by Courtney Baron, Head Editor, INALJ Georgia
The Greatest Library in the History of the World: The Library at Alexandria
The ancient city of Alexandria, Egypt was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C.E. Alexander was Macedonian, a people decidedly different from the Greeks, yet he aimed to validate himself as the legitimate heir of Greek land and culture. Upon Alexander’s death, his kingdom was divided up among the diadochi, the generals who succeeded him, and Ptolemy I Soter gained controlof Egypt. The period that followed Alexander’s death through the rise of the Roman Empire, ca. 323 B.C.E. – 31 B.C.E., is known as the Hellenistic age. The Ptolemies took Alexander’s love of Greek things to heart and strived to create a city rich in intellectual thought, art, and culture. They succeeded with the creation of the Library at Alexandria, perhaps the greatest collection of Greek literature in the world. The library played a crucial role in preserving Greek culture. There were actually two libraries established, one in the Serapeion (a temple dedicated to the god Serapis) and a second library associated with the palace. It is the latter that concerns us. Unfortunately, there is very little archaeological or epigraphical evidence from the library. Most of the evidence is textual and dates from the 1st century B.C.E. or later. This is problematic when trying to piece together information about the library, because Greek authors tend to be nostalgic about Greek and Hellenistic cultural institutions, while Roman authors are often have antipathy toward Hellenistic rule. Despite these setbacks, scholars have enough evidence to develop a general idea of what it was like.
The library was established in order to serve the members of the Mouseion, a temple and institution in honor of the Muses. The Mouseion was home to writers, poets, scientists, etc., who needed a major center of scholarship. The library satisfied that purpose, although it was open to the public. Notable scholars and thinkers of the time, including the mathematician Euclid and the physicist Strabo, flocked to Alexandria. The path to create the greatest collection of the world’s knowledge was a dark one. Alexandria was a popular port city and books were often confiscated from ships in the harbor. Copies of precious originals were made so carefully that the copies were often returned to the original owner instead. Galen, writing in the second century C.E., stated that Ptolemy III asked to borrow the original scripts of the famous Athenian playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The Athenians demanded a hefty guarantee of 15 talents, which Ptolemy gladly paid, but he decided the keep the originals anyway.
The copies were made on papyrus paper. The library had a system of organization in place. The papyrus rolls had a tab with the author’s name and ethnic (in order to distinguish authors with the same last name). Multiple copies were kept and translations, such as the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament), were made. It’s estimated that the library held about 490,000 works total. Perhaps the most well known librarian was the Alexandrian court poet Callimachus. He made a compilation of a bibliographical survey of all Greek literature and divided it into poetry and prose with several subdivisions. He would not have been able to do this without the vast resources of the Library at Alexandria.
Seneca, in de tranquilitate animi, tells us that roughly 40,000 books were burned when Julius Caesar attacked the city in 48 B.C.E. during his pursuit of Pompey. The damage was severe and the library suffered a decline. Under Roman occupation, the nature of the library shifted from intellectual preservation to political aims. The exact end of the library is uncertain, but it probably closed after 270 C.E. when the emperor Aurelius laid waste to Alexandria.
The Library at Alexandria was not the only library of its kind in antiquity, but it was the most famous, and no doubt housed the greatest collection of Greek literature in the ancient world. Its legacy influenced the second most famous ancient library, that of Pergamon controlled by the Attalid Empire in what is now modern-day Turkey, as well as a series of great Roman libraries. It’s a wonderful example of the role libraries play in preserving and kindling cultural heritage.
Galen, 2nd c. C.E. – for information about Alexandrian collecting practices.
John Tzetzes, 12th c. C.E. – for information about the library’s foundation.
Casson, L. (2001). Libraries in the Ancient World. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Dix, T.K. (2000). Greece: Library at Alexandria. In P.A. Miller & C. Platter (Eds.), History in Dispute: Classical Antiquity and Classical Studies, Vol 20 (pp. 138-145). Detroit: St. James Press.
El-Abbadi, M. (1990). The Life and Fate of the Ancient Library of Alexandria. Paris: UNESCO.
El-Abbadi, M., & Fathallah, O. (Eds.). 2008. What Happened to the Ancient Library of Alexandria? Leiden: Brill.
Frazer, P.M. (1972). Ptolemaic Alexandria. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
MacLeod, R. (Ed.). (2000). The Library of Alexandria: Centre of Learning in the Ancient World. London: O.B. Tauris Publishers.
Image credit for Undated illustration of patrons in the Library at Alexandria
D. H. Tolzmann, A. Hessel, and R. Peiss. (2001). The Memory of Mankind. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press.
Found here: http://ils.unc.edu/dpr/path/alexandria/