Begging for Books

Petrarch, Letter to Giovanni dell’Incisa:

“But lest Alexandria or Athens trounce upon Rome, or Greece or Egypt insult Italy, remember that we have had princes devoted to study – so many of them, in fact, that it would be difficult to number them, and so devoted to this study that one has been discovered who values the name of philosophy more than that of power. They are studious, I say, not just of the books, but of the things contained within those books. For there are those who stockpile books not as a bulwark for the intellect, but as a decoration for the bedroom.

And – if I might pass over the others – both Julius Caesar and Augustus were concerned about the Roman library. Caesar placed at the head of this enterprise a man (and I would say this with the pardon of Demetrius Phalereus, who has a renowned reputation among the Egyptians) in no way inferior, and perhaps even superior by far – Marcus Varro; by Augustus, Pompeius Macer – himself a most learned man – was made librarian.

That most renowned orator Asinius Pollio burned with the most intense ardor for a Greek and Latin library, and is said to have been the first to make one public. But those are private things. Cato had an insatiable hunger for books (of which Cicero is a witness), and even Cicero had an ardor for acquiring books, which his many epistles to Atticus demonstrate. He did not impose upon Atticus any less forcefully, going on with the firmest insistence and the greatest outpouring of prayers, just as I now do with you. If it is permitted even to the most opulent mind to ask for the patronage of books, what do you think is permitted to the poor one?”

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Sed ne Rome Alexandria vel Athene, et Italie Grecia vel Egiptus insultet, et nobis studiosi principes contigerunt, hique tam multi, ut eos vel enumerare difficile sit, tamque huic rei dediti, ut inventus sit cui philosophie quam imperii carius nomen esset; et studiosi, inquam, non tam librorum, quam libris contentarum rerum. Sunt enim qui libros, ut cetera, non utendi studio cumulent, sed habendi libidine, neque tam ut ingenii presidium, quam ut thalami ornamentum. [11] Atque, ut reliquos sileam, fuit romane bibliothece cura divis imperatoribus Iulio Cesari et Cesari Augusto; tanteque rei prefectus ab altero — pace Demetrii Phalerii dixerim, qui in hac re clarum apud Egiptios nomen habet — nichil inferior, ne dicam longe superior, Marcus Varro; ab altero Pompeius Macer, vir et ipse doctissimus. Summo quoque grece latineque bibliothece studio flagravit Asinius Pollio orator clarissimus, qui primus hanc Rome publicasse traditur. [12] Illa enim privata sunt: Catonis insatiabilis librorum fames, cuius Cicero testis est, ipsiusque Ciceronis ardor ad inquirendos libros, quem multe testantur epystole ad Athicum, cui eam curam non segnius imponit, agens summa instantia multaque precum vi, quam ego nunc tibi. Quodsi opulentissimo ingenio permittitur librorum patrocinia mendicare, quid putas licere inopi?

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