Sunday, December 8, 2019

Aristotle's Long Lasting Library

A first century copy of Aristotle's Constitutions. Papyrus 131
In connection with his academy it is known from ancient sources that Aristotle possessed a collection of books, a combination of his own, student's, and other philosopher's writings. Aristotle handed down this library on to his successor Theophrastus, who then bequeathed the collection to his follower Neleus. After Neleus failed to step in the leadership role of the Academy, he moved the collection to Skepsis (in Asia Minor). After this time the library was poorly cared for, at one point being buried in a trench! Years later the library was acquired by Apellicon, an Athenian collector and the books were moved to Athens. Strabo (quoted at length in full below), notes that Apellicon attempted to restore these works, without success, by filling in the lacuna now present in these copies due to decay. Later Sulla took (stole) the entire library and took it to Rome. Here booksellers gained access to these works and poorly transcribed them and circulated these poor copies widely. At this time, Aristotle's and Theophrastus's books would have been some 250 years old (Gamble, "Books and Readers in the Early Church," 177). Following is Strabo's account in full;

"From Scepsis came the Socratic philosophers Erastus and Coriscus and Neleus the son of Corsica's, this last a man who not only was a pupil of Aristotle and Theophrastus, but also inherited the library of Theophrastus, which included that of Aristotle. At any rate, Aristotle bequeathed his own library to Theophrastus, to whom he also left his school; and he is the first man, so far as I know, to have collected books and to have taught the kings in Egypt how to arrange a library. Theophrastus bequeathed it to Neleus; and Neleus took it to Scepsis and bequeathed it to his heirs, ordinary people, who kept the books locked up and not even carefully stored. But when they heard bow zealously the Attalic kings to whom the city was subject were searching for books to build up the library in Pergamum, they hid their books underground in a kind of trench. But much later, when the books had been damaged by moisture and moths, their descendants sold them to Apellicon of Teos for a large sum of money, both the books of Aristotle and those of Theophrastus. But Apellicon was a bibliophile rather than a philosopher; and therefore, seeking a restoration of the parts that had been eaten through, he made new copies of the text, filling up the gaps incorrectly, and published the books full of errors. The result was that the earlier school of Peripatetics who came after Theophrastus had no books at all, with the exception of only a few, mostly exoteric works, and were therefore able to philosophize about nothing in a practical way, but only to talk bombast about commonplace propositions, whereas the later school, from the time the books in question appeared, though better able to philosophise and Aristotelise, were forced to call most of their statements probabilities, because of the large number of errors. Rome also contributed much to this; for, immediately after the death of Apellicon, Sulla, who had captured Athens, carried off Apellicon's library to Rome, where Tyrannion the grammarian, who was fond of Aristotle, got it in his hands by paying court to the librarian, as did also certain booksellers who used bad copyists and would not collate the texts—a thing that also takes place in the case of the other books that are copied for selling, both here and at Alexandria. However, this is enough about these men." (Strabo, Geogr. 13.1.54; translation taken from Perseus)
 There are several intriguing features of this account that should be drawn out.
  • This library contained copies of Aristotle's and Theophrastus's works that were made under their direction, yet, because of the decay of long years, the transcriptions made directly from these copies were poorly done and thus interjected textual corruptions early in the history of transmission, both during Apellicon's time and years later when Sulla possessed the library in Rome.
  • These books did last for at least 250 years or so (supporting Houston's conclusion that books in antiquity had a useful life of 100-300 years), however, these authorial copies of Aristotle's and Theophrastus's works were not always available for use because at some point the collection was buried in a trench!
  • The collection, though preserved over two centuries by the time it came to Rome, passed into many different hands and was transported across a wide geographical region. Different communities with their own agendas and priorities controlled access to these texts.

Gamble, Harry Y.
Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Houston, George W.
Inside Roman Libraries: Book Collections and Their Management in Antiquity. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2014.

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