Legendary Ancient Libraries

Long before there were bound books available, there were libraries, located in cities all throughout the world. These temples filled with knowledge served as storehouses for clay tablets and scrolls. But they were also centers for culture and learning. Here are some interesting facts about some of the most amazing libraries of the ancient world.

The Library of Ashurbanipal

Founded sometime during the 7th century, the Library of Ashurbanipal is the world’s oldest known library. It was designed for the “royal contemplation” of the Assyrian ruler Ashurbanipal. This structure was in Nineveh, on a site that also included a trove of some 30,000 cuneiform tablets which were organized according to subject matter.

Most of the titles that were found in the library were archival documents, religious incantations, and scholarly texts, but it was also home to several works of literature including the 4,000-year old “Epic of Gilgamesh.”

Ashurbanipal was a book lover and compiled much of his library by looting works from Babylonia and other territories that he conquered during his lifetime. Archaeologists later came across the ruins during the mid-19th century, and the majority of its contents are now kept in the British Museum in London

Even though Ashurbanipal gained many of his tablets by stealing them, he seemed to be particularly worried about theft. An inscription in one of the texts warms that if anyone steals his tablets, the gods will “cast him down” and “erase his name, his seed, in the land.”

The Library of Alexandria

After Alexander the Great’s death in 323 B.C. the control of Egypt fell to his former general Ptolemy I Soter, who proposed to establish a learning center in the city of Alexandria. The result was the Library of Alexandria, which eventually became the intellectual hub of the ancient world.

There is little known about the site’s physical layout, but during its peak it may have included more than 500,000 papyrus scrolls that contained works of literature and texts on history, law, mathematics, and science. The library and its research institute attracted scholars from all around the Mediterranean, many of whom lived on site and drew government stipends while they conducted research and copied its contents. At different times, the likes of Strabo, Euclid, and Archimedes were among those who lived on site.

The demise of the grand library is dated back to 48 B.C., when it apparently burned after Julius Caesar accident set it on fire during a battle against the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy XIII. But while the fire may have damaged the library, most historians now believe that it continued to exist in some form for several more centuries. Some even argue that it finally met its end in 270 A.D. during the reign of the Roman emperor Aurelian while others think that it came even later during the 4th century.

The Library of Pergamum

Built in the 3rd Century B.C. by members of the Attalid Dynasty, the Library of Pergamum, which is located in what is now Turkey, was once home to a treasure trove of 200,000 scrolls. It was located inside a temple devoted to Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, and it is bleivedc to have comprised four rooms, three for the library’s contents and another room that served as a meeting place for banquets and academic confrerences. According to the ancient chronicler Pliny the Elder, the Library of Pergamum eventually became so famous that it was considered to be in “keen competition” with the Library of Alexandria. Both sites hoped to gain the most complete collection of texts, and they also developed rival schools of thought and criticism. There is even a legend that Egypt’s Ptolemaic Dynasty halted shipments of papyrus to Pergamum in the hope of slowing its growth. As a result, the city may have later become a leading production center for parchment paper.

The Villa of the Papyri

While it wasn’t largest library of antiquity, the so-called “Villa of the Papyri” is the only one whose collection has survived to the present day. Its roughly 1,800 scrolls were located in the Roman city of Herculaneum in a villa that was most likely built by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus. When nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., the library was buried—and exquisitely preserved—under a 90-foot layer of volcanic material. Its blackened, carbonized scrolls weren’t rediscovered until the 18th century, and modern researchers have since used everything from multispectral imaging to x-rays to try to read them. Much of the catalogue has yet to be deciphered, but studies have already revealed that the library contains several texts by an Epicurean philosopher and poet named Philodemus.