectangular niches arranged in the thickness of the walls and intended to receive books, the presence of an exedra (or an axial apse) to house a monumental statue and often, finally, a double sidewall establishing a vacuum to protect the works against moisture. Let's take three examples. In Rome, two symmetrical libraries were placed at the southern corners of the enclosure of the giant baths of Caracalla. Only that of the southwest is now preserved. It is a rectangular room 38 m by 22, open on the courtyard of the baths by a colonnade. The three useful walls were dug out of 32 niches arranged on two levels. In the middle of the back wall was an apse that housed a colossal statue on a pedestal. Contemporary of this library (first half of the 3rd century AD) is that of Thamugadi (Timgad) in the province of Numidia. It is one of the best preserved of all Roman Africa. Of semicircular plan, the reading room presented a diameter of 12 m and opened on a court with portico. The niches were perhaps divided over two floors and the lighting was provided by a large window pierced in the frontal wall. At the other end of the Empire, in Nysa (now Sultanhisar in Turkey), the reading room measures 14.8m by 13.4m. This two-storey building has the usual space for ventilation and insulation between the walls carved out of niches and the outer walls.
Keywrords: Orthodoxy, challenging, unusual ideas