Likely Stories: Libraries in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson

May 30, 2019

Exhaustive tour through the libraries in the Ancient world from Gilgamesh to the Romans


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

As much as I prize libraries—private, small, large or ancient—I can never get enough understanding of the impact libraries have had over the millennia.  Lionel Casson has written a fun, informative, and most interesting story of the development of libraries, which to my surprise, had many of the same problems librarians face today.  Casson was born on July 22, 1914.  He was a classicist, professor emeritus at New York University, and a specialist in maritime history.  He earned his B.A. in 1934 at New York University, and in 1936 became an assistant professor.  He died on July 18, 2009.

According to the author’s Preface, “This book is the full-scale study of libraries in the ancient world.  It presents whatever is known about them from their debut in the ancient Near East in the third millennium b.c.e down to the early Byzantine period, the fourth and fifth centuries c.e., when the spread of Christianity and of monasticism fundamentally changed the course of library history” (ix).  One of my favorite ancient periods always intrigues me, especially when I made it to a museum with myriad artifacts.  Now I can add a large gap in my knowledge of books dating back over more than 5,000 years.

Early writers used a variety of methods to preserve a wide range of documents.  Some in clay, others in papyrus, or vellum, scratches on rocks, and finally paper.  As far back as the 13th century b.c.e., clay tablets have been found spread across Mesopotamia.  Some of these tablets contained detailed bibliographical entries.  Here is a sample from this period, “One tablet on the fine oil of Azzari, the Hurrian woman doctor.  When one leads the troops into battle against an enemy city and a charm using fine oil is put on the general who commands the army, one anoints the general, his horse together with his chariot, and all his battle gear.  The end” (6).  And another, “One tablet, the end, on the purification of a murder.  When the exorcist-priest treats a city for a murder.  Words of Erija” (6).

The next advance arrived from Greece.  Casson writes, “The libraries in the Near East, of a limited scope and purpose, were a far cry from the library as we know it, with shelves full of books on all subjects and doors open to readers with all interests in all subjects.  Such a library had to await the coming of the Greeks.  For they were a people endowed with what was needed to bring it into existence—a high level of literacy and an abiding interest in intellectual endeavor” (17).  Little did I know when I stepped into The Free Library of Philadelphia for the first time when I was about 6, I was following thousands of years of the human thirst for knowledge.

Casson notes, “A report about schools speak only of boys.  However, since […] vase-paintings frequently picture women reading rolls, there unquestionably were literate women.  Most probably they belonged to highly place families and had been taught at hone” (21).  “(I)n Hellenistic times Athens, Rhodes, and a number of other cities definitely had libraries.  In Athens certainly, and in Rhodes almost certainly the library was connected with a gymnasium […] If this is true, “there were libraries in the more than 100 cities where gymnasiums.  Libraries were supported by contributions of money and books from members of the community.  At Athens, birthplace of drama, the holdings included a multitude of tragedies and comedies by well-known playwrights” (61). 

I especially found out that the ancient librarians dealt with the same problems we have today—books lost, failed to be returned, damaged by water or fire, out outright stolen.  Lionel Casson has written a wonderful story of Libraries in the Ancient World.  I hope this slim volume will cause others to revere their books and start a personal library of even the smallest length.  5 Stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!