Reading Rooms and Tombs

T. Keith Dix

University of Georgia

Modern descriptions of the royal libraries of the Hellenistic kingdoms and the state libraries of imperial Rome wax enthusiastic about "public access" to these collections and about the facilities provided for readers.  Such evidence as we have, however, about the founders and users of these libraries, about ancient education and literary culture, and about ancient practices of royal and civic munificence, suggests that a rosy view of Greek and Roman libraries is off the mark.  Already in the first century CE, we find Seneca attacking pulcherrimum regiae opulentiae monimentum, the library at Alexandria, because, he says, the kings had assembled the collection non in stadium sed in spectaculum (de tranquilitate animi 9.4-5).  The Latin word monimentum often signified a tomb; and it may be closer to the mark to think of the great libraries of classical antiquity as tombs rather than reading rooms, as monuments to high literary culture (or to pretensions to such culture).

The library as tomb is not just a metaphor, for in several instances, libraries seem to have served as real tombs.  The Library of Celsus at Ephesus had its namesake buried in its basement; the two libraries in the Forum of Trajan at Rome flanked the Column of Trajan which housed the emperor's ashes; and Apollonius of Rhodes and Callimachus were said to have been buried near one another in the Library at Alexandria.  Through an examination of these and other libraries, this paper will explore the relationship between the literal and figurative uses of libraries as tombs.


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