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“Inside Roman Libraries”: Houston’s New Book

December 1, 2014

Inside Roman Libraries: Book Collections and Their Management in Antiquity, by George W. Houston, brings together almost everything you could want to ask about Roman-era book collections and book collectors.  Analyzing data from the Herculaneum papyri and the several identified book collections from Oxyrhynchus, Houston discusses a raft of interesting matters, adding much to our understanding of the place and functions of books in the Roman world.

In “Assembling a Collection” (chap. 1), he briefly surveys evidence of how copies of literary works were made and/or acquired, the presentation of books as gifts, borrowing copies from friends, public libraries, buying part or all of a collection, bequeathing and giving collections, book collections as war-booty, and other matters.

In Chap. 2, he reviews various lists of books from ancient collections, the titles and authors included in these lists, probing what they tell us about the popularity of various authors/texts, and the nature and likely uses of the collections listed.

In Chap. 3, he focuses on the collection from the “Villa of the Papyri” at Herculaneum.  This collection of hundreds of bookrolls (somewhere between ca. 6-7 hundred and 1-2 thousand) was carbonized in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE, and additional rolls may still lie buried in the unexplored portions of the villa.  Recent technological developments enable scholars to identify the contents of the carbonized rolls more readily.  Judged by the works identified thus far (copies of nearly 70 different Greek & Latin works), the collection was heavily works of rhetoric and oratory.  In the main, also, the manuscripts seem to have been of good quality.  Houston discusses the texts identified, the physical properties of the manuscripts, “paratextual material” in the papyri (e.g., annotations; “subscriptions” giving author, title, book number, etc.; stichometric counts), and, a very particularly interesting matter:  the evidence of the “useful lifetimes” of the manuscripts.  Houston notes that most of the rolls in the Herculaneum collection were “some 120 to 160 years old when Vesuvius erupted,” “a small but significant number” some 180-280 years old, and “a very few” 300-350 years old.  Analysis of the other collections in this study yield a similar picture. This should help to dispel any notion that papyri manuscripts were fragile and easily worn out!

In the Herculaneum collection and the others studied in the book, the manuscripts seem to have been copied by numerous copyists:  e.g., some 34 different “hands” identified in the Herculaneum papyri (and there are hundreds of rolls yet to be analysed, so the total number of copyists could be “many dozen”).  So, “a significant percentage” of the collection was likely produced “commercially” (i.e., by professional copyists), not in-house (e.g., by household slaves).  A number of copies were likely commissioned by the owner(s) of the collection.

Chap. 4 is given to the book collections of Oxyrhynchus.  Houston observes the differences among them, again noting the authors and texts included in each collection, the approximate age of manuscripts, and the number/proportion of re-used rolls (“opisthographs”). These differences hint at the nature of the person(s) who collected the books and the use to which the books were likely put.

In these first few chapters alone, there is a massive amount of data and cogent analysis that anyone interested in the place of books in the Roman world simply must read and note carefully.  Having written recently myself on a related matter here, I acknowledge gratefully the rich bounty of further information Houston has now provided.

In subsequent chapters, he discusses “Space, Storage, Equipment, and Art” in ancient libraries, helping us to visualize more accurately how books were stored, accessed, transported, and read/consulted (Chap. 5), and the “Personnel and Their Activities,” i.e., the staffing and their various tasks (Chap. 6).  Several appendices provide handy summaries of various data, and there is also a book bibliography of scholarly works.

There are simply too many valuable observations to try to list them all here.  It’s simply now the “go-to” book on its subject, required reading for all of us who are interested on books and/in the Roman era, in the light of which, studies of early Christianity and its books must now proceed.  One observation relating to my own work:  All these collections are made up of bookrolls, no codices, which further reflects how curious was the early Christian preference for the codex for their literary texts.

Houston, George W. Inside Roman Libraries: Book Collections and Their Management in Antiquity. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.  (The publisher’s online catalogue entry here)


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  1. Ron Minton permalink

    Very helpful post Larry. It is certain that I must get this book.
    I had a question on your note on Ch. 4. You used opisthograph for reused books/rools, but I have always thought that was primarily for scrolls with writing also on the back side and “palimpsest” was more for reused sheets/rolls. In any case, it sad that fewer people seem to interested in ancient writing today.

    • That’s a good point, Ron. “Re-used” isn’t sufficiently clear as to what kind of re-use we’re talking about. But others object that “opisthograph” can include a roll with one continuous text written on both sides, whereas I’m more familiar with it being used to designate a roll originally containing one text, another text later written on the outer side. I think there is some growth of interest in the “materialia” of texts in the ranks of younger scholars in NT/early Christianity. At the SBL meeting this year, I was pleased to be told by a few younger scholars that my book (The Earliest Christian Artifacts) had stimulated them to the subject.

  2. Bobby Garringer permalink

    Are there any direct or indirect implications in Houston’s book concerning the early collection and naming (in the case of the Gospels) of New Testament documents?

    • No, Bobby. Houston’s book is entirely concerned with known book-collections, i.e., physically housed collections of manuscripts, and these are all “pagan” collections.

  3. Jeff Cate permalink

    Btw, your recommendation of this book in an offhand comment at SBL caused instantaneous interest in what Houston had to say. When I asked about the book at the UNC Press booth, they were puzzled and said I was the fourth person that morning that had inquired about it!

    • Yes, I too stopped by the UNC booth at the SBL to express my thanks for the book, and the lady managing it was a bit surprised that I knew about it. And she indicated that they hadn’t brought even a display copy. I can only presume that they assumed that biblical scholars don’t read anything but books directly on biblical texts!

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