How Aristotle’s personal library arrived in Rome, almost 300 years after his death

Statue of Aristotle / photo Ververidis Vasilis – Shutterstock

Throughout history, books have been a highly prized commodity. Their trade goes back many centuries to the invention of materials such as papyrus and parchment, and the creation of libraries by accumulating and copying books gave rise to collections as famous as that of Alexandria.

Unfortunately, many libraries were lost due to various circumstances. Others suffered surprising ups and downs, such as Aristotle’s personal library. All in all, according to Catherine Nixey in her wonderful work The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World (2017):

a lot was preserved, but a lot, a lot more was destroyed. It has been estimated that less than ten percent of all classical literature has survived into the modern era. In the case of Latin, the numbers are even worse; it is estimated that only one percent of all Latin literature is preserved.

There is no need to introduce Aristotle, perhaps the most famous classical philosopher along with his master Plato. He was born in Stagira (now Stavros), in the Macedonian Chalcidic peninsula, in 384 BC. At the age of 17 he was sent by his tutor to study in Athens, at Plato’s Academy, where he remained for 20 years.

Bust of Aristotle / photo Marco Almbauer in Wikimedia Commons

At Plato’s death in 347 B.C. he began a journey through several cities in Asia Minor, until in 343 B.C. he was called by King Philip II of Macedonia to become the mentor of his son, the future Alexander the Great, who at that time was 13 years old.

In 335 B.C. he returned to Athens to found his own free public philosophical school, the Lyceum. It was during this period that he began to accumulate copies, both his own and those of other philosophers, forming a large personal library.

After Alexander’s death in 323 B.C. Aristotle leaves Athens definitively and settles in the city of Chalcis, on the island of Euboea, where he will die the year afterwards.

But before he left, he had appointed his disciple and friend Theophrastus as successor to the head of the Lyceum. He left him in the care of his entire library, and even named him in his will as the tutor of his children. Theophrastus ran the Lyceum successfully for 35 years until his death in 287 B.C.

And this is where the track of Aristotle’s library, increased for 35 years by Theophrastus with new works of his own and others, begins to dilute. Theophrastus bequeathed it to one of his disciples, Neleus of Scepsis. Neleus returned to his hometown, the present Kursunlu Tepe in Turkey, and upon his death left the library to his heirs. At that time the area became under the control of the Attalids, who in 230 B.C. initiated the creation of the Pergamon Library to compete with that of Alexandria. According to Strabo:

From Scepsis came the Socratic philosophers Erastus and Choriscus and Neleus the son of Choriscus, the latter a man who was not only a pupil of Aristotle and Theophrastus, but also inherited the library of Theophrastus, which included that of Aristotle. In any case, Aristotle bequeathed his own library to Theophrastus, to whom he also left his school; and he is the first man, as far as I know, to have collected books and taught the kings of Egypt to organize a library. Theophrastus bequeathed it to Neleus; and Neleus took it to Scepsis, and bequeathed it to his heirs, common people, who kept the books under lock and key and didn’t even care about them. But when they heard how jealously the kings to whom the city was subject searched for books to build the library in Pergamon, they hid their books underground in a sort of trench.

Strabo, Geography XIII-1.54

For almost 150 years the books in the library of Aristotle and Theophrastus remained hidden underground. At the end of that time, a singular, wealthy, bibliophile character appeared on the scene, about whom little is known. Having obtained Athenian citizenship, he dedicated his life to amassing a formidable library, for which he did not hesitate to steal original documents from the archives of Greek cities. His name was Apellicon of Teos and it seems that he was a specialist in the location and subtraction of rare books.

View from ancient Scepsis / photo Picatrix in Wikimedia Commons

Somehow he was able to trace the library back to Neleus’ descendants, buying it despite the poor condition of the books due to moisture and insects in 100 BC. Strabo continues:

But much later, when the books were damaged by moisture and moths, their descendants sold them to Apellicon of Teos for a large sum of money, both the books of Aristotle and those of Theophrastus

Strabo, Geography XIII-1.54

The same is said by Athenaeus of Náucratis, who lived between the end of the 2nd century and the beginning of the 3rd century A.D. when he speaks of Apellicon:

For at one time he was a philosopher, and gathered all the tracts of the peripathic ones, and all the library of Aristotle and many others; for he was a very rich man; and he had also stolen a great number of autograph decrees from the ancient ones at the temple of the Great Mother, and everything else that was there that was ancient and kept by other cities

Athenaeus, Banquet of the erudites V-53

Apellicon took the library back to Athens where he devoted himself to restoring the damaged parts, making new copies of the texts and, unfortunately, filling in the missing parts as he thought they should have been.

Because of this, and the large number of mistakes made by Apellicon, Strabo says that

the later school, from the moment the books in question appeared, although better able to philosophize and Aristotelize, was forced to call most of its affirmations “probabilities”, due to the large number of errors

Strabo, Geography XIII-1.54

However, there is another version of the story, which tells that Neleus bequeathed to his family only the texts and manuscripts that were still unsorted, the notes of the master Aristotle that were not yet ready for editing. The rest would have been sold to the Library of Alexandria through an intermediary, plausibly Demetrius of Phallero, who at that time was still working in the library under Ptolemy’s orders.

The Library of Alexandria, engraved by O. Von Corven / photo public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

This version is based on two facts. The first was that Neleus and Demetrius were good friends, both disciples of Theophrastus. And the second, that according to a document preserved in the Egyptian archives, it is said that when Augustus conquered Alexandria he inspected the libraries and the date of production of the books, and found in them manuscripts of works of Aristotle, written in his time and in that of Theophrastus.

Returning to Apellicon, when Roman general Sulla captured Athens in 86 B.C. and Roman soldiers pillaged house by house, they found Apellicon hidden in his library. They killed him and warned Sulla of their finding. He ordered the books to be shipped to his villa in Rome.

Another Roman general, Luculus, had also found copies of Aristotle’s texts in Amisus. From there he took Tyrannion to Rome among the prisoners, a Greek grammatician who gained access to both Luculus’ and Sulla’s collections and made a selection of originals, ordering and copying them.

Tyrannion was Strabo’s master, at least until 30 B.C., which makes one think that all the story of the Aristotelian library told by Strabo was heard from his mouth.

But more importantly, Tyrannion sent a copy of all manuscripts to Andronicus of Rhodes, who from 78 to 47 B.C. served as Aristotle’s eleventh successor in the direction of the Lyceum. Andronicus would make the first complete critical edition of Aristotle’s works that have reached our days.

Unfortunately, years later, Sulla’s son, Faustus, ruined, decided to sell the books, which were distributed among many buyers, definitively being lost.

It is estimated that barely a third of all that Aristotle wrote is preserved. For example, of his Constitutions, written for 158 Greek cities, only that of Athens remains. And that’s because it was found in an excavation in Egypt. Of his more than 200 treatises, only 31 have reached us.

Sources: Geografía (Strabo) / Banquete de los erúditos (Ateneo) / Vidas Paralelas: Sila (Plutarch) / Aristoteles: Exposicion E Interpretacion (Ingemar During) / Libros y libreros en la Antigüedad (Alfonso Reyes) / Nueva historia universal de la destrucción de libros (Fernando Báez) / Wikipedia.