A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What happened to the great library of Alexandria?

December 6, 2005

Dear Straight Dope:

As a history buff, I've never found a good answer anywhere to this question, namely, just how was the great library of Alexandria destroyed? When did this destruction happen?

There's considerable disagreement among historians on how and when the great library was destroyed. But before we discuss its end, let's discuss its beginnings.

Libraries date back to earliest historic times. Archaeologists have found libraries--that is, storage places for clay tablets carved in cuneiform--in Mesopotamia, dating from around 2000 BC. As clay tablets and cuneiform gave way to scrolls and an alphabet, Greek authors and scholars around the 5th century BC began to develop history and philosophy, and the evidence strongly suggests they had access to libraries. Aristotle (384-321 BC), the teacher of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), had a personal library of around 400 scrolls, one of the largest in ancient times. When Alexander marched east to India, he designated administrators in the libraries and archives of the countries he conquered to study local laws and records to determine the best means of governing each region.

The great library at Alexandria in Egypt was founded by the Ptolemy dynasty around 290 BC, in a palace district known as the Brucheion. Alexandria was the largest city in the western world at the time, the home of the papyrus industry and the center of the book trade. The library was called a "museum," that is, a "house of the muses"--what we would call a school of arts and sciences. A smaller "daughter library" was built in the same district about a century later at the temple of Serapis.

Neither would have looked like a modern library. To begin with, there weren't bound books in those days, but rather papyrus scrolls. Papyrus was made from reeds from the banks of the Nile. Hammer them flat so that the juice bound the fibers, then dry them out, and you had sheets on which to write. Sew several sheets together, wrap them around a center pole, and tie on an identifying tag (author and title of work, perhaps), and you had a scroll. A typical scroll would be about one-tenth the length of an average book.

We don't know the actual size or content of the library at Alexandria. Some estimate 600,000 scrolls, although that's probably an overstatement. The daughter library is thought to have contained about 40,000 scrolls.

Scrolls, unlike books, don't stand upright on the shelf, but lie in a heap. To get one, you have to shuffle around the others. It's unlikely there was a precise filing system.

The library consisted of a group of buildings, including lecture halls, study rooms, dining rooms, gardens, and an astronomical observatory. The buildings were connected by a series of covered walkways, with statues, plantings, and pools, so that scholars could study in the shade.

The library tried to get copies of all known books, sending agents far and wide to acquire texts. Scrolls were bought, copied and stolen. Boats visiting Alexandria were required to lend any books on board to the library; some were returned.

The Alexandrian library flourished for several hundred years, and was the center of cultural development in the west. Scholars from every field of knowledge and every corner of the Hellenistic world came to learn, study and teach at Alexandria. Paid staff included grammarians, historians, astronomers, geographers, mathematicians, physicians, and poets. They studied and revised the works of earlier writers, beginning with Homer--the division of Homer's works into separate books is thought to be a product of the library. Scholarship consisted mostly of compiling, editing, criticizing and commenting on older texts, rather than composing new ones.

The list of famous scholars who studied at Alexandria in antiquity is long. Euclid wrote his Elements there. Archimedes was a student at the library. Legend says the pharaoh Ptolemy II convened seventy Jewish scholars to translate the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) from Hebrew into Greek, producing a work called the Septuagint. The astronomer Eratosthanes, working at the library, taught that the earth was a sphere and computed its circumference (he was off a bit).

Now to your question: How did it come to an end? We don't know exactly--in fact, we know very little about the library's history. That hasn't prevented historians over the centuries from proposing various scenarios. The three main suspects are Julius Caesar, Bishop Theophilus, and Caliph Omar. Contrary to myth, there wasn't one great fire that destroyed the library, but instead several documented fires over a span of centuries. It seems likely, then, that the destruction of the library was gradual. The problem is that we have few contemporary accounts, and later writers often have some axe to grind.

The first significant fire was around 89-88 BC. Egypt was torn by war and civil strife under Ptolemy VIII, and much of Alexandria was burned. Athenaeus visited the library and wrote about the fire much later (around 200 AD, so it obviously wasn't completely destroyed), reporting that the scholars at the museum had been scattered, and that "great numbers of grammarians, philosophers, geographers, and physicians [roam] the entire world, forced to earn their living by teaching." Though never restored to its former greatness, the library was rebuilt and survived for many more years.

The next fire was in 47 BC, when Julius Caesar and the Roman armies conquered Egypt. Caesar burned the harbor as part of this campaign. Seneca (3 BC-65 AD) says that 40,000 books were incinerated in this fire; others say less. We do know that many volumes were looted by Caesar's army and shipped to Rome.

Some people therefore blame Caesar for the destruction of the library. However, while the library may have been damaged during this episode, it probably wasn't destroyed. Forty thousand books would only have been a small fraction of the library's collection. A fire in the harbor wouldn't have reached the library proper, although scrolls stored in warehouses might have been burned. The Greek geographer Strabo (64 BC-24 AD), writing during the reign of Augustus, seems to have had some acquaintance with a functioning Alexandrian library. Suetonius, writing around 125 AD, says that the Emperor Domitian (reigning from 81 to 96 AD) used Alexandrian scholars to replace texts from Augustus' library at Palatine after a fire. This is strong evidence that the Alexandria library continued to exist well after Caesar burned the harbor.

The next fire came 300 years later, in 273 AD, when the Roman Emperor Aurelian invaded Egypt as part of his war with Zenobia of Palmyra. Much of Alexandria was burned, including the Brucheion district. Whether this fire destroyed the entire library or whether some portion was rebuilt is not known.

As Christians gained dominance in the region, they felt uncomfortable with pagan temples full of pagan documents. In 391 AD, Theophilus, the patriarch of Alexandria, urged a mob to destroy the temple at Serapis, presumably at the same time destroying whatever books were left in the daughter library. This was hailed as a great victory of the Christians over the pagans.

The final fire was in 645 AD, when the Moslem caliph Omar conquered Egypt. The story is that Omar was asked what to do about the books in the library, and gave the reply: "If the books agree with the Koran, they are not necessary. If they disagree, they are not desired. Therefore, destroy them." According to tradition, the scrolls were used as fuel to provide hot water for the soldiers' baths for six months.

Alas, this story is almost certainly apocryphal, invented in the 12th century. If Omar burned a library, it was probably a Christian library in a church built on the site of the daughter library.

Whom do we blame for the destruction of the library? We like Matthew Battles' summary. He notes that scrolls (like books) erode and fall apart over time, and we're dealing with five or six centuries. If an old scroll were crumbling, a scribe would have to make a new copy by hand. Battles writes:

Before the flames, before theft and censorship, the fate of books is bound up in the constant shuffling and transformation. Though Alexandria's libraries were universal in scope, their librarians faced hard choices. Manuscript scrolls were costly and time-consuming to produce, and the scribes' precious labor could not often be lavished on minor texts. Naturally, only the major works were copied in any great quantity. The rest--the secondary, the extra-canonical, and the apocryphal--dropped out of view.

Battles suggests that the destruction of the library wasn't due to a single great fire, but on account of "moldering slowly through the centuries as people grew indifferent and even hostile to their contents."

He concludes: "What happened to the books of Alexandria? Many, many centuries happened to them--too many for their inevitable dispersal and disappearance to be staved off, no matter whose mobs rioted in the streets, no matter which emperors set fires."

Resources:

Library: An Unquiet History, by Matthew Battles, 2003

History of Libraries in the Western World (4th edition), by Michael H. Harris, 1995

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