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The Library of Celsus: A Bookworm's Analysis

Roman Architecture was one of my favorite classes at school (I highly recommend Roman Art and Roman Architecture with Professor Kleiner to any current or future Yale student). The Library of Celsus was one of the best monuments I learned about in class. Celsus was a Roman politician who was buried in a library built in his honor-- I can only hope that I am able hang out in a library for eternity.


Let's Get Architectural: The Library of Celsus

The Library of Celsus is a world-renowned monument located in present day Turkey. Ephesus was a majestic city of marble, an economically important port for the Roman Empire and an international hub of culture and commerce. Built at the height of Roman influence, the library is situated at the heart of the city, next to the commercial market. The library built in his name, with scrolls now accessible to patrons from all levels of society. The Library of Celsus is an iconic monument that personifies the ideology of Celsus and honors his legacy by providing a key functional role in the community.


Designed to honor the life of Celsus, the library’s architecture projects his personal ideology that citizens of Ephesus should recognize both Greek and Roman culture. In Greek and Roman tradition, the written word was interwoven in daily life. By utilizing the written word in its program, the Library of Celsus is a visual unification of Greek and Roman motifs, which reflects a broader cultural merging. It was a prominent Roman tradition to have the deceased hold book rolls. Selecting a library as the building to dedicate to Celsus pays homage to this belief. In addition, libraries symbolize the Roman ideal of pragmatism, a place of coalesced knowledge. The Romans endowed each place with a specific genius (guardian spirit), a personification which reflected its unique character and significance.One portion of the façade’s sculptural relief depicts fasces of axes, which represent the political might of the Roman governing class, specifically the offices of Celsus. Another relief scene shows the goddess Eros hunting wild animals, symbolizing the Roman virtue of valor. Corinthian capitals, seen on the exterior of the building, were designed by Greeks.

The library is a massive marble structure, architecturally impressive and visually stunning, both for its sheer size and its rich decorative carving. It has a monumental entrance framed by a grandiose, two-story marble façade. The interior is as grandiose as the exterior. The lofty rectangular hall has three levels, with ten carved niches at each level. The thirty niches held a total of 12,000 scrolls. The floor is made of variegated colored marble and resembles a decorative mosaic. The back wall has a semicircular apse, situated above a vaulted chamber for Celsus’s marble sarcophagus. Detailed inscriptions highlight Celsus’s impact on the immediate community. Celsus’s professional accomplishments are listed on the stair banister cheeks, upon which stood bronze equestrian statues of Celsus.


The Romans were expert at utilizing space to create a kinesthetic experience that was both cognitive and visual. Romans are practical and orderly in their affairs; it is a stereotypically Roman concept that a building’s form should enhance its function. Accordingly, the monument faces east to take advantage of morning sun, a principle advanced by the Roman architect Vitruvius, and to protect scrolls from sea winds. The library’s clerestory filters in light to add to the kinesthetic experience, creating juxtaposition between light and shadow. Light filtration is critical in a library, to afford patrons adequate light to read.

Fig. 1 Façade of the Library of Celsus. Finley, Susan. "Celsus Library of Ephesus: The Man and the City Behind the Famous Façade." Libri 64, no. 3 (2014): 278. doi: 10.1515/libri-2014-0021.

Kleiner, Roman Architecture.

Strocka, “The Celsus Library in Ephesus.”

Houston, Inside Roman Libraries.

Ward-Perkins, Roman Imperial Architecture.

Eidson, "The Celsus Library at Ephesus: Spatial Rhetoric." Finley, “Celsus Library of Ephesus: The Man and the City.”

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