Hadrian’s Library in Athens

Hadrian’s A guide to Hadrian’s Library

The largest building in Roman Athens was Hadrian’s Library, built by Emperor Hadrian and named in his honor, Hadrian’s Library was a typical Roman Forum, built to impress in marble with high walls enclosing an area covering 10,000 square meters. It was much more than a library, as it was used as the city’s civic center, lying just north-east of the Roman Agora (market) which in those days, was the commercial center of Athens.

Hadrian’s Library complex was built by the Emperor in 132 AD, on the north side of the Acropolis. In front of its magnificent entrance, there was a wide courtyard, that led to the grand Corinthian style gateway (propylon). There were seven columns made of green Karystos marble and statues carved in alabaster on either side of the gateway, which led into a large and imposing courtyard, with 100 columns. The inner courtyard was surrounded by an enclosing wall.

There was a garden area in the courtyard with a large decorative pond in the center (measuring 58m X13 m), where philosophers could walk and discuss their ideas. In each corner of the courtyard, there were areas with semi-circular seating The library was situated in a large building on the eastern side.

The building measured 122 meters in length and 82 meters in width. Ancient libraries were places of study, as well as schools of learning and philosophy. The library itself was a square room and its walls were lined with two rows of wooden cupboards (amaria) that were used to store many rolls of papyrus that were important literary works as well as legal and administrative documents.

On either side of the library, there were reading rooms and lecture rooms with tiered semi-circular marble seating. These rooms were where music was played and philosophers debated. There was an upper floor with a gallery that overlooked the lower floor and provided extra storage space for papyrus scrolls.

The library was badly damaged in the Herculian invasion of the city in 267 AD but was renovated in the years 407-412 AD, by Herculius, who had become the Prefectus of the Illyricum.  Just over one hundred years later, an early four-apse Christian church was built in the garden area. This church was later demolished in the 6th century and replaced by a large basilica with three aisles – the city’s first cathedral.

The basilica was totally destroyed by fire in the 11th century and in the 12th century, the smaller, single-aisle basilica of Megali Panayia (‘the great Virgin Mary’) was built on the same spot. At the same time, a small chapel was built close by and dedicated to Archangel Michael.– Ayios Asomotos Sta Skalia

Over the following centuries, Hadrian’s Library was used for many different purposes. During the Turkish rule, it became the administrative center and residence of the Turkish Administrator of Athens. In the 15th century, the site developed into two busy bazaars that were edged by houses.

The 18th century saw further changes as a mosque was built and Hadrian’s Library turned into a fortress. In 1814, a clock tower was erected that could display the clock that had been presented to At6hens by Lord Elgin as a gift from him, for artifacts he had taken from the Parthenon. Shortly afterward, Hadrian’s Library was converted into army barracks and later still, a prison.

Excavation work on the site began in 1885, but it was not until the 1950s that work began on clearing the site of many of the later buildings and restoring the Hadrian’s Library complex. Today, the magnificently restored entrance facade gives an indication of the original size of the gateway.

Parts of the original library wall, once covered with storage cupboards filled with papyrus, can be seen, as well as the first row of semi-circular seating in one of the lecture halls. Parts of the church buildings remain including fragments of their mosaic flooring adding to the fascination of this archaeological site.

Key information for visiting Hadrian’s Library.

  • Hadrian’s Library is situated on the north side of the Acropolis and lies just a short walk (5 minutes) from Syntagma Square in the center of Athens.
  • The nearest Metro station is Monastiraki (Lines 1 and 3) which is a two minute walk.
  • Visitors to Hadrian’s Library are recommended to wear flat, comfortable shoes.
You can also see the map here

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