Making the myth of the Library of Alexandria

Few institutions from Antiquity are as iconic as the Great Library of Alexandria. However, popular knowledge about the Library often amounts to little more than myth.

Written by Arienne King on

There are few institutions from Antiquity more iconic than the Great Library of Alexandria. In its day the Library was the pinnacle of enlightenment and pedagogy. To successive generations it has become a symbol of the arts, with its destruction serving as a warning of the fragility of literature.

Authors from Strabo to Ray Bradbury have drawn inspiration from the Great Library. In spite of, or perhaps because of, its fame, popular knowledge about the Library of Alexandria often boils down to myth.

Origins of the Library of Alexandria

To trace the history of the Library is to trace the history of Alexandria itself. Both were conceived by Alexander after he conquered Egypt in 332 BC. When Alexander established the city that bore his name as Egypt’s new capital, he also made plans for a great Library dedicated to the Muses.

The construction of this library began around 295 BC, after Alexander’s death, during the reign of his successor Ptolemy I Soter. The buildings of the library were located within the palatial complex of Alexandria, in what became the Brucheion or Royal Quarter. What is collectively referred to as “the Library” actually encompassed two institutions, the Biblion where texts were archived, and the Museion where learning took place.

Strabo, a Greek geographer who visited Alexandria in the late first century BC, described the Museion as follows (Geographia 17.1.8):

The Museum also is part of the royal palaces. It has a covered walk, an exedra [i.e. a hall with seats for discussion] and a large house, in which is the common dining-room of the learned men who share in the Museum.Show Transl. Barnes, pp. 62-63

As an institution and an idea, the Library of Alexandria drew on Greek and Near Eastern literary traditions. Temple archives and libraries had an already ancient tradition in Egypt by the time Alexander arrived. The connection between knowledge and the divine remained an important aspect of the Alexandrian tradition. The semi-religious nature of the Library was underscored by the fact that a priest was appointed over the Museion which was first and foremost a royal institution.

Hellenistic imperialism shaped the vision of Alexander and his successors, leading to an increasing emphasis on universalism. Unlike the archives which had come before, the Great Library of Alexandria was meant to be a universal library which contained every literary work in the known world. Greek literature was meticulously studied and carefully criticized by scholars at the Library, but Eastern works were also copied and translated into Greek.

The universal library

During the third century BC, the Attalid king Eumenes II established a library in Pergamum to rival the Library of Alexandria. This began an intellectual arms race as each library attempted to surpass the collection of its rival. In order to obtain new volumes for their growing library, the Ptolemaic kings sent scholars abroad to collect any books of importance. Ships which arrived in Alexandria were forced to hand over their books for copying, the originals were kept by the Library and copies were given to the owners.

The dream of a universal library may have been impossible at the time, but the Library of Alexandria did surpass all of its rivals as the largest library in existence. At its height, the Library of Alexandria contained anywhere from 70,000 to 700,000 scrolls. Countless scholars set themselves to the impossible task of cataloguing the massive archives, with varying degrees of success. The sprawling size of these archives was such that only a handful of members of the Museion’s staff were familiar with the contents of the entire library at any given time.

The Library’s legacy as a free source knowledge is somewhat misattributed, as only a select few actually benefited from its vast catalogues. The scholars who studied at the Museion and had access to the Library during the Ptolemaic period were royally appointed and depended upon the continued patronage of the crown. To support themselves, these scholars were paid a stipend and were granted certain tax exemptions while they lived and worked in the Library’s grounds.

The insular nature of the Museion was scornfully dismissed by the fourth century BC philosopher Timon of Phlius who quipped that:

In the populous land of Egypt, they breed a race of bookish scribblers who spend their whole lives pecking away in the birdcage of the Muses.Show (Trans. from Canfora, p. 37.

By the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus, a smaller daughter library was established in the Serapeum where scholars unaffiliated with the Great Library could access copies of many manuscripts. Aphthonius, writing 700 years later in the late fourth century AD, recounted that the Serapeum had once contained chambers which were “reading rooms for books, offering an opportunity for the studious to pursue knowledge, and arousing the whole city to the possibility of wisdom” (Progymnasmata 40).Show Transl. Kennedy, p. 119.

Tracing the destruction of the Library

Perhaps the most iconic episode of the Great Library’s history, its fiery destruction, never actually occurred, or at least not the way that the story is usually told. Pop history has burned the dramatic destruction of the Great Library into Western memory. Some versions of this legend blame the catastrophic fire caused by Julius Caesar in 48 BC, the widespread Christian violence against pagan Alexandrian institutions during the late fourth century AD, or the Arab commander Amr ibn al-As’ conquest of Egypt in 642 AD.

On the first legend, historians disagree about the Great Library’s fate after 48 BC as the actual events surrounding the fire that ravaged Alexandria are only vaguely documented. Most importantly, it is unclear whether the Great Library was actually affected by the fire, and if so whether the damage it may have sustained was serious. Greco-Roman accounts of the fire indicate that a large section of Alexandria around the Eastern Harbour was devastated by a fire which spread out of control after Caesar ordered his men to set fire to the ships in the Harbour during the Alexandrian War (48-47 BC). Plutarch recounted that (Life of Caesar 49):

Being cut off he [Caesar] was forced to remove the danger by setting fire to the fleet, which, spreading from the docks, also destroyed the great library.Show Transl. Barnes, p 71.

Archaeological evidence that indicates massive reconstruction supports these accounts, but the Museion and its library are as yet undiscovered. Regardless of the fate of the buildings that had been built in the reign of Ptolemy I, the Great Library of Alexandria as an institution continued to operate well after 48 BC.

The second version is perhaps the most easily dismissed on the surface, as there is little evidence to support the idea that Great Library was specifically targeted by Christian fanatics. Civil unrest and wars caused the loss of numerous monuments in the Brucheion during the third and fourth centuries AD, including the Tomb of Alexander. The destruction was described by Ammianus Marcellinus in the fourth century AD (Historiae 22.16.15):

But Alexandria itself (…) was exhausted with internal disputes, until finally, after many years, when Aurelian was Emperor, the city quarrels escalated into deadly strife. Its great walls were torn down and it lost the greater part of the area which was called the Brucheion, and which had long been the dwelling place of its most distinguished men.Show Transl. Barnes, p 73.

Finally, in AD 391, after Emperor Theodosius I banned pagan cults within the Empire, numerous pagan temples were destroyed or converted to churches. Most notably, the Serapeum and the daughter library it contained were destroyed by Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria.

Despite its popularity as a piece of folklore, the third version has been generally dismissed by historians who have pointed out the numerous anachronisms of the late Medieval Arab accounts which describe the supposed event. This event is made all the more implausible by the fact that the Great Library which had been built by Ptolemy I almost certainly no longer existed by the seventh century AD, when Amr ibn al-As captured Alexandria.

Moreover, none of the contemporary accounts of the Arab conquest by Coptic, Byzantine, or Arab historians mention the supposed destruction of the Great Library. It is extremely unlikely that even authors who were openly hostile to the Arab conquerors would have omitted such an important event from their histories.

The first account of the Arab destruction of the Library appeared five centuries later in Ibn al-Qifti’s History of Wisemen and was repeated by al-Qifti’s contemporary Abd al-Latif. Qassem Abdou Qassem and Bernard Lewis in What Happened to the Library of Alexandria asserted that the story of the Arab destruction of the Library was no more than twelfth-century propaganda created by al-Qifti to exonerate the actions of his associate Saladin (pp. 207-211 and 213-217). This story deliberately paralleled Saladin’s breakup of the heretical Fatimid libraries after his conquest of Egypt in the twelfth century and justified it by creating a historical precedent for a Muslim hero’s destruction of a famous library.

Conclusion

The Great Library of Alexandria may have never experienced any one cataclysmic destruction which brought Alexandria’s intellectual legacy to its knees. Instead, a succession of buildings, possibly many libraries or many branches of one, took damage from centuries of turmoil. Alongside these physical destructions were social, political, and religious shifts that changed the intellectual landscape of Egypt.

At no point was the literary heritage of the Great Library completely erased. The great works of Classical literature continued to be studied in Alexandria throughout Late Antiquity, and the city’s gradually declining importance as an intellectual capital had more to do with the rise of other cities such as Rome, Constantinople, and Damascus.

Further reading

Suggestions for further reading:

  • Robert Barnes, “Cloistered bookworms in the chicken-coop of the Muses: the ancient Library of Alexandria”, in: Roy MacLeod (2000), pp. 61-78.
  • Luciano Canfora, The Vanished Library (1989; transl. Martin Ryle).
  • Alice Crawford, The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History (2008).
  • Mostafa El-Abbadi and Omnia Mounir Fathall (eds), What Happened to the Library of Alexandria? (2008).
  • George Alexander Kennedy, Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric (2003).
  • Roy MacLeod (ed.), The Library of Alexandria: Centre of Learning in the Ancient World (2000).
  • Rolf Strootman, The Birdcage of the Muses: Patronage of the Arts and Sciences at the Ptolemaic Imperial Court, 305-222 BCE (2017).

Think we needed to include something else in this list? Let us know.