Transactions of the American Philological Society 67 (1936), pp.114-25.


Clarence A. Forbes


X.-Books for the Burning



This article cites the known cases of books intentionally burned.

   When the Roman poets wished to boast of the imperishability
of their works, they commonly mentioned fire as one of the
destructive agents which they were confident of surviving.
While your funeral offerings for your dead father will burn on
the pyre and be consumed, says Statius to Claudius Etruscus,
my funeral offering of a poem shall never burn and shall last
for the years to come.1 Statius' prediction have proved true,
but how many predictions of the sort we do not read any more
because they proved to be untrue! How many books perished
in the small fires and great conflagrations of Rome, Alexandria,
Constantinople, and the cultured cities of Asia Minor! Fires
of this kind, which account for tremendous losses in the Greek
and Latin literature still preserved to us, are, however, not
instructive about human nature and the reasons which lead to
the deliberate burning of the books which record the thoughts
of men. The history of the intentional burning of books
extends from the fifth century B.C. to the present decade.
Since modern scholars and writers who have dealt with this
subject2 say very little about the ancient period, it seems
worth while to assemble an account of the books burned prior
to the fall of the western Roman empire.

   Plato was the first of the small handful of ancient writers
who burned or wished to have burned some of their writings.
Literary vanity furnished a sufficient guarantee that little
would be lost in this fashion, as Seneca well knew when he
observed that people write books on scorning glory and then

   1.  Stat. Silv. 3.3.31-39. Cf. Ov. M. 15.871f.
   2.  E.g. Étienne Gabriel Peignot, Dictionnaire critique, littéraire, et biblio-
graphique des principaux livres condamnés au feu, supprimés ou censurés: précédé
d'un discours sur ces sortes d'ouvrage
(Paris, A. A. Renouard, 1806), 2 vols.

Vol. lxvii] Books for the Burning 115

sign their names. Plato's Second Epistle, a lengthy missive to
Dionysius, closes with a request to the tyrant to read the letter
over repeatedly, and then, in order to insure secrecy regarding
the contents, burn it. Professor Post takes this to be a genuine
letter of Plato, and he compares with its close the remark of
Jane Welsh Carlyle in one of her letters: "Pray read all this
unto yourself and burn the letter."3 Judging by the cases of
Plato and Mrs. Carlyle, such an injunction is one of the surest
methods of guaranteeing that a letter will not be burned.

   The somewhat unreliable accounts of the biography of Plato
declare that in his youth he began to write epic poetry, but
perceiving the great superiority of Homer, he threw his own
efforts into the fire and turned to philosophy. Apuleius
asserts that Plato was dissatisfied with and burned all his
poetry except his erotic epigrams.4

   Diogenes Laertius gives a brief biography of Metrocles, a
third century philosopher, and tells of his conversion by Crates
from the Peripatetic to the Cynic school. With a sententious
quotation from Homer, Metrocles proceeded to burn the notes
he had taken at the lectures of Theophrastus; and with another
quotation from tragedy, he cast his own writings upon the
flames and became a Cynic.5

   In the Augustan Age Timagenes of Alexandria was resident
in Rome and wrote an account of the acta Caesaris Augusti.
Before this book was published, however, he chanced to have a
disagreement with the emperor. In anger and scorn he tossed
his history into the fire.6

   The most striking case of an ancient writer's sincerely
wishing that a major work of his own should be burned and
never published is the famous case of Vergil and the Aeneid.
Our earliest allusion to this is in the Elder Pliny, who declares
that "the deified Augustus, overruling the modesty of Vergil's

   3.  Jane Welsh Carlyle, Letters to her family (New York. Doubleday. Doran &
Co. 1924), 83. Cited by L. A. Post, A.J.P. LVII (1936). 207.
   4.  Ael. V.H. 2.30; Apul. Apol. 10; Eust. ad Il. 18.392.
   5.  Diog. Laert. 6.95.
   6.  Sen. Rhet. Contr. 10.5.22; Sen. De Ira 3.23.6.


Clarence A. Forbes


will, forbade that his poems be burned."7 The various
biographers of Vergil also recount the story in more or less
detail, and they all agree with Pliny that Vergil's reason for
wishing the Aeneid burned was that it lacked the ultima
manus.8 Niebuhr was merely perverse, not to say obtuse, in
proclaiming that Vergil wanted the Aeneid burned because it
was not sufficiently nationalistic.9

   Horace in his well-known palinode gave humorous per-
mission, not command, that his iambics of attack upon the fair
unknown be consigned by her hand either to the fire or to the
Adriatic Sea.10 It may be doubted whether the fairer daughter
of a mother fair took any steps to avail herself of this permis-
sion to destroy an epode or two.

   For Ovid, on the eve of his departure into exile, to throw the
Metamorphoses into the fire was a dramatic, but insincere
gesture. When he speaks of this action in retrospect, he is
somewhat vague as to the impelling motive: "Either because I
hated my poetry as constituting the accusation against me, or
because the poem was still inchoate and unpolished."11
Ovid's essentially weak and vacillating character thus leaves
him dubious as to what led him to burn his own book; and he
admits that he was aware of the existence of several other
copies besides the one which he burned. This is mere shilly-
shally and hypocrisy. The real truth was in the epilogue to
the Metamorphoses:12 that Ovid had written a work which was
not destined to be destroyed by fire or sword, by Jupiter's
wrath, or by devouring time.

   The earliest instance of the ruthless immolation of books on

   7.    Plin. N.H. 7.114.
   8.    Donatus Vita Verg. 38f; the vitae by Servius and Probus; Vita Gudiana I;
the epigrams quoted in these vitae; Anthol. Lat. 653 and 672; Gellius 17.10.7
(quoting Favorinus).
   9.    B. G. Niebuhr, Lectures on the history of Rome2 (London, 1849), III 137.
See the refutation by D. Comparetti, Vergil in the Middle Ages (London, Swan
Sonnenschein & Co., 1895), 9, note 15.
   10.  Hor. C. 1.16.1-4.
   11.  Ov. Trist. 1.7.15-26; cf. ibid. 4.10.61-64.
   12.  Ov. M. 15.871f.

Vol. lxvii] Books for the Burning 117

the fire by the author's own hand is drawn from the Roman
legends concerning the Tarquins. Varro tells13 how the
Cumaean Sibyl "brought nine books to King Tarquinius
Priscus and asked for them three hundred pieces of gold. The
king, scoffing at the enormous price, mocked at her as a
madwoman. In his sight she burned three and asked the
same price for what remained. Tarquin was so much the
more convinced that the woman was mad. When she again
burned three more and persevered in asking the same price, the
king changed his mind and bought the remainder for three
hundred pieces of gold." Women always know how to bring
men to terms. The Sibylline books were carefully kept and
often consulted by the Romans for more than a thousand
years, but they were finally burned for reasons unknown by
Stilicho, at some time before his death in the year 408.14

   It was not many centuries after the first books were made
that some writers stirred men's anger to the burning point.
The first cause ever alleged for condemning books to the fire
was atheism. This was in the violet-crowned, glorious city of
Athens, in the fifth century B.c. The treatise of Protagoras
Peri\ Qew~v began with the famous sentence: "Concerning the
gods I am not able to know either that they do exist or that
they do not exist." We should call this agnosticism, not
atheism, but the Athenians were indignant, and one Pythodorus
accused Protagoras on a writ of a)se&beia. He was condemned
to exile, and all copies of his book were collected by a public
crier and burned in the agora. Such action in the days when a
book circulated in only a very limited number of copies was
thoroughly effective, and the treatise of Protagoras is still lost.15

13.  Varro ap. Lact. Inst. Div. 1.6.10f. Cf. Gell. 1.19.
14.  The sole evidence is the line of Rutilius Namatianus (De Reditu Suo 2.52)
Ante Sibyllinae fata cremavit opis. Though they were accidentally destroyed
in the burning of the Capitol in 83 B.c., the libri Sibyllini had been diligently
and speedily replaced.
15.  This story is vouched for by eight ancient authorities, among them such
sober and scholarly ones as Cicero and Josephus. The passages are: Cic.
N.D. 1.23.63; Josephus Ap. 2.37.266; Diog. Laert. 9.52; Philostr. V.S. 1.10
(494); Min. Fel. Oct. 8.3; Laet. De Ira 9.1f; Eus. Praep. Ev. 14.19.10; and


Clarence A. Forbes


The book of Protagoras was only the first of a long line that
were burned for religious reasons. Religion has always been
the chief cause for the deliberate destruction of books, and the
histories of western religion have about them a pungent smell
of smoke.

   The Roman religion was officially controlled by the state and
its magistrates. The protection of the religion from unde-
sirable influences led sometimes to the authorized burning of
books. Livy hints, in his account of the senatus consultum de
Bacchanalibus, that several times before 186 B.C. the Roman
magistrates had been requested by the senate to collect and
burn books of soothsaying.16 In 181 B.C. occurred a more
definite episode. Several annalists told the story, later re-
hearsed by Varro, Livy, and others, of the finding in a buried
chest of some books of Numa, part of which were written in
Greek. and dealt with the Pythagorean philosophy. The
matters set forth appeared to the Roman senate quite inhar-
monious with the established religion, and they decreed that
the books should be burned by the praetor, Quintus Petilius.
Even the most rudimentary historical criticism can perceive
that these books were a bold forgery, but fit is clear that
someone wrote them, and that they were burned. Thus the
first attempt to introduce Greek philosophy into Rome, by
means of a subterfuge, was abortive. Those who wish to
study the story in detail must refer to the sources.17

   In 168 B.C. Antiochus Epiphanes made a determined effort to
crush the Jewish religion. Part of the program which he and
his followers carried out was seizing and burning all the books
of the Jewish law and prophets that they could find in Jerusalem


Suid. s.v. Prwtago&raj. It is admittedly curious that Plato and Xenophon do
not mention the circumstance, and the passage about Protagoras in the Meno
(91e) even seems to deny that he ever fell into disgrace (see St. George Stock
ad locum).
   16.  Liv. 39.16.8: vaticini libri.
   17.  Plin. N.H. 13.84-87, with references to several annalists; Liv. 40.29;
Varro ap. Aug. C.D. 7.34; Val. Max. 1.1.12; Plut. Numa 22; Lact. Inst. Div.
1.22.5-8; Anon. De viris Illust. 3.3

Vol. lxvii] Books for the Burning 119

and the other cities of Palestine.18 This first attack by fire on
portions of the Bible has been followed by many others in the
course of the ages.

   The books of the Jewish prophets were not the only books
of a prophetic nature that found their way to the flames.
Augustus, the religious reformer, decided to celebrate his
entrance upon the office of pontifex maximus by clearing away
a large accumulation of superstitious rubbish. He gathered up
and burned more than two thousand Greek and Latin books of
soothsaying.19 In fact, the only books of the kind that he
spared were the revered old libri Sibyllini.

   The Book of Acts (19.19) tells us one striking result of the
labors of St. Paul in Ephesus. The city had for centuries been
a hotbed of magic,20 but now the practitioners of the black art
were converted to a higher doctrine, and they manifested their
sincerity by burning in a public conflagration their books on
magic, to the value of 50,000 drachmas (" pieces of silver").

   Books on magic can be spared much more easily than the
Ku&riai Do&cai of Epicurus. Lucian tells us how his contempo-
rary, the oracle-monger Alexander of Abonutichus, hated the
Epicureans and their views, which give no place for oracles.
The most ridiculous thing that Alexander ever did, declared
Lucian,21 was when he brought the Ku&riai Do&cai of Epicurus into
the middle of the agora, burned them on a fire of figwood, and
cast the ashes into the sea.

   The philosophers of the Peripatetic school came under the
ban of Caracalla's displeasure in the year 212, and Dio22 says
that he wanted to burn their books. Whether he actually did
so or not the historians do not tell. His flimsy pretext was
that Aristotle had been partly to blame for the death of

   The accounts of the persecution of the Christians during the

18.  1 Macc. 1.56f (59f in aliquot edd.); Sulp. Sev. Chron. 2.19.8:
19.  Suet. Aug. 31.1.
20.  Cf. the 'Efe&sia gra&mmata.
21.  Lucian Alex. 47.
22.  Dio 77.7.3.


Clarence A. Forbes


first three centuries of the Roman Empire say nothing of
attacks made upon Christian books. The persecution of
Diocletian, however, made a vigorous effort to remedy the
earlier neglect of this matter. In the year 303 Diocletian
promulgated throughout the Roman world his famous edict
commanding the Christian churches to be overthrown and the
Scriptures to be burned. Eusebius related how he saw with
his own eyes the Holy Scriptures tossed on the fire in the
market place.23

   The African Christians have left us the most abundant
record of the effects of Diocletian's edict. In Cirta a man
named Victor was forced by the magistrate Valentianus to
throw the four gospels on the fire with his own hand.24 In the
forum of Abitinae, another Numidian city, Bishop Fundanus
had to give up his books of Holy Writ to the magistrate.
When the magistrate threw them on the fire, the story is that a
miracle occurred: rain falling from a clear sky put out the fire
and saved the Scriptures.25  While some of the African
Christians surrendered their Bibles to the flames without any
resistance, others were determined to save them even at the
price of martyrdom.26  Bishop Felix of Tubyza in Numidia,
for example, stoutly refused to give up his libri deifici to be
burned, and after being haled from official to official, he was
finally beheaded for resisting the law.27  Bishop Mensurius of
Carthage concealed the holy books, and surrendered as a sop
to Cerberus all the heretical books he could lay hands on.
When the Roman governor was informed of this evasion, he
refused to believe it, and the matter was dropped.28

   23.  Eus. Hist. Eccl. 8.2.1, cf. id. Mart. Palaest. praef. 1; Suid. s.v. Dioklhtiano&j;
Hier. In Zach. 2.8 (Migne XXV 1467).
   24.  Aug. Cont. Cresc. 3.27.30 (C.S.E.L. LII), quoting the Gesta concilii Cirtensis.
See also ibid. 3.29.33, the Gesta apud Zenophilum consularem, for further details
on hunting down the Scriptures at Cirta.
   25 Acta SS. Saturnini, Dativi, et al. (Migne VIII 691 or Ruinart, Acta Sincera
[Paris, 1689], 410.)
   26.  Ibid.
   27.  Acta S. Felicis Episcopi (Migne VIII 680-683).
   28.  Aug. Brev. Coll. 3.13.25 (C.S.E.L. LIII).

Vol. lxvii] Books for the Burning 121

Such vivid details of the operation of Diocletian's edict are
lacking in the other provinces of the Empire. Prudentius
merely makes a poetic allusion to the burning of books in
Spain.29 Arnobius, viewing the problem from the moral
ground, asks why the writings of the Christians deserved to be
condemned to the flames. It would be much better, he thinks,
to burn some of the immoral pagan books, which were often
full of matter calculated to undermine the pagan religion
itself.30 For that matter, Arnobius observes, some pagans
thought there ought to be a senatorial decree to order the
burning of Cicero's books on religion, the De Natura Deorum
and the De Divinatione, since they often seemed critical of
pagan, and corroborative of Christian, religious tenets.31
While it was the Bible that suffered most under the perse-
cution of Diocletian, there is no doubt that other Christian
literature was also burned. The dearth of Acta Martyrum
antedating the fourth century is usually attributed to the fires
of 303.32

   In the year 363 or 364 Emperor Jovian, the immediate
successor of the apostate Julian on the throne of the eastern
Roman empire, professed Christianity. As a document of his
earnestness, he burned in the city of Antioch a library of pagan
books that had been established there by Julian. The angry
Antiochenes watched while all the books of the collection went
up in smoke.33

   Throughout the fourth and fifth centuries, after Christianity
became the official religion of the Roman Empire, heresies and
opposition to Christianity frequently led to the burning of
books. The following definite instances exhaust the informa-
tion of the present author, but could probably be supplemented
by a theologian thoroughly versed in early Christian literature.
Before the middle of the fourth century Bishop Paulinus of

29.  Prud. Peristeph., Hymn 1.73-78.
30.  Arn. Adv. Nat. 4.36.
31.  Ibid. 3.7.
32.  G. Boissier, La fin du paganisme (Paris. Hachette. 1891), I 387f.
33.  Suid. s.v. 'Iobiano&j; Jo. Antioch. Fr. 181.


Clarence A. Forbes


Dacia, accused of trafficking in magic, was expelled from the
Church, and his books of enchantments were burned by
Macedonius, another bishop.34 In 398 Arcadius consigned the
writings of Eunomius and his adherents to the flames.35 In 435
and again in 448 Theodosius and Valentinian commanded the
public burning of unorthodox books, and particularly those of
Nestorius, in order to curb the Nestorian heresy and to
support the decisions of the Councils of Nicaea and Ephesus.36

   The decree of 448 also singled out for condemnation a
powerful attack upon Christianity by the neo-Platonist
Porphyry. Taylor describes Porphyry as the "founder of
Biblical higher criticism."37 The relentless destruction of his
work Kata_ Xristianw~n and any other books of a similar nature
was decreed in the following words: "We order to be com-
mitted to the fire all the writings that Porphyry, impelled by
his own madness, or any one else, has composed against the
holy Christian religion, no matter in whose possession the
books are found. For all the books that move God to wrath
and that harm the soul we do not want to have come even to
men's hearing." 38

   In 455 Marcian, the successor of Theodosius on the throne,
fulminated with a decree for the burning of any books or
writings which supported the dogmas of Apollinarius, the
fourth century heretic of Laodicea, and of Eutyches, another
heretic of similar views.39

   In Roman history the earliest case of the destruction by fire
of books deemed to be politically dangerous occurred in the
Augustan Age. The elder Seneca describes the incident,40 but
he attributes the burning not to the emperor but to a senatus
prompted by the many personal enemies of the free-

   34.  Hil. Op. Hist. Fr. 3.27 (Migne x 674).
   35.  Philostorg. 11.5; Cod. Theod. 16.5.34.
   36.  Cod. Just. 1.1.3; Mansi Collectio conciliorum V 417.
   37.  A. E. Taylor, Platonism and its influence (Boston, Marshall Jones Co..
1924), 13.
   38.  Cod. Just. 1.1.3, cf. Cod. Theod. 16.5.66.
   39.  Cod. Just.
   40.  Sen. Contr. 10, praef. 5-7.

Vol. lxvii] Books for the Burning 123

spoken and fiery orator involved, Titus Labienus. Seneca
exclaims over such a method of taking vengeance on a man,
and remarks that the sponsor of this senatus consultum (whom
he does not name) was fittingly rewarded for setting a bad
precedent, for before he died he saw his own books burned in
turn. Another orator of the Augustan Age, Cassius Severus,
also saw his books burned by order of a senatus consultum.41
It is small wonder that Roman oratory succumbed to such
treatment, and practically died with the death of the Republic.

   Augustus succeeded fairly well in winning the support of the
leading writers of his time, and he was magnanimous toward
such conscientious objectors as Livy. In his declining years,
however, perhaps he was a little more touchy. Two years
before his death, when he learned of the existence of libelous
writings defaming certain individuals, he ordered that a search
should be made for copies, that those found in the city should
be burned by the aediles and those elsewhere by the ap-
propriate local magistrates.42 It has been suggested43 that the
books in question were those of Labienus, but, if so, the
account of Dio differs from that of Seneca in making no
mention of a senatus consultum.

   Several of Augustus' successors thought it desirable to
exercise an attempted control over men's opinions by burning
certain books. The effort to crush political opposition by this
means commenced as early as the principate of Tiberius. In
the year 25 the senator Cremutius Cordus published his
Annals, in the course of which he praised Marcus Brutus and
called Cassius "the last of the Romans." For this offense he
was accused by two clients of Sejanus and, after making his
defense in the senate, he went home and starved himself to
death. The senate voted that his writings should be burned,
those found in the city by the aediles, those found elsewhere by
the several magistrates. Copies were secretly kept, however,
by Cordus' daughter Marcia and others, and after a time the

   41.  Suet. Calig. 16.
   42.  Dio 56.27.1.
   43 . Schanz-Hosius, Gesch. der röm. Lit. II4 (1935), 345.


Clarence A. Forbes


book was once more in circulation.44 The affair evoked strong
and notable words from Tacitus: "One may fittingly deride the
stupidity of those who believe that present power can ex-
tinguish men's memories even in time to come. For on the
contrary, the punishment of geniuses enhances their reputation,
and foreign kings or those who have exhibited such harshness
have only succeeded in bringing disgrace upon themselves and
glory upon their victims."

   Another enforced suicide in the age of Tiberius was that of
Scaurus, an orator. According to the elder Seneca, Scaurus
published seven speeches, and these were burned by command
of a senatus consultum.45

   Under Nero, Fabricius Veiento satirized senators and priests
in parodies taking the form of wills. For this offense Nero
caused him to be banished from Italy and his books to be
burned. "As long as it was dangerous to get them," Tacitus
says, "people eagerly sought for them and read them re-
peatedly; later the removal of the ban upon them consigned
them to oblivion."46

   Domitian considered it a capital offense for Arulenus
Rusticus and Herennius Senecio even to eulogize in their
writings such republican sympathizers as Paetus Thrasea and
Helvidius Priscus. Their works were publicly burned in the
forum, and "by that fire, forsooth," cried Tacitus, "they
thought to wipe out the freedom of speech of the Roman
people, the liberty of the senate, and the conscience of

   Diocletian, not content with assailing the Christian scrip-
tures with fire, ordered burned the Egyptian books on the
chemistry of silver and gold. This would keep the Egyptians
from luxuriating in wealth, he grimly said, so that, in the

   44. Tac. Ann. 4.34f; Dio 57.24.3f. When the storm had blown over, Seneca
(Cons. Marc. 1.3) praised Marcia for rescuing her father's writings from utter
destruction: magna illorum pars arserat, he said.
   45.  Sen. Contr. 10, praef. 3; Suet. Tib. 61.
   46.  Tac. Ann. 14.50.
   47.  Tac. Agr. 2.1f. Domitian charged the tresviri capitales with the task of
burning the books; formerly it had been customarily a duty of the aediles.

Vol. lxvii] Books for the Burning 125

future, lack of financial resources would deter them from
resisting the Roman might.48

   In the year 371 Antioch was the sufferer, when the emperor
Valens took from various private homes there, and burned,
large numbers of books on liberal arts and law. His para-
doxical pretext was that these lawbooks were unlawful.49
Discouraged and terrorized people all over the eastern prov-
inces of the Empire, wishing to avoid any possible suspicion,
began to burn their own libraries.50

   Here our account may terminate, with the hope that some
one may continue it down to the invention of printing. The
sentiments that motivate the burning of books are not difficult
to fathom. Mutato nomine, de te. Would not many members
of our own guild participate with unholy joy in a grand
conflagration of those obnoxious books called "ponies"? Or
why not burn some of the virulent attacks on the classics that
are currently being disseminated? The surprising thing is not
that some books got burned in the conflict between moribund
paganism and nascent Christianity, but that the burned books
were so few. When early Christianity had to fight for its life
and when it found obnoxious matter in so much of the pagan
literature, it really exercised great tolerance in destroying few
books except those that contained heresies or frontal attacks
upon itself. Many of the Roman emperors, too, were men of
culture and were patrons of books and literature; their record
of books. burnt, with a few exceptions, is not bad. For the
true art of unjust censorship to develop, the world had to wait
until the modern era. We of the twentieth century live in
glass houses, and had best be chary of throwing stones.

   48.  Suid. s.v. Diokletiano&j.
   49.  Amm. Marc. 29.1.41.
   50.  Id. 29.2.4.

Transcribed by Roger Pearse, 2001

This page has been online since 1st January 2001.

Return to the Tertullian Home Page About these pages