The Great Library of Alexandria in Alexandria, Egypt, was one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world.

The Library was part of a larger research institution called the Mouseion, which was dedicated to the Muses, the nine goddesses of the arts.

The idea of a universal library in Alexandria may have been proposed by Demetrius of Phalerum, an exiled Athenian statesman living in Alexandria, to Ptolemy I Soter, who may have established plans for the Library, but the Library itself was probably not built until the reign of his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus.

The Library quickly acquired a large number of papyrus scrolls, due largely to the Ptolemaic kings’ aggressive and well-funded policies for procuring texts.

It is unknown precisely how many such scrolls were housed at any given time, but estimates range from 40,000 to 400,000 at its height.

Alexandria came to be regarded as the capital of knowledge and learning, in part because of the Great Library.

Many important and influential scholars worked at the Library during the third and second centuries BC, including, among many others:

  • Zenodotus of Ephesus, who worked towards standardizing the texts of the Homeric poems
  • Callimachus, who wrote the Pinakes, sometimes considered to be the world’s first library catalog
  • Apollonius of Rhodes, who composed the epic poem the Argonautica
  • Eratosthenes of Cyrene, who calculated the circumference of the earth within a few hundred kilometers of accuracy
  • Aristophanes of Byzantium, who invented the system of Greek diacritics and was the first to divide poetic texts into lines
  • Aristarchus of Samothrace, who produced the definitive texts of the Homeric poems as well as extensive commentaries on them.

During the reign of Ptolemy III Euergetes, a daughter library was established in the Serapeum, a temple to the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis.

Despite the widespread modern belief that the Library was “burned” once and cataclysmically destroyed, the Library actually declined gradually over the course of several centuries, starting with the purging of intellectuals from Alexandria in 145 BC during the reign of Ptolemy VIII Physcon, which resulted in Aristarchus of Samothrace, the head librarian, resigning from his position and exiling himself to Cyprus.

Many other scholars, including Dionysius Thrax and Apollodorus of Athens, fled to other cities, where they continued teaching and conducting scholarship.

The Library, or part of its collection, was accidentally burned by Julius Caesar during his civil war in 48 BC, but it is unclear how much was actually destroyed and it seems to have either survived or been rebuilt shortly thereafter; the geographer Strabo mentions having visited the Mouseion in around 20 BC and the prodigious scholarly output of Didymus Chalcenterus in Alexandria from this period indicates that he had access to at least some of the Library’s resources.

The Library dwindled during the Roman Period, due to lack of funding and support. Its membership appears to have ceased by the 260s AD.

Between 270–275 AD, the city of Alexandria saw a rebellion and an imperial counterattack that probably destroyed whatever remained of the Library if it still existed at that time.

The daughter library of the Serapeum may have survived after the main Library’s destruction.

The Serapeum was vandalized and demolished in 391 AD under a decree issued by Coptic Christian Pope Theophilus of Alexandria, but it does not seem to have housed books at the time and was mainly used as a gathering place for Neoplatonist philosophers following the teachings of Iamblichus.

Historical background

The Library of Alexandria was not the first library of its kind. A long tradition of libraries existed in both Greece and in the ancient Near East.

The earliest recorded archive of written materials comes from the ancient Sumerian city-state of Uruk in around 3400 BC when writing had only just begun to develop.

Scholarly curation of literary texts began in around 2500 BC. The later kingdoms and empires of the ancient Near East had long traditions of book collecting.

The ancient Hittites and Assyrians had massive archives containing records written in many different languages. The most famous library of the ancient Near East was the Library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh, founded in the seventh century BC by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (ruled 668–c. 627 BC).

A large library also existed in Babylon during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II (c. 605–c. 562 BC). In Greece, the Athenian tyrant Peisistratos was said to have founded the first major public library in the sixth century BC.

It was out of this mixed heritage of both Greek and Near Eastern book collections that the idea for the Library of Alexandria was born.

The Macedonian kings who succeeded Alexander the Great as rulers of the Near East wanted to promote Hellenistic culture and learning throughout the known world.

Historian Roy MacLeod calls this “a programme of cultural imperialism“. These rulers, therefore, had a vested interest to collect and compile information from both the Greeks and from the far more ancient kingdoms of the Near East.

Libraries enhanced a city’s prestige, attracted scholars, and provided practical assistance in matters of ruling and governing the kingdom. Eventually, for these reasons, every major Hellenistic urban center would have a royal library.

The Library of Alexandria, however, was unprecedented due to the scope and scale of the Ptolemies’ ambitions; unlike their predecessors and contemporaries, the Ptolemies wanted to produce a repository of all knowledge.

Founding

The Library was one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world, but details about it are a mixture of history and legend.

The earliest known surviving source of information on the founding of the Library of Alexandria is the pseudepigraphic Letter of Aristeas, which was composed between c. 180 and c. 145 BC.

The Letter of Aristeas claims that the Library was founded during the reign of Ptolemy I Soter (c. 323–c. 283 BC) and that it was initially organized by Demetrius of Phalerum, a student of Aristotle who had been exiled from Athens and taken refuge in Alexandria within the Ptolemaic court.

Nonetheless, the Letter of Aristeas is very late and it contains information that is now known to be inaccurate. Other sources claim that the Library was instead created under the reign of Ptolemy I’s son Ptolemy II Philadelphus (283–246 BC).

Modern scholars agree that, while it is possible that Ptolemy I may have laid the groundwork for the Library, it probably did not come into being as a physical institution until the reign of Ptolemy II.

By that time, Demetrius of Phalerum had fallen out of favor with the Ptolemaic court and could not, therefore, have had any role in establishing the Library as an institution.

Stephen V. Tracy, however, argues that it is highly probable that Demetrius played an important role in collecting at least some of the earliest texts that would later become part of the Library’s collection.

In around 295 BC or thereabouts, Demetrius may have acquired early texts of the writings of Aristotle and Theophrastus, which he would have been uniquely positioned to do since he was a distinguished member of the Peripatetic school.

The Library was built in the Brucheion (Royal Quarter) in the style of Aristotle’s Lyceum, adjacent to (and in service of) the Mouseion (a Greek Temple or “House of Muses”, whence the term “museum”).

Its main purpose was to show off the wealth of Egypt, with research as a lesser goal, but its contents were used to aid the ruler of Egypt.

The exact layout of the library is not known, but ancient sources describe the Library of Alexandria as comprising a collection of scrolls, Greek columns, a peripatos walk, a room for shared dining, a reading room, meeting rooms, gardens, and lecture halls, creating a model for the modern university campus.

The Library itself is known to have had an acquisitions department (possibly built near the stacks, or for utility closer to the harbor) and a cataloging department.

A hall contained shelves for the collections of papyrus scrolls known as bibliothekai. According to popular description, an inscription above the shelves read:

“The place of the cure of the soul.”

Burning by Julius Caesar

In 48 BC, during Caesar’s Civil War, Julius Caesar was besieged at Alexandria. His soldiers set fire to his own ships while trying to clear the wharves to block the fleet belonging to Cleopatra’s brother Ptolemy XIV.

This fire spread to the parts of the city nearest to the docks, causing considerable devastation. The first-century AD Roman playwright and Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger quotes Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita Libri, which was written between 63 and 14 BC, as saying that the fire started by Caesar destroyed 40,000 scrolls from the Library of Alexandria.

The Greek Middle Platonist Plutarch (c. 46–120 AD) writes in his Life of Caesar that:

“[W]hen the enemy endeavored to cut off his communication by sea, he was forced to divert that danger by setting fire to his own ships, which, after burning the docks, thence spread on and destroyed the great library.”

The Roman historian Cassius Dio (c. 155 –c. 235 AD), however, writes:

“Many places were set on fire, with the result that, along with other buildings, the dockyards and storehouses of grain and books, said to be great in number and of the finest, were burned.”

However, Florus and Lucan only mention that the flames burned the fleet itself and some “houses near the sea“.

Scholars have interpreted Cassius Dio’s wording to indicate that the fire did not actually destroy the entire Library itself, but rather only a warehouse located near the docks being used by the Library to house scrolls.

Whatever devastation Caesar’s fire may have caused, the Library was evidently not completely destroyed.

The geographer Strabo (c. 63 BC–c. 24 AD) mentions visiting the Mouseion, the larger research institution to which the Library was attached, in around 20 BC, several decades after Caesar’s fire, indicating that it either survived the fire or was rebuilt soon afterward.

Nonetheless, Strabo’s manner of talking about the Mouseion shows that it was nowhere near as prestigious as it had been a few centuries prior.

Despite mentioning the Mouseion, Strabo does not mention the Library separately, perhaps indicating that it had been so drastically reduced in stature and significance that Strabo felt it did not warrant separate mention. It is unclear what happened to the Mouseion after Strabo’s mention of it.

Furthermore, Plutarch records in his Life of Marc Antony that, in the years leading up to the Battle of Actium in 33 BC, Mark Antony was rumored to have given Cleopatra all 200,000 scrolls in the Library of Pergamum.

Plutarch himself notes that his source for this anecdote was sometimes unreliable and it is possible that the story may be nothing more than propaganda intended to show that Mark Antony was loyal to Cleopatra and Egypt rather than to Rome.

Casson, however, argues that, even if the story was made up, it would not have been believable unless the Library still existed. Edward J. Watts argues that Mark Antony’s gift may have been intended to replenish the Library’s collection after the damage to it caused by Caesar’s fire roughly a decade and a half prior.

Further evidence for the Library’s survival after 48 BC comes from the fact that the most notable producer of composite commentaries during the late first century BC and early first century AD was a scholar who worked in Alexandria named Didymus Chalcenterus, whose epithet Chalkénteros means “bronze guts“.

Didymus is said to have produced somewhere between 3,500 and 4,000 books, making him the most prolific known writer in all of antiquity.

He was also given the nickname Biblioláthēs, meaning “book-forgetter” because it was said that even he could not remember all the books he had written.

Parts of some of Didymus’s commentaries have been preserved in the forms of later extracts and these remains are modern scholars’ most important sources of information about the critical works of the earlier scholars at the Library of Alexandria.

Lionel Casson states that Didymus’s prodigious output “would have been impossible without at least a good part of the resources of the library at his disposal.

Roman Period and destruction

Very little is known about the Library of Alexandria during the time of the Roman Principate (27 BC–284 AD).

The emperor Claudius (ruled 41–54 AD) is recorded to have built an addition onto the Library, but it seems that the Library of Alexandria’s general fortunes followed those of the city of Alexandria itself.

After Alexandria came under Roman rule, the city’s status and, consequently that of its famous Library, gradually diminished.

While the Mouseion still existed, membership was granted not on the basis of scholarly achievement, but rather on the basis of distinction in government, the military, or even in athletics.

The same was evidently the case even for the position of head librarian; the only known head librarian from the Roman Period was a man named Tiberius Claudius Balbilus, who lived in the middle of the first century AD and was a politician, administrator, and military officer with no record of substantial scholarly achievements.

Members of the Mouseion were no longer required to teach, conduct research, or even live in Alexandria. The Greek writer Philostratus records that the emperor Hadrian (ruled 117–138 AD) appointed the ethnographer Dionysius of Miletus and the sophist Polemon of Laodicea as members of the Mouseion, even though neither of these men is known to have ever spent any significant amount of time in Alexandria.

Meanwhile, as the reputation of Alexandrian scholarship declined, the reputations of other libraries across the Mediterranean world improved, diminishing the Library of Alexandria’s former status as the most prominent.

Other libraries also sprang up within the city of Alexandria itself and the scrolls from the Great Library may have been used to stock some of these smaller libraries.

The Caesareum and the Claudianum in Alexandria are both known to have had major libraries by the end of the first century AD. The Serapeum, originally the “daughter library” of the Great Library, probably expanded during this period as well, according to classical historian Edward J. Watts.

By the second century AD, the Roman Empire grew less dependent on grain from Alexandria and the city’s prominence declined further. The Romans during this period also had less interest in Alexandrian scholarship and so the Library’s reputation continued to decline as well.

The scholars who worked and studied at the Library of Alexandria during the time of the Roman Empire were less well known than the ones who had studied there during the Ptolemaic Period.

Eventually, the word “Alexandrian” itself came to be synonymous with the editing of texts, correction of textual errors, and writing of commentaries synthesized from those of earlier scholars—in other words, taking on connotations of pedantry, monotony, and lack of originality

Mention of both the Great Library of Alexandria and the Mouseion that housed it disappear after the middle of the third century AD. The last known references to scholars being members of the Mouseion date to the 260s.

In 272 AD, the emperor Aurelian fought to recapture the city of Alexandria from the forces of the Palmyrene queen Zenobia.

During the course of the fighting, Aurelian’s forces destroyed the Broucheion quarter of the city in which the main library was located.

If the Mouseion and Library still existed at this time, they were almost certainly destroyed during the attack as well.

If they did survive the attack, then whatever was left of them would have been destroyed during the emperor Diocletian’s siege of Alexandria in 297.

School of Theon and Hypatia

The Suda, a tenth-century Byzantine encyclopedia, calls the mathematician Theon of Alexandria (c. AD 335–c. 405) a “man of the Mouseion“.

According to classical historian Edward J. Watts, however, Theon was probably the head of a school called the “Mouseion“, which was named in emulation of the Hellenistic Mouseion that had once included the Library of Alexandria, but which had little other connection to it.

Theon’s school was exclusive, highly prestigious, and doctrinally conservative. Neither Theon nor Hypatia seems to have had any connections to the militant Iamblichean Neoplatonists who taught in the Serapeum.

Instead, Theon seems to have rejected the teachings of Iamblichus and may have taken pride in teaching a pure, Plotinian Neoplatonism. In around 400 AD, Theon’s daughter Hypatia (born c. 350–370; died 415 AD) succeeded him as the head of his school.

Like her father, she rejected the teachings of Iamblichus and instead embraced the original Neoplatonism formulated by Plotinus.

Theophilus, the same bishop who ordered the destruction of the Serapeum, tolerated Hypatia’s school and even encouraged two of her students to become bishops in territory under his authority.

Hypatia was extremely popular with the people of Alexandria and exerted profound political influence. Theophilus respected Alexandria’s political structures and raised no objection to the close ties Hypatia established with Roman prefects.

Hypatia was later implicated in a political feud between Orestes, the Roman prefect of Alexandria, and Cyril of Alexandria, Theophilus’s successor as bishop.

Rumors spread accusing her of preventing Orestes from reconciling with Cyril and, in March of 415 AD, she was murdered by a mob of Christians, led by a lector named Peter.

Mort_de_la_philosophe_Hypatie Library of Alexandria

She had no successor and her school collapsed after her death.

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*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org.