Houston, Inside Roman Libraries

by Brian Leport in


George W. Houston, Inside Roman Libraries: Book Collections and Their Management in Antiquity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014). (Amazon.com)

G.W. Houston's Inside Roman Libraries: Book Collections and Their Management in Antiquity is a book about "everything that may be in a Roman library" written in order to "obtain a better understanding of several matters" such as (pp. 1-2):

(1) "How did Roman-era book collections come into existence?"

(2) "When we can identify specific ancient book collections, what do we find?"

(3) "Did all collections include a more or less predictable range in Greek and Latin, or were there different sorts of collections, some general, others specialized?"

(4) "To what extent are the the tastes and interests of individual collectors evident in the books they brought together?"

(5) "Did collectors care if there were mistakes in their book rolls?"

(6) "How concerned with economy were they, or with elegance?"

(7) "How were books stored and retrieved from storage, and who was responsible for protecting, repairing, and maintaining them?"

Houston goes about answering these questions over the course of six chapters: 1. Assembling a Collection; 2. Lists of Books Preserved on Papyrus; 3. The Villa of Papyri at Herculaneum; 4. The Book Collections of Oxyrhynchus; 5. Spaces, Storage, Equipment, and Art; 6. Personnel and Their Activities.

The first chapter discusses how libraries were created. This ranges from purchasing from a dealer, to have one's slave copy a borrowed exemplar, to inheriting a collection, etc. The second chapter focuses on book lists, what they contained, and how they may have functioned. The third and fourth chapters examine collections from Herculaneum and Oxyrhynchus. The fifth chapter deals with the logistics of storage such as boxes and shelves as well as the sort of furniture and decor that may have been present in any given library. Finally, the sixth chapter is about the staff of various sorts of libraries ranging from personal to imperial and what sort of work they (mostly slaves) may have done.  

The value of this book for the study of Judaism and Early Christianity is that it provides a socio-cultural context with which to compare the book culture of the Jews and Christians to that of the broader Mediterranean. Certain elements, such as the lifespan of a papyrus roll, are directly relevant. For example, in a summarizing paragraph from page 257 Houston writes:

“...how long did a papyrus roll last? The evidence from our collections indicates that a usable lifetime of about 100 to 125 years was common and can reasonably be considered the norm; a small but significant amount of manuscripts were still usable some 300 years after they were first created; and on rare occasions a manuscript might last, it seems, for half a millennium.”

The most interesting aspect of the book (for me) was the relationship between the lifespan of a papyrus roll as this relates to the creation, copying, and sharing of what would become our New Testament. Now, these are scrolls for libraries, and I am not quite sure how the gospels, epistles, and other eventually-to-be-canonized works would have been perceived initially, but it is plausible that early copies of the gospels or one of Paul's epistles had a long shelf-life and could be consulted for further copies. For those interested in subjects related to the production, copying, and preservation of early Christian literature this book may be worth reading.

The questions addressed in this book are part of a growing interest in reading cultures in antiquity, such as William A. Johnson, Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study of Elite Communities (New York: Oxford UP, 2010), and more recently the article by Nicola Denzey Lewis and Justine Ariel Blount "Rethinking the Origins of the Nag Hammadi Codices," JBL 133 (2014), 399-419. These questions could and should productively be applied to the study of Ancient Judaism. For instance, what kind of library was the one found in Qumran? What kind of reading culture did the Qumran sect construct? What about Philo? Finally, granting that the rabbinic movement in both Palestine and Babylonia seems to have been largely oral, it is clear that the rabbis had and used texts (if not for the composition of the Mishnah and the Talmuds). In rabbinic literature, can we still find hints of a reading culture being constructed?

Brian Leport is a PhD Candidate in Religion and Theology at the University of Bristol. This modified book note was originally published at brianleport.com.

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