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History

  • The Royal Library of Alexandria, or Ancient Library of Alexandria, in Alexandria, Egypt, seems to have been the largest and most significant great library of the ancient world. It flourished under the patronage of the Ptolemaic dynasty and functioned as a major center of scholarship from its construction in the 3rd century BC until the Roman conquest of Egypt in 48 BC. After its destruction, scholars used a related library in the temple known as the Serapeum, located in another part of the city, founded on the collection of Pergamum, which was given by Mark Antony to Cleopatra. This library was described as the “daughter library” and was also a temple to the god Serapis.

    Ancient Library of Alexandria

    Ancient Library of Alexandria

    The library was conceived and opened either during the reign of Ptolemy I Soter (323–283 BC) or during the reign of his son Ptolemy II (283–246 BC). Plutarch (AD 46–120) wrote that during his visit to Alexandria in 48 BC Julius Caesar accidentally burned the library down when he set fire to his own ships to frustrate Achillas’ attempt to limit his ability to communicate by sea. Edward Gibbon describes how the daughter library was also destroyed by Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria, who ordered the destruction of the Serapeum in 391.

Destruction

  • The ancient accounts by Plutarch, [Aulus Gellius]], Ammianus Marcellinus, and Orosius agree that Caesar accidentally burned the library down during his visit to Alexandria in 48 BC.

    Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, written at the end of the 1st or beginning of the 2nd century AD, describes a battle in which Caesar was forced to burn his own ships:

    “when 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.”

  • William Cherf argued that this scenario had all the ingredients of a firestorm and in turn set fire to the docks and then the library, destroying it. This would have occurred in 48 BC, during the fighting between Caesar and Ptolemy XIII. In the 2nd century AD, the Roman historian Aulus Gellius wrote in his book Attic Nights that the Royal Alexandrian Library was burned by mistake when some of Caesar’s soldiers started a fire. Furthermore, in the 4th century, both the pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus and the Christian historian Orosius wrote that the Bibliotheca Alexandrina had been destroyed by Caesar’s fire.

    Bibliotheca Alexandrina

    Bibliotheca Alexandrina

    The anonymous author of the Alexandrian Wars writes that the fires Caesar’s soldiers had set to burn the Egyptian navy in the port of Alexandria went as far as burning a store full of papyri located near the port. However, the geographical study of the location of the historical Bibliotheca Alexandrina in the neighborhood of Bruchion suggests that this store cannot have been the Great Library. It is most probable here that these historians confused the two Greek words bibliothekas, which means “set of books”, with bibliotheka, which means library. As a result, they thought that what had been recorded earlier concerning the burning of some books stored near the port constituted the burning of the famous Alexandrian Library.

  • In any case, whether the burned books were only some books found in storage or books found inside the library itself, the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca (c. 4 BC – AD 65) refers to 40,000 books having been burnt at Alexandria. During Marcus Antonius’ rule of the eastern part of the Empire (40–30 BC), he plundered the second largest library in the world (that at Pergamon) and presented the collection as a gift to Cleopatra as a replacement for the books lost to Caesar’s fire. Abaddi speaks to this story as anti-Antony propaganda, from Rome, to show his loyalty to Egypt.

  • Theodore Vrettos describes the damage caused by the fire:

    “The Roman galleys carrying the Thirty-Seventh Legion from Asia Minor had now reached the Egyptian coast, but because of contrary winds, they were unable to proceed toward Alexandria. At anchor in the harbor off Lochias, the Egyptian fleet posed an additional problem for the Roman ships. However, in a surprise attack, Caesar’s soldiers set fire to the Egyptian ships, and the flames, spreading rapidly in the driving wind, consumed most of the dockyard, many structures near the palace, and also several thousand books that were housed in one of the buildings. From this incident, historians mistakenly assumed that the Great Library of Alexandria had been destroyed, but the Library was nowhere near the docks… The most immediate damage occurred in the area around the docks, in shipyards, arsenals, and warehouses in which grain and books were stored. Some 40,000 book scrolls were destroyed in the fire. Not at all connected with the Great Library, they were account books and ledgers containing records of Alexandria’s export goods bound for Rome and other cities throughout the world.”

  • However, the Royal Alexandrian Library was not the only library located in the city. There were at least two other libraries in Alexandria: the library of the Serapeum Temple and the library of the Cesarion Temple. The continuity of literary and scientific life in Alexandria after the destruction of the Royal Library, as well as the flourishing of the city as the world’s center for sciences and literature between the 1st and the 6th centuries AD, depended to a large extent on the presence of these two libraries and the books and references they contained. Thus, while it is historically recorded that the Royal Library was a private one for the royal family as well as for scientists and researchers, the libraries of the Serapeum and Cesarion temples were public libraries accessible to the people.

  • Pompeys Pillar

    Pompeys Pillar

  • Furthermore, while the Royal Library was founded by Ptolemy II Philadelphus in the royal quarters of Bruchion near the palaces and the royal gardens, it was his son Ptolemy III who founded the Serapeum temple and its adjoined “Daughter” Library in the popular quarters of Rhakotis.

  • The next account we have is Strabo’s Geographia in 28 BC, which does not mention the library specifically, but does mention—among other details—that he is unable to find a map in the city that he saw when on an earlier trip to Alexandria, pre-fire. Abaddi uses this account to infer the library was destroyed to its foundations and the collection destroyed.

  • The certainty of this conclusion diminishes when one considers the context. The adjacent Museion was, according to the same account, fully functional—which requires the assumption that one building could be perfectly fine while another next door completely destroyed. Also, we do know that at this time the Daughter Library at the Serapeum was thriving and untouched by the fire, and as Strabo does not mention the library by name, we can assert that for Strabo omission does not necessarily denote absence.

  • Finally, as mentioned above, Strabo confirms the existence of the “Museion”, of which the Great Library was the royal collection, and in his other mentions of the Sarapeum and Museion, he and other historians are inconsistent in their descriptions of the entire compound or the temple buildings specifically. So we may not infer that by mentioning the father institute of the Museion, but not the library arm specifically, that it had in fact been demolished. Finally, as one of the world’s leading geographers, it is entirely possible that in the twenty-plus years since his last visit to the library, the map he was referencing—*quite possibly a rare or esoteric map considering his expertise and the vast collection of the library—might have been either part of the library that was partially destroyed or just simply a victim of twenty years of wear, tear and disrepair in a library which no longer had the funds it once did to recopy and preserve its collection.

  • Therefore, the Royal Alexandrian Library may have been burned after Strabo’s visit to the city (25 BC) but before the beginning of the 2nd century AD when Plutarch wrote. Otherwise Plutarch and later historians would not have mentioned the incident and mistakenly attributed it to Julius Caesar. It is also most probable that the library was destroyed by someone other than Caesar, although the later generations linked the fire that took place in Alexandria during Caesar’s time to the burning of the Bibliotheca. Some believe that the most likely scenario was the destruction that accompanied the wars between Zenobia of Palmyra and the Roman Emperor Aurelian, in the second half of the 3rd century (see below).

Chronology

Attack of Aurelian, 3rd century

  • The library seems to have been maintained and continued in existence until its contents were largely lost during the taking of the city by the Emperor Aurelian (270–275), who was suppressing a revolt by Queen Zenobia of Palmyra (ruled Egypt AD 269–274). During the course of the fighting, the areas of the city in which the main library was located were damaged. The smaller library located at the Serapeum survived, but part of its contents may have been taken to Constantinople to adorn the new capital in the course of the 4th century. However, Ammianus Marcellinus, writing around AD 378 seems to speak of the library in the Serapeum temple as a thing of the past, and he states that many of the Serapeum library’s volumes were burnt when Caesar sacked Alexandria. As he says in Book 22.16.12-13:

    “Besides this there are many lofty temples, and especially one to Serapis, which, although no words can adequately describe it, we may yet say, from its splendid halls supported by pillars, and its beautiful statues and other embellishments, is so superbly decorated, that next to the Capitol, of which the ever-venerable Rome boasts, the whole world has nothing worthier of admiration. In it were libraries of inestimable value; and the concurrent testimony of ancient records affirm that 70,000 volumes, which had been collected by the anxious care of the Ptolemies, were burnt in the Alexandrian war when the city was sacked in the time of Caesar the Dictator.”

  • 5th century scroll which illustrates the destruction of the Serapeum by Theophilus.

  • While Ammianus Marcellinus may be simply reiterating Plutarch’s tradition about Caesar’s destruction of the library, it is possible that his statement reflects his own empirical knowledge that the Serapeum library collection had either been seriously depleted or was no longer in existence in his own day.

Decree of Theodosius, destruction of the Serapeum in 391

  • Paganism was made illegal by an edict of the Emperor Theodosius I in 391. The holdings of the Great Library (both at the Mouseion and at the Serapeum) were on the precincts of pagan temples. While this had previously lent them a measure of protection, in the days of the Christian Roman Empire, whatever protection this had previously afforded them had ceased. The temples of Alexandria were closed by Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria in AD 391.

  • Socrates of Constantinople provides the following account of the destruction of the temples in Alexandria, in the fifth book of his Historia Ecclesiastica, written around 440:

    “At the solicitation of Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria, the emperor issued an order at this time for the demolition of the heathen temples in that city; commanding also that it should be put in execution under the direction of Theophilus. Seizing this opportunity, Theophilus exerted himself to the utmost to expose the pagan mysteries to contempt. And to begin with, he caused the Mithreum to be cleaned out, and exhibited to public view the tokens of its bloody mysteries. Then he destroyed the Serapeum, and the bloody rites of the Mithreum he publicly caricatured; the Serapeum also he showed full of extravagant superstitions, and he had the phalli of Priapus carried through the midst of the forum. … Thus this disturbance having been terminated, the governor of Alexandria, and the commander-in-chief of the troops in Egypt, assisted Theophilus in demolishing the heathen temples.”

  • The Serapeum housed part of the Great Library, but it is not known how many, if any, books were contained in it at the time of destruction. Notably, the passage by Socrates makes no clear reference to a library or its contents, only to religious objects. An earlier text by the historian Ammianus Marcellinus indicates that, whatever books might earlier have been housed at the Serapeum, none were there in the last decade of the 4th century. The pagan author Eunapius of Sardis witnessed the demolition, and though he detested Christians, and was a scholar, his account of the Serapeum’s destruction makes no mention of any library. Orosius admitted in the sixth book of his History against the Pagans:

    “Today there exist in temples book chests which we ourselves have seen, and, when these temples were plundered, these, we are told, were emptied by our own men in our time, which, indeed, is a true statement.”

  • However, Orosius is not here discussing the Serapeum, nor is it clear who “our own men” are (the phrase may mean no more than “men of our time,” since pagans also occasionally plundered temples).
    As for the Museum, Mostafa El-Abbadi writes in Life and Fate of the Ancient Library of Alexandria (1990):

    “The Mouseion, being at the same time a ‘shrine of the Muses’, enjoyed a degree of sanctity as long as other pagan temples remained unmolested. Synesius of Cyrene, who studied under Hypatia at the end of the fourth century, saw the Mouseion and described the images of the philosophers in it. We have no later reference to its existence in the fifth century. As Theon, the distinguished mathematician and father of Hypatia, herself a renowned scholar, was the last recorded scholar-member (c. 380), it is likely that the Mouseion did not long survive the promulgation of Theodosius’ decree in 391 to destroy all pagan temples in the city.”

  • John Julius Norwich, in his work Byzantium: The Early Centuries, places the destruction of the library’s collection during the anti-Arian riots in Alexandria that transpired after the imperial decree of 391 (p. 314). No ancient sources confirm—or even suggest—such an event.

Source: Wikipedia

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