Cue the Memes: Fact & Fiction About the Library of Alexandria

Si hortum in bibliotheca habes, nihil deerit. [If you have a garden in your library, nothing will be lacking.] – Marcus Tullius Cicero

So after two straight weeks of trying to school all of you in matters admittedly outside my wheelhouse, I thought we’d come back to something much more my speed…


… and talk about one of Arsinoë’s favorite places in Egypt, the famous Library of Alexandria, and maybe set the record straight over some of the common misconceptions about one of the most celebrated and enigmatic institutions of the ancient world. To help me, I’m going to call on the help of the Lord of Knowledge himself, Thoth.

Hai, mortals. And while we are clearing up misconceptions, my name is pronounced Tōt. Egyptian — which I invented — does not say the H. This is why you will sometimes see the Prince of Storms’ name spelled as Seth, as well as Set. And this is my Greek name; if you wish address me by my proper Egyptian name, you may call me Djehuti (He Who Is Like an Ibis).

As I said, Lord of Knowledge. But now that we have all that sorted, let’s start off with the first common myth about the Library, and that is: The Library of Alexandria was the first of its kind in the ancient world.

Thoth says this is definitely false. In fact, like many things in the Hellenistic world, this is probably an idea that Alexander the Great and the Diadochi borrowed from their new satrapies in the Near East. The ancient Sumerians and Hittites collected vast, multilingual archives thousands of years before the Macedonian Boy Wonder showed up, and the most famous library in world prior to the Library’s founding was the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal in the Assyrian capital of Nineveh (near modern Mosul in Iraq), presided over by Ashurbanipal, the last great king of the Assyrian Empire (7th century BC). Like Alexander, Ashurbanipal was a renowned military commander with intellectual inclinations, and the Royal Library reflects this.

The Royal Library was home to some of the most complete copies we have of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Ashurbanipal had a fierce reputation and was happy to use it to threaten defeated enemies to cough up their best books as “donations.” This won’t be the last time we see librarian-kings use their power to forcibly increase their collections.

And you thought that quarter overdue fee your library’s been hounding you about was bad.

And if you Occidentiphiles insist on finding a Western root for the Library, Peisistratus, the 6th century ruler of Athens, is thought to have created the first large-scale public library. Unlike the acquisitions-by-blackmail scheme Ashurbanipal was running, Peisistratus presumably used his control of the profitable Athenian silver mines to fund many of the public works he oversaw during his tenure as tyrant, which made him very popular with the common Athenians, if less so with the traditional aristocrats who got shunted out of power when a tyranny was declared.

Peisistratus in his chariot, probably passing out library cards and instructions on how to use the copier.

So, Alexander, after seeing all of this bibliophilic splendor, wanted to set up a major library in arguably the greatest of his six thousand cities he named for himself, right?

Thoth says this one is false, too. The person who first conceived of the idea of a great center of learning in Egypt’s new capital was likely Alexander’s Diadochi successor, Ptolemy I Soter. But it is also likely that the person who really got the project underway was Ptolemy’s son — yeah, you’ve already guessed part of his name — Ptolemy II Philadelphus.

Ptolemy and his second wife (and sister) Arsinoë II. It’s ok, his first wife Arsinoë I was only his cousin.

When he wasn’t busy canoodling with his attractive relatives, Ptolemy Philadelphus was helming an aggressive collection-building campaign for his Library, which he was determined to be the repository of all knowledge. He raided the Egyptian archives housed in Heliopolis and took anything of value back north to fill his empty shelves, and famously had every ship entering Alexandria’s harbor searched for manuscripts, archivists then duplicating the texts and sending the copies on while keeping the originals.

Lol, enjoy your copies, peons.

Ptolemy Philadelphus might have been hoarding priceless books like a incestuous Carmen Sandiego (oh, you know someone’s already written that fanfic…), but the immediate benefit of his desire to build a house of all knowledge was that unlike some comparable institutions of the time, the Library of Alexandria had no dominate philosophical school it endorsed, nor a stated field of study. This combined with a generous and extremely motivated royal patron, meant that the Library quickly attracted scholars from all over the Mediterranean to its (possibly vaulted?) halls.

It’s maddening that we don’t know what this place looked like.

And for its time, this lack of direction meant considerable academic freedom for the resident scholars. Though there is an apocryphal story that the poet Sotades was jailed and later sealed in a lead jar tossed into the sea for writing an epigram that made fun of Ptolemy Philadelphus for marrying his sister.

I mean, the jokes do write themselves…

Over the centuries, the Library would experience the ascendency of various fields, the prominence of which were often tied to the scholarship of the Head Librarian. The head librarian was a scholar chosen by Ptolemy Philadelphus, and later, his successors, to oversee the Library and tutor the pharaoh’s son. The position became prestigious enough that we know the names of the first six head librarians. The first was Zenodotus of Ephesus, who was responsible for assembling and canonizing much of what we think of the works of Homer and may have been the first person to use alphabetical order as a catalog method.

Leave it to a librarian to bring order to chaos.

The Head Librarian was often a poet or literary man, but the third librarian, Eratosthenes of Cyrene, was first person in the West to apply mathematics to geography and mapmaking. Under his tenure, a colleague complied the writings of Hippocrates, and it was supposedly under the tenure of his predecessor, Apollonius of Rhodes, that Archimedes studied at the Library and invented the water-transporting screw mechanism with his name after observing the rise and fall of the Nile.

Archimedes’ screws are still used for irrigation in many parts of the world.

The glory of the Library’s scholarship is generally thought to have reached its zenith under the tenure of the fourth head librarian, Aristophanes of Byzantium, appointed by Ptolemy Philadelphus’ son, Ptolemy III Euergetes. The Library was producing the most respected literary criticism and commentaries in the world, and Aristophanes is said to have once singlehandedly blown up a poetry contest he was judging when he was able to prove the plagiarism of most of the contestants through his encyclopedic knowledge of the poetic treatises within his catalog.

But this also began the decline of the Library’s undisputed academic supremacy. The problem with having royal patrons as involved as the Ptolemies meant that in some ways, the fortunes of the Library of Alexandria were tied to those of the dynasty. And with the reign of Ptolemy IV Philopator, the power of the Ptolemies became less ascendant and increasingly unstable.

I’m not saying it was because he and his sister Arsinoë III were the first full sibling pair to produce the next heir, but it probably wasn’t helping…

The Ptolemies became increasingly embroiled in seesawing foreign fights, local uprisings among their Egyptian subjects, and deadly intrigues amongst themselves. The very conditions that would eventually lose them their kingdom.

We’ll get back to that in a minute…

Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II Tryphon (you, sir, are a mouthful…) won out in a power struggle with his older brother (Ptolemy VI Philometor) and his intended successor, his seven-year-old son Ptolemy VII Neos Philopator, and celebrated by exiling everyone who’d backed the other horse, including Aristarchus of Samothrace, the sixth head librarian. He put one of his palace guards in the position and expelled all of the foreign scholars from Alexandria. This diaspora would profoundly change the character of the Library. It would continue to produce excellent scholarship, but not at the level it had before, as foreign academics would be slow to return even in the reigns of Ptolemy VIII’s successors. And the position of Head Librarian, once a great intellectual honor, would become a plum political appointment doled out by the succeeding Ptolemies to loyal retainers. We can infer this state of affairs from the very fact that contemporary analysts ceased to record the names of the librarians, names that once were listed with breathless ardor.

And now, with the Ptolemies and the Library in their long twilight, it’s time to address the big pile of smoldering myth in the middle of room…

Seriously, homines, it’s not what it looks like…

So, did my inner demon, Julius, really burn down the Library of Alexandria?

Thoth, in true Snopes fashion, is going to call this one partially true. During the his siege of the city during the Alexandrian War, in an attempt to destroy some of Arsinoë’s fleet in the harbor, Caesar’s soldiers did set fire to a large swath of the Soma district, on whose border the Library sat. There is debate as to whether the Library itself was involved in the fire, or if the supposed destruction of the Library of Alexandria was merely one of several manuscript warehouses in the docks. The only consensus is that, while some of the Library’s vast holdings were irretrievably lost in the fire, the Library as an institution survived Caesar’s invasion.

But you all heard her, I didn’t destroy the Library of Alexandria!

However, the Romans were never particularly invested in restoring the Library to its former glory, and this lack of sponsorship and funds meant that it continued its general decline into irrelevance throughout the long history of the Roman Empire until the Muslim armies of Amr ibn al-As al-Sahmi captured the city in 642 AD.

Thoth would like to register that the story that Caliph Omar ordered the second destruction of the Library by having its contents expunged is also subject to doubt, given the distance to the events described that the anecdote comes from. General warfare and the ravages of time are more likely the culprits that have deprived us of the contents of those (shelves? cubbies?)
Really, ancient writers? Not one single drawing or description?

The last truly famous Alexandrian scholars were a mathematician, Theon, and his daughter, the even more famous mathematician and philosopher Hypatia, living in the late 300s/ early 400s AD. Whether they taught as a part of the original Library, or in a successor establishment with a similar name is unclear, but Hypatia’s school was extremely popular and her scholarship respected in Alexandria for many years, despite the fact that she remained a pagan and Alexandria was now a Christian city.

Naturally, Victorian men would assume a woman mathematician would teach in the nude…

Eventually, Hypatia got into a political spat with the Bishop of Alexandria, Cyril, and a ginned-up Christian mob would stone her to death in the streets. Though Alexandria would continue to be a diverse city of learning, Hypatia’s death seemingly closed the chapter on the Alexandria of the Ptolemies, Caesar, and the ancient world, and opened the door to medieval and Islamic Alexandria, the city’s next phase. Cyril became a Catholic saint, but in a last ironic twist from the Great Library, so did Hypatia. For twelve hundred years, she was mistakenly venerated as Catherine of Alexandria until someone pointed out to the Catholic Church that there was no historical proof of a martyred Catherine, but her death sure sounded a lot like the death of the pagan mathematician they themselves had killed. The Library will always have the last laugh!

“Catherine” is off the official papal calendar, but John Paul II put her back on as an optional memorial if you’re interested. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, she’s never left and her feast day is November 24th or 25th, depending on the specific sectarian tradition.
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