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Libraries
by [?]

The passion for forming vast collections of books has necessarily existed in all periods of human curiosity; but long it required regal munificence to found a national library. It is only since the art of multiplying the productions of the mind has been discovered, that men of letters themselves have been enabled to rival this imperial and patriotic honour. The taste for books, so rare before the fifteenth century, has gradually become general only within these four hundred years: in that small space of time the public mind of Europe has been created.

Of LIBRARIES, the following anecdotes seem most interesting, as they mark either the affection, or the veneration, which civilised men have ever felt for these perennial repositories of their minds. The first national library founded in Egypt seemed to have been placed under the protection of the divinities, for their statues magnificently adorned this temple, dedicated at once to religion and to literature. It was still further embellished by a well-known inscription, for ever grateful to the votary of literature; on the front was engraven,–“The nourishment of the soul;” or, according to Diodorus, “The medicine of the mind.”

The Egyptian Ptolemies founded the vast library of Alexandria, which was afterwards the emulative labour of rival monarchs; the founder infused a soul into the vast body he was creating, by his choice of the librarian, Demetrius Phalereus, whose skilful industry amassed from all nations their choicest productions. Without such a librarian, a national library would be little more than a literary chaos; his well exercised memory and critical judgment are its best catalogue. One of the Ptolemies refused supplying the famished Athenians with wheat, until they presented him with the original manuscripts of AEschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; and in returning copies of these autographs, he allowed them to retain the fifteen talents which he had pledged with them as a princely security.

When tyrants, or usurpers, have possessed sense as well as courage, they have proved the most ardent patrons of literature; they know it is their interest to turn aside the public mind from political speculations, and to afford their subjects the inexhaustible occupations of curiosity, and the consoling pleasures of the imagination. Thus Pisistratus is said to have been among the earliest of the Greeks, who projected an immense collection of the works of the learned, and is supposed to have been the collector of the scattered works, which passed under the name of Homer.

The Romans, after six centuries of gradual dominion, must have possessed the vast and diversified collections of the writings of the nations they conquered: among the most valued spoils of their victories, we know that manuscripts were considered as more precious than vases of gold. Paulus Emilius, after the defeat of Perseus, king of Macedon, brought to Rome a great number which he had amassed in Greece, and which he now distributed among his sons, or presented to the Roman people. Sylla followed his example. Alter the siege of Athens, he discovered an entire library in the temple of Apollo, which having carried to Rome, he appears to have been the founder of the first Roman public library. After the taking of Carthage, the Roman senate rewarded the family of Regulus with the books found in that city. A library was a national gift, and the most honourable they could bestow. From the intercourse of the Romans with the Greeks, the passion for forming libraries rapidly increased, and individuals began to pride themselves on their private collections.

Of many illustrious Romans, their magnificent taste in their libraries has been recorded. Asinius Pollio, Crassus, Caesar, and Cicero, have, among others, been celebrated for their literary splendor. Lucullus, whose incredible opulence exhausted itself on more than imperial luxuries, more honourably distinguished himself by his vast collections of books, and the happy use he made of them by the liberal access he allowed the learned. “It was a library,” says Plutarch, “whose walks, galleries, and cabinets, were open to all visitors; and the ingenious Greeks, when at leisure, resorted to this abode of the Muses to hold literary conversations, in which Lucullus himself loved to join.” This library enlarged by others, Julius Caesar once proposed to open for the public, having chosen the erudite Varro for its librarian; but the daggers of Brutus and his party prevented the meditated projects of Caesar. In this museum, Cicero frequently pursued his studies, during the time his friend Faustus had the charge of it; which he describes to Atticus in his 4th Book, Epist. 9. Amidst his public occupations and his private studies, either of them sufficient to have immortalised one man, we are astonished at the minute attention Cicero paid to the formation of his libraries and his cabinets of antiquities.