Library of Alexandria

Dafato Team | Jun 27, 2022

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The Library of Alexandria (in Latin, Bibliotheca Alexandrina) was one of the most important and prestigious libraries, as well as one of the major centers for the dissemination of knowledge in antiquity. Established in the 3rd century BC in the palace complex of the city of Alexandria during the Hellenistic period of Ancient Egypt, the library was part of a research institution known as Museion, which was dedicated to the Muses, the nine goddesses of the arts. The idea for its creation may have been a proposal by Demetrius of Phalerus, an exiled Athenian statesman, to the satrap of Egypt and founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty, Ptolemy I Soter, who, like his predecessor, Alexander the Great, sought to promote the spread of Hellenic culture. However, it was probably not built until the reign of his son, Ptolemy II Philadelphus. Soon after its foundation, a second library analogous to the main one, though smaller, was opened. A large number of papyrus scrolls were acquired thanks, above all, to the aggressive and well-funded policies of the Ptolemaic kings for the procurement of texts. It is not known exactly how many works made up its holdings, but it is estimated that the main one housed four hundred and ninety thousand literary, scholarly and religious volumes and its daughter about forty-three thousand. These libraries grew so much that, during the reign of Ptolemy III Evergetes, a dependency of the same was created in the Serapeum of Alexandria.

In addition to serving as a demonstration of the power of the Ptolemaic rulers, it played an important role in the development of Alexandria as a successor to Athens as a center for the promotion of Greek culture. Numerous important and influential scholars worked there, notably Zenodotus of Ephesus, who sought to standardize the texts of the Homeric poems and produced the earliest known record of the use of alphabetical order as a method of organization; Callimachus, who wrote the Pinakes, probably the world's first library catalog; Apollonius of Rhodes, who composed the epic poem the Argonautics; Eratosthenes of Cyrene, who calculated for the first time, with surprising accuracy for the time, the circumference of the Earth; Aristophanes of Byzantium, who systematized the punctuation, pronunciation and accentuation of Greek; or Aristarchus of Samothrace, who wrote the definitive texts of the Homeric poems and extensive commentaries on them. There are also references that the community of the library and the Museion would also have temporarily counted with numerous other figures who contributed decisively to knowledge, such as Archimedes and Euclid.

Despite the widespread modern belief that the library was catastrophically burned and destroyed in its heyday, it actually gradually declined over several centuries, in a process that began with the purge of intellectuals from Alexandria in 145 B.C., during the reign of Ptolemy VIII, which resulted in Aristarchus of Samothrace, the librarian, abandoning his post and going into exile in Cyprus and other scholars, such as Dionysius of Thrace and Apollodorus of Athens, fleeing to other cities. The library, or part of its collection, was accidentally set on fire by Julius Caesar in 48 BC, during the second civil war of the Roman Republic, but it is not clear to what extent it was actually destroyed, as sources indicate that it survived or was rebuilt soon after. The geographer Strabo mentions frequenting the Museion around 20 B.C. and the profuse scholarly output of Didymus of Alexandria from that time indicates that he had access to at least part of the library's resources. Under Roman control it lost vitality due to lack of funds and support and from 260 A.D. onwards there is no knowledge of intellectuals linked to it. Between 270 and 275 AD the city of Alexandria suffered riots that probably destroyed what was left of the library, if it still existed, but that of the Serapeum may have survived longer, perhaps until 391 AD, when the Coptic pope Theophilus I instigated the vandalism and demolition of the Serapeum in his campaign to destroy pagan temples.

The Library of Alexandria was more than a repository of works, and for centuries constituted an outstanding center of intellectual activity. Its influence was felt throughout the Hellenic world, not only through the enhancement of written knowledge, which led to the creation of other libraries inspired by it and the proliferation of manuscripts, but also through the work of its scholars in numerous areas of knowledge. The theories and models developed by the library community continued to influence science, literature and philosophy until at least the Renaissance. Its legacy has had effects that reach into the present day, and can be considered an archetype of the universal library, of the ideal of the preservation of knowledge and of the fragility of that knowledge. The Library and the Museion have helped to distance science from specific currents of thought and, above all, to demonstrate that academic research can contribute to solving the practical problems and material needs of societies and governments.

Historical context

The Library of Alexandria was not the first of its kind, as it was part of a long tradition of libraries that existed in both Ancient Greece and the Near East, Several later kingdoms and empires of the ancient Near East developed policies of collecting works. The ancient Hittites and Assyrians had large archives containing documents in several languages; the most famous library of the ancient Near East was the Library of Nineveh, founded between 668 and 627 B.C. by the Assyrian king of Nineveh.  There was also a great library in Babylon during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 605-562 B.C.), and in Greece it was claimed that the Athenian tyrant Pisistratus founded the first great public library in the 6th century B.C. However, the proliferation of libraries in the Hellenistic cultural world came relatively late, probably not much earlier than the 4th century B.C., and it was from this heritage of Greek and Near Eastern libraries that the idea of a library in Alexandria arose.

Alexander the Great and his Macedonian successors sought to spread Hellenic culture and knowledge in the territories under their rule, and also with the aim of imposing their influence through culture. Alexander and his successors also believed that their project of conquering other territories and peoples involved understanding their culture and language, through the study of their texts. From this dual objective would emerge universal libraries, which would contain texts from various disciplines and which would come from different languages. In addition, post-Alexander rulers sought to legitimize their position as his successors, and saw libraries as a way to increase the prestige of their cities, attract foreign scholars and receive practical assistance in government affairs. For these reasons, every major Hellenic urban center would have a royal library, and the territories under the control of Alexander's successors witnessed the birth of some of the richest libraries of antiquity.

However, the Library of Alexandria was unique because of the magnitude of the ambitions of the Ptolemaic dynasty, for unlike their predecessors and contemporaries, the Ptolemaic monarchs sought to be the repository of all human knowledge. Through the accumulation of this knowledge and, potentially, its monopoly, they sought to differentiate themselves from Alexander's other successors and lead them in the cultural and political realms. In time, the Library would contribute decisively to making Alexandria the leading intellectual center of the Hellenistic world.


Although this library was one of the largest and most important of the ancient world, the sources of information about it are scarce and sometimes contradictory, and much of what has been written about it mixes legends and historical facts. The first documented source about its creation is the pseudepigraphic Letter of Aristeas, written between 180 and 145 BC, which states that it was founded in the city of Alexandria during the reign of Ptolemy I Soter (r. 323-283 BC), and that it was initially planned by Demetrius of Phalerus, a scholar of Aristotle exiled from Athens who had sought refuge in the Ptolemaic court of Alexandria. However this letter is considerably later than that period and contains information that is now known to be inaccurate or highly disputed, such as the claim that the Septuagint was produced in the library.

Other sources claim that the Library was created under the reign of his son, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who reigned between 283 and 246 BC, and in fact most contemporary scholars agree that while it is possible that Ptolemy I laid the groundwork for its establishment, it was probably only created as a physical institution during the reign of Ptolemy II. By this time, Demetrius of Falero had fallen out of favor with the Ptolemaic court and could not have played any role in the establishment of the Library as an institution, although historians consider it very likely that he played an important role in collecting the first texts that would become part of the library's holdings. It is possible that around 295 BC Demetrius acquired originals or first-rate reproductions of the writings of Aristotle and Theophrastus since, being an illustrious member of the Peripatetic school, his position would allow him privileged access to these texts.

Regardless of the exact period of its creation, it seems relatively clear that Aristotle and his Athens Lyceum, which housed the Peripatetic school, exerted a great influence on the organization of the library and the other intellectual institutions of the Ptolemaic court of Alexandria, no doubt due to the influence of Demetrius of Phalerus, but also to the fact that Ptolemy II was educated by Straton of Lampsackus, a member of the Peripatetic school and later director of the Lyceum, in addition to the fact that Aristotle had been the tutor of the young Alexander the Great and the creation of an institution inspired by the Aristotelian Lyceum would offer the Ptolemaic dynasty an additional opportunity to justify their claims as Alexander's successors. The library is known to have been built in the Brucheion, the palace complex at Alexandria, in the style of the Lyceum. The site chosen for its construction was adjacent to the Museion - in ancient Greek, Μουσεῖον, lit. 'temple of the Muses' - the institution on which the Library would depend. The exact design of the library is unknown, but it has been proposed that the Library of Pergamon, built a few decades later, would have replicated its architecture. Ancient sources describe the Library of Alexandria as having Greek columns, walkways, a collective dining room, a reading room, meeting rooms, gardens, and classrooms, a model that would approximate a modern university campus. One outbuilding contained shelves or repositories-in ancient Greek, θήκη, romanized: thēke-for the holdings of papyrus rolls-in ancient Greek, βιβλίον, romanized: biblíon-which was known as the library proper-in ancient Greek, βιβλιοθῆκαι, romanized: bibliothēkai. According to the historian Hecataeus of Abdera, who probably visited it in its early phase, an inscription above the shelves read "The place of the healing of the soul" -in ancient Greek, ψυχῆς ἰατρείον, romanized: psychés iatreíon-.

Although little is known about the structure of the library, more evidence survives of the Museion and it is known that it was a research institution, although officially it was a religious institution administered by a priest appointed by the king, just as priests administered other temples. In addition to preserving works of the past in the library, the Museion also hosted numerous scholars, poets, philosophers and international researchers who, according to the Greek geographer Strabo in the 1st century BC, received a high salary, free food and lodging and tax exemption, According to the American classical scholar Lionel Casson, the idea behind the organization of the Museion was that if scholars were freed from the burdens of everyday life, they could devote more time to research and intellectual pursuits. Strabo called the group of scholars living in the Museion a "community"-in ancient Greek, σύνοδος, romanized: súnodos-a group that, in 283 B.C., may have been composed of between thirty and fifty scholars.

The Museion had numerous classrooms in which the scholars, at least occasionally, were intended to teach the students; a large circular refectory with a high, vaulted ceiling in which students and researchers met to eat together; a sanctuary dedicated to the muses, which was the museion proper and the place researchers visited in search of artistic, scientific or philosophical inspiration (Mouseîon is the origin of the word "museum"); plus a promenade, a gallery and walls with colorful paintings; and probably gardens and an observatory. There are indications that Ptolemy II had a great interest in zoology, and at least one source mentions that the Museion would have housed a zoo with exotic animals.

Organization and initial expansion

The Ptolemaic rulers intended the library to bring together the knowledge of "all the peoples of the earth" and strove to expand its holdings through an aggressive and well-funded policy of purchasing documents. They sent royal agents with large sums of money, ordering them to acquire as many texts as possible, by any author and on any subject.

Older copies of texts were preferred to more recent ones, because it was assumed that older copies were the result of fewer transcriptions and therefore tended to provide content more in keeping with the original written by the author. This policy required travel to the book markets of Rhodes and Athens, and it is possible that the library acquired all or at least part of Aristotle's collection of Lyceum works. The library focused particularly on acquiring manuscripts of the Homeric poems, which formed the basis of Greek education and were revered above all other poems, and eventually succeeded in acquiring numerous manuscripts of these poems, which were individually marked with labels indicating their origins.

According to the Byzantine historian John Tzetzes, foreign translators who spoke Greek very well were hired to translate the texts sold or lent to the library by foreign governments. According to Galen, a decree of Ptolemy II stipulated that any book found on a ship docking in Alexandria should be taken to the library, where it would be copied by the official scribes. The copies were given to the owners and the original texts were kept in the library, with the notation "from the ships". Also according to Galen, the ambitious acquisition policy of the Ptolemaic dynasty led to competition from other libraries and caused the inflation of the prices of works and the proliferation of forgeries.

Along with the activity of collecting, guarding and reproducing Ancient texts, the Museum where the library was housed was also dedicated to serving as a gathering place for multi-national scholars, poets, philosophers and researchers, who, according to the Greek geographer Strabo, had generous salaries, free food and lodging, and were exempt from paying taxes. They had a large, high-vaulted dining hall where they ate in groups most of the time. There were also numerous classrooms in which the scholars taught students occasionally, at least. Ptolemy II Philadelphus had a special interest in zoology, so it has been speculated that the Museum may even have housed a zoo with exotic animals.

According to the classical scholar Lionel Casson, it was believed that if the scholars were freed from all the difficulties of everyday life they could devote more time to research and other intellectual pursuits. Strabo called σύνοδος (synodos, "community") the group of scholars living in the Museum. As early as 283 B.C., there could have been around thirty to fifty scholars in this group.

Early times

The activities and holdings of the Library of Alexandria were not limited to a particular school of philosophy, thought or religion, and the scholars who studied there enjoyed considerable academic freedom. They were, however, subject to the authority of the king and what the Ptolemaic court considered acceptable. One account, probably apocryphal, tells the story of a poet named Sótades, who wrote an obscene epigram satirizing Ptolemy II for marrying his sister, Arsínoe II; Ptolemy II had him arrested and, after escaping and being recaptured, confined him in a leaden coffin and threw him into the sea. Unlike the Museion, which was headed by a priest, at the head of the library was a scholar who acted as librarian and tutor to the king's heir.

Since it is now believed that Demetrius of Phalerus did not work directly in the library, his first recorded librarian was Zenodotus of Ephesus, who lived between c. 325 and c. 270 B.C. A specialist in Homer, Zenodotus produced the first critical editions of the Iliad and Odyssey. Although criticized for the quality of his works, he is credited with a pivotal role in the history of Homeric studies, as he had access to texts that were later lost and made definitive contributions by establishing text patterns for the Homeric poems and the early Greek lyric poets. Most of what is known about him comes from later commentaries that mention specific passages, but Zenodotus is also famous for having written a glossary of rare and unusual words, which was organized in alphabetical order, making him the first known person to employ this method of organization. Since the holdings of the Library of Alexandria appear to have been organized in alphabetical order from the earliest years, by the first letter of the author's name, it is very likely that Zenodotus organized them in this way. However his system of organization only used the first letter of each word, and historical records indicate that it was not until the second century that this method also considered the other letters of the words.

At that time it is likely that the library offered its services to Euclid, who had arrived in Alexandria at the invitation of Demetrius of Phalerus and was in the process of completing his major work, the Elements. Also around that time the scholar and poet Callimachus compiled the Pinakes - in ancient Greek, Πίνακες, lit.  'tables'-, consisting of 120 volumes listing authors and their respective known works, and which most likely became the instrument used to catalog the library's substantial holdings. Sometimes considered the "poet-academic par excellence" and credited with having used the elegiac distich for the first time known, Callimachus gained notoriety primarily through the production of this document. Although the Pinakes did not survive to the present day, fragments and references to this work allowed scholars to reconstruct its basic structure. They were divided into sections, each of which contained references to authors of a certain genre of text. Their basic division was between authors of poetry and prose, and each section was divided into subsections listing authors in alphabetical order, and the authors' records included their names, their parents' names, their places of birth, and other brief biographical information, such as the surnames by which they were known, followed by lists of their known works. The information on prolific authors such as Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, and Theophrastus must have been very extensive, with multiple columns of text. This work of selecting, categorizing, and organizing the Greek classics has since influenced not only the structure by which these works are known, but also countless later published works. Callimachus has therefore been defined as the "father of librarianship" and "one of the most important personalities of the ancient world"; although he carried out his most famous work in the Library of Alexandria, he was never its librarian.

After the death or retirement of Zenodotus, Ptolemy II appointed as second librarian and tutor of his son, the future Ptolemy III Evergetes, Apollonius of Rhodes, apparently a disciple of Callimachus. He is best known as the author of the epic poem the Argonautics, which deals with the adventures of Jason and the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece. This poem, whose complete text has survived to the present day, shows Apollonius' vast knowledge of literature and history, and alludes to a wide variety of events and texts, while imitating the style of the Homeric poems. He became a highly influential figure in the following centuries, serving as a model for authors such as Virgil or Valerius Flaccus.

Although Apollonius is best known as a poet, fragments of his scientific writings have also survived to the present day. During his tenure he probably lived with the mathematician and inventor Archimedes, who spent some years in Egypt and is recorded to have conducted research in the library. It is said that at that time Archimedes observed the rise and fall of the flow of the Nile, which led him to invent the gavimetric device known as Archimedes' screw, a device for conveying water from low beds to irrigation ditches. According to two late biographies, Apollonius of Rhodes eventually resigned his position as librarian and went into voluntary exile on the island of Rhodes, following the hostile reception his Argonautics received in Alexandria, especially from Callimachus. However, some authors consider it more likely that Apollonius' resignation was actually caused by the accession to the throne of Ptolemy III in 246 B.C.

Subsequent operation and expansion

Although his third librarian, Eratosthenes of Cyrene, was an outstanding man of letters, today he is best known for his scientific work and for having contributed greatly to the advancement of geography as a scientific discipline.The most important work of this scholar, who lived approximately between 280 and 194 B.C., was the treatise on general geography Geographica-in ancient Greek, Γεωγραφικά, romanized: Geografiká-originally written in three volumes. The work itself did not survive, but many fragments were preserved through quotations in the later writings of the geographer Strabo. Eratosthenes was the first scholar to apply mathematics to geography and cartography, and in his treatise On the Measurement of the Earth he calculated the circumference of our planet with great precision for the time, with a difference of only a few hundred kilometers. He considered the setting of the Homeric poems to be purely imaginary, and argued that the purpose of poetry was to "captivate the soul," not to provide a historically accurate account of actual events. Strabo quotes him as saying sarcastically that "a man would find the places of Ulysses' wanderings the day he met a craftsman who knew how to sew goatskins in the winds." To produce a map of the entire known world, Eratosthenes incorporated information drawn from nonfiction works deposited in the library, such as accounts of Alexander the Great's campaigns on the Indian subcontinent and Ptolemaic elephant-hunting expeditions along the coast of East Africa.

Eratosthenes is said to have remained in office for forty years, and during his tenure other scholars of the Library of Alexandria became interested in scientific subjects. Archimedes dedicated two of his works to Eratosthenes, and the astronomer Aristarchus of Samos introduced the idea of heliocentrism. His contemporary Bacchaeus of Tanagra edited and commented on the Hippocratic Treatises, and the physicians Herophilus of Chalcedon (c. 335-280 B.C.) and Erasistratus (c. 304-250 B.C.) studied human anatomy and physiology, although their studies were hampered by protests against the dissection of human corpses, which was considered immoral.

According to Galen, at that time Ptolemy III asked the Athenians for the loan of original manuscripts of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, although the Athenians demanded the enormous amount of fifteen talents (about 450 kg) of a precious metal as a guarantee that they would return them; Ptolemy III had copies of these works made on papyrus of the highest quality and sent them to the Athenians, keeping the original manuscripts in the library and allowing them to keep the talents of metal. This story illustrates the vehemence of the Ptolemaic policy of acquiring works, in addition to the power of Alexandria at the time, due mainly to the port they had built which accommodated trade from East and West, and which soon became an international center of trade and the main producer of papyri and manuscripts. As the library's holdings expanded, it ran out of space to house them, so during the reign of Ptolemy III part of these holdings were moved to a branch library in the Serapeum of Alexandria, a temple dedicated to the Greek-Egyptian god Serapis located in the vicinity of the royal palace. However, the writings of the time indicate that the library of the Serapeum was much smaller.


Aristophanes of Byzantium became the fourth director of the library around 200 B.C. According to a legend by the Roman writer Vitruvius, Aristophanes was one of seven judges appointed for a poetry contest organized by Ptolemy III. While the other six judges favored a competitor, Aristophanes favored the one the public had liked the least, arguing that the others had committed plagiarism and should therefore be disqualified. The king demanded that he prove it, and Aristophanes searched the library for the texts that the authors had plagiarized, locating them from memory, so thanks to his impressive memory and diligence, Ptolemy III appointed him librarian.

His tenure is considered to be the beginning of a more mature phase in the history of the Library of Alexandria. During this period literary criticism reached its peak and came to dominate the scholarly output of the library. Aristophanes edited poetic texts and introduced the division of poems, which were previously written in prose, into separate lines on the page. He also invented diacritical marks for the Greek alphabet, wrote important works on lexicography, and introduced a number of signs for textual criticism. He wrote the introduction to many plays, some of which partially survived through rewritten versions.

The fifth librarian was Apollonius, known by the epithet "Eidographer"-in ancient Greek, εἰδογράφος, romanized: eidográfos, lit. 'classifier of genres A late lexicographical source explains that this epithet refers to the classification of poetry based on musical forms. In the early 2nd century B.C. several members of the library devoted themselves to the study of medicine. Zeuxis of Tarentum is credited with commentaries on the Hippocratic Treatises and worked actively to obtain medical texts for the library's collection, and a scholar named Ptolemy Epithetes wrote a treatise on wounds in the Homeric poems, a subject that falls within the framework of both traditional philology and medicine.At that time and after the battle of Raffia in 217 B.C., the political power of Ptolemaic Egypt began to decline and become increasingly unstable; revolts by sections of the Egyptian population multiplied and in the first half of the second century B.C., the connection with Upper Egypt was seriously impaired. The Ptolemaic rulers also began to emphasize the Egyptian rather than the Greek facet of their nation, so that many Greek scholars began to leave Alexandria in search of safer countries and more generous patrons.

Aristarchus of Samothrace (c. 216-145 BC) was the sixth librarian and also tutor to the sons of Ptolemy VI Philometor. He earned a reputation as possibly the greatest of all ancient scholars, and wrote not only classical-style poems and prose works, but also complete hypomnemata (in ancient Greek, ὑπομνήματα), i.e., extensive, independent commentaries on other works (a fragment of one of Aristarchus' commentaries on Herodotus' Histories survived on a papyrus fragment). These commentaries usually quoted a passage from a classical text, explained its meaning, offered a definition of unusual words that had been used, and indicated whether the words in the passage were actually those used by the original author or whether they were interpolations added later by scribes. He made many contributions on various subjects, but particularly to the study of Homeric poems; in addition to organizing the Iliad and Odyssey with the divisions and subdivisions with which we know them, for centuries his editorial opinions were cited by ancient authors as authoritative.In 145 B.C. Aristarchus became involved in a dynastic dispute, in which he supported Ptolemy VII Neo Philopator as ruler of Egypt; Ptolemy VII was assassinated and Ptolemy VIII "Physcon" acceded to the throne and immediately punished those who had supported his predecessor, forcing Aristarchus to flee Egypt and take refuge in Cyprus. Ptolemy also expelled other foreign scholars from Alexandria.

The expulsions of Ptolemy VIII

The expulsion of Alexandrian scholars by Ptolemy VIII was part of a wider process of persecution of the Alexandrian ruling class, and caused a diaspora of Hellenistic scholarship. The scholars of the Library of Alexandria, and their students, continued to research and write treatises, but most are no longer attached to the Library, but dispersed first throughout the eastern Mediterranean and later also throughout the western Mediterranean. A disciple of Aristarchus, Dionysius of Thrace (c. 170-90 B.C.), established a school on the Greek island of Rhodes. Dionysius wrote the first book on Greek grammar, Tékhne Grammatiké, a guide to speaking and writing clearly and accurately. The Romans used this book as a reference for their grammatical texts, which remained the main grammar manual for students of Greek until the 12th century, and in our day it still serves as a grammatical guide for many languages. Another disciple of Aristarchus, Apollodorus of Athens (c. 180-110 B.C.), moved to Pergamum, Alexandria's greatest rival as the epicenter of Greek culture, where he devoted himself to teaching and research. This diaspora led the historian Menecles of Barca to comment sarcastically that Alexandria had become a teacher of both Greeks and barbarians.

In Alexandria from the mid-second century B.C. onward, Ptolemaic rule in Egypt experienced increasing instability. Faced with constant social unrest and other political and economic problems, the later Ptolemaic rulers did not devote the same attention to the Museion as their predecessors. The prestige of both the library and its librarian declined. Different later Ptolemaic rulers used the post of librarian as a political reward for their most loyal supporters. Ptolemy VIII appointed as librarian a man named Cidas, described as a spearman and possibly one of his palace guards; Ptolemy IX, who ruled from 88 to 81 B.C., The position of head of the library lost so much of its former prestige that even the authors of the time ceased to record the names and mandates of its occupants.

A shift in general Greek scholarship occurred around the beginning of the first century B.C.E. By that time, all the major classical poems had finally been standardized and extensive commentaries had been written on the texts of all the major literary authors of classical antiquity.Consequently, there was very little left for scholars to bring originality to these texts. Several scholars began to produce syntheses and reworkings of the commentaries of Alexandrian scholars of earlier centuries, at the expense of their own originality.Other scholars turned to different branches and began to write commentaries on poetic texts by post-classical authors, including Alexandrian poets such as Callimachus and Apollonius of Rhodes.Meanwhile, Alexandrian scholarship was introduced to Rome probably in the first century B.C. by Tiranion of Amisos (ca. 100 B.C.-25 BC), a student of Dionysius of Thrace.

The fire of Julius Caesar

In the year 48 B.C., during the second civil war of the Roman Republic, Julius Caesar was under siege in Alexandria and his soldiers set fire to their own ships with the intention of blockading the fleet of Cleopatra's brother, Ptolemy XIV, and the fire spread to the areas closest to the docks, causing considerable devastation. The fire spread to the areas of the city closest to the docks, causing considerable devastation. The 1st century A.D. Roman playwright and Stoic philosopher Seneca, quoting Titus Livy's Ab Urbe condita, written between 63 and 14 B.C., claimed that the fire started by Caesar destroyed forty thousand works of the Library of Alexandria. The eclectic Platonist Plutarch wrote in Life of Caesar "When the enemy attempted to cut off his communication by sea, he was obliged to avert that danger by setting fire to his own ships, which, after burning the docks, spread from there and destroyed the great library". However Florus and Lucan only mention that the flames burned the fleet itself and some "houses near the sea".

The Roman historian Dion Cassius wrote that "Many places were set on fire, with the result that, along with other buildings, the dockyards and the grain and book stores, said to be large in number and of the best quality, were burned." Some scholars have interpreted this text of Dion Cassius as indicating that the fire did not actually destroy the entire library, but probably only a storehouse located near the docks, which Galen says was used to deposit papyrus rolls, probably until they were catalogued and added to the library's holdings. In fact, this is what generally emerges from the sources chronologically closest to the fire, and in any case whatever devastation it may have caused it seems clear that the library was not completely destroyed. The geographer Strabo makes mention of its presence in the library between 25 and 20 B.C., a little more than two decades after the siege of Caesar and does not even mention traces of the fire, indicating that it survived with little damage or was rebuilt shortly thereafter. However, the way Strabo speaks of the Museion shows that it was nowhere near as prestigious as it had been a few centuries earlier.

According to Plutarch in his Life of Mark Antony, in the years prior to the battle of Accius, in 33 BC, However, Plutarch himself notes that his source for this anecdote may not be reliable, and may have been mere propaganda intended to show that Mark Antony was loyal to Cleopatra and Egypt, rather than to Rome. Historians such as Edward J. Watts consider that Mark Antony's donation may have been a means of replenishing the library's holdings after the damage caused by Caesar's fire, which had occurred some fifteen years earlier. In any case, contemporary authors such as Lionel Casson argue that even if the story were invented, it would not have been credible unless the library was still in existence.

Another proof of the existence of the library after 48 B.C. comes from the most notable commentator of the late first century B.C. and early first century A.D., a scholar working in Alexandria named Didymus of Alexandria, It is said that he wrote between three and four thousand works, which would make him the most prolific writer of antiquity. Parts of Didymus' commentaries have been preserved in later quotations and these passages are one of the most important sources of information for contemporary historians on the works of ancient scholars in the Library of Alexandria. Casson states that Didymus' prodigious output "would have been impossible without at least a large part of the library resources at his disposal."

Roman period

Very little is known about the Library of Alexandria in Roman Principate times. Augustus apparently maintained the tradition of appointing the priest responsible for the library, and Claudius commissioned the extension of the building that housed it. In the early second century, Suetonius wrote that Domitian, with the purpose of replenishing the Roman libraries, ordered the purchase and transcription of books that were incorporated into the library's holdings.

Apparently the fate of the library was linked to that of the city of Alexandria itself. After its incorporation into Roman rule, its prestige gradually declined, as did that of its library. Although the Museion continued to exist, membership in this institution was not granted on academic grounds, but on the basis of distinction in government, the armed forces or even athletics. The same was true of the position of chief librarian; the only one of that time on record is a man named Tiberius Claudius Balbilus, an important politician, administrator and astrologer, but with no record of noteworthy academic achievement. Membership in the Museion no longer required teaching, research, or even living in Alexandria; the Greek writer Philostratus noted that the emperor Hadrian, who ruled from 117-138, appointed the sophists Dionysius of Miletus and Polemon of Laodicea as members of the Museion, although they never stayed for any significant length of time in Alexandria.

While the library and Museion continued to generate knowledge, as is the case with the works of Claudius Ptolemy, who lived in Alexandria at that time and is supposed to have spent much of his time working and researching in the library, and Papo of Alexandria, but it is undeniable that their academic reputation was diminishing, while that of other libraries in the Mediterranean was increasing. Other libraries were also established in the city of Alexandria itself, and it is possible that some volumes from the great library were transferred to some of these smaller libraries. It is known that the Caesareum and the Claudianum in Alexandria housed important libraries until the end of the first century B.C., and that the branch library of the Serapeum was probably also expanded during this period.

In the second century B.C. Rome became less dependent on Egyptian agricultural production and during this period the Romans also lost interest in Alexandria as a cultural center. The reputation of the library continued to decline as Alexandria became a mere provincial city. The scholars who worked and studied at the Library of Alexandria during the Roman period were less well known than those who studied there during the Ptolemaic period, and eventually the term "Alexandrian" became synonymous with editing and correcting texts and writing synthetic commentaries from those of earlier scholars, with connotations of melancholy, monotony, and lack of originality. Perhaps the last notable scientist to do research in the library and the Museion was the mathematician Diophantus of Alexandria, considered one of the fathers of algebra.

Eventually, a succession of violent episodes throughout the third century would put an end to the already deteriorated library. As part of the reprisals for Alexandria's resistance actions against Roman domination, in 215 the Roman Emperor Caracalla suppressed funding to the Museion and its community members. It is possible that this institution and its library survived for some time, but certainly precariously and without motivating new and important researchers to join them. The last known references to Museion members date back to the 260s.

In 272 the Roman Emperor Aurelian fought to recover the city of Alexandria from the forces of Queen Zenobia of the breakaway Palmyran Empire. During the fighting the Roman troops completely destroyed the Brucheion district, in which the library was located, and, if the Museion and the library still existed at the time, they were almost certainly destroyed during the attack. In the event that they had survived, which would have been in a very precarious situation, what remained of these institutions would have been destroyed during the siege of Alexandria by the troops of Emperor Diocletian.

All this, without counting the natural disasters that struck the area. Particularly devastating was the Crete earthquake in July 365, which was followed hours later by a tsunami that devastated particularly the coasts of Libya and Alexandria.

The Serapeum

Scattered references indicate that, sometime in the fourth century, an institution known as the "Museion" may have been re-established in a different location somewhere in the city of Alexandria, although nothing is known about the characteristics of this organization.It may have possessed some bibliographical resources, but whatever they were, they were not comparable to those of its predecessor.By the end of the first century B.C., the Serapeum was still an important place of pilgrimage for pagans, and its library was probably the largest collection of books in the city of Alexandria. In addition to possessing the largest library in the city, the Serapeum was still a fully functioning temple and had classrooms for philosophers to teach. By its nature it would tend to attract followers of Neoplatonism, especially in its Hambolic strand; most of these philosophers were primarily interested in theurgy, the study of cultic rituals and esoteric religious practices. Thus, the Neoplatonic philosopher Damascius (c. 458-538) records that a man named Olympus came from Cilicia to teach at the Therapeum, where he taught his students "the rules of divine worship and ancient religious practices."

In 391 a group of Christian workers discovered the remains of an ancient mithraeum in Alexandria. They delivered some of the cult objects found to the local Coptic pope, Theophilus of Alexandria, who had these objects displayed in the streets and ridiculed. The pagans of Alexandria were outraged by this act of desecration, especially the professors of the Serapeum who taught Neoplatonic philosophy and theurgy, who took up arms and led their students and other followers in an attack against the Christian population of Alexandria. In retaliation, the Christians, under the orders of Theophilus, vandalized and demolished the Serapeum. The hypothesis that the Library of Alexandria was destroyed at that time has had some credence among historians of the past, but is now considered impractical, since none of the accounts of the destruction of the Serapeum mention anything about a library and written sources prior to its destruction speak of its collection of books in the past tense, indicating that it probably had no significant collection of manuscripts at the time of its destruction.

The school of Theon and Hypatia

The Suda, a 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia, refers to the mathematician Theon of Alexandria (c. 335-405) as a "Museion man." However, according to historian Edward J. Watts, Theon was probably the head of a school called "Museion," which was named after the Hellenistic Museion of which the Library of Alexandria was a part, but the name was the only connection he would have with it. Theon's school was exclusive, highly prestigious, and doctrinally conservative. But it does not appear that Theon had any connection with the militant Iambic Neoplatonists who taught at the Serapeum; on the contrary, it seems that Theon rejected the teachings of Jamblichus and prided himself on teaching a pure, Plotinian Neoplatonism. Around 400 his daughter Hypatia succeeded him as head of his school and, like her father, rejected the teachings of Jamblichus and adopted the original Neoplatonism formulated by Plotinus.

Hypatia was very popular among the people of Alexandria, and exercised great political influence. Theophilus, the same bishop who had ordered the destruction of the Serapeum, tolerated her school and even encouraged two of her students to become bishops in territories under his authority. He also respected the political structures of Alexandria and did not object to the close ties Hypatia established with the local Roman prefects. But later Hypatia was involved in a political dispute between Orestes, the Roman prefect of Alexandria, and Cyril, the successor of Theophilus. Rumors spread accusing her of preventing Orestes from reconciling with Cyril, and in March 415 she was killed by a mob of Christians led by monks. Hypatia left no successors, and her "Museion" disappeared after her death.

Hypatia is often associated with the Library of Alexandria and its possible destruction, as in the last episode of Carl Sagan's popular series Cosmos where a melodramatic account of Hypatia's death is narrated as a result of the burning of the "Great Library of Alexandria" by fanatical Christians, but while it is true that Christians led by Theophilus set fire to the Serapeum in 391, the library had already ceased to exist centuries before Hypatia's birth.

Caliph Omar

Hypatia was not the last pagan of Alexandria nor the last Neoplatonist philosopher. Neoplatonism and paganism survived in Alexandria and throughout the eastern Mediterranean for centuries after her death. British Egyptologist Charlotte Booth states that shortly after Hypatia's death new teaching centers were built in Alexandria, indicating that philosophy was still taught in local schools, and late 5th century writers such as Zechariah of Mytilene and Aeneas of Gaza speak of a "Museion" as occupying some kind of physical space in the city. Archaeologists have identified classrooms dating from this time, located near but not on the site of the Ptolemaic Museion, which may have belonged to the "Museion" referred to by these authors.

It is possible that this new "Museion" is the protagonist of the widespread story that the Library of Alexandria was burned down in 640, when Alexandria was conquered by the Muslim army of Amr ibn al-As. Some later Arabic sources describe the destruction of the library by order of the caliph Omar. The 13th-century writer Bar Hebraeus quotes Omar as saying to Yaḥyā al-Naḥwī (known in English as John Philoponus), "If those books agree with the Qur'an, we have no need of them; and if they oppose the Qur'an, destroy them. " However, already in the eighteenth century the historian Edward Gibbon in his work History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire doubted the veracity of this story, and subsequent scholars have been equally skeptical about it, due to the contradictions arising from the few historical sources known about it, the time gap of at least five hundred years between the alleged destruction and the first of these sources, as well as the political motives of its authors.

Initially the collection of the Library of Alexandria consisted of papyrus scrolls and was later supplemented by codices, but there is no mention of it including parchment volumes, perhaps because of Alexandria's strong links to papyrus production and trade. Nevertheless, the library played an important role in the diffusion of the writing of this new material because, due to its colossal consumption of papyrus, its exports were scarce. In particular, it is believed that Ptolemy V Epiphanes, jealous of the expansion of the Library of Pergamum, would have prohibited the export of papyrus in an attempt to reduce the growth of this rival library. For one reason or another, the shortage of Alexandrian papyrus seems to have prompted the need for an alternative source of copying material, especially in major centers of cultural production such as Pergamum, the city that gave its name to the technology that would replace papyrus, parchment.

The library catalog, the Pinakes of Callimachus, survived only in the form of a few fragments and it is not possible to know with certainty the size and diversity of its holdings. In the 12th century the Byzantine historian John Tzetzes wrote, presumably based on the comments of scholars who worked in the library, that when the Pinakes were compiled they catalogued four hundred and ninety thousand volumes stored in the Library of Alexandria and forty thousand in that of the Serapeum. If it were also true that Mark Antony donated the two hundred thousand volumes from Pergamum to the library, in the first century B.C. it would have had about seven hundred thousand volumes, which is the amount indicated by Aulus Gellius in the second century A.D. However, the calculation of the library fund involves other issues besides the number of volumes deposited, such as the different number of works that composed it, since the library contained numerous copies of some classical works, so that the same work could occupy several scrolls, and it could also be the case that the same scroll could contain more than one work. Some modern scholars who have researched the subject estimate that at the time of Callimachus the library contained between thirty and one hundred thousand volumes. Given the price of manuscripts and their scarcity at the time, even the smallest of these quantities would constitute a formidable collection, at least double that of the largest libraries of the Roman Empire.

As with the calculation of the volumes it contained, the question of what works were part of its catalog also enjoys no significant consensus, and attempts to know the contents of its holdings are based on scant references and assumptions. Given the library's initial focus on works that formed the basis of Hellenistic education, it is assumed that it had an extensive collection of works by Greek poets and philosophers of antiquity, most likely including several works that have not survived to the present day, by authors such as Aeschylus (of which only seven of the ninety he is estimated to have written have survived to the present day); Sophocles (seven of more than one hundred); Euripides (nineteen of ninety-two), or Aristophanes (twelve of forty). It is also assumed that the library was the main repository of works by the authors who worked there, especially Callimachus and the librarians who ran it. This includes, for example, the work in which Aristarchus of Samos concludes that the Earth orbits the Sun, knowledge that would be lost until its rediscovery by Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei; the works in which the engineer Heron of Alexandria lays the foundations for the creation of turbines and engines, in some cases anticipating the Modern Age; the early works on anatomy by Herophilus, in which he departs from the Aristotelian tradition by claiming that the brain would be the center of intelligence, describes the nervous and digestive systems and differentiates muscles from tendons and veins from arteries; or the early works on physiology by Erasistratus, which contain detailed descriptions of the human heart, including its valves and their functioning, and of the circulatory system. Historical sources indicate that the library held most of the works of Hipparchus of Nicaea, the founder of trigonometry and possibly the most important astronomer of antiquity;; most of the works on Hippocrates and the whole of the original Corpus hippocraticum, which was produced there; the whole of Nicander's instrumental lexicon; volumes on the history of geometry and arithmetic by Eudemus of Rhodes; pioneering works in the field of ballistics by Philo of Byzantium; or numerous volumes on engineering, including works by Ctesibius. There is also reason to believe that the library included in its holdings many works on religion, in particular the most important works on the religion of Ancient Egypt by Manetho; the complete works of Hermippus of Smyrna on Zoroastrianism; works by Berosus the Chaldean on the history and religion of Babylonia; ancient works on Buddhism from the Ptolemaic dynasty's relations with the Indian king Aśoka; and works on Judaism from the extensive Jewish population of Alexandria, which included authors such as Philo of Alexandria. ...

Although Alexandria was a city of great wealth and an important cultural center of antiquity, which captured the interest of authors and scholars over the centuries, its archaeological heritage has historically been relegated to the background by researchers of classical antiquity, who focused on the more accessible temples of Greece and the rich funerary complexes along the Nile River. The British archaeologist D. G. Hogarth, after an unsuccessful excavation in the region in the late 19th century, said that "expect nothing from Alexandria" and advised his colleagues to forget Alexandria and concentrate on Greece and Asia Minor. This situation began to change in the mid-20th century. In the 1950s, underwater archaeologist Honor Frost was convinced that remnants of the great Lighthouse of Alexandria were scattered on the ocean floor around the Qaitbey fort and, in the context of the Six Day War, led a Unesco reconnaissance mission to the area. This mission revealed that at least part of the ruins of the lighthouse and the palaces of Alexander and Ptolemy I were in the region; despite this finding, no more precise survey work of the local heritage was carried out.

In the 1990s, work carried out by the Egyptian government to reduce erosion of the local seabed led to increased interest in historical artifacts in the area. During the filming of a documentary, French archaeologist Jean-Yves Empereur observed huge stone blocks, columns and statues in the waters of the ancient harbor. With the support of the Egyptian and French governments, a major collection and cataloguing of objects was carried out at the site between 1994 and 1998. This work resulted in the cataloguing of more than three thousand objects, and by 2007 another two thousand were still to be recorded. Huge cylindrical blocks of stone were discovered, undoubtedly belonging to the lighthouse; columns and sculptures adorning this structure; statues and pieces decorating the palaces of the Ptolemaic dynasty (large statues (five obelisks and thirty sphinxes. In parallel, archaeologist Franck Goddio mapped part of ancient Alexandria, sunk below sea level, and shed light on what was probably Cleopatra's palace on the island of Antirodes.

Despite these efforts, no archaeological discoveries directly related to the Library of Alexandria were announced until the first decades of the 21st century. This is mainly due to the fact that its exact location in the palace area remains unknown.

Already in its time it aroused the interest of the general public, making its host city the main center of Hellenic intellectuality; it helped to enhance the value of the knowledge stored in written texts, as well as to encourage initiatives aimed at preserving and disseminating it. The Library of Alexandria has helped to reinforce a tradition that considers the written word "a gift of the past and a legacy for the future". But it was also more than a famous repository of texts, offering "unprecedented opportunities for scholarship and scientific research" by providing the basic tools for the generation of knowledge. Its "research library" model exerted a profound influence and spread throughout the Hellenistic world, including Antioch, Caesarea and Constantinople, which would play a prominent role in the preservation of Greek culture within the Byzantine empire. By the end of the Hellenistic period almost every major city in the eastern Mediterranean had such a public library, as did many medium-sized cities. During Roman times the number of libraries even increased, and by the first century B.C. the city of Rome had at least two dozen public libraries. In Late Antiquity, when the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, Christian libraries, directly inspired by the Library of Alexandria and other great pagan libraries, were founded throughout the eastern part of the empire, where the Greek language was spoken. ...

It had a profound and lasting impact on various branches of knowledge. In a context in which copies were numerous and of diverse content, already in its first centuries of existence it became famous for establishing textual standards for the works of classical Greek authors, and for centuries it was a center of reference in the establishment of editorial standards for works of poetry and prose, which would later be applied to countless works of different sciences and authors. The empirical standards developed in the library made it one of the first and certainly the most important centers of textual criticism, an activity that also contributed to its own financing and to making it profitable. Since multiple versions of the same work often existed, textual criticism played a crucial role in determining the veracity and accuracy of the copies, as well as in identifying their fidelity to the originals. Once the most faithful copies were identified, they were reproduced and then sold to wealthy scholars, kings, and bibliophiles throughout the known world. The intellectuals of the library and the Museion played a prominent role in multiple arts and sciences, and their influence extended beyond the members of the Alexandrian catechetical school itself. While scholars such as Callimachus, Apollonius of Rhodes or Theocritus were among the most influential poets of all antiquity and made valuable contributions to literature, for their part numerous scholars of the library played a significant role in establishing models and theories in mathematics, geography, astronomy, engineering, medicine, grammar, philosophy and other sciences that influenced later generations of scholars and, in many cases, remained unchanged for centuries; In some cases, the theories and methods developed in Alexandria remained unchanged even into the Renaissance. ...

Some authors consider that the myths surrounding the destruction of the library by pagans, Christians and Muslims, would have contributed to the promotion of knowledge by inspiring, through the image of its burning literary treasures, a "feeling of incalculable cultural loss", even long afterwards. Although this idea has dissenting opinions, the Library of Alexandria has certainly captured the imagination of later generations and, as a symbol, embodies some of the main human aspirations: as well as a predecessor of universities, it has been described as an archetype of the universal library, of the ideal of preservation of knowledge and of the fragility of this ideal, especially in the face of religious supremacism.

Perhaps the main long-term legacy of the library may lie in the fact that, together with the Museion, it has contributed to establishing academic research as a legitimate activity and detached from specific currents of thought, demonstrating that, in addition to being a theoretical exercise capable of providing answers to abstract questions, it can also be of use to questions of a mundane nature and to the material needs of societies and governments. It is possible that in the library and the Museion the principles of the scientific method were first applied to various branches of science and that the critical spirit of the Alexandrian researchers, for whom no author was above empirical verification of their arguments, had very long-term implications. On the premise that the role of the library and other Alexandrian institutions must be understood within their own historical and cultural context, it can be said that, under the Ptolemaic dynasty, perhaps for the first time science ceased to be a mere entertainment and became an activity to be promoted, justifying the work of planning, institutionalization and continuity.

In the culture

The Library of Alexandria is the protagonist in television documentaries such as the episode The Lost Treasure of the Alexandria Library, which is part of the series Mysteries of Antiquity, broadcast by the American channels A+E Networks and History Channel, was screened in 1996 and deals with the library and its destruction. The same theme is narrated in the episode Library of Alexandria from the History Channel series Mysteries of History that aired in 1999. In On the Shore of the Cosmic Ocean (1980), the first episode of the popular series Cosmos, Carl Sagan deals extensively with the theme of the library and its role as a symbol of the fragility of the ideal of preservation of knowledge; the episode Unafraid of the Dark in the series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a sequel to the previous one, begins with references to the library and its destruction, stating that it would have caused the loss of much of the knowledge then available.

The event of the fire set by Julius Caesar's troops, which supposedly destroyed the library, is recorded in numerous works, such as John Lydgate's poem Fall of Princes, written between 1431 and 1438; the opera Julius Caesar in Egypt (1723), by Georg Friedrich Händel; Alexander Pope's satirical poem The Dunciad, first published in 1728; George Bernard Shaw's play Caesar and Cleopatra (1898); and the 1963 American film Cleopatra, winner of four Oscars. ...

Jorge Luis Borges mentions the alleged destruction of the library during the Arab conquest in his poem Historia de la noche (1977), through the order that the caliph Omar would have given to John Philoponus. In 2002 the astrophysicist and writer Jean-Pierre Luminet in his work Le Bâton d'Euclide : Le roman de la bibliothèque d'Alexandrie cites the same episode and describes the role of Philoponus trying to dissuade Omar.

Umberto Eco was inspired by the collective imagination surrounding the burning of the Library of Alexandria to describe the burning of the library in his best-selling novel The Name of the Rose.

The storyline of the video game Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, released in 2000, includes the discovery of archaeological sites in Alexandria, including the library and the chambers of Demetrius of Falero.

In the Spanish film Agora (2009), which focuses mainly on Hypatia but has the Serapeum of Alexandria as a backdrop, the supposed destruction of the library by Christians is mentioned; in the film, Hypatia tries to save manuscripts from the library before the destruction of the Serapeum. It also appears in the film Alexander the Great (it shows Ptolemy I writing his memoirs in the library and at the end of the film it is said that these memories were lost with its destruction.

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina

The idea of recovering the ancient Library of Alexandria in the contemporary era was first proposed in 1974, during the tenure of Nabil Lotfy Dowidar as president of the University of Alexandria. In May 1986, the Egyptian government asked the Executive Board of Unesco to conduct a feasibility study of the project, thus initiating the involvement of this intergovernmental body and the international community in the process of carrying out its construction. In 1988, Unesco and the United Nations Development Program organized an international architectural competition to select a design for the new library. The Egyptian government allocated four hectares of land for its construction and created the National High Commission for the Library of Alexandria. The then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak took a personal interest in the project, which contributed significantly to its progress.

Work began in 1995 and was inaugurated on October 16, 2002. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is the largest in Egypt and a reference in North Africa. It functions as a cultural center and modern library and, in line with the objectives of the library of antiquity, in addition to the main library, with a capacity of eight million volumes, the complex also houses a conference center, six specialized libraries, four museums, art galleries for permanent and temporary exhibitions, a planetarium, a manuscript restoration laboratory and the International School of Information Science, an institution whose aim is to train professionals for libraries in Egypt and other countries in the Middle East.


  1. Library of Alexandria
  2. Biblioteca de Alejandría