Sunday, May 03, 2015

Another review of Houston, Inside Roman Libraries

George W. Houston, Inside Roman Libraries: Book Collections and Their Management in Antiquity. Studies in the history of Greece and Rome. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014. Pp. xvi, 327. ISBN 9781469617800. $59.95.

Reviewed by Scott G. Bruce, University of Colorado at Boulder (


George Houston’s primer to the contents and organization of Roman libraries from the late Republic to the time of Constantine is a valuable work of scholarly outreach intended for students and scholars new to the study of ancient book culture. More expository than argumentative, it discusses in clear and accessible prose “everything that one might find in a Roman library” (p. 1) from the book rolls themselves to the furniture, storage containers, buildings, and personnel that facilitated their use by Roman readers. The introduction to the book lays out basic information on the physical characteristics of papyrus scrolls in antiquity and provides the reader with a vocabulary of technical terms used throughout the study, including opisthograph (a scroll with writing on both sides), sillybon (a tag denoting the author and title of a work, usually attached to the end of a scroll), and stichometric counts (evidence for the enumeration of lines copied by professional scribes, perhaps to calculate their rate of pay). There follow six chapters on the assembly of Roman book collections, the papyrological evidence for ancient book lists, two case studies of the physical remains of book collections from Herculaneum and Oxyrhynchus, the storage facilities that housed ancient libraries, and the personnel who worked in them.

An earlier review with commentary on the book's relevance for ancient Judaism is noted here.