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  • Writer's pictureGiorgia Capra, MA

A Brief History of the Library of Hadrian in Athens

What is the Library of Hadrian?

The Library of Hadrian was a multipurpose civic complex that was created by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in AD 132 to serve as a cultural centre for the city of Athens.

Library of Hadrian

Library of Hadrian History

During his reign, the philhellene Emperor Hadrian promoted an impressive building program to revitalise Athens, restoring its ancient monuments and providing the city with new attractions for its citizens. Hadrian’s intervention left many traces in Athens. He selected it as his intellectual home, and in return was worshipped here as a deity. The Athenians’ gratitude is symbolised by the Arch of Hadrian, erected by the citizens to commemorate his actions and benevolence towards the city.

The majestic Library of Hadrian is situated north of the Roman Agora, the marketplace built by Julius Caesar and his adoptive son and first emperor of Rome, Augustus. The area of the market was also enlarged and refurbished by Hadrian, and at the same time enriched by the presence of the library. This ambitious structure, erected in AD 132, is part of the renovation project that consolidated the presence of the Roman Empire in Athens more effectively than Hadrian’s predecessors had managed to do. It would be reductive to describe it just as a library because this building, designed to resemble a typical Roman forum, became a cultural centre and meeting point where many different activities were carried out. The Athenians could come here to spend time, consult books, attend lectures, listen to the great Athenian orators and engage in various cultural activities, perhaps even admiring works of art.

The library was situated in a central location, on a main city street close to the marketplace and next to the new residential quarter built by Hadrian. The structure is only partially preserved, but Pausanias, the ancient Greek traveller and geographer, gives an accurate description of it. The building was enclosed by a high wall and had a monumental entrance facing the Greek Agora, on the west side (part of which still survives), that was decorated with Corinthian columns. In the huge interior courtyard, a large pool and a garden were surrounded by 100 marble columns, some of them still visible nowadays, and several statues, now sadly lost. The inside walls were decorated with colourful marble. The complex included a main library room, used for the storage of the ‘books’ (or rather rolls of papyrus), which were kept in two rows of niches. The other adjacent spaces served as reading rooms and lecture halls.

In AD 267, the Herulian invasion severely damaged the library, which was only repaired many years later, in the 5th century. From Late Antiquity onwards the site hosted three religious buildings: the first, which might have been used as an oration hall, was at some point destroyed and replaced by a basilica in the 7th century. Finally, following the destruction of the basilica, a Byzantine cathedral was erected in the 12th century. Far removed from its beginnings as a cultural centre, during the Ottoman occupation of Athens, in the 18th century, the library was used as the main residence of the governor.

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