Meanwhile, the Chinese government has again acted to suppress the culture and religious practices of the Uighurs in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of western China. According to a statement posted on the World Wide Web by the Uyghur American Association, Chinese officials recently burned thousands of books documenting Uighur history and culture, many only recently published, as part of a policy reportedly aimed at erasing the heritage of this Turkic Muslim ethnic minority. Many incidents occurred in the city of Kashgar, where a local newspaper published a list of 330 banned titles.18 In the time since the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001, the suppression of Uighur culture has intensified and individuals advocating a separate Uighur state have been labeled “terrorists” by the Chinese government.
Even more recently, on 14 April 2003 during the ouster of the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, looters in the city of Baghdad set fire to the National Library and the library of Iraq’s Ministry for Religious Endowments.19 In addition to its many rare books and manuscripts, the National Library housed archives from the region’s Abbasid and Ottoman periods, as well as the modern state. The library at the Ministry contained one of the most important collections of Islamic literature in the world, including thousands of illuminated Korans. Although many of the most cherished items were spirited out of these buildings in the weeks before the war, innumerable irreplaceable documents of Mesopotamian civilization were destroyed in the flames. Similarly in Basra, the librarian  removed more than 30,000 books from the city’s Central Library to a nearby restaurant before the library was destroyed in a fire.20 Despite the many small miracles that have occurred as the result of the heroic efforts of librarians, scholars, and concerned individuals, some of whom were illiterate, the impact of these violent actions can be regarded as catastrophic.
Indeed, it would appear that bookburning has become a phenomenon of worldwide scope. Such a summary of recent incidents in other parts of the world should not, however, give the impression that bookburning is no longer an activity performed in the West. During the mid-1990s a Christian minister, for example, held a bookburning each year in Kansas City, Missouri, to protest the donation of gay-themed books to the city’s school district by a local gay and lesbian organization.21 Similarly, a Christian minister in New Mexico held a bookburning on Sunday 30 December 2001 of books from the popular “Harry Potter” series by J.K. Rowling, which tell the story of a young magician. The organizer contended that these books and others pertaining to magic, witchcraft, and the occult are “an abomination to God.”22
Reflecting on these circumstances, namely, that all over the world parties espousing strongly-held religious beliefs and political ideologies are consciously and intentionally burning books, the historian turns to the past to seek answers to the  following questions. What is this mania all about? Why do people burn books and writings? What does it mean to burn a book? More importantly, what are the historical roots of this behavior? What can be ascertained about the earliest episodes of this form of violence, that is, who were the earliest book burners and what did it mean for them to destroy writings? What were the conditions in which they came to devise this activity that continues to be such a potent symbol even into the twenty-first century? What, if anything, can reflecting on its origins tell us about this activity and, perhaps, about those who still burn books today. This study will attempt to answer these questions.

It may be surprising to discover that over the past century only a small number of specialists in ancient history have reflected on bookburning as a human activity. Although modern studies of bookburning in antiquity are quite few in number, it should be no surprise that some of the earliest studies of this phenomenon in the Greek and Roman worlds were published in the wake of the Nazi bookburnings and again at the end of the Second World War, when the topic again erupted so forcefully into the public consciousness.23 All of these early studies noted that bookburning was generally an expression of religious intolerance. As Clarence A. Forbes argued, “[r]eligion has always been the chief cause for the deliberate destruction of books, and the histories of western religions have about them the pungent smell of smoke.”24

Although substantially in agreement about the cause of bookburning, they offered a variety of opinions about its actual impact. Henry Tristram, for example, questioned the likelihood that intentional destruction was the chief cause, or even a contributory cause, for the disappearance of the works of ancient writers.25 However, since he limited his analysis to the works of the poet Sappho, his opinion can have only limited relevance in regard to all of the many genres of literature that circulated in the ancient world. Forbes and Arthur Stanley Pease, who each looked at a larger pool of data, were more emphatic about the deleterious effect of intentional destruction. Forbes concluded: “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.”26
Pease offered four possible explanations for this method of destruction.27 First, burning has a finality that is lacking in other forms of destruction—it is irreparable. Second, better than other forms of intentional destruction, burning lends itself to “conspicuous, public, communal expressions of condemnation,” that is, bookburning offers a unique opportunity for public display to perpetrators.28 Third is the purifying power of fire, which, as Pease noted, would be highly appropriate in cases of books that were considered to be of a polluting or blasphemous character. Last, the ancient belief  that an author’s writings were an extension of his or her person; therefore burning a book was like burning its author in effigy: it was a form of sympathetic magic. Pease’s observations about the reasons for the destruction of books with fire, although supported only by a few, brief examples, remain important insights for any study of this phenomenon in the ancient world.
After a period of more than twenty years in which few studies on bookburning were published, in the late 1960s and early 1970s G.W. Clarke published two articles on bookburning.29 Although Clarke furnished no additional insight into the act of bookburning, he did provide more thorough documentation of incidents into the period of the later Roman Empire than the earlier studies. In this tradition, Wolfgang Speyer, an eminent specialist in apocryphal literature, has provided the most thorough documentation of the subject.30 His study discussed the phenomenon of bookburning in some detail, but was more general in scope and concerned primarily with examining the many forms of intentional and unintentional book destruction in the Graeco-Roman world, as well as the Christian Roman Empire. Although not particularly concerned with analyzing bookburning as an activity, Speyer provided remarkably thorough coverage of the incidents of bookburning that were known to scholars up to the time of his  publication.31 Echoing Pease’s observations, Speyer noted the purifying aspect of fire, the finality of this method of destruction, and the close affinity between author and work as reasons that burning came to be among the favored methods of destroying dangerous writings.32 Speyer also explained that the notions of pollution and purification were primary motivations for Christians to burn the books of heretics just as it had been for earlier Romans to burn the religious and philosophical writings they had regarded as dangerous.33 His work remains an exceptionally important contribution to the study of this topic.
Many of the earliest scholars who examined ancient bookburnings, including both Forbes and Pease, located its origins in Greece during the classical period based on the testimony of later sources. However, a more recent and careful examination of bookburning in ancient Athens by Robert W. Wallace has suggested otherwise.34

Regarding five putative cases of bookburning in classical Athens, Wallace found that the reports were unhistorical and derived from the late-fourth century B.C.E.35 Although he dispelled the earlier conclusion that bookburning had been a means of hostile suppression employed against philosophers in Athens during the classical period, Wallace did not delve into the earliest actual cases of bookburning in the Graeco-Roman world. However, he did make some noteworthy observations about the timing of the earliest accusations of bookburning. Chief among them is that reports of earlier bookburnings were the product of a few fundamental cultural and political developments that occurred in the later fourth century B.C.E. and following.36 Among these developments was a transition from a primarily oral culture to one where written texts played increasingly important roles. Only as writing became important for expressing, recording, and disseminating ideas did bookburning become a feasible and worthwhile endeavor for individuals who were keen to suppress those ideas. Additionally, this period witnessed the political transition from more democratic governance to state authoritarianism. Although Wallace did not explicitly indicate that the earliest historical cases of bookburning occurred in the Hellenistic period and following, his rejection of the earlier reports and his explanation for doing so hold out the implication that the conditions necessary for bookburning were not met until the late fourth century B.C.E. Frederick H.Cramer, and later Clarke and Speyer, pointed to the Roman world as the proper location and context for exploring the phenomenon of bookburning in antiquity.37 Along the same lines, Rosalind Thomas, who examined the subjects of orality and literacy in ancient Greece, concluded that bookburning was a “Roman peculiarity.”38
This study will differ from previous examinations of bookburning in a number of ways. Except for a few instances where it is possible to draw a firm link between acts of intentional destruction and the disappearance of written works, no attempt will be made to quantify the impact of bookburning on ancient literature. It is perhaps enough to recognize that many books were forcibly burned, but far more probably succumbed to “natural causes,” like accidental fires, the prolonged effects of moisture, and pests.39 Moreover, the wholly incomplete nature of the evidence for the intentional destruction of books, as well as the vast scope of such an undertaking, would make it impossible to offer a reasonable assessment here. In contrast to earlier efforts, this examination will focus on specific cases of conflict during the Roman period in which bookburning was a prominent form of violence. In this way, it is hoped that a more nuanced appraisal of bookburning can be developed, one that is sensitive to the conditions and circumstances in which incidents of bookburning actually occurred, to the mindset and motivations of the perpetrators, and to the messages they sought to transmit to witnesses. This more  nuanced approach will examine bookburning not as a factor relating to the problem of the disappearance of ancient literature, but as a form of communal, religiously-inspired, ritualized violence. As such, the syntactic features of the act of bookburning and the sequence of events that framed it will receive special attention. This study will focus on incidents drawn from the Roman world during the Republic and the empire through the time of the Emperor Justinian I. As such, it will encompass more than seven hundred years of Roman history—a very lengthy period of time indeed, but the wealth of evidence for this phenomenon in the Roman world allows us to mark out some of the signposts in the early development of bookburning in western culture.
This approach has not been devised ex nihilo. In fact, it is rooted in the works of scholars from many fields, including recent studies of ancient Roman society, theoretical works by anthropologists, sociologists, and cultural critics on the interaction between religion and culture, and examinations of contemporary religious violence. A brief discussion of these works will help to set the foundation for the present study.
In a recent essay, John North ably summed up the religious developments that highlight the period under examination in this dissertation.40 Up to the Hellenistic period, religion was an integral, embedded part of life in ancient cities. In that time, communities as a whole generally held single, shared conceptions of the cosmos. But  during the last three centuries B.C.E., interaction between distinct, identifiable religious groups came to be more and more a part of life in the cities of the Greek East. Italy, as North noted, also witnessed a striking growth of autonomous religious groups outside the control of religious authorities during the third and second century B.C.E.41 This new religious situation was linked to wider social changes brought about by Roman imperial expansion, including the movement of peoples about the whole Mediterranean basin. The result was the formation of a plural or pluralist society, a mixture of diverse ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and religious groups in cities throughout the region, initiating a period of great religious interaction, adaptation, and creativity, as well as competition and conflict, which lasted for centuries.



Presented in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for
The Degree Doctor of Philosophy in the Graduate
School of The Ohio State University
Daniel Christopher Sarefield, M.A.


18 See “Uyghur American Association Statement on Book Burning”
19 See Matthew Battles, “Knowledge on Fire,” The American Scholar 72.3 (Summer 2003), 46–7.

20 Shaila K. Dewan, “Books Spirited to Safety Before Iraq Library Fire,” New York Times, 27 July 2003, National edition.
21 See “Book-Burning in Kansas City (October 1996),”

22 John Killinger, God, the Devil, and Harry Potter: A Christian Minister’s Defense of the Beloved Novels (New York : Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), 3.

23 Henry Tristam, “The Burning of Sappho,” The Dublin Review 197 (July-December 1935): 137–49; Clarence A. Forbes, “Books for the Burning,” TAPA 67 (1936): 114–25; Fred A. Sochatoff, “Some Remarks of Seneca on Book-Burning,” Classical Outlook 16 (1939): 82; Frederick H. Cramer, “Bookburning and Censorship in Ancient Rome: A Chapter from the History of Freedom of Speech,” Journal of the History of Ideas 6 (1945): 157–96; Arthur Stanley Pease, “Notes on Book-Burning,” in Munera Studiosa, ed. Massey Hamilton Shepherd, Jr. and Sherman Elbridge Johnson. (Cambridge, MA: The Episcopal Theological School, 1946), 145–60.
24 Clarence A. Forbes, “Books for the Burning,” 118; see also Henry Tristram, “The Burning of Sappho,” 139, and Arthur Stanley Pease, “Notes on Book-Burning,” 147–48.

25 Henry Tristram, “The Burning of Sappho,” 149.
26 Clarence A. Forbes, “Books for the Burning,” 125. See also Arthur Stanley Pease, “Notes on Book-Burning,” 147–48.
27 Arthur Stanley Pease, “Notes on Book-Burning,” 158–59.
28 Arthur Stanley Pease, “Notes on Book-Burning,” 158.

29 See G.W. Clarke, “The Burning of Books and Catullus 36.” Latomus. Revue d’Études Latines 27.3 (July-September 1968): 575–80, and “Books for the Burning,” Prudentia 4.2 (November 1972): 67–81.
30 Wolfgang Speyer, “Büchervernichtung,” JAC 13 (1970): 123–52, and idem, Büchervernichtung und Zensur des Geistes bei Heiden, Juden, und Christen (Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann Verlag, 1981).

31 Other, previously unknown episodes have continued to come to light. Since the publication of Speyer’s monograph on the topic in 1981, J. Divjak, for example, published letters written to Augustine by a Christian named Consentius living in the Balearic Islands. They detail the case of a monk, Fronto, who uncovered a circle of heretics in Tarragona, Spain, one of whom, a local priest, possessed magical books. In order to bring a speedy conclusion to the inquiry, which threatened to discredit several local bishops and other members of prominent families, a group of seven bishops decided to burn the incriminating books and all other documents related to the case and restore everyone to communion. See J. Divjak, ed., Sancti Aurelii Augustini Opera. Epistolae ex duobus codicibus nuper in lucem prolatae, (CSEL 138) = Epp. 11 and 12 (pp. 51-80); and also Raymond Van Dam, “‘Sheep in Wolves Clothing’: the Letters of Consentius to Augustine,” JEH 37.4 (October 1986): 515–35.
32 Wolfgang Speyer, Büchervernichtung und Zensur, 30–33.
33 Wolfgang Speyer, Büchervernichtung und Zensur, 128–29.
34 Robert W. Wallace, “Book Burning in Ancient Athens,” in Transitions to Empire: Essays in Greco-Roman History, 360–146 B.C., in honor of E. Badian, eds. Robert W.Wallace and Edward M. Harris. (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996), 226–40.
35 Robert W. Wallace, “Book Burning in Ancient Athens,” 228–29.
36 Robert W. Wallace, “Book Burning in Ancient Athens,” 227.

37 Frederick H. Cramer, “Bookburning and Censorship in Ancient Rome: A Chapter from the History of Freedom of Speech,” 157–96.
38 Rosalind Thomas, Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 169, and see n. 31.
39 Wolfgang Speyer, Büchervernichtung und Zensur, 25–42, passim.

40 John North, “The Development of Religious Pluralism,” in The Jews among Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire, eds. Judith Lieu, John North, and Tessa Rajak. (London: Routledge, 1992), 174–93; and see also the illuminating general discussion of the religious world of the Roman Empire by David S. Potter, “Roman Religion: Ideas and Actions,” in Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire, eds. David S. Potter and D.J. Mattingly. (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1999), 113–67.

41 John North, “The Development of Religious Pluralism,” 181.


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