Tyrants in the Stacks: Pisistratus, the First Librarian?

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 7.17

17: Who was the first of all to provide books for the public to read; and what quantity of books were in Athenian public libraries before the Persian invasions?

Pisistratus the tyrant is said to have been the first to make books of liberal disciplines available to be read publicly in Athens. Afterwards, the Athenians themselves increased the collection eagerly and carefully. But later when Xerxes became master of Athens and the city was burned except for the citadel, he stole the entire collection and took it to Persia. Many years later, King Seleucus, who was nicknamed Nicanor, made sure that all of these books were returned to Athens.

At a later date, a great number of books—nearly seven hundred thousand volumes, were either collected or published in Egypt under the Ptolemaic kings; but these books were all burned in our first Alexandrian War during the sack of the city—this wasn’t done on purpose or by any orders, but accidentally by the auxiliary regiment.”

 XVII. Quis omnium primus libros publice praebuerit legendos; quantusque numerus fuerit Athenis ante clades Persicas librorum in bibliothecis publicorum.

1 Libros Athenis disciplinarum liberalium publice ad legendum praebendos primus posuisse dicitur Pisistratus tyrannus. Deinceps studiosius accuratiusque ipsi Athenienses auxerunt; sed omnem illam postea librorum copiam Xerxes Athenarum potitus urbe ipsa praeter arcem incensa abstulit asportavitque in Persas. 2 Eos porro libros universos multis post tempestatibus Seleucus rex, qui Nicanor appellatus est, referendos Athenas curavit. 3 Ingens postea numerus librorum in Aegypto ab Ptolemaeis regibus vel conquisitus vel confectus est ad milia ferme voluminum septingenta; sed ea omnia bello priore Alexandrino, dum diripitur ea civitas, non sponte neque opera consulta, sed a militibus forte auxiliaris incensa sunt.

 

[The War mentioned here is likely 48 CBE; the Library at Alexandria was rebuilt by 41 BCE. It was burned again in 272 CE and abandoned by the end of the 4th century CE]

Ingres - Pisistratus head and left hand of Alcibiades, 1824-1834.jpg
From here

The Death of the Individual and the Life of the Whole

Philo, The Worse Attack the Better  206

“When some musician or scholar has died, then their music or writing dies with them; but their basic contributions persist and, in some way, live as long as the universe does. Those who are scholars and musicians now or who will be in the future will continue to develop thanks to these previous works in an undying procession.

In the same way, whatever is prudent, wise, brave, just, or just simply wise in an individual may perish, but it nevertheless remains as immortal thought and all excellence is safeguarded against decay in the immortal nature of the whole [universe]. Through this advantage people today and those of tomorrow will also become civilized—unless we believe that the death of one individual person in turn visits ruin upon humankind.”

ὥσπερ γὰρ μουσικοῦ τινος ἢ γραμματικοῦ τελευτήσαντος ἡ μὲν ἐν | τοῖς ἀνδράσι μουσικὴ καὶ γραμματικὴ συνέφθαρται, αἱ δὲ τούτων ἰδέαι μένουσι καὶ τρόπον τινὰ βιοῦσιν ἰσοχρόνιοι τῷ κόσμῳ, καθ᾿ ἃς οἵ τε ὄντες καὶ οἱ μέλλοντες διαδοχαῖς ταῖς εἰσαεὶ μουσικοί τε καὶ γραμματικοὶ γενήσονται, οὕτως καὶ τὸ ἔν τινι φρόνιμον ἢ σῶφρον ἢ ἀνδρεῖον ἢ δίκαιον ἢ συνόλως σοφὸν ἂν ἀναιρεθῇ, οὐδὲν ἧττον ἐν τῇ τοῦ παντὸς ἀθανάτῳ φύσει φρόνησις ἀθάνατος καὶ ἀρετὴ σύμπασα ἄφθαρτος ἐστηλίτευται, καθ᾿ ἣν καὶ νῦν εἰσιν ἀστεῖοί τινες καὶ αὖθις γενήσονται· εἰ μὴ καὶ ἀνθρώπου τινὸς τῶν ἐν μέρει θάνατον φθορὰν ἐργάσασθαι φήσομεν ἀνθρωπότητι

Related image
 Mosaic from the reception room from Sparsholt Roman Villa, Hampshire, England

Consider other religious traditions on this:

Qu’ran, 5:32

“Saving One Life Is As If Saving Whole Of Humanity…”

Talmud

“Whoever destroys a soul [of Israel], it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life of Israel, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

An Immortal Procession: The Death of the Individual and the Life of the Whole

I fear that Philo is overconfident here, but the passage is still something special

Philo, The Worse Attack the Better  206

“When some musician or scholar has died, then their music or writing dies with them; but their basic contributions persist and, in some way, live as long as the universe does. Those who are scholars and musicians now or who will be in the future will continue to develop thanks to these previous works in an undying procession.

In the same way, whatever is prudent, wise, brave, just, or just simply wise in an individual may perish, but it nevertheless remains as immortal thought and all excellence is safeguarded against decay in the immortal nature of the whole [universe]. Through this advantage people today and those of tomorrow will also become civilized—unless we believe that the death of one individual person in turn visits ruin upon humankind.”

ὥσπερ γὰρ μουσικοῦ τινος ἢ γραμματικοῦ τελευτήσαντος ἡ μὲν ἐν | τοῖς ἀνδράσι μουσικὴ καὶ γραμματικὴ συνέφθαρται, αἱ δὲ τούτων ἰδέαι μένουσι καὶ τρόπον τινὰ βιοῦσιν ἰσοχρόνιοι τῷ κόσμῳ, καθ᾿ ἃς οἵ τε ὄντες καὶ οἱ μέλλοντες διαδοχαῖς ταῖς εἰσαεὶ μουσικοί τε καὶ γραμματικοὶ γενήσονται, οὕτως καὶ τὸ ἔν τινι φρόνιμον ἢ σῶφρον ἢ ἀνδρεῖον ἢ δίκαιον ἢ συνόλως σοφὸν ἂν ἀναιρεθῇ, οὐδὲν ἧττον ἐν τῇ τοῦ παντὸς ἀθανάτῳ φύσει φρόνησις ἀθάνατος καὶ ἀρετὴ σύμπασα ἄφθαρτος ἐστηλίτευται, καθ᾿ ἣν καὶ νῦν εἰσιν ἀστεῖοί τινες καὶ αὖθις γενήσονται· εἰ μὴ καὶ ἀνθρώπου τινὸς τῶν ἐν μέρει θάνατον φθορὰν ἐργάσασθαι φήσομεν ἀνθρωπότητι

Related image
 Mosaic from the reception room from Sparsholt Roman Villa, Hampshire, England

Pisistratus, the First Librarian? Gellius on Libraries Built, Pillaged and Burned

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 7.17

 

17: Who was the first of all to provide books for the public to read; and what quantity of books were in Athenian public libraries before the Persian invasions?

Pisistratus the tyrant is said to have been the first to make books of liberal disciplines available to be read publicly in Athens. Afterwards, the Athenians themselves increased the collection eagerly and carefully. But later when Xerxes became master of Athens and the city was burned except for the citadel, he stole the entire collection and took it to Persia. Many years later, King Seleucus, who was nicknamed Nicanor, made sure that all of these books were returned to Athens.

At a later date, a great number of books—nearly seven hundred thousand volumes, were either collected or published in Egypt under the Ptolemaic kings; but these books were all burned in our first Alexandrian War during the sack of the city—this wasn’t done on purpose or by any orders, but accidentally by the auxiliary regiment.”

 XVII. Quis omnium primus libros publice praebuerit legendos; quantusque numerus fuerit Athenis ante clades Persicas librorum in bibliothecis publicorum.

1 Libros Athenis disciplinarum liberalium publice ad legendum praebendos primus posuisse dicitur Pisistratus tyrannus. Deinceps studiosius accuratiusque ipsi Athenienses auxerunt; sed omnem illam postea librorum copiam Xerxes Athenarum potitus urbe ipsa praeter arcem incensa abstulit asportavitque in Persas. 2 Eos porro libros universos multis post tempestatibus Seleucus rex, qui Nicanor appellatus est, referendos Athenas curavit. 3 Ingens postea numerus librorum in Aegypto ab Ptolemaeis regibus vel conquisitus vel confectus est ad milia ferme voluminum septingenta; sed ea omnia bello priore Alexandrino, dum diripitur ea civitas, non sponte neque opera consulta, sed a militibus forte auxiliaris incensa sunt.

 

[the War mentioned here is likely 48 CBE; the Library at Alexandria was rebuilt by 41 BCE. It was burned again in 272 CE and abandoned by the end of the 4th century CE]