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The Celsus Library: 20,000 Scrolls Lost to History but Its Striking Architecture Remains

The Celsus Library: 20,000 Scrolls Lost to History but Its Striking Architecture Remains


Across the Greco-Roman world, there were many collections of scrolls, some kept by private individuals in personal libraries and others stored in public libraries such as the Great Library of Alexandria. One such library that, whose impressive ruins still stand today, is the Library of Celsus in Ephesus, Turkey. The Library of Celsus was the third largest library in Classical Antiquity. It is known for its striking architecture and for the fact that it once held 12,000 scrolls containing a wealth of knowledge from the ancient world. Sadly, none of them survived the library’s destruction in 262 AD.

The Library of Celsus as it stands today

The Library of Celsus as it stands today (CC by SA 2.0 / Carole Raddato)

The Library of Celsus was built in 114-117 AD and was commissioned by Tiberius Julius Aquilla in honor of his father, the former Roman proconsul of Ephesus, Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus (proconsul 105-107 AD). The library was near the agora in the center of the city. Built into the library’s monumental facade are niches with statues of personifications of wisdom ( sophia), knowledge ( episteme), intelligence ( ennoia), and virtue ( arete) built into them. Inside the library, the bottom floor is paved with marble. The second floor consisted of a balcony that went around the edge of the building. Along the side of the building was a series of niches for holding the many scrolls.

Left: Statue of Sophia Right: Statue of Arete

Left: Statue of Sophia (Chris Beckette / flickr). Right: Statue of Arete (CC by SA 3.0)

There appear to be conflicting accounts of how the library was destroyed. In one source, it was said to have been burned during a Gothic attack, while in another source it was destroyed in an earthquake. In either case, the library was damaged in 262 AD, but was repaired and continued to be used into the 4th century.

Like many Roman libraries, the Library of Celsus had very elaborate architecture and the specific architectural style used would become characteristic of the architecture constructed during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD).

Elaborate architectural features at the Library of Celsus

Elaborate architectural features at the Library of Celsus (public domain)

Although none of the architecture of the Library of Alexandria survives, we do know a great deal about it from historical sources. We know that it was founded by a student of Aristotle, Demetrius of Phaleron, and that it was inspired by Alexander the Great who wanted to build a universal library containing all the world’s knowledge. We also know that the library was part of a larger research institution known as the Mouseion which is the Greek word from which the English museum descends. The Mouseion contained quarters which housed scholars who were part of the research institution and studied a variety of subjects including mathematics, astronomy, and theology. We also know that the Library of Alexandria contained the works of Aristotle, and copies of the works of Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles among many others. Very little on the other hand is known about the Library of Celsus even though it was one of the largest libraries in the ancient world. We do not know its contents or its administration.

Although it is unknown exactly how the library differed from other libraries in the ancient world, it is possible to make inferences based on other large Roman libraries from the period.

Most Roman libraries were private libraries within the home of a wealthy individual. An example would be the one in Villa De Pisoni in the town Herculaneum or Heracleum.

Some libraries, such the library in Pergamum, which became the model for many major Roman libraries, were public libraries. They usually consisted of a building with elaborate architecture for storing books and a porch from which a scroll could be read aloud. Written texts in the ancient world were read aloud even in private, so public libraries were commonly the location of public reading.

Most Roman libraries contained both a Greek section and a Latin section. This tradition was conceived by Julius Caesar, who wanted to increase the intellectual prominence of Rome after visiting Alexandria. It was eventually realized by August Caesar who built a library in Rome with Greek and Latin sections with the intention to create a library rivaling the Library of Alexandria. Most of these public Roman libraries did not end up being very important as educated Romans generally preferred to use personal libraries for their studies. It does however give us an idea of how the Library of Celsus may have functioned, primarily as a storehouse for books that could be read publicly from a porch at the front.

The librarians who tended to the books may have been educated slaves which tended to be used as librarians during the Roman Republic and probably into the period of the Roman Empire. It is also in Roman libraries, that the busts and statues of dead rulers or scholars were put on display. The Celsus Library was probably no exception and most likely had a statue of Celsus in it. While the Library of Alexandria has more in common with the modern university, being a place where scholars live and work with an adjacent library, the Library of Celsus may have more in common with modern libraries as a public place for finding and reading books.

The Library of Celsus today, hosting an evening event

The Library of Celsus today, hosting an evening event (public domain)

Top image: The Library of Celsus, in Ephesus (Christopher Chan / flickr)

By Caleb Strom

References – a historical site maintained by a team of scholars -- article from the Illustrated History of the Roman Empire Il site -- page from a course website on the history of libraries from Purdue Indiana University

Fant, Clyde E., and Mitchell G. Reddish. A guide to biblical sites in Greece and Turkey. OUP USA, 2003.

Eidson, Diana. "The Celsus Library at Ephesus: Spatial Rhetoric, Literacy, and Hegemony in the

Eastern Roman Empire."  Advances in the History of Rhetoric 16.2 (2013): 189-217.



I want to learn more about ancient libraries

Also: anyone seriously try to use ground penetrating radar for a, basement ? tunnel or chambers ?
If not, then that search should not be ignored any longer ! :)

I think both a war and earthquake took their toll. I dont see a fire actually ruining the outside such way as to leave pieces missing, that apparently seem, Broke off, like from angry people trying to bombard it with catapults and slings, plus even perhaps carrying rocks to the top, then throwing them down onto other, while also hitting corners of the structure. Wars back then I'm sure were sure hell back then, even without bombs.

Fascinating information! Thank you for bringing this over to our view. I have heard about this library but I had never really researched about its history and catalog content. I will certainly read more about it as ancient libraries fascinate me *I'm still one of those who would still cry for the lost of the Great Library of Alexandria!

Caleb Strom's picture


Caleb Strom is currently a graduate student studying planetary science. He considers himself a writer, scientist, and all-around story teller. His interests include planetary geology, astrobiology, paleontology, archaeology, history, space archaeology, and SETI.

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