The Destruction of the Alexandrian Library

Or, Why What You Think You Know About History Probably isn’t True

In the comments to my recent post proposing a game in which the players pick an historical even in which to intervene and change, one of the commenters proposed preventing the destruction of the library at Alexandria. The subject provides a useful example of a point I’ve made here before, that what we actually know about antiquity is very little and what has come down to us is inevitably skewed and propagandized (see also here).

What you probably learned in your history classes is that in antiquity there was a great library at Alexandria that contained all of the knowledge of the ancient world and that it was destroyed. There may well have been a library at Alexandria and it might have been destroyed. Any other details you may have learned including the size and importance of the library or when and how the library was destroyed probably aren’t true.

You may have heard that the library contained 40,000 or 70,000 or 400,000 or 700,000 or a million scrolls. The first four numbers are those claimed by Seneca (On tranquility of mind), Ammianus Marcellinus (Roman History), Orosius (History Against the Pagans), and Aulus Gellius (Attic Nights). The last was claimed by Carl Sagan.

You may have heard that the library was destroyed deliberately or accidentally by Julius Caesar in 48BC (most notably by Plutarch) or by Theophilos, Patriarch of Alexandria, in 391AD (Eunapis, the lives of the Sophists and Orosius, ibid.) or by the Caliph Omar in 640AD (Abd el Latif, Account of Egypt).

The earliest account of the library occurs in the Letter of Aristeus, an account of the first translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. It dates from the second century BC and its account of the library is quite brief. Strabo did not mention the library in his description of Alexandria in his Geographica. His visit is believed to have been around 20BC. Consequently, it is reasonable to conclude that if the library alluded to by Aristeus was, indeed, the Great Library, it no longer existed in 20BC and had not for some time.

Livy (59BC-17AD), the Roman historian’s, account of the fire to which nearly every subsequent historian referred was allegedly in a book which no longer exists and was so short that it appears in no summaries. A second century AD epitome of Livy by Florus does not refer to the library.

There is apparently extant an inscription, pictured above, regarding Tiberius Claudius Babillus of Rome who died c. 58AD that refers to an Alexandrian library, see here.

As best as I can tell no contemporaneous descriptions exist of the Great Library and such descriptions as do exist are brief and mostly refer to its destruction. Ruins of the library have never been uncovered by archaeologists.

The accounts of the destruction by Caesar are widespread but not lengthy. They refer to destruction adjacent to the docks and if the Great Library existed it almost certainly was not located near the docks. Some have claimed that the library had an acquisitions department adjacent to the docks which was destroyed by Caesar. Whether that is true is completely speculative and even if there was some sort of receiving area that it might have been destroyed does not prove the existence of a Great Library.

The accounts of the destruction by Theophilos refer not to the Great Library but to the Serapeum and are mostly devoted to accounts of religious artifacts rather than to books. The accounts of the destruction by Caliph Omar are fabulous and concocted mostly by people with axes to grind.

My take: Alexandria was undoubtedly a center of learning and scholarship and, consequently, had a lot of books. Over time Alexandria’s influence, learning, and scholarship all declined. Was there a Great Library? I don’t believe that the evidence supports the idea. There was undoubtedly at least one library and that was either not particularly noteworthy or had ceased to exist by 20BC. Was there a destruction of the Great Library? I have no idea and I don’t believe that anybody else does, either. Having the title “Librarian of the Great Library” certainly doesn’t mean that the library existed any more than having the title “High Priest of Zeus” means that Zeus did.

Note that all of the accounts of the destruction are by people with axes to grind, against the Caesars, against pagans, against Muslims. That’s the important thing to remember about history prior to the invention of the printing press. There was a definite and more than nominal cost associated with producing and maintaining documents and that means that things were preserved for specific reasons important to people with enough money to finance the project, typically political reasons.

BTW, years ago I read a textual analysis of a description of the Great Library which demonstrated to my satisfaction that it was derived from an earlier description of, I believe, the library at Pergamon. I can no longer put my hands on it or remember the title or author.

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