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Don’t Read in the Library!: Cicero’s Cato (De Finibus 3-4) and copia librorum in Other Latin Authors

Stephanie Ann Frampton

In an anecdote often repeated in discussions of the history of ancient libraries (most recently Johnson, forthcoming), Cicero reports having run into the younger Cato in the library of Lucullus’s son at Tusculum, perhaps in the mid-60’s BCE (De finibus bonorum et malorum 3.7 ff.). What is not widely recorded in such scholarship is that the two then proceed, in situ, to have an extended discussion about philosophy (Books 3 and 4). Cicero twice calls the room a bibliotheca (both 3.7). In several influential studies of ancient library culture in the last century, unfortunately, this term “bibliotheca” has been anachronistically taken to refer a room in the Roman house that was used for study, normatively understood as a reasonable setting for the philosophical dialogue that unfolds (e.g. Casson). I argue, however, that the bibliotheca, as described by Cicero, is rather conceived as very odd place to have such a long conversation. Cicero finds it remarkable that Cato was seated there at all (in bibliotheca sedentem 3.7) and for such a long time (in summo otio 3.7). Instead, as he suggests, the author of the De finibus himself was more in the habit of taking books out of the library-room. At 3.7, he says he has come “ut depromere [libros];” at 3.6, “ut quosdam hinc libros promerem;” at 3.10, “ut auferrem [libros].” Furthermore, Cicero’s tone regarding Cato’s appearance in the library is self-consciously a mocking one. He describes Cato “quasi helluari libris, si hoc verbo in tam clara re utendum est” (almost “pigging-out” on books, if I can use this expression for such a venerable thing 3.7). This aspect of Cicero’s description of Cato has been almost entirely unrecognized (but see Madvig ad loc.), and is moreover able to inform our understanding of the use of ancient library-rooms, from Rome to Herculaneum, as spaces in which books were stored but not typically “consumed.” The bibliotheca, as both Cicero and Cato well knew, is but a depository (θήκη) for books (singular βιβλίον). It is in keeping with Cato’s otherwise unusual habits (he is described as ἀλλόκοτος, “an oddball,” at Plut. Luc. 8.3) for him to have treated it otherwise, and to have asked Cicero to do the same by inviting him to sit to partake in philosophical discussion there.

Lastly, I show that this friendly teasing on Cicero’s part is occasioned not only by Cato’s choice of an unusual location for reading but also of the quantity of the works he examines: Cicero’s “quosdam libros” (certain books 3.8) are starkly contrasted to Cato’s “maxima copia” (greatest possible abundance 3.7). This description of Cato’s pile of books begs comparison with other uses of the term “copia” to identify the set of working texts used by especially poetic authors throughout Roman literature, as attested in Catullus (68.33, 39-40), Horace (Ep. 1.18.110), Ovid (Trist. 3.14.38), but also elsewhere in Cicero (Att. 2.6.1). Such comparison suggests, furthermore, that Cato treats the villa library of his young pupil Lucullus as his own working collection since, as he reminds his interlocutor here, he has no great collection of his own (3.10).

It must be further understood, then, that Cato is undertaking research in the Tusculan library, while Cicero merely takes out a few books for pleasurable study during free time afforded by the Ludi Circenses (3.8). Here the plenty of Cato’s otium (in summo otio) is contrasted with the paucity of Cicero’s (dum essem otiosus, quod quidem nobis non saepe contingit 3.10), where in both cases otium is understood as the ideal state for aristocratic writing (cf. Varro Res rustica 1.1.1). Furthermore, as Yardley suggested long ago examining poetic sources addressed above, this reading of De finibus may be used to support a technical denotation of copia librorum as a personal research collection for working scholars and authors, a definition not yet distinguished from the general understanding of copia as “supply” in the major Latin lexica.

Session/Panel Title

The Social Life of Ancient Libraries

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