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Pergamon’s library and the birth of the modern book

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Founded by Eumenes II and enlarged by Attalos II, both fanatical collectors of books, Pergamon’s Library grew to contain 200,000 titles – volumes by Aristotle and Theophrastos were paid for with their weight in gold. Eventually the Egyptian Ptolemies, alarmed at this growing rival to their own library in Alexandria, banned the export of papyrus, on which all scrolls were written, and of which they were sole producers.

In response to this bid to stem the library’s expansion, the Pergamene dynasty revived the old practice of writing on specially treated animal skins, parchment. That led quickly to the invention of the codex or paged book, since parchment couldn’t be rolled up like papyrus. The words “parchment” and the more archaic “pergamene” both derive from “Pergamon”. The library was appropriated by Mark Antony, who gave it to Cleopatra as a gift, and many of its works survived in Alexandria until destroyed by the Arabs in the seventh century.

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