Inside Roman Libraries: Book Collections and Their Management in Antiquity

By George W. Houston. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014. 352 pp. $59.95 (hardback). ISBN 978-1-4696-1780-0.

This excellent, well researched, well written, and engaging book is a most welcome addition to the fields of classical studies, epigraphy, history, booklore, library science, cultural studies, Roman technology, and sociology, and provides much information on the related study of early Christianity and Judaism. This book will be of interest to scholars, literate laymen, bibliophiles, and hommes de lettres – that is, it is for those who have sought peace and only found it in a corner with a book (in omnibus requiem quaesivi, et nusquam inveni nisi in angulo cum libro) and recognize that a city without books is a city without wealth (polis sine libris est sicut civitas sine opibus).

Houston’s synthesis of vast primary and secondary sources, probing questions, and careful and meticulous analysis sheds a fresh new light on (1) the contents and size of ancient Roman book collections, (2) the interests of their owners, (3) the scribal arts, transmission, and provenance, and (4) the acquisition, classification (organization), preservation, and management of ancient book rolls and manuscripts. Houston looks at actual collections of book rolls, examining the titles and authors represented in them, the age and condition of the rolls, and the interests of the owners as implied by the nature of their collections. He also considers the different types of libraries (private, public, imperial), as when noting how Isidore states that Asinius Pollio created the first public library in Rome (3).

Houston begins with a brief description of the ancient book roll and its characteristics, examining questions of the beginnings of Roman-era book collections, the extent to which they remained together as coherent bodies of material, the identification process of ancient book collections, and finally their content. He also brings up more specific questions: Did all collections include a predictable range of works in Greek and Latin, or were there different ranges (some general, others specialized) (3)? To what extent are the tastes of individual collectors evident in the books they brought together? Did collectors care if there were mistakes in their book rolls? How did they seek out exemplar ur-texts? Were they more concerned with economy or elegance (4)? How were books stored and retrieved, and who was responsible for protecting, repairing, and maintaining them?

Chapter 1 investigates the ways a Roman would go about obtaining copies of books (12). Topics that Houston considers include borrowing a book from a friend and making a copy, having a slave make a copy, buying a copy already made from a book dealer, commissioning a professional scribe to make a copy, and receiving a book as a gift, inheriting a collection, or confiscating a collection in war.

Chapters 2, 3, and 4 consider book lists and how books were categorized by genre, as well as the ways that lists may have been used as tools for cataloging and retrieval. Chapter 3 focuses on the findings at the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum that was buried by ashes during the eruption of Vesuvius. Chapter 4 studies the three separate book collections discovered in the Roman city of Oxyrhynchus, uncovering sixteen manuscripts of an avid reader, four rolls of the family of Aurelia Ptolemais, and another large cache of seventy manuscripts.

Chapter 5 examines the library structures and equipment housed in them, based on literary texts, wall paintings, and artifacts to shed light on how books were stored and shelved. Houston calculates the number of books that the libraries of Celsus in Ephesus and the library of Rogatianus in Thamugadi contained.

Chapter 6 investigates the personnel used to maintain ancient collections. Houston uncovers the responsibilities of the managers of the Imperial library in the Temple of Apollo in Rome (221) and the Imperial library in the Portico of Octavia in Rome (222-223). Lower level staff was often responsible for procuring a roll, locating an exemplar, copying, correcting, and making repairs.

What emerges from Houston’s work is a clearer, more nuanced and specifically fleshed out detailed sketch of ancient book collections and Roman libraries than previously researched. By addressing the question, “What might be found inside a Roman library?” Houston reveals matters that have seldom been studied in detail and which no single study has considered together. Houston broadens the reader’s understanding of early Roman book collections.

While many other books exist related to Roman libraries, including those by W.A. Johnson (Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study of Elite Communities. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), Houston’s positive contribution is unique. Its scope over four centuries from Cicero to Constantine across the geographical span of the Roman Empire enables breadth, seeing the forest from the trees, the alpha to the omega, soaring on eagle’s wings (alis aquilae). At the same time, its focus allows for much needed additional details fished by raising probing questions based on the masterly gathering of every clue of information that can be gleaned from the multifaceted literary records.

Houston’s work should also complement and be applied to the study of ancient Jewish textual collections. For instance, works by Menahem Haran ("Archives, Libraries, and the Order of the Biblical Books," Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society 22 (1993): 51-61), David B Levy ("Ancient to Modern Jewish Classification Systems, and the Dead Sea Scroll library ( are enhanced by Houston’s work and can be seen to walk, if not hand in hand, then certainly alongside each other. They all raise similar questions about textual collections and apply similar methodological research strategies.

This book is a benchmark for all future studies on Roman libraries, and is recommended for all libraries. It is a game changer, and in Houston’s light, we see light (in luce Tua videmus lucem).

David B Levy, Touro College, NY