The Libraries in the Byzantine Empire (330-1453) – The Imperial Library

After Constantine the Great established the imperial library, other types of libraries started to appear as well. The libraries in the Byzantine Empire can be grouped into four categories: imperial, patriarchal, monastic and private (Papademetriou, 2000, p. 171). In addition to these four types of libraries recognized by historians, I added it in a fifth one: the university library that belonged to the University of Constantinople, which was founded in 425 A.D., by the Emperor Theodosius II (408-450) (Drîmba, 1999, p. 215). We will further present and discuss each one of the five types of libraries indicated above, beginning with the imperial library.


The imperial library

(…) the imperial library was established through an imperial decree by the Emperor Constantine the Great himself, along with other important buildings within the capital. Constantine was inspired by the imperial library of Diocletian, in Nicomedia (Ilie, 2007, p. 3). Constantine employed a head librarian named Lucianus (Ilie, 2007, p. 3), who managed the affairs of imperial library. Among his duties, the head librarian had to recommend a list of books for the emperor (Ilie, 2007, p. 3). The status of the imperial librarian was extremely important therefore, since it could influence and guide the emperor’s daily reading.

Emperor Constantine’s great attention towards the imperial library is proven by the fact that at his death, in 337 A.D., there were allegedly between 6900 (Ilie, 2007, p. 3) and 7000 (Runciman, 1978, p. 6) library books, which is considered “a large number” (Runciman, 1978, p. 6) by the historian Steven Runciman. The library was settled in the imperial palace, for the king’s easy reach.

Among the library’s collections there were historical and juridical books, besides the works of Greek writers and philosophers such as Homer, Aeschylus, Hesiod, Aristophanes, Plato or Aristotle (Ilie, 2007, p. 4). The library also included a manuscript of about 37 m (in J. B. Burry’s book, from where we took this information, the measuring unit is 120 feet, which we converted to meters. 1 foot = 30, 48 cm, 120 feet = 3657 6 cm, or 36, 576 m) length of the Iliad and Odyssey by Homer, written in golden letters on the intestines of a serpent (Bury, 1923, p. 394), which was mentioned by the Byzantine chronicler John Zonaras (Brewster, 1832, p. 24).

After Emperor Constantine’s death, his son Constantius II (337-361 A.D.) inherited further the responsibility for the imperial library, to which he added a scriptorium (Cameron, Garnsey, 2006, p. 37).

The man who succeeded Constantius II was the Emperor Julian the Apostate (361-363 A.D.). He was particularly interested in the imperial library, for which he built a portico in order to increase its surface (Ilie, 2007, p. 5). Being the first emperor, after Constantine the Great, who wanted to reorganize the pagan cult in a systematic way, following the model of the Christian church hierarchy, it is speculated that Julian the Apostate may have destroyed the Christian manuscripts included in the imperial library.

Theodosius I (379-395 A.D.) is another remarkable Byzantine emperor concerning of the libraries in the Empire. Emperor Theodosius employed seven copyists, four Greeks and three Latins, for the imperial library who worked in the scriptorium and copied the manuscripts containing both Christian and pagan literature (Witty, 1967, p. 720).

Unfortunately, the imperial library burned during Emperor Zeno’s reign (474-491), in a great fire that occurred in the year 477 A.D (Runciman, 1978, p. 6). That same year, short before the destruction of the library, an inventory was made and it was established that there were approximately 100 000 (Ilie, 2007, p. 6) or 120 000 (Runciman, 1978, p. 6) manuscripts in the library. The recorded number of manuscripts may look exaggerated, but it is reasonable to consider that the Byzantine emperors who succeeded Constantine the Great also exhibited a genuine interest towards the library.

Very few manuscripts were saved by the fire. For the following years, it is hard to determine whether the imperial library collections were completely redrafted, although the library was mostly rebuilt soon after its destruction (Runciman, 1978, pp. 6-7).

We know with certitude that the library functioned until the Fourth Crusade (1204 A.D.), when it was vandalized and burned by the Christian crusaders. In 1204, the Christian crusaders have deviated from their original route, the liberation of Jerusalem, and they turned to conquering the city of Constantinople and establish the Latin Empire, which will last between 1204-1261. This course of events determined the historian Steven Runciman to remark that because “none of the French could read in Greek and very few knew how to read at all […] they kept only the books that had expensive metals or precious stones, and burned the rest, along with their buildings, while the Venetians, who were widely read, chose to save them” (Runciman, 1978, p. 7).

In the year 1261, the Constantinople is retaken from the Latins by the Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus (1259-1282). The following Byzantine emperors tried to rebuild and recompose the imperial library, to the extent that “the Byzantine scribes in the XIV century were busier than ever copying rare manuscripts” (Runciman, 1978, p. 7).

From this moment on, until the fall under the Turkish Empire, the imperial library will not regain its past greatness and will eventually be completely abolished in 1453 A.D. The collection of manuscripts came into the library of Muhammad II the Conqueror (1451-1481).

The imperial library was created for the disposure of the Byzantine Emperors and their families. The best example is illustrated by the Byzantine princess Anna Comnena, daughter of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118). Anna Comnena’s memory remained entrenched in the history of the Byzantium through her work entitled Alexiada. In the preface to her work, she cites passages from Plato and Aristotle, authors who she most likely read from the imperial library collections (Ilie, 2007, p. 6).

Similarily to how the imperial library of Diocletian had a chief librarian, the imperial library of Constantinople was also directed by a librarian. His duties included to organize the manuscripts according to the library catalog, to supervise the copyists in the scriptorium and to select the books that were to be read by the emperor.

(Source: The excellent paper titled “The Libraries in the Byzantine Empire (330-1453)“, by Silviu-Constantin Nedelcu)

(NovoScriptorium: Two things are directly clear; First, the Christian Roman Emperors not only never persecuted Knowledge but, on the contrary, even in turbulent times, conservation of Knowledge was a high priority for them. Second, the West is utterly responsible for the loss of countless ancient Greek and Latin scripts that were preserved in the City of cities, the Capital of the World for centuries, Constantinople. It must also be added that unexpected and accidental events, mainly fire, are mostly responsible for the loss of a vast number of ancient works and not some short-sighted, fanatic religious policy against Culture and Civilization that some people claim in our times, and blame the Empire -and its religion- for this. The Orthodox Graeco-Roman Christians are not to blame for the loss of the majority of the Ancient Literature)

Research-Comments: Anastasius Philoponus



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