The Smell of Ancient Roman Libraries?

March 21, 2014 / Art & Archaeology
Rome, Italy

For me, one of life’s greatest pleasures is walking into an old library and sniffing. I adore the old book smell that hits you when you open those doors. Roman libraries in particular always have this wonderful smell.

In a passage of A Walk With the Emperors: A Historic and Literary Tour of Ancient RomeMott Groom writes about Ancient Roman libraries, language, and education back then, with a quote straight from Plutarch:

“The assembly of public libraries began in the time of Augustus when Rome’s first public library was dedicated in 39 BC. It was influenced by the Egyptian Library of Alexandria, which was destroyed in Caesar’s military campaign of 45 BC. Augustus founded two libraries, and, by the time of the Emperor Trajan, one hundred years later, Rome had 28 libraries. Most educated Romans spoke and wrote Greek.  Serious scholars went to Athens for advanced studies and much of the literary writing was in Greek. Most of the authors quoted in this book, however, wrote in Latin, with the notable exception of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Greek was so prevalent that the historian Plutarch tells us that he was able to conduct business in Greek throughout Italy.

When I visited Rome… I had not the leisure to gain practice in the Latin language because of the public business which I had undertaken… but the practice and application to this end are no easy matter; they are for those who have… the gifts of youth, to satisfy such ambition.”

Plutarch, Demosthenes


I wonder what the ancient scrolls and libraries smelled like… although depending on the period, I might have had to dress up as a full Roman citizen (meaning male) to find out.

The two libraries of Augustus that Groom mentions are the library of the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill and the library of the Porticus of Octaviae, located in the Jewish Ghetto in Rome.

“So what are you up to, today, Maddie?”

“Ohh, thought I might go up to the Temple of Apollo library and sniff the scrolls..”

If you enjoy Ancient Rome and learning about the specific sites and people that when along with it, then Mott Groom’s A Walk With the Emperors: A Historic and Literary Tour of Ancient Rome is for you! Whether you are walking the streets of Rome with the eBook in hand or sitting on a comfy couch somewhere, you’ll be introduced to the world of Ancient Rome where the Emperors are the timeline, putting the different historical sites into perspective. That combined with related quotes from famous authors such as Cicero, Horace, Gibbon, and even Shakespeare makes A Walk With the Emperors engaging and colorful, available for only $1.99 on Amazon

10 Responses to “The Smell of Ancient Roman Libraries?”

  1. Definitely a good read, and makes history and the sites of Rome so understandable. Well done, Mott, and a great into, Maddie.

    • thanks. it consumed many hours of Trastevere based Roman spare time while I was seeking consulting work. In fact, it became my occupation. Hope you enjoy it and leave a review. mott

  2. Maddie, i think you need to post your pic so we’ll recognize you on Roman streets !

  3. Angela Finch

    A most intriguing note. It was particularly pleasing to be introduced to Roman history through contemporary books. You so inspired me I shall buy a copy.

    • thank you, i hope you will also give it a review. if so, i will give your copy a digital autograph (however that is done). mott

  4. Thanks very much for this beautiful note. You (and many readers of this blog) would certainly enjoy a visit to the Museo del Libro Antico, with two locations in Tivoli, one better than the other: Villa d’Este and Villa Adriana. The owner, Antonio Basile (a dear friend of mine) has recreated all forms of writing, from the wax tablet to the book, passing through the creation of papyrus (of which is a specialist) and parchment. He has restored ancient documents of the Vatican Library and other prestigious libraries.
    Here is the general link (in Italian, I am sorry):
    And here the link to the museum at Villa d’Este:
    Maybe, you can visit it and then write a notice for ItalianNotebook!
    Warmest wishes from Messina, Sicily, where I am spending all month of March to work/teach at the University of Messina.


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