From the May/June 2019 Biblical Archaeology Review
Excavations in the city of Cologne have uncovered the remains of Germany’s oldest library. In preparation for the construction of a community center by the Protestant church, an archaeological investigation of the site took place in 2017, yielding the extraordinary find of a Roman library dating around 150–200 A.D.
Cologne was founded by the Romans and declared as the colony of Colonia in 50 A.D. Colonia would later be named as the capital of the Roman province of Germania Inferior in 85 A.D. The newly discovered building is located in the heart of the city and in the corner of what was once its Roman forum, the political and economic center of a Roman city.
The rectangular building measures 30 by 66 feet with an annex on one of its long sides measuring 26 by 11 feet. Its concrete foundations are nearly 6 feet wide and visible to a depth of at least 11 feet. The significant size of the foundations suggests the building was at least two stories tall.
Although the excavators did not find an inscription identifying this building as a library, the remains of the extant walls suggest it was one. The walls contain regularly spaced niches about 31 inches deep. Niches are ubiquitous in Roman architecture—they often housed statues. But here the niches appear too shallow to display statuary. Instead, these niches likely had shelving inserted into them, creating the equivalent of modern-day built-in bookcases. These shelves did not contain the bound books we are familiar with today, but rather numerous scrolls. The excavation director, Dr. Dirk Schmitz of the Roman-Germanic Museum of Cologne, estimates the building could have housed about 20,000 scrolls.
The Cologne library is a significant discovery in the northwest Roman provinces, as most known Roman libraries have been found in the Mediterranean region. The Cologne library’s form and layout is similar to that of the only slightly larger Library of Celsus at Ephesus (Turkey), which was built around 117 A.D.
Public buildings of the Roman Empire were often funded by wealthy patrons. Pliny the Younger was the financial patron of a library for the Roman city of Comum (modern Como, Italy) in 97 A.D. His beneficence was noted in an inscription, and portions of his speech at the inauguration of the library are recorded in a letter to Pompeius Saturninus. His intent in gifting the city with a public library was to encourage the betterment of the townspeople by offering an alternative to the “less cultured” entertainments of the gladiatorial games. Pliny’s apparent snobbishness was not held by others. Some individuals chose to provide enlightenment alongside entertainment. An inscription notes the gift of Gaetulicus to the city of Dyrrachium (modern Durrës, Albania) of a public library as well as 12 pairs of gladiators to entertain at the building’s inauguration ceremony.
One question to ask about the gift of these Roman public libraries is: How large of a public did they actually serve? Literacy in the Roman world was likely low. One scholar even estimates that literacy during the Roman Empire was less than 10 percent.1 T. Keith Dix, Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Georgia, says that it’s likely the patrons of public libraries were predominantly if not exclusively the elite of society. In the corpus of Roman literature, Dix has found no reference of women, tradespeople, or unaccompanied slaves mentioned in any public library in Rome or Roman Italy.2 However, a lack of explicit mentions of these nonelite people in the ancient literature, itself written by the elites, is not conclusive evidence of the makeup of Roman public library users.
We also know that libraries were venues for public recitations, proving useful to many in the illiterate portion of the population. The hall configuration of the Cologne library would have lent itself well to containing a larger audience of listeners, as literary works were read aloud from scrolls—sometimes even by the authors themselves. This is akin to what modern authors do on book tours, giving public readings of their latest tome in bookstores.
From this, we can see that Roman public libraries appear to have been more lively environments, with public readings and discussions encouraged. This is in stark contrast to libraries today, where library patrons “shhh” each other into silent studiousness. In one library in Athens, we hear of another way in which Roman and modern public libraries differ. An inscription dating to 132 A.D. is the only known mention of library rules, stating: “No book is to be taken out because we have sworn it.”3 Rules of this sort were usually issued only after an infraction had occurred, so at least one scroll must have been stolen from this library. One can only imagine what the punishment would be if the offender was caught: forced participation in the nearby gladiatorial games, perhaps?
“Classical Corner: Checking Out Roman Libraries” by Christina Triantafillou originally appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
Christina Triantafillou is a doctoral student in archaeology at the University of Oxford specializing in Roman imperial architecture, building construction, and economics.
1. William V. Harris, Ancient Literacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1989), p. 22.
2. T. Keith Dix and George W. Houston, “Public Libraries in the City of Rome: From the Augustan Age to the Time of Diocletian,” Mélanges de l’École française de Rome—Antiquité 188.2 (2006), p. 709.
3. T. Leslie Shear, “The Campaign of 1935,” Hesperia 5 (1936), p. 42.
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So no scrolls?
In the wet soil of the Rhine valley, scrolls and codexes made from organic matter (papyrus, parchment, wood, etc.) would decay rapidly. Only stone, ceramic, non-ferrous metals would most-likely survive almost 2,000 years and even there erosion would take its toll.