Romans did not only stole gold from Macedonia – also knowledge!

AncientsRomans did not only stole gold from Macedonia - also knowledge!

Related Articles

If you look at the history of antiquity, Romans probably harbored a kind of grudge against Macedonia. Several battles were fought in the long year lasting confrontations known as the Macedonian-Roman Wars.

The First Macedonian-Roman War happened between 215 and 205 BC. The Second Macedonian-Roman War lasted from 200 to 197 BC. And as a result of the Third Macedonian-Roman War (171–168 BC), the once powerful Macedonian Empire was smashed. After the glorious Macedonian Empire was defeated and fragmented, the Roman raid began.

In an article on our blog we described how the Romans stole so much gold from Macedonia that the ordinary citizen of Rome no longer had to pay direct taxes. You don’t have to be surprised if archaeological finds from certain epochs are rare in the former Macedonian-dominated area.

The raids did not only involve ‘worthy’ material things, but also knowledge.

The Romans even stole so much knowledge from Macedonia that they were able to build their first ‘big’ library!

This historical fact is hardly mentioned in general historiography and is usually only worth a marginal comment, if it is mentioned at all. But the actual value of the stolen knowledge, like the gold that has disappeared from Macedon, can hardly be estimated …

Raids through Macedonia gave Romans its first real library

You have to search carefully if you want to find informations on how Rome founded its first library.

The first reference to a library in Rome is a succinctly mentioned “collection of books” which the Roman general and consul Aemilius Paullus (approx. 229 – 160 BC) brought home after he met Perseus of Macedonia (approx. 212 – 166 BC) after the third Macedonian-Roman War.

This practice of the victor’s plundering was not uncommon and often practiced in history (in addition to the possible destruction of the works). Perhaps the best known example is Sulla’s appropriation of Aristotle’s library. Books, or shall we say ‘written knowledge’, were just welcomed and valued prey.

As in previous cultures, libraries were particularly associated with temples, palaces, and state archives. Roman writers were prolific commentators on the works of their “ancient Greek” predecessors, and so they clearly had access to these texts in libraries. The Roman libraries were divided into two areas: one for Latin and one for the Koine.

From the ruins of the kingdom of Macedonia he only kept the library of King Perseus for himself” – Encyclopedia Britannica on Lucius Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus

If one reads this statement of the Britannica, it even seems as if these “few books” are hardly worth mentioning.

That this is not the case, we can read in “Ancient Libraries” edited by Jason König, Katerina Oikonomopoulou and Greg Woolf.

There the extent of the “few books” is dealt with, even if it is difficult nowadays to estimate the actual volume of these literary works. There is no inventory list or similar, and nothing such was discovered or has stood the test of time, we simply do not know today what books the Macedonian king(s) owned.

However, as correctly noted in the work, the size of the collection should have been very extensive. After all, Macedonia had been the dominant power in the ancient world for several years (at least, since Philip II of Macedon took over the throne in 359 BC). And that is perhaps the whole point, the Macedonian book collection was so extensive that the Romans were able to establish a ‘real library’ for the first time!

So we read in the mentioned work “Ancient Libraries” on page 126:

The main significance of the Aemilian seizure of the Macedonian royal library is the size of the library involved. It must have presented a real culture shock for Rome. The Roman aristocracy certainly had possessed private collections of books before this, but it seems likely that they were modest in size and perhaps limited in their range. The exact scale of the Macedonian royal library is unknown. But given that Macedonian patronage of writers predated Alexander’s conquests, it is likely to have been quite large, if perhaps not comparable with the royal libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum. However, compared to existing libraries in Rome at the time, it would have seemed huge. It is possible too – although it is a matter of principles of organization that were already in use in Alexandria and that would be employed in the libraries in Rome. Here, then, is the real significance of the Aemilian capture of this library, not that it was the first library in Rome, but that for the first time, the Romans could see, in their own midest, the sort of collection being built up in Hellenistic East. It showed the Romans what a library could be.

We find another reference in “Dictionary of Dates, and Universal Reference” by Joseph T. Haydn. Under the entry “Library” we read a short excursus about the history of the libraries. In one sentence, Rome and its first library are also briefly mentioned.

So we read:

…The first library at Rome was instituted 167 B.C.; it was brought from Macedonia…

Used sources:

  • Dictionary of Dates, and Universal Reference. Joseph T. Haydn. 1841. Pg. 305.
  • Ancient Libraries, Jason König (University of St Andrews), Katerina Oikonomopoulou (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin), Greg Woolf (University of St Andrews, Scotland). Cambridge University Press, 2013
  • Encyclopedia Britannica, Web, Lucius Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus
  • Ancient History Encyclopedia, Web, Libraries in the Ancient World

Article written by

Browse our Stories

Read more

Popular Stories

Alexander The Great