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Library of Celsus

The Library of Celsus is an ancient Roman building in Ephesus, Anatolia occidental, now part of Selçuk in Turkey. The building was commissioned in the 110s A.D. by a consul, Gaius Julius Aquila, as a funerary monument for his father, former proconsul of Asia Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus, and completed during the reign of Hadrian, sometime after Aquila’s death. The library is considered an architectural marvel, and is one of the only remaining examples of a library from the Roman Empire. The Library of Celsus was the third-largest library in the Roman world behind only Alexandria and Pergamum, believed to have held around twelve thousand scrolls. Celsus is buried in a crypt beneath the library in a decorated marble sarcophagus.

The interior of the library and its contents were destroyed in a fire that resulted either from an earthquake or a Gothic invasion in 262 C.E., and the façade by an earthquake in the tenth or eleventh century. It lay in ruins for centuries until the façade was re-erected by archaeologists between 1970 and 1978. And if we want to mention from history of the library, Celsus enjoyed a successful military and political career, having served as a commander in the Roman army before being elected to serve as a consul in Rome in 92 C.E. Celsus, a native of Sardis, was one of the first men from the Greek-speaking eastern provinces to serve as a consul, the highest elected office in imperial Rome. He was later appointed as proconsul, or governor, of Asia, the Roman province that covered roughly the same area as modern-day Turkey. Celsus’s son Aquila commissioned the library in his honor, though it was not completed until after Aquila’s death. An inscription records that Celsus left a large legacy of 25,000 denarii to pay for the library’s reading material.

The library operated as a public space for the city from its completion around 117-135 C.E. until 262. The main floor functioned as a reading room, lit by abundant natural light from the eastern windows. Shelves or armaria set into niches along the walls held papyrus book rolls that visitors could read, though borrowing would not have been permitted because copies of books were rare and labor-intensive to produce. Additional scrolls may have been held in free-standing book boxes placed around the room, in which case the library would have had a holding capacity of up to sixteen thousand scrolls.

The interior and contents of the library were destroyed by fire in 262 C.E. though it remains unknown whether this fire was the result of natural disaster or a Gothic invasion, as it seems the city was struck by one of each that year. Only the façade survived, until an earthquake in eleventh or tenth century left it in ruins as well.

Between 1970 and 1978, a reconstruction campaign was led by the German archaeologist Volker Michael Strocka. Strocka analysed the fragments that had been excavated by Austrian archaeologists between 1903 and 1904. In the meantime, some of the architectural elements had been acquired by museums in Vienna and Istanbul. The absent fragments had to be replaced by copies or left missing. Only the façade was rebuilt, while the rest of the building remains in ruin.

The east-facing marble façade of the library is intricately decorated with botanical carvings and portrait statuary. Design features include acanthus leaves, scrolls, and fasces emblems, the latter being a symbol of magisterial power that alludes to Celsus’s tenure as a consul. The library is built on a platform, with nine steps the width of the building leading up to three front entrances. These are surmounted by large windows, which may have been fitted with glass or latticework. Flanking the entrances are four pairs of Composite columns elevated on pedestals. A set of Corinthian columns stands directly above. The columns on the lower level frame four aediculae containing statues of female personifications of virtues :

Sophia (wisdom), Episteme (knowledge), Ennoia (intelligence) and Arete (excellence). These virtues allude to the dual purpose of the structure, built to function as both a library and a mausoleum; their presence both implies that the man for whom it was built exemplified these four virtues, and that the visitor may cultivate these virtues in him or herself by taking advantage of the library’s holdings. This type of façade with inset frames and niches for statues is similar to that of the skene found in ancient Greek theatres and is thus characterised as “scenographic”.

The columns on the second level flank four podia, paralleling the aediculae below, which held statues of Celsus and his son. A third register of columns may have been present in antiquity, though today only two remain. The interior of the building, which has yet to be restored, consisted of a single rectangular room measuring 17×11 m, with a central apse framed by a large arch at the far wall.

The apse contained a podium for a statue, now lost, that likely depicted Celsus, although some scholars have suggested it was Minerva, goddess of wisdom. A crypt containing Celsus’s sarcophagus was located beneath the floor of the apse. It was unusual in Roman culture for someone to be buried within a library or even within city limits, so this was a special honour for Celsus, reflecting his prominent role as a public official.

The three remaining walls were lined with either two or three levels of niches measuring 2.55×1.1×0.58 m on average, which would have held the armaria to house the scrolls. These niches, which were backed with double walls, may have also had a function to control the humidity and protect the scrolls from the extreme temperature. The upper level was a gallery with a balcony overlooking the main floor, creating a lofty spatial effect inside. It could be reached via a set of stairs built into the walls, which added structural support. The ceiling was flat and may have had a central round oculus to provide more light.

The design of the library, with its ornate, balanced façade, reflects the influence of Greek style on Roman architecture, which reached its height in the second century.

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