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

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]

Biblioklepty? Lives of Crime and Missing Books, a New Classics Confessional Game

Earlier today, we re-tweeted a tale about the tragic theft of some Plutarch:

http://twitter.com/QuidAgitur/status/605373378007048192

This made me think of my own history of kleptobiblia (or should it be biblioklepty? Let’s go with that). The only time I can think of planning to and actually stealing a book was when I was in middle school. My parents and my friends’ parents were mostly aging history. One friend’s father had Abbie Hoffman’s classic on his shelf.

steal this book

What could one do but steal it?

Now, I am sure that antiquity has many anecdotes of book-theft to contemplate and even more certain that the history of classical scholarship, peopled by myriad rogues and bibliophiles, must have as many if not more. But I can’t think of any (apart from the apocryphal Alexandrian edict on the surrender of books).

But I am equally certain that just as the books we read (and display) say something about us, so too the books we ‘steal’ (and don’t) have something essential to communicate. So, my new classics confessional game is this: what book did you ‘steal’ (or acquire by less-than-legit means); what book do you wish you hadn’t (absconded with); and what book do you wish you had (taken)?

Here’s my list:

Book I ‘stole’: Albert Lord’s The Singer of tales. My undergraduate adviser lent it to me and I loved it. I never gave it back. To make amends, I became a Homerist.

Book I wish I hadn’t: While in graduate school I walked out of a famous library with their edition of the first volume of the Cambridge Commentary on the Iliad. It was purely accidental. I had my own copy at home! No alarms went off. I was too embarrassed to return it. It sits on my shelf to this day, unopened, a token of my lingering shame.

Book I wish I had: When I was leaving graduate school, I had designs on Slater’s Lexicon to Pindar. I had this crazy idea I was going to translate all of Pindar’s odes. I chickened out. But then, Perseus put it online. All’s well that ends…

Any other confessions out there?