The Library of Constantinople, in the capital city of the Byzantine Empire, was the last of the great libraries of the ancient world. Long after the destruction of the library of Alexandria and the other ancient libraries, it preserved the knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Romans for almost 1,000 years, until it was mostly destroyed during the Fourth Crusade in 1204.
The fourth century was a critical time for the classical literature of Greece and Rome. Written on papyrus, manuscripts were gradually crumbling away and threatened to sink into oblivion unless transferred to parchment. Constantine the Great had begun that process by having the books of Holy Scripture copied, and his son the Emperor Constantius II undertook to continue the effort. The result of his initiative was the first imperial library of Constantinople, which contained more than 100,000 volumes. The leader of the project was Themistios, who commanded a considerable team of calligraphers and librarians.
One of the main problems was, as it is today, to choose what to save, for it was impossible to save everything. First, Themistios and the Emperor chose to save older literature–Homer and other great authors of the golden age of Greece. Themistios seems to have been uninterested in Latin authors. He did not, and did not want to, understand Latin. He was an arrogant Greek who regarded all other peoples, including Romans, as simple barbarians. But the emperors were Romans and Latin speaking, so Constantius saw that Roman classical literature was also transferred to parchment.
Although the older literature was regarded as more valuable than contemporary work, no one any longer spoke the Greek of the great Attic authors. So it was necessary to save commentaries and works of grammar as well as the texts of Sophocles, Plautus and other classical authors. From the record, we can see that Themistios knew many more classical authors than we have today. For instance, he mentions a triad of Stoic philosophers whose work is completely lost to us except for a few citations by other classical authors and some scraps among the carbonized remains at Herculaneum.
Themistios also had a remedy for the papyrus rolls that could not possibly be transcribed. He tried to delay their decay by putting these rolls into parchment coverings, rather like our attempt to encase brittle books in special envelopes or boxes.
Destruction of the library
The greatest enemy of ancient literature was not time but fire. Several fires in the Constantinople library eventually destroyed much of the collection over the centuries, but Themistios’ efforts had not been wholly in vain, for visitors came to the library from throughout the provinces to consult and transcribe the works, and some of the copies were themselves recopied. Without the efforts of Constantius and Themistios our knowledge of Greek and Roman classical literature would certainly be even less than it is today.
However, by and large, the library remained intact until, in 1204, the knights of the Fourth Crusade decended upon and sacked the city. Most of the library’s books were burnt or sold off by the Latins. Much of it, however, was saved or copied, and in that way much ancient literature did survive. What little remained of the library was afterwards absorbed into the Ottoman library, when the Turks captured the Constantinople after a long seige in 1453.