Ptolemaion Library

Main information
Location / Site
Chronological era
4th c. BC – AD 1st c.
  • Hellenistic
Identifying features
  • Inscriptions (external references)
  • Literary texts
  • Historical texts
  • Philosophy
  • Political texts



The Ptolemaion library is the oldest securely attested public library in Athens. Located in one of the main gymnasia of the city, it was intimately linked to the ephebic training and philosophical education, which made Athens famous at that time.

Identifying features

The library associated to the Ptolemaion gymnasium has been known since the discovery of several ephebic decrees from the late 2nd and 1st c. B.C.E., which mentioned Athenian ephebes increased its contents (more information, in French).

History of the library

The Ptolemaion gymnasium, to which the library was directly linked, was founded in the 3rd c. B.C.E. It is still debated which of the Lagid kings gifted it to Athens (maybe Ptolemy III). In the 2nd c., itwas one of the main urban gymnasia of Athens, where the ephebes received philosophical instruction.

The library itself isn’t attested before 116/115 B.C.E., which is the date of the oldest inscription mentioning the gift of books to this library, and it disappears from testimonies at the end of the 1st c. B.C.E. The fragmentary nature of the epigraphic testimonies, however, doesn’t give us a secure history for this institution.


Literary testimonies on the Ptolemaion locate this gymnasium in the centre of Athens, near the agora and the Theseion (Pausanias 1.17.2 and Plutarch, Theseus 36.4). Unfortunately, no in situ inscription nor construction exclusively characteristic of such a gymnasium has been securely identified in this densely built area.

Several hypotheses have been proposed for the last decades. They give a probable location of the Ptolemaion in the neighbourhood of the Roman market, and even propose to link it to some remains excavated in the 20th c. (more information, in French).

Architecture and internal fittings


Place of the library in the society

The library was directly associated to Athenian ephebes and to the Ptolemaion, one of the main Athenian gymnasia during the Hellenistic period. Some literary and epigraphic sources also mention that this gymnasium was the teaching-place of several philosophers and orators, such as Zenodotos in the 2nd c. B.C.E. (IG II2 1006) and Antiochos of Ascalon in the 1st c. (Cicero, Fin. V.1.1).

Thus, the Ptolemaion library very likely played an important role in the intellectual training of Athenian ephebes, at a time when the ephebeia was deeply transformed. From this period onwards, the institution was opened to rich foreigners and became a prestige formation for theEastern Mediterranean elites.

Functioning and activities

Direct information concerning the library and its functioning are limited to the mention of the apparently yearly increase of its contents. Several ephebic decrees mention that finishing ephebes gave one hundred books to a library located “in the Ptolemaion.”

In addition to the link between the ephebes and the library, testimonies show that philosophers also taught in the Ptolemaion gymnasium.

Consequently, the Ptolemaion library is often considered as a teaching facility dedicated to the ephebes’ cultural and philosophical instruction in the 2nd and 1st c. B.C.E.

Contents of the library

We have only little information on the library’s contents. They were regularly increased, probably even yearly.

Many researchers consider the library’s contents was directly linked to teachings offered in the Ptolemaion. They thus proposed to reconstruct a collection focused on philosophical works.

A 1st c. B.C.E. inscription gives the title of two of the works given to the library: Homer’s Iliad, and a book by Euripides. They were literary wroks considered as “classics” in the Hellenistic period.

Rather than a proof of a possible thematic widening of the library in the mid-1st c., the mention of these works among new holdings of the library could attest the replacement of worn out copies.

Links with other libraries or centres of knowledge

The Ptolemaion library has often been associated to another inscription discovered in the Piraeus. This inscription is a catalogue of literary works, dated from the same period as the Ptolemaion library. Nothing, however, confirms this inscription was linked to the Ptolemaion library rather than another contemporary book-collection.


  • Coqueugniot G., 2017, ‘À propos des bibliothèques d’Athènes, de la fin de l’époque archaïque à l’époque impériale’, in N. Amoroso, M. Cavalieri, N. Meunier (ed.), Locum Armarium Libros. Livres et bibliothèques dans l’Antiquité, Louvain, p. 287-310.
  • Di Cesare R., 2015, ‘Lo Ptolemaion’, in E. Greco, S. Foresta, E. Gagliano (ed.),Topografia di Atene : sviluppo urbano e monumenti dalle origini al III secolo d.C. Tomo 5*, Athens, p. 749-751.
  • Lefebvre L., 2016, ‘Quel souverain lagide fit don d’un gymnase à Athènes ?’, Enim 6, p. 65-77 (online).
  • Perrin-Salminadayar E., 2007, Education, culture et société à Athènes. Les acteurs de la vie culturelle athénienne (229-88) : un tout petit monde, Paris.


Coqueugniot Gaëlle


Title : Ptolemaion Library
Creator : Coqueugniot Gaëlle
Subject : Library
Description : Literary texts, Historical texts, Philosophy, Political texts
Editor : Coqueugniot Gaëlle (transl.)
Date : June 2018
Type : Library / Gymnasium / Public institution
Format : Text & images
Source : Inscriptions (external references)
Language : English
Relation :
Rights : CC by NC - SA
Coverage :

Greece, Attica

/ 4th c. BC – AD 1st c. / Hellenistic