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"To one entering the acropolis itself, one area is divided into four equal sides; the plan of the arrangement is like that of a hollow rectangle with an open court surrounded by a colonnade in the center. And [other] colonnades succeed this open court; these are distinguished by matched columns and, as for their size, it is that beyond which it is impossible to find a greater one. Each colonnade comes to an end against another transverse colonnade, and a double column is the division in reference to each colonnade, since it marks, on the one hand, the ending of one and, on the other, the beginning anew of another. Within the colonnades, enclosures were built, some having become repositories for the books available to the diligent for study, thus spurring on an entire city to a mastery of learning; others were established long ago to honor the gods. For colonnades, there is a roof adorned with gold, and the capitals of columns are worked in bronze overlaid with gold. Nor is there only one adornment of the open court, for another is different—it has the battles of Perseus. And one of the columns rising above the others in height occupies the center position, thereby attracting attention to the place. Anyone going along does not yet know where he is proceeding, unless he uses the column [of Diocletian] as a sign of the ways. And being visible all round, it so makes the acropolis on land and on sea....Indeed, the beauty is beyond the power of words, and if anything has been neglected, it happened as a result of awe."
Aphthonius, Progymnasmata (XII)
The Serapeum was erected "in a place called Rhacotis, where there had stood a chapel consecrated in old times to Serapis and Isis. Such is the most popular account of the origin and introduction of the God Serapis" (Tacitus, Histories, IV.84). This ancient district, where Alexandria itself had been founded, was in the Egyptian quarter and "lies above the ship-houses" (Strabo, Geography, XVII.1.6). The Serapeum was situated on a narrow promontory that dominated the city, with access to the acropolis by way of a monumental stairway of one-hundred steps (Aphthonius, Progymnasmata, XII).
The earliest reference that the sanctuary contained a library is from Tertullian, who in about AD 197 remarked "To this day, at the temple of Serapis, the libraries of Ptolemy are to be seen, with the identical Hebrew originals [the Septuagint] in them" (Apology, XVIII.8). Such an important temple would be expected to have a library, as did the Caesareum (where, after it had been converted to a church, Hypatia was murdered). Philo of Alexandria described the Caesareum, its porticoes and libraries, in about AD 38.
"For there is no sacred precinct of such magnitude as that which is called the Grove of Augustus, and the temple erected in honour of the disembarkation of Caesar, which is raised to a great height, of great size, and of the most conspicuous beauty, opposite the best harbour; being such an one as is not to be seen in any other city, and full of offerings, in pictures, and statues; and decorated all around with silver and gold; being a very extensive space, ornamented in the most magnificent and sumptuous manner with porticoes, and libraries, and men's chambers, and groves, and propylaea, and wide, open terraces, and court-yards in the open air, and with everything that could contribute to use or beauty; being a hope and beacon of safety to all who set sail, or who came into harbour" (Embassy to Gaius, XXII.151).
In AD 181, the Ptolemaic Temple of Serapis burned down (Jerome, Chronicle, 240th Olympiad; Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Heathen, IV.47) and was rebuilt on a grander scale by the Romans, principally Septimius Severus. It was completed sometime before Caracalla's death in AD 217, when the emperor sacrificed there before ordering his army to slaughter the young men of Alexandria (Herodian, History of the Empire, IV.8.9), abolishing the privileges that the Aristotelian philosophers had enjoyed and even threatening to burn their books (Dio, Roman History, LXXVIII.7.3). This is the Serapeum described by Aphthonius, with its books located in the colonnaded stoa. The libraries seen by Tertullian in the Serapeum of Ptolemy III Euergetes less than two decades after the fire of AD 181 suggest that they, too, had been in the stoa, protected by the expansive stone courtyard that surrounded the temple.
The Progymnasmata are fourteen elementary rhetorical exercises written in the late fourth century AD by the Greek sophist Aphthonius of Antioch. The twelfth is Ekphrasis: "a descriptive composition bringing the thing set forth distinctly to view" in which the student is "to represent faithfully the things being described." Its exemplar (quoted in part above) is a description of the Acropolis at Alexandria (the Serapeum), in which Aphthonius relates that some of the rooms within the colonnaded stoa surrounding the temple sanctuary contained books and that, unlike the Great Library of Alexandria, they were open to the public.
Aphthonius had studied rhetoric with Libanius, who in AD 386 had appealed to Theodosius I in his oration Pro Templis that the emperor protect the pagan temples that, with the connivance of the patriarch, were being pulled down by zealous monks, especially rural shrines in the Syrian countryside. Pale chanting men in black garb
"hasten to attack the temples with sticks and stones and bars of iron, and in some cases, disdaining these, with hands and feet. Then utter desolation follows, with the stripping of roofs, demolition of walls, the tearing down of statues and the overthrow of altars, and the priests must either keep quiet or die. After demolishing one, they scurry to another, and to a third, and trophy is piled on trophy, in contravention of the law. Such outrages occur even in the cities, but they are most common in the countryside. Many are the foes who perpetrate the separate attacks, but after their countless crimes this scattered rabble congregates and calls for a tally of their activities, and they are in disgrace unless they have committed the foulest outrage" (Orations, XXX.8-9).
When a synagogue was burned at the prompting of the local bishop, Theodosius commanded that he rebuild at his own expense and the monks punished. Preaching before the emperor in AD 388, Ambrose threatened not to celebrate the Eucharist unless the matter was quashed. Complaining that "As for the monks, they commit many crimes," Theodosius nevertheless was obliged to acquiesce (Ambrose, Epistles, XLI.27-28). For Gibbon, the destruction of the temples was a sad spectacle, where "in almost every province of the Roman world, an army of fanatics, without authority, and without discipline, invaded the peaceful inhabitants; and the ruin of the fairest structures of antiquity still displays the ravages of those Barbarians, who alone had time and inclination to executer such laborious destruction" (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, XXVIII.)
The Greek translation of Hebrew Scripture [the Septuagint] had been commanded by Ptolemy II Philadelphus (Letter of Aristeas, X; also Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XII.1ff; Philo, Life of Moses, II.31ff; Epiphanius, On Weights and Measures, III.48c; Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III.21.3). Tertullian had seen a copy, as did John Chrysostom (who also had been a student of Libanius) almost two hundred years later. In AD 386, in the first of a series of polemical homilies against the Jews, John declared that "Up to the present day the translated books remain there in the temple. But will the temple of Serapis be holy because of the holy books? Heaven forbid! Although the books have their own holiness, they do not give a share of it to the place because those who frequent the place are defiled" (Adversus Judaeos, I.6.1).
In AD 392 Epiphanius, too, wrote of the Septuagint. "And so the Scriptures, when they had been transferred to the Greek language, were placed in the first library, which was built in the Bruchion, as I have already said. And there arose in addition to this library a second up in the Serapeum, called its daughter" (On Weights and Measures, XI.53c). Johannes Tzetzes, writing in the twelfth century AD, speaks as well of two libraries, one "inside the palace" (the Bruchion) and a smaller one "outside" (the Serapeum), which he says, contained 42,800 scrolls (Prolegomena on Comedy, XX).
The Serapeum, then, had a library (seemingly a substantial one) located in the colonnaded stoa that surrounded the temple court that was considered a public annex or "daughter" to the Great Library. And this library (or at least the Septuagint within it) existed just prior to its destruction.
On June 16, AD 391, Theodosius I reiterated from Milan his prohibition against pagan worship (a similar decree had been directed to the urban prefect in Rome four months earlier). In a rescript addressed to the prefect and military governor in Egypt, he commanded that no person perform sacrifices, go to the temples, or revere the shrines (Codex Theodosianus, XVI.10.11). Indeed, Socrates Scholasticus claims that Theodosius (in response to the solicitation of Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria) issued an order that the temples themselves be destroyed (Ecclesiastical History, V.16). There were riots provoked by Theophilus, and the Temple of Serapis was razed to the ground, to be replaced by a martyrium (John of Nikiu, Chronicle, LXXVIII.42).
The sophist Eunapius, who died about AD 414, bitterly exclaims that "the cult of the temples in Alexandria and at the shrine of Serapis was scattered to the winds, and not only the ceremonies of the cult but the buildings as well." The temple was demolished and its statues and votive offerings stolen and destroyed. "Only the floor of the temple of Serapis they did not take, simply because of the weight of the stones which were not easy to remove from their place" (Lives of the Philosophers and Sophists: Eustathius).
The visit by Aphthonius to the Serapeum, therefore, must have been before it was pulled down, as it is difficult to image such a description afterwards. A decade later, in AD 402, the Serapeum and its "porticoes arranged in rectangles which ran around the whole circumference on the inside" were described by Rufinus, who also had seen the sanctuary before its destruction, as his use of the past tense attests.
"I suppose that everyone has heard of the temple of Serapis in Alexandria, and that many are also familiar with it. The site was elevated, not naturally but artificially, to a height of a hundred or more steps, its enormous rectangular premises extending in every direction. All the rooms up to the floor on top were vaulted, and being furnished with ceiling lights and concealed inner chambers separate from one another, were used for various services and secret functions. On the upper level, furthermore, the outermost structures in the whole circumference provided space for halls and shrines and for lofty apartments which normally housed either the temple staff or those called hagneuontes, meaning those who keep themselves pure. Behind these in turn were porticoes arranged in rectangles which ran around the whole circumference on the inside. In the middle of the entire area rose the sanctuary with priceless columns, the exterior fashioned of marble, spacious and magnificent to behold."
Ecclesiastical History (II.23)
The account of Rufinus is the earliest and most comprehensive, and is related as well in the ecclesiastical histories of Socrates Scholasticus (V.26-27), Sozomen (VII.15, 20), and Theodoret (V.22), all of whom wrote half a century later.
Asked by Augustine to offer an apology refuting the accusations of pagans who blamed Christians for the sack of Rome in AD 410, Orosius recited the woes of the world from the time of Adam in an attempt to demonstrate that similar disasters had afflicted Rome throughout its history. As to Alexandria, which he had visited in AD 415 (the year that Hypatia died), he writes in a passage that is both turgid and obscure—
"During the combat orders were issued to set fire to the royal fleet, which by chance was drawn on shore. The flames spread to part of the city and there burned four hundred thousand books stored in a building which happened to be nearby. So perished that marvelous monument of the literary activity of our ancestors, who had gathered together so many great works of brilliant geniuses. In regard to this, however true it may be that in some of the temples there remain up to the present time book chests, which we ourselves have seen, and that, as we are told, these were emptied by our own men in our own day when these temples were plundered—this statement is true enough—yet it seems fairer to suppose that other collections had later been formed to rival the ancient love of literature, and not that there had once been another library which had books separate from the four hundred thousand volumes mentioned, and for that reason had escaped destruction" (Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII, VI.15.31ff).
Given that the Temple of Serapis had been razed to the ground, these empty book chests (armaria) seen by Orosius "in some of the temples" must therefore have been located somewhere else.
Ammianus Marcellinus, otherwise "an accurate and faithful guide" (XXVI), had recorded that "In this [the Temple of Serapis] were invaluable libraries, and the unanimous testimony of ancient records that 700,000 books, brought together by the unremitting energy of the Ptolemaic kings, were burned in the Alexandrine war, when the city was sacked under the dictator Caesar" (Res Gestae, XXII.16.13). Here, he has confused the Serapeum with the Great Library of Alexandria, conflating the two.
Gibbon himself writes that "The valuable library of Alexandria was pillaged or destroyed; and near twenty years afterwards, the appearance of the empty shelves excited the regret and indignation of every spectator, whose mind was not totally darkened by religious prejudice" (XXVIII, commenting in a footnote that Orosius deservedly "seems to blush" at the loss). The inference is that he has made the same mistake and, mislead by Ammianus in understanding that the lost books had been housed in Serapeum, places the book chests there as well, the empty shelves a reproach to all who saw them.
Several paragraphs before, however, Gibbon had written that "the treasures of ancient learning were preserved in the famous Alexandrian library, which had arisen with new splendour from its ashes." He elaborates on the statement in a footnote (the emphases are his): "The old Library of the Ptolemies was totally consumed in Caesar's Alexandrian war," to be replaced with the books from Pergamon given by Antony to Cleopatra "as the foundation for the new Library of Alexandria." It is the Serapeum, in other words, that has arisen from the ashes of Great Library, stocked with the Pergamene collection. Its destruction by Theophilus is one reason that Gibbon so despised the patriarch: "the perpetual enemy of peace and virtue; a bold, bad man, whose hands were alternately polluted with gold, and with blood" (XXVIII).
Still, there was the sanguine hope that other libraries in Alexandria survived. Orosius supposed that "other collections had later been formed to rival the ancient love of literature." Ammianus, who died just a few years after the destruction of the Serapeum observed that "not even to‑day is learning of various kinds silent in that same city; for the teachers of the arts show signs of life" (XXII.16.17). And Socrates Scholasticus argued that Greek literature, although not recognized as divinely inspired, at least was not rejected as pernicious. "There were many philosophers among the Greeks who were not far from the knowledge of God...and for these reasons they have become useful to all lovers of real piety." Indeed, the Scriptures "do not instruct us in the art of reasoning, by means of which we may be enabled successfully to resist those who oppose the truth. Besides adversaries are most easily foiled, when we can use their own weapons against them" (Ecclesiastical History, III.16). The apostle Paul, he continues, did not forbid instruction in Greek learning nor neglect it himself; rather, he knew many of the sayings of the Greeks, as did the other church fathers, so as "to improve themselves in eloquence and to strengthen and polish their mind, and at the same time to enable them to refute the errors of the heathen."
Promulgating an edict of religious tolerance in AD 362, Julian rejected Christianity and sought to restore the polytheism of ancient Rome. "If, however, they think that those writers were in error with respect to the most honoured gods, then let them betake themselves to the churches of the Galilaeans to expound Matthew and Luke, since you Galilaeans are obeying them when you ordain that men shall refrain from temple-worship" (Rescript on Teachers).
The next year, Jovian (who ruled for only eight months), revoked the edicts of Julian (ChT XIII.3.6) and burned down "a very nice temple" in Antioch that Julian had made into a library "along with all its books" (Suda, I401). About the same time, the Apostolic Constitutions, a collection of treatises written in the late fourth century AD that served as a guide for the clergy, admonished the faithful to
"Abstain from all the heathen books. For what have you to do with such foreign discourses, or laws, or false prophets, which subvert the faith of the unstable? For what defect do you find in the law of God, that you should have recourse to those heathenish fables? For if you have a mind to read history, you have the books of the Kings; if books of wisdom or poetry, you have those of the Prophets, of Job, and the Proverbs, in which you will find greater depth of sagacity than in all the heathen poets and sophisters, because these are the words of the Lord, the only wise God. If you desire something to sing, you have the Psalms; if the origin of things, you have Genesis; if laws and statutes, you have the glorious law of the Lord God. Therefore utterly abstain from all strange and diabolical books." (I.6).
Pope Gregory I (AD 590-604) himself declared that "the praises of Christ cannot find room in one mouth with the praises of Jupiter" (Epistles, XI.54). It was a sentiment that is not so different from the apocryphal story of John Grammaticus (John Philoponus) retold by the thirteenth-century bishop Gregory Bar Hebraeus, who relates that, after the Arab conquest of Alexandria in AD 642, John requested "the books full of wisdom" and was told that permission from the caliph himself was required, who responded that "If these writings of the Greeks agree with the book of God, they are useless and need not be preserved: if they disagree, they are pernicious and ought to be destroyed." The story was discredited soon enough, by Gibbon (who provides this translation) among others: "For my own part, I am strongly tempted to deny both the fact and the consequences” (Decline and Fall, III). But that it was given credence and once believed is dispiriting.
As if Alexandria was not beleaguered enough, there was a powerful earthquake and a resulting tsunami that struck the city on July 21, AD 365. Ammianus provides an account.
"For a little after daybreak, preceded by heavy and repeated thunder and lightning, the whole of the firm and solid earth was shaken and trembled, the sea with its rolling waves was driven back and withdrew from the land, so that in the abyss of the deep thus revealed men saw many kinds of sea-creatures stuck fast in the slime; and vast mountains and deep valleys, which Nature, the creator, had hidden in the unplumbed depths, then, as one might well believe, first saw the beams of the sun. Hence, many ships were stranded as if on dry land, and since many men roamed about without fear in the little that remained of the waters, to gather fish and similar things with their hands, the roaring sea, resenting, as it were, this forced retreat, rose in its turn; and over the boiling shoals it dashed mightily upon islands and broad stretches of the mainland, and levelled innumerable buildings in the cities and where else they were found; so that amid the mad discord of the elements the altered face of the earth revealed marvellous sights. For the great mass of waters, returning when it was least expected, killed many thousands of men by drowning; and by the swift recoil of the eddying tides a number of ships, after the swelling of the wet element subsided, were seen to have foundered, and lifeless bodies of shipwrecked persons lay floating on their backs or on their faces. Other great ships, driven by the mad blasts, landed on the tops of buildings (as happened at Alexandria), and some were driven almost two miles inland, like a Laconian ship which I myself in passing that way saw near the town of Mothone, yawning apart through long decay" (XXVI.10.15-19).
The axonometric reconstruction above is from McKenzie, Gibson, and Reyes (2004), who consider the descriptions of the Serapeum by Aphthonius and Rufinus, who lived in Alexandria and had seen the temple before its destruction, to have been "remarkably accurate." It shows the Serapeum as it would have looked in about AD 300.
A bibliographic note: There are three modern English translations of Orosius' Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII (the first was by Alfred the Great, who ruled Wessex in the ninth century). Aside from Raymond (1936) and Deferrari (1964), the edition by Andrew Fear (2010) has been commended for the number and length of its footnotes. Commenting on the loss of 400,000 books in the Caesarian fire (note 226), Fear states that "There was another great library in Alexandria, the Pergamene, housed at the Serapeum. This collection of 200,000 volumes was created by the kings of Pergamum and later given by Antony to Cleopatra. It was destroyed by the Christian patriarch of Alexandria, Theophilus, with the support of Theodosius the Great."
If the library at Pergamon had been bestowed upon Cleopatra, it presumably would have occurred in 41 BC, when she so bewitched Antony on her barge at Tarsus. It was that year, too, that Antony had Cleopatra's half-sister Arsinoë killed at Ephesus, removing her as a rival to the Egyptian throne (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XV.4.1). The gift of the Pergamene library was one of a litany of complaints brought against him, most of which, even at the time, were thought to have been false (Plutarch, Life of Antony, LVIII.5). It may not have been given to the queen, nor is there any evidence to suggest that the purloined scrolls were placed in the Serapeum (as Gibbon had suggested). The Caesareum also had its own stoa and libraries, and this magnificent building, newly constructed by Cleopatra to honor either Caesar or Mark Antony, could as easily have been the recipient.
References: "The Progymnasmata of Aphthonius in Translation" (1952) by Ray Nadeau, Speech Monographs, 19(4), 264-285; Readings from Classical Rhetoric (1990) edited by Patricia P. Matsen, Philip Rollinson, and Marion Sousa (who revise slightly the translation of Nadeau); Ammianus Marcellinus: Roman History (Vol. II) (1940) translated by John C. Rolfe (Loeb Classical Library); The Works of Philo Judaeus (1854-) translated by C. D. Yonge; Ptolemaic Alexandria (3 Vols.) (1972) by P. M. Fraser; Philostratus and Eunapius: The Lives of the Sophists (1921) translated by Wilmer Cave Wright (Loeb Classical Library); "Reconstructing the Serapeum in Alexandria from the Archaeological Evidence" (2004) by Judith S. McKenzie, Sheila Gibson, and A. T. Reyes, The Journal of Roman Studies, 94, 73-121; What Happened to the Ancient Library of Alexonandria? (2008) edited by Mostafa El-Abbadi and Omnia Mounir Fathallah; The Architecture of Alexandria and Egypt: 300 BC to AD 700 (2007) by Judith McKenzie; The Library of Alexandria: Centre of Learning in the Ancient World (2000) edited by Roy Macleod; "From Romance to Rhetoric: The Alexandrian Library in Classical and Islamic Tradition" (1992) by Diana Delia, The American Historical Review, 97(5), 1449-1467; Kallimachos: The Alexandrian Library and the Origins of Bibliography (1991) by Rudolf Blum; The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions (1952) translated by Clyde Pharr; What Happened to the Ancient Library of Alexandria? (2008) edited by Mostafa El-Abbadi and Omnia Mounir Fathallah; The Church History of Rufinus of Aquileia: Books 10 and 11 (1997) translated by Philip R. Amidon; Libanius: Selected Works (1977) translated by A. F. Norman (Loeb Classical Library).
See also Cleopatra at Tarsus and Hypatia.
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