Library of Celsus (#14)

Welcome to Rome Across Europe!

Today we continue examining the list of 52 Ancient Roman Monuments which had been claimed as a “must see” by Touropia Travel Experts. The last location we had checked out was #15 – Castel Sant’Angelo.

Today we’re headed to the eastern portion of the Roman Empire as we head to Turkey to bring to you #14 – Library of Celsus!

The Library of Celsus is an ancient Roman building in Ephesus, Anatolia in Turkey. It was built in honor of the Roman Senator Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus. Completed sometime between AD 117 and 120 AD by Celsus’ son, Gaius Julius Aquila, the library was viewed as one of the most impressive buildings in the Roman Empire.

Plan of the Library of Celsus

It was built to store 12,000 scrolls and to serve as a mausoleum for Celsus, who is buried in a crypt beneath the library in a decorated marble sarcophagus. The Library of Celsus supposedly ranked as the 3rd largest library in Classical Antiquity, behind both Alexandria and Pergamum.

Celsus had been Consul in 92 AD where he was in charge of all public buildings, the Roman Proconsul of Ephesus, the capital of the Roman Province of Asia from AD 105- 107 AD, and a wealthy and popular local citizen. He was a native of nearby Sardis and amongst the earliest men of purely Greek origin to become a Consul in the Roman Empire.

Roman inscription on the library’s front.

Honored both as a Greek and a Roman (according to an inscription on the library itself), Celsus paid for the construction of the library with his own personal wealth. Construction on the library began in AD 117, in the traditionally Greek territory of Ephesus, and was completed by AD 120.

The building is important as one of the few remaining examples of an ancient Roman-influenced library. It also shows that public libraries were built not only in Rome itself but throughout the Roman Empire.

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio

The library was designed by the Roman architect Vitruvius. To benefit early risers, Vitruvius even advised that the single-hall edifice face east toward the morning sun.

The library was built on a platform leading up to 3 front entrances. In order to reach an entrance one must climb 9 steps that span the full width of the building.

The central entrance is larger than the 2 flanking it, and all are adorned with windows above. Flanking the entrances are 4 pairs of Composite columns elevated on pedestals.

A set of Corinthian columns stands directly above the initial set, thus adding to the height of the building. The pairs of columns on the 2nd level frame the windows as the columns on the 1st level frame the doors, and also create niches that house copies of Sophia (wisdom), Episteme (knowledge), Ennoia (intelligence) and Arete (virtue).

(L to R) Sophia, Episteme and Arete in the Celsus Library.

It is thought there may have been a 3rd set of columns, but today there are only 2 registers of columns. This type of façade with inset frames and niches for statues is similar to that found in ancient Greek theatres and is thus characterized as scenographic.

Marble statue of Celsus, which stood in the central niche of the upper storey of the Celsus Library (Istanbul Archaeological Museum).

The main entrance is both a crypt containing Celsus’s sarcophagus and a sepulchral monument to him. It was unusual to be buried within a library or even within city limits, so this was a special honor for Celsus.

Celsus was said to have left a legacy of 25,000 denarii to pay for the library’s reading material. Leaving a large monetary gift plus paying for the construction of such a large public building probably helped to grant Celsus that special honor.

The building’s other sides are architecturally irrelevant as the library was flanked by buildings. The interior of the building was a single rectangular room measuring 56×36 ft.

Reimagined depiction of what the library would have looked like.

Within this hall was a central apse which was framed by a large arch at the far wall. A statue of Athena, goddess of truth, stood in the apse and Celsus’ tomb lay directly below in a vaulted chamber.

Along the other 3 sides were rectangular recesses that held cupboards and shelves for the 12,000 scrolls. Those niches along with the double walls behind them worked to both control the humidity and to protect the scrolls from the extreme temperature.

The 2nd and 3rd levels could be reached via a set of stairs built into the walls to add support to the building, which also had similar niches for scrolls. The ceiling was flat, and there may have been a central square oculus to provide more light.

Above the central entrance

The style of the library, with its ornate, balanced, well-planned façade, reflects the Greek influence on Roman architecture. The building materials (brick, concrete, and gypsum mortar) signify the new materials that came into use in the Roman Empire around the 2nd Century AD.

In 262 AD, the interior of the library was supposedly destroyed by an earthquake. Evidence, though, seems to point to a fire during a Gothic invasion during that same year as the cause of destruction.

Whatever the actual cause, only the façade survived. This meant all 12,000 scrolls were destroyed too.

About AD 400, the library was transformed into a Nymphaeum. The façade was completely destroyed by a later earthquake, probably in the 10th or 11th Century AD.

Photo of the facade in 1978.

For centuries the façade lay in ruins, until it was re-erected (anastylosis) by archaeologists between 1970 and 1978. This reconstruction campaign was led by the German archaeologist Volker Michael Strocka.

Strocka analyzed the fragments that had been excavated by Austrian archaeologists between 1903 and 1904. In the meantime, some architectural elements had been acquired by museums in Vienna and Istanbul.

All that remains of the library.

In the process of anastylosis, those absent fragments had to be replaced by copies or left missing. Only the façade was rebuilt, the rest of the building remaining in ruin.

The city of Ephesus was once famed for the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, which was destroyed by a mob led by the Archbishop of Constantinople in 401 AD. The building’s façade was depicted on the reverse of the Turkish 20 million lira banknote of 2001-2005 and of the 20 new lira banknote of 2005-2009.

Turkish Liras Banknote showing the Library of Celsus and the Temple to Hadrian (right).

We hope you enjoyed today’s journey and look forward to having you back again soon.

Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!

 

References:

Boethius, Axel; J.B. Ward-Perkins. Etruscan and Roman Architecture: The Pelican History of Art. Penguin, 1970. ISBN 978-0-300-05290-9.

Grant, Michael. Art in the Roman Empire. Routledge, 1995. ISBN 978-0-415-12031-9.

Robertson, D.S. Greek and Roman Architecture. Cambridge University Press, 1964. ISBN 978-0-521-09452-8.

Scarre, Christopher. The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome. Penguin, 1995. ISBN 978-0-14-051329-5.

“Greece and Asia Minor”. The Cambridge Ancient History – XI. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-26335-1.

“Library, Rome”. The Brill’s New Pauly Encyclopedia of the Ancient World, volume 7. Brill Leiden. 2005. ISBN 978-90-04-12259-8.

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