- Inside Roman Libraries: Book Collections and Their Management in Antiquityby George W. Houston
George Houston, Emeritus Professor of Classics at Chapel Hill, has been publishing regularly on Greco-Roman book collections since at least 1988, but has not previously produced a monograph. This much-anticipated volume thus [End Page 560]marks the culmination of a career spent thinking about the social life of books in antiquity. Both general and specialist readers will agree that it has been worth the wait, particularly since we are now able to see how Houston integrates important new evidence, such as recent publications on the Herculaneum papyri and the new Galen manuscript Περὶ ἀλυπίας, the latter of which shows that by the end of the second century C.E. literary book collections could be housed in places other than, in fact, Roman libraries (Galen’s word for his storage lockers is ἀποθῆκαι, PA2).
This insight about a text that is mentioned several dozen times in Inside Roman Librariesreveals what is highly distinctive about Houston’s approach: namely, he seeks most of all to account for our evidence for books that were physically housed together in antiquity—“book rolls, collections of book rolls, assemblages of ancient volumes that were thrown out together or buried in the eruption of Vesuvius, or that are known to us, however partially, in some other way” (xiii)—above and beyond the structures or institutions that held them. The reader will learn much about what can be deduced about the infrastructures of the ancient book trade, scribal copying, care for books, the architecture of known libraries, their staff, their furniture, and some of the dangers that befell them along the way (especially chapters 1, 5, and 6). The unique strength of Inside Roman Libraries, however, lies in Houston’s collocation for general readers of papyrological evidence for book collections in the series of three chapters (2–4) that are at the heart of this volume. The materials presented in two chapters on Egyptian papyri (2 and 4) will be less known to many, and all are usefully presented with significant documentation.
Chapter 2, “Lists of Books Preserved on Papyrus,” includes images, transcriptions, and translations of the small corpus of book lists that Houston argues represent “inventories of real collections of books” (42) in Greek and Latin from Egypt between the first and third centuries c.e.(a subset of those published by Rosa Otranto in Antiche liste di libri su papiro[Rome 2000]). Chapter 3, “The Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum,” includes a catalogue and checklist of all authors and works thus far identified within this well-known and singular collection of scrolls to have survived within their ancient storage context. Chapter 4, “The Book Collections of Oxyrhynchus,” presents three individual “concentrations” of literary texts first unearthed by Grenfell and Hunt in 1906, along with a selection of related examples (the books associated with the family of Aurelia Ptolemais and a group of astrological texts first identified by Roger Bagnall and Alexander Jones, respectively).
Houston’s interpretation of what he frequently admits is scanty evidence requires ingenuity in many cases, such as his arguments that each of the fragmentary book lists on papyrus from Greco-Roman Egypt represents a collection housed together in antiquity (chapter 2) and that the three different “concentrations” of literary papyri at Oxyrhynchus similarly represent books once owned and stored together by ancient readers (chapter 4). While this evidence is surely suggestive, the possibility in either case that we are seeing artifacts of the book trade, rather than of direct readership and scholarly practice, is under-examined.
Most interesting are the broad contours of bibliographic practice that can be gleaned from taking a synthetic overview of evidence for Greek and Latin book collections from Italy and the Roman Empire (for this is what the “Roman” and the “libraries” of the title truly reference). Especially compelling are the conclusions (a) that book collections...