The Library of Alexandria

The library of Alexandria was a center of knowledge of the ancient world, a culmination of the science, philosophy, art, and literature of the day. By collecting works from around the world, the library attracted renown scholars, making the city of Alexandria the capital of knowledge and learning at the time.[1] However, much controversy lies in its destruction, with wildly varying theories of when and how it was destroyed.

Bust of Ptolemy II, who laid the groundwork of his father’s plans for the library

Also known as the “Great Library”, the library of Alexandria was proposed by the scholar Demetrius to Ptolemy I, but its groundwork was laid during the reign of Ptolemy II in 285 BCE[2]. It was part of a greater research institution called the Mousein in Alexandria, dedicated to the 9 Muses.[3] A number of renown scholars studied at the Great Library and Mousein, including Euclid, the father of geometry, Archimedes, the mathematician and inventor, Herophilius, the founder of the scientific method, and Hipparchus, the father of trigonometry.[4]

The library of Alexandria was intended to be a collection of all knowledge, with the goal to gather all written works of the era in the library. Collectors for the library were given large sums of money to travel around the world and collect writings of any subject. Any ship that docked in Alexandria had to turn its books over for copying to the Great Library, with the copied version returned to the owner.[5] In total, it was estimated that 100,000-400,000 scrolls were at the library at its peak, including famous works such as the Homeric poems, the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and the early works of Aristotle.[6]

Map of ancient Alexandria, including the library and museum

There are many theories regarding the destruction of the library, the most famous being of the burning of Alexandria by Julius Caesar. In this theory, Caesar visits Alexandria in search of his rival Pompey during the Roman Civil War. Upon learning that Pompey is dead, he abandons this search and becomes entangled in another civil war, this time between Ptolemy VIII and his sister Cleopatra VII over the throne of Egypt. Caesar sided with Cleopatra and set fire to Ptolemy’s ships. This fire spread past the docks of Alexandria to the Great Library, burning down many scrolls[7].

This theory is supported by the work Life of Caesar, which mentions a great fire.[8] However, recent historians have concluded that only part of the library was burnt down, citing mentions of the Great Library in the Life of Antony and the Deipnosophistai. In the latter, the author Athenaeus states “Why should I now have to point to the books, the establishment of libraries and the collection in the Museum, when this is in every man’s memory?”, which supports the theory of the library existing in 200 CE, when the work was written.[9]

Artist rendition of the burning of the docks of Alexandria, initially believed to have destroyed the Great Library in its fires

Another theory blames the Christian riots of 391 CE, when Christianity was officially declared the official religion of the Roman Holy Empire. At this time, Emperor Theodosius had issued a decree to destroy all pagan temples of Alexandria. Bishop Theophilius, who had authority over Alexandria at the time, led a mob to demolish the Temple of Serapis, near the library of Alexandria.[10] However, although the books in the Temple of Serapis were recorded to be destroyed, there is no clear evidence pointing towards damage to the library of Alexandria and the Mousein.

Finally, the most recent theory historians have come to is of gradual decline. Rather than one catastrophic event leading to the destruction of the Great Library, its decline was due to a number of factors, including the purging of intellectuals from Alexandria by Ptolemy VIII in 145 BCE[11], the decreased funding of the library due to the later instability of Ptolemaic rule,and the repeated sackings of Alexandria under Roman rule.[12] In addition, as the wealth of Alexandria decreased due to these political factors, scholars began to spread across the Mediterranean to seek new places of knowledge, lowering the prestige of the library of Alexandria.[13]

Image of present day ruins of the Serapeum, where the library stored some of collections

This theory of gradual decline is supported by current historians as it is a theory based on trends over time, rather than individual events. Like the rise and fall of the Roman empire, it was not a single event or invasion which caused its destruction, but a result of many factors occurring over hundreds of years. The study of these varying theories extends further to the overall study of ancient and medieval studies. Rather than seeing events in history as direct cause and effect, they must be studied in context with the trends occurring at the time to consider the factors affecting them. In particular, primary sources should be studied carefully to avoid the biases secondary sources have in proving or disproving the author’s theories.

Regardless of the mystery behind its destruction, the library of Alexandria’s legacy lives on. Today, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is newly built in Egypt to honor the legacy of the ancient Great Library. It is built with a similar purpose as its original – to preserve and collect all knowledge for future generations and is a UNESCO World Heritage site[14]. Its existence today shows the legacy the library of Alexandria had on the area surrounding it, extending to the present day.  

Interior of Bibliotheca Alexandrina

[1] Murray, S. A., (2009). The library: An illustrated history. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, p.17

[2] Báez, Fernando. A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq. New York: Atlas Books, 2010.

[3] Murray, S. A., The library

[4]  “The Great Library of Alexandria”. ldolphin.org. Retrieved 2018-03-18.

[5] Phillips, Heather. “The Great Library of Alexandria?” In Library Philosophy and Practice. July 26, 2012.

[6] Battles, Matthew. Library: An Unquiet History. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.

[7] Phillips, “The Great Library”

[8] Staikos, K., Cullen, T. and Koutras, N. (2012). The history of the library in Western civilization. New Castle: Oak Knoll.

[9] Newworldencyclopedia.org. (2018). Alexandria Library – New World Encyclopedia. [online] Available at: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Alexandria_Library%5BAccessed 11 Dec. 2018].

[10] Phillips, “The Great Library”

[11] Phillips, “The Great Library”

[12] Newworldencyclopedia.org

[13] Báez, A Universal History

[14] Bibalex.org. (2018). Overview – Bibliotheca Alexandrina. [online] Available at: https://www.bibalex.org/en/page/overview [Accessed 11 Dec. 2018].

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