The History of Libraries in the Western World
The History of Libraries in the Western World chronicles the early development of libraries and explains how it was that small archival libraries evolved into the monumental libraries of the Hellenistic period. The book contains five substantial chapters.
The first chapter describes the Bronze Age scripts of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations - the hieroglyphic script, Linear A, Linear B, the Cypriot syllabary and the script of the Phaistos Disc - and the methods of making and storing writing tablets.
Chapter II chronicles the development of public libraries from the time of Polycrates and Pisistratus in the sixth century B.C. (in Samos and Athens respectively) and the formation of the first libraries in the Athenian philosophy schools: Plato's Academy. the Lyceum and the Stoa.
Chapters III and IV give a full account of the circumstances that led to the foundation of great cultural centres with monumental libraries by the Ptolemies and the other dynasties that succeeded Alexander the Great in Asia Minor and the Near East.
The fifth and last chapter describes the storage methods used in the first private libraries and the architecture, interior layout, furniture and fittings of archival libraries towards the end of the second century B.C.
In this book, the first volume of The History of the Library in Western Civilization, to which I have given the allusive and somewhat flowery title From Minos to Cleopatra: The Greek World from the Minoans' Archival Libraries to the Universal Library of the Ptolemies, I have attempted to trace and recount the methods used by the Minoans, the Mycenaeans and the Greeks generally, from the Early Bronze Age to the end of the Hellenistic period, for storing, classifying and arranging the products of their written tradition, whether those products be clay tablets bearing records of everyday farm life or papyrus rolls immortalizing the great achievements of the Classical period in poetry and philosophy and the entire tradition of scholarship down to the time of the Neoplatonists and the commentators on Aristotle. These records and works of literature or scholarship, written on or in all sorts of books - clay tablets, diptychs and polyptychs, potsherds, parchment, papyrus sheets and rolls - were stored in public and private archives variously referred to as demosia grammata, chreophylakion, grammateion, grammatophylakion, syngraphophylakion and bibliothekai.
Both in Minoan Crete and in the Mycenaean world it seems that there may have been a certain mystique surrounding the scribes - the elite who possessed knowledge and the secret of reading and writing. Not only are their names never mentioned, but they are not even used by artists as models in the magnificent, colourful frescoes or the lavish vase-paintings of the Minoan civilization. These scribes, who devised the pictographic and Linear A and B scripts, and the 'prototypographer' who impressed the Phaistos Disc were destined to preserve their anonymity and to keep their secrets so closely guarded that their pictographic and Linear A scripts remain largely undeciphered to this day. And although the Cretans and M ycenaeans had well-developed commercial and diplomatic relations with the countries of the Near East, especially Egypt, it would seem that the prestige attached to scribes in those countries, on account of their mastery of the secrets of reading and writing, was not a feature of Minoan society. So perhaps the best way to pay tribute to the scribes of the land of the Keftiu (as the Egyptians called the Cretans) is by quoting a passage from an Egyptian poem which indicates the high repute in which scribes were held in Egypt, as being the sole repositories of knowledge and wisdom:
The all-wise scribes in the age that shall come after the gods, those whose prophecies come true. Their names shall be preserved forever They shall live on in the books they have written and in their teachings.
At some time in the Mycenaean period, between about 1100 B. C. (when the art of writing was forgotten) and the middle of the eighth century B.C. (when the Greek alphabet was invented), Homer ensured that future generations would be well provided with subjects for recitation by singing of the calamities visited by the gods upon the human race; but in all his verses he never once refers to any community of scribes or their working environment. His solitary allusion to writing presents a satanic picture of the role and symbolism of the power of the written word: Bellerophon, the hero who slew the Chimaera, was sent to the king of Lycia bearing a message consisting of 'signs with a deadly meaning' - actually his own death sentence. However, the oral tradition created by Homer, in which mortals and gods fight superhu¬man battles on the plain beneath the beetling walls of Troy and heroes contend with the forces of nature, was to beget two great epics - the Iliad and the Odyssey - that fostered an awareness of the need to establish fixed written texts of oral epics and, as a natural consequence, to found public libraries.
While Homer's 'heirs', the guild of itinerant rhapsodists called the Homeridae, continued to celebrate the exploits of the Achaeans and Trojans in song, around the beginning of the sixth century a competition was instituted as part of the Panathenaea festival in which rhapsodists had to recite Homer in accordance with a fixed text. This innovation, attributed to Solon, paved the way for the founding of the first Athenian public library by Pisistratus. However, Xenophanes of Colophon took issue with the moral basis of epic poetry, castigating the poets for their anthropomorphic depiction of the gods and urging the Greeks to acknowledge the ~temal sphere' as the one true god. The strife provoked by this pious itinerant rhapsodist, who was himself a poet, split Greek society down the middle; and Plato, who rejected outright the whole idea of the gods and goddesses quarrelling and fighting each other, actually banished Homer from his ideal state on those very grounds.
In the time of the itinerant rhapsodists a new philosophical movement came into being in southern Italy. It involved mystic rites (of which Orpheus was regarded as the patron) to do with life and death, and by the middle of the sixth century B.C. the words of these rites had been put in writing in a fixed form. The famous gold plates (deltoi) inscribed with the words of burial rites, the Pythagorean oral tradition and the writings of 'natural philosophers' were eventually gathered together into a corpus of sacred texts that were widely read in Athens. Heraclitus deposited a copy of his book On Nature in the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus; Pherecydes, who is said to have acquired most of his knowledge from 'the secret books of the Phoenicians', bequeathed his books to Thales of Miletus; and Plato used some of the money given to him by Dionysius I of Syracuse to buy the 'unwritten doctrines' of Pythagoras edited by Philolaus.
The reading habit that started developing in the early sixth century, chiefly among Athenian intellectuals, did not carry all before it: at first there were many who rejected the usefulness of building up a library of scholarly books and stren¬uously opposed the whole idea. It is said that Pythagoras wrote nothing himself because he had more faith in the power of oral teaching. But whereas he simply mistrusted the written word and left it at that, Plato went further, frequently enumerating the reasons for his opposition to books. In his dialogue Timaeus he asserts: 'But the father and maker of all this universe is past finding out; and even if we found him, to tell of him to all men would be impossible: And in Phaedrus he recounts an Egyptian myth, according to which the use of writing 'will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves: The written word, he says, is like a picture, which appears to be alive but can give no answer to a question, and has only a deceitful likeness of a living creature. But Plato's opposition to books, which probably sprang from the attitude of Socrates himself, could not avert what David E. Bynum calls 'the commotion of a terrific warrior's approach, first heard by high trees', in other words the sophists' conquest of the Athenian intellectual scene.
'Le monde est fait pour aboutir a un beau livre: This now hackneyed epigram by Mallarme would have been entirely appropriate in fifth -century Athens, to which (from the middle of the century) sophists flocked from every comer of the Greek world, bringing with them a radically different approach to education and scholarship. What they set out to do, by giving instruction in the art of clever speaking (deinon poiein legein), was to extol their own qualities and their knowledge to such an extent that they would be able to promise an answer to every question, and in this books were their best allies. While Socrates dismissed Anaxagorass book on 'the Mind' (On Nature) with the mocking remark that his books could not be worth much if they could be bought in the Agora for one drachma apiece, Plato singled out what he called 'The Mind of the School' in his Academy. By this he meant his most brilliant pupil, Aristotle, whose public read¬ing of philosophical treatises was tantamount to their publication.
Aristotle's working methods, his firm belief in the importance of setting down philosophers' opinions in writing and his conviction that the only way to promote the development of a scientific approach to scholarship was through books finally silenced the voices of the anti-book faction. He himself amassed a fine collection of books and set his students at the Lyceum to compile written records and descriptions of natural phenomena and human existence and behaviour; and between them they produced a very substantial corpus of work. The fate of Aristotle's own books after his death reads more like fiction than fact: they were bequeathed to Theophrastus, subsequently came into the possession of Neleus and about two hundred years later were bought by a bumptious bibliophile who took it upon himself to make textual emendations in some of the manuscripts, which were in imperfect condition. They were then carried off to Rome by Sulla, as spoils of war, after his conquest of Athens. There, in the villas of the Roman aristocracy, Cicero had his first opportunity to read the authentic manuscripts of Aristotle's teaching books, and he was constantly expressing his admiration for Aristotle to his friend Atticus. While immersing himself in the flow of the philosopher's thoughts, he wrote his philosophical essay Hortensius (now lost), which St. Augustine acknowledged to have been responsible for his conversion: 'Now it was this book which quite definitely changed my whole attitude and turned my prayers toward thee, 0 Lord, and gave me new hope and new desires. Suddenly every vain hope became worthless to me, and with an incredible warmth of heart I yearned for an immortality of wisdom and began now to arise that I might return to thee' (Augustine, Confessions, III.4.7).
The famous copy of the Iliad that Aristotle edited for Alexander the Great, known as the 'casket edition', can be seen as a symbol of the Macedonian conqueror's love of the written tradition and of his belief in the power of books to disseminate knowledge. It was his project of having the secular and sacred writings of the oriental civilizations translated into Greek that suggested the ambitious idea of creating a comprehensive library containing not only every work of Greek scholarship and literature but also the occult and mystical writings of the East, from the Avesta (the sacred texts attributed to Zoroaster) to the legends and historical narratives relating to the early Chaldaean kings. As he advanced on his victorious march, Alexander sent material to Aristotle for his planned magnum opus on the constitu¬tions of 158 cities and he combed through the libraries of the Middle East with their hundreds of thousands of tablets inscribed in the cuneiform script, such as Assurbanipal's library at Nineveh and the famed royal library at Babylon (which he made the capital of his empire). It must have been Alexander, therefore, who sowed in Ptolemy I's mind the first seeds of the idea of founding a Universal Library.
The idea of creating a Universal Library is absolutely in keeping with what we know of Alexander's character and aspirations, as expressed in his speech at Opis. However, the great libraries of the East, containing books written in unknown languages and scripts and typifying an outlook (particularly characteristic of Babylonia, Judaea and Egypt) in which mysticism and often symbolism featured largely, must have made it clear that the hope of seeing the project through to completion was hardly more than a utopian dream. In spite of that, and even though the lucidity and anthropocentrism of philosophical thought in Classical Greece was opposed to that oriental way of thinking, many attempts were made to propagate the cultural traditions of the eastern peoples in Greek, the lingua franca of the period. The greatest such endeavour was the translation of the Septuagint, one side-effect of which was the spread of Judaism to such an extent that a body of Jewish literature in Greek came into existence. Although the influence of this cultural interaction on the multiracial society of Alexanders fragmented empire cannot be fully evaluated, it is clearly apparent in the interpretations given to many sacred writings.
The cabbalists, for example, interpreted the famous sentence from the first chapter of the Book of Genesis - 'And God said, let there be light: and there was light' - as meaning that the magical power of God's command springs from the very letters of which it is composed. And the Book of Creation (Sefer Yetzirah), written in the sixth century A.D., reveals that the almighty God of the Israelites created the universe with the help of the cardinal numbers from one to ten and the twenty-two letters of the alphabet. The postulation of numbers as instruments of creation calls to mind Pythagorass theories (and those of Iamblichus many centuries later); but ascribing a role in the creation of the universe to the letters of the alphabet suggests an attempt to emphasize the doctrinal authority of the scriptures and to forestall any possibility of their being challenged.
It is against this background, which prevailed from the period of Ptolemy Soter and his successor Ptolemy Philadelphus until the time of Cleopatra, that we have to consider the web of factual evidence interwoven with fancy and legend consuming the Universal Library and its status as an eternal symbol of the worldwide cultural heritage. The Ptolemies, with their virtually limitless wealth, power and influence, embarked on the daunting project of obtaining for their Library copies of every work ever written, thus activating a market for books that covered the whole of the known world. The all- embracing scope of their project is reminiscent of Cervantes and his voracity for reading matter: Cenvantes would read everything down to 'scraps of paper picked up from the street', and similarly the Ptolemies were quite happy to buy every forged, plagiarized or corrupt text that was offered to them. They even decreed that every book carried on board every ship putting in to the busy port of Alexandria was to be handed over to the authorities: copies of these books were made, and the copies (not the originals) were then returned to the owners.
'To us, a book - every book, any book, written in any language - is sacred ~ This could well have been the motto of the Ptolemies' Universal Library, judging by the magnitude of their book-collecting drive and the evidence available to us today. Gathered together in their Library were hundreds of thousands of papyrus rolls and books of every form embodying the cultural traditions of all the peoples of the known world, from the wooden 'books' of the Buddhists to the large clay tablets and votive stelae of the Babylonians and Chaldaeans.
Legends abounded concerning this unprecedented 'world library' with its army of eminent men of letters and humble clerks, its literary scholars pent in a golden cage in the palace grounds on pain of imprisonment if they should try to escape without official permission. Legend has it that the Library was burnt down either through Julius Caesar's negligence or because of the dogmatism of Caliph Omar, who believed that he was obeying the injunctions of his own sacred text, the Koran; but the historical evidence suggests that neither of these stories is true. What concerns us here, however, is not so much to investigate the eventual fate of the Universal Library as to assert that Alexander the Great's idea of creating monumental libraries - an initiative that was brought to fruition through the efforts of the Ptolemies and many other Hellenistic monarchs, notably Eumenes II Epiphanes and Seleucus I Nicator - gave a new dimension to the role of books in transmitting and disseminating the world's cultural heritage. The eventual outcome of Alexander's initiative was a far-flung 'universal library' comprising a vast quantity of disparate written material representing the pyramidal fabric of knowledge, whose warp, the Athenian Classical tradition, is interwoven with a cuneiform oriental weft. Thus was created a 'religion' of the book, a magical book, the only thing left to commemorate the world. Or rather, to be more precise, that book is the world.
Konstantinos Sp. Staikos