This week’s theme was “work folklore” which threw me for a loop at first. I wasn’t sure what to do and I assumed that there would already be a lot of husbandry and home-goods (spinning, weaving, sewing) kind of folklore. It finally occurred to me that I’m a librarian, dammit! It was a pretty easy jump from my job as a librarian to the many, many stories that have been told about the Library of Alexandria over the last two millenia. (This post is in no way inspired by the recent attacks on American libraries)
There are several stories that attempt to explain the loss of the Library of Alexandria. Some stories are very romantic and would have us believe that the library is intact but hidden beneath the sands, waiting for an intrepid librarian/explorer to find it and reveal its knowledge to the modern world. If you’ve ever watched The Librarians or Warehouse 13, you’ll recognize the plot device. It crops up again and again in fictional adventures. I mean, who doesn’t want to be a librarian who’s also an adventurer and searches the desert sands, seeking to return ancient knowledge to our troubled world?
However, most stories focus on the idea that the library was utterly and completely destroyed in one catastrophic fell swoop. It’s rage-inducing to think of Caesar’s troops sweeping through the city, putting everything to the torch, including this great and noble repository to all the world’s knowledge while the valiant librarians attempted to save these treasured works. There’s also the suggestion that Christians were responsible, which caused a great setback that launched us into the Dark Ages by destroying the library. The truth, though, is much less exciting and honestly, very sad.
Having said that, at its peak, the Library of Alexandria did have one of the greatest storehouses of knowledge in the known-world.
Realistic estimates for how much the library actually contained are difficult to piece together. It seems as if the library staff itself, at its height, didn’t even know the entirety of what the collection contained. In researching this I ran across estimates that ranged from 40,000 to 700,000 texts.
What we have to understand is that the library initially consisted of two separate but joined institutions: the Biblion, where the actual works lived, and the Museion (named after the muses), where the scholars gathered to learn. Eventually, the collection would become so large that a “daughter” museum would be created. The Serapeum was contained within a Temple of Serapis. Scholars that weren’t officially associated with the library could access a great many copies of the library’s works and do their research here. (Editor’s note: if you’ve read Rachel Caine’s The Great Library Series you’ll recognize these elements)
So, where did this great and mighty collection of knowledge come from? How did the Library of Alexandria come to be known as the greatest repository of knowledge in the ancient world?
They accomplished this by buying books where they must and creating copies but they also engaged in a practice that, while not exactly cool, has to be admired for its audacity: all ships that entered the port of Alexandria were searched, any books located were commandeered, copies were made, the copies were given to the owners, and the library kept the originals.
It was even said that the library requested original works of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides from the Athenians. Perhaps because they were aware of the library’s shady practices, the Athenian’s requested 500kg of gold as assurance on the loan. The library took the books, made copies, gave the copies to the Athenians, and let them keep the gold as payment.
The actual date for when the library began is unknown but it’s believed that the construction of the structures began during the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (286-243 BC). While it certainly wasn’t the first such collection of knowledge in the ancient world, it quickly became the largest and most influential due to its rather aggressive collection development policies.
So how did this great and mighty temple to knowledge fall so very far? Well, to be honest, the library was largely a victim of age, relevance, and a few torch-happy individuals.
During a dynastic conflict in 145 BC the head librarian, Aristarchus of Samothrace, backed the wrong horse and found himself exiled from the library and from Egypt. Soon after this, the winner of the dynastic contest, Ptolemy VIII Physcon, expelled all foreign scholars from Egypt. Naturally, this would have been a blow to the library given that scholars came from far and wide to study there. The glory of the library began to collapse and it lost much of its prestige.
So, what about Caesar?
It’s true that Caesar’s troops did cause some damage to the library but by all accounts it wasn’t intentional. His men had set fire to the docks and the grain stores, but the library was truly not all that close. The problem came in when the fire spread, as fire tend to do, and the library got caught as collateral damage. While damage was definitely done and part of the collection was lost, it wasn’t everything.
After this the library continued to fall into disfavor as other libraries sprang up around the known world and even within Alexandria. Fewer and fewer scholars bothered to make the trip and the position of head librarian fell so far that the names were no longer even recorded for posterity. So, the library was pretty much settled into a downward spiral of bad luck, circumstance, and constant warfare in and around the city. By the 3rd century it was effectively gone and already slipping into legend.
As for those rowdy iconoclastic Christians?
The thing is, as much as we’d like to blame the Christians for the wholesale destruction, that’s not quite the case. In 391 (possibly?) the daughter library, the Serapeum, was still in existence, given that it was also a Temple to Serapis. At least, it existed until it was torn down by a mob of Christians and Roman soldiers. There was no fire involved and by all accounts, it had nothing to do with the knowledge contained therein, which by that point, was probably non-existent. The simple fact of the matter is that Christians loved to rip down temples to other gods and so the Temple of Serapis would not be the exception.
So, in the end, the loss of this amazing and magnificent repository of knowledge was due to that one thing that we can never fight: the slow and steady march of time. We can’t be blamed for lamenting the loss of a place like this. There is a grand romantic appeal in the idea of strolling its halls and reading some of the greatest examples of knowledge that the ancient world possessed.
And too, the sheer audacity of the library’s decision that they would acquire this knowledge no matter the cost is honestly awe-inspiring. They went with an any-means-necessary approach which is almost mind-boggling given the way that American libraries are currently struggling just to keep fiction on the shelves in the face of agenda-driven politicians who don’t truly understand what they’re arguing against. Our current struggles may not be quite the same, but we know what we need, we know why we need it, and we will do our best to ensure that our patrons have access to the knowledge that they seek.
King, Arienne. “Making the Myth of the Library of Alexandria.” Ancient World Magazine, 17 Oct. 2018, https://www.ancientworldmagazine.com/articles/making-myth-library-alexandria/.
“Library of Alexandria.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 9 Jan. 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Library_of_Alexandria.
O’Neill, Tim. “The Great Myths 5: The Destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria.” History for Atheists, 5 Feb. 2021, https://historyforatheists.com/2017/07/the-destruction-of-the-great-library-of-alexandria/.
Preskar, Peter. “Library of Alexandria - Myths and Facts.” Medium, History of Yesterday, 3 July 2020, https://historyofyesterday.com/library-of-alexandria-13c1e5c98a18.