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Aerial view of the ruins of a Roman library found in Cologne, Germany.

The Truth is in its Walls: Excavated Ruins in Germany Have Been Identified as a Roman Library

Workers have made an extraordinary discovery in the German city of Cologne. It is believed that they have unearthed the walls of a large Roman library.  The ruins are those of the oldest known public library in Germany. It took some time for experts to identify them as the remains of a public library which was revealed by its peculiar wall structure.  The discovery could potentially add to our knowledge of libraries in antiquity and also on the development of culture in Rome’s German provinces.

Roman Libraries and Emperors

Romans had great respect for knowledge and culture. This was partly because of the influence of the Greek world. Under the influence of the Greeks, the Romans began to build libraries in the first century BC. It became common for Roman Emperors, for example, Augustus, to endow urban centers with public libraries. This was seen as benefitting the public and also expressing the power of the Emperor.

Reconstruction of the inside of the Roman Ulpian library. (Cassius Ahenobarbus/CC BY SA 3.0)

Reconstruction of the inside of the Roman Ulpian library. (Cassius Ahenobarbus/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Modern Cologne is built on the site of the Roman city of Colonia and it was perhaps the most important urban center in Rome’s two German provinces. Colonia was originally a legionary base, and Emperor Claudius’ wife Agrippina the Younger was born there.  Situated on the River Rhine, it was often the headquarters of local governors and was an important commercial center until it was sacked by Frankish tribes.

Specialized Walls

The walls of the library were first found in 2017 during an excavation for a foundation of a community center on the grounds of a Protestant parish church in the heart of Cologne. The construction company contacted local archaeologists and they determined that the walls dated to the Roman period, but other than that the ruins were a complete mystery.

Experts from the Roman-Germanic Museum of Cologne knew that they would have been located near ‘the marketplace, or forum: the public space in the city center’ according to The Guardian . This and the materials used meant that it was almost certainly an important public building. 

The site of the Roman library. (Hi-flyFoto/Roman-Germanic Museum of Cologne)

The site of the Roman library. ( Hi-flyFoto/Roman-Germanic Museum of Cologne )

Further investigations of the walls, that measure 80 cm (2 feet) by 50cm (1 ½ feet), established that there were three niches in them. This only added to the mystery of the nature of the ruins, until parallels were found with the Library of Celsus in Ephesus.   The Guardian reports that Doctor Schmitz stated, “we could see the niches were too small to bear statues inside’’. This and the similarities with the Ephesus library persuaded the experts that the remains were of a Roman library - the oldest yet found in Germany.  

Façade of the Celsus library, in Ephesus, near Selçuk, west Turkey. (Benh LIEU SONG/CC BY SA 3.0)

Façade of the Celsus library, in Ephesus, near Selçuk, west Turkey. (Benh LIEU SONG/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Based on parallels with other libraries, the experts believe that the ruins were those of a public library. Roman libraries were open to the public, unlike Greek repositories of scrolls.

The experts reckon that the building was constructed almost two-thousand years ago.  It was clearly a huge library and according to Der Spiegel it was ‘probably two storeys high’. It is not possible to determine how many scrolls were held there, but it may have contained as many as 20,000 handwritten scrolls. 

Roman portraiture fresco of a young man with a papyrus scroll, from Herculaneum, 1st century AD. (Public Domain)

Roman portraiture fresco of a young man with a papyrus scroll, from Herculaneum, 1st century AD. ( Public Domain )

The identification of the parchment niches in the walls allowed the experts to determine that the workers had uncovered a library. These niches are all that remains of wooden cupboards that were specifically built to store precious scrolls, which were very valuable because they were all written by hand. The Smithsonian. Com reports that Schmitz suggests that visitors to the library could use ‘ladders to reach higher shelves or check parchment labels to find relevant writings’, similar to a modern library.

At first, it was only known to have been a public building. But the niches of the inner walls revealed the true purpose as a Roman library. (Hi-flyFoto / Römisch-Germanischen Museums der Stadt Köln)

At first, it was only known to have been a public building. But the niches of the inner walls revealed the true purpose as a Roman library. ( Hi-flyFoto / Römisch-Germanischen Museums der Stadt Köln)

The Significance of the Roman Library

The remains of the library, which may be one of the oldest ever built in Germany, are important. They allow experts to understand the level of culture in Roman-German urban centres. It also demonstrates that there was a high level of Romanization in ancient Cologne.

The local authorities have recognized the importance of the remains and there are plans to make the niches and walls viewable by the public. The walls will be integrated into the Protestant Church community center that will be built on the site, where visitors can see them.

The walls of the Roman library will be integrated into the Protestant Church community center that will be built on the site, where visitors can see them. (Hi-flyFoto / Römisch-Germanischen Museums der Stadt Köln)

The walls of the Roman library will be integrated into the Protestant Church community center that will be built on the site, where visitors can see them. ( Hi-flyFoto / Römisch-Germanischen Museums der Stadt Köln )

Top image: Aerial view of the ruins of a Roman library found in Cologne, Germany. Source: Hi-flyFoto / Römisch-Germanischen Museums der Stadt Köln

By Ed Whelan

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