Return to Library of Alexandria
"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 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 is a description of the Acropolis at Alexandria (the Serapeum), which Aphthonius himself had seen sometime before its destruction in AD 391. Within the colonnaded stoa surrounding the temple sanctuary, there were rooms which contained books (possibly duplicates from the Great Library) available for study by the public.
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 district, where Alexandria itself had been founded, was in the old Egyptian quarter of the city and "lies above the ship-houses" (Strabo, Geography, XVII.1.6, who further remarks that the Serapeum then was "almost abandoned," like the other ancient buildings that "have fallen into neglect," 1.10). Access to the Acropolis, which was situated on a narrow promontory that dominated the city, was by way of a monumental stairway of one-hundred (or more) steps (Progymnasmata, XII) that approached the temple from the side rather than along its principal axis.
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 it 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 much grander scale by the Romans, principally Septimius Severus and, other than the Capitol in Rome, enthused Ammianus, "the whole world beholds nothing more magnificent" (Roman History, XXII.16.12). It was completed sometime before AD 215, when Caracalla sacrificed there before ordering his army to slaughter the young men of Alexandria (Herodian, History of the Empire, IV.9.1ff; for which there was lamentable precedence "when this population had been nearly annihilated" by Ptolemy VIII Psychon more than three centuries earlier, Polybius, Histories, XXXIV.14.6).
This is the Serapeum described by Aphthonius, with its books located in the colonnaded stoa (other rooms served as shrines to honor the gods). The libraries seen by Tertullian in the Serapeum of Ptolemy III Euergetes (246-222 BC, as attested by gold foundation plaques) less than two decades after its destruction suggest that they, too, had been in the stoa, protected by the expansive stone courtyard that surrounded the temple.
The Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) had been commanded by Ptolemy II Philadelphus (the pseudepigraphic Letter of Aristeas, IXff; elaborated upon by Philo, Life of Moses, II.31ff, and Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XII.2ff; also Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III.21.3; Clement, Stromata, I.22; Eusebius, Preparation of the Gospel, VIII.2). Aristeas relates how Ptolemy agreed to a request by his librarian Demetrius (cf. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers) that the Jewish Law be translated and included among the books in the Library of Alexandria. Seventy-two translators (six from each of the twelve tribes) were said to have been chosen, who completed their work on Pharos in seventy-two days. Josephus is the first to refer to the translators as "the seventy," from which the Septuagint itself is titled and abbreviated LXX.
Tertullian saw a copy, as did John Chrysostom 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, III.48c, XI.53c). Johannes Tzetzes, writing in the twelfth century AD, speaks of two libraries as well, one "inside the palace" (the Bruchion or royal quarter) and a smaller one "outside" (the Serapeum), which he says, contained 42,800 scrolls (Prolegomena on Comedy, XX).
The Serapeum, then, had a library located in the colonnaded stoa that enclosed the sacred precinct (temenos) of the temple itself. A public annex or "daughter" to the Great Library of Alexandria, the Serapeum would have taken its place (in Fraser's words) "as the main repository of books and rolls" after the larger library was destroyed. And these scrolls (or at least the Septuagint) were in the Serapeum just five years prior to its own 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). Socrates Scholasticus further claims that, in response to the solicitation of Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria, Theodosius issued an order that the temples themselves be destroyed (Ecclesiastical History, V.16). Riots were provoked by Theophilus and the Temple of Serapis was torn down by a Christian mob, to be replaced by a lofty mart
yrium (John of Nikiu, Chronicle, LXXVIII.42) and church (Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, VII.15.10) beside the old temple enclosure.
The sophist Eunapius, who died about AD 414, bitterly lamented 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 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 Sophists: Eustathius). Theodoret, too, credits Theophilus with "razing the idols' temples to the ground" and directing the attack on the cult idol in the Temple of Serapis (Ecclesiastical History, V.22).
(The colonnade of the stoa must have survived, as Arab travelers later describe hundreds of columns still standing. Al-Garnati, who lived in Alexandria about 1115, thought the Serapeum had been built by the jinn for King Solomon himself and estimated that there were three hundred columns. Made from red marble with beautifully decorated capitals and bases, they shown like a mirror, reflecting whoever passed in front of them. In 1167, they were broken up by Saladin to serve as a breakwater and defense against Crusader ships. Now, only the Column of Diocletian, which had been erected in AD 298, marks the site. Ibn Jubayr, stopping in Alexandria on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1183, recounted that one still could find "in some of the avenues columns that climb up and choke the skies, and whose purpose and the reason for whose erection none can tell. It was related to us that in ancient times they supported a building reserved for philosophers and the chief men of the day.")
A decade earlier, in AD 402, the Serapeum and its porticoes had been described by Rufinus, who lived in Alexandria for eight years and seen the sanctuary before its destruction, as his use of the past tense attests. His account 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.
"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)
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 was murdered), he writes several years later about the Caesarean fire that had destroyed the Library of Alexandria and the empty book chests still to be seen in some of the temples. The passage 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 already had been razed to the ground, the empty book chests (armaria) seen "in some of the temples" must have been located somewhere else. Indeed, Orosius seems to dismiss the continued existence of any books in the Serapeum when he says that it was more reasonable to assume other books had been sought out and collected than "there had once been another library" separate from the 400,000 volumes that were lost.
Ammianus Marcellinus, otherwise "an accurate and faithful guide" as Gibbon describes him (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 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). But here Ammianus 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). Reading only this sentence, the inference is that Gibbon has made the same mistake and, mislead by Ammianus in his understanding that the lost books had been housed in the Serapeum, placed 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," elaborating in a footnote that "The old Library of the Ptolemies was totally consumed in Caesar's Alexandrian war" and replaced with the books from Pergamon given by Antony to Cleopatra "as the foundation for the new Library of Alexandria" (the emphases are Gibbon's). The empty shelves which Gibbon imagines to be in the Serapeum did not represent the lost volumes of the Great Library itself (which had been destroyed by Caesar) but, just as importantly, those from the Pergamene collection that had replaced them.
For such wanton destruction Gibbon despised Theophilus: "the perpetual enemy of peace and virtue; a bold, bad man, whose hands were alternately polluted with gold, and with blood" (XXVIII). The destruction of the books in the Temple of Serapis, which Gibbon surmises to have been those appropriated by Antony from the library at Pergamon and lost when the temple was destroyed at the instigation of Theophilus, signifies the final loss of the Library of Alexandria, even if only its surviving remnant. That Cyril, the nephew of Theophilus who succeeded him in AD 412, conspired in the murder of Hypatia, only was evidence to Gibbon of further Christian perfidy.
Still, there was hope that libraries in Alexandria did survive. 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."
But there also was religious prejudice and intolerance, both Christian and pagan. Tertullian famously had asked in about AD 200,
"What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians?....Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides" (Prescription Against Heretics, VII).
Promulgating an edict of religious tolerance in AD 362, Julian in turn rejected Christianity and sought to restore the polytheism of ancient Rome. "If, however, they [Christians] 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).
Writing in AD 384, Jerome guiltily recalled that he could not bring himself to forgo his library at Rome, which he had collected with great care and toil. "And so, miserable man that I was, I would fast only that I might afterwards read Cicero. After many nights spent in vigil, after floods of tears called from my inmost heart, after the recollection of my past sins, I would once more take up Plautus." Then, in the delirium of a fever, he imagined himself before God and, being asked who he was, replied "'I am a Christian.' But He who presided said: 'Thou liest, you are a follower of Cicero and not of Christ.'" So fearful was this admonishment that, waking from his dream, Jerome swore that henceforth he would read only the books of God and not those of men (Epistles, XXII.30).
Sometime too after that year, which was "not so very long ago," Ammianus bitterly exclaims that "the libraries are shut up forever like tombs," and foreigners and those practicing the liberal arts expelled from Rome (Roman History, XIV.6.18-19). Indeed, its distinguished nobles "hate learning as they do poison" (XXVIII.4.14). With the destruction of the Serapeum in AD 391 and the martyrdom of Hypatia in AD 415, whose father Theon had been the last recorded member of the Museum (Suda, T205), the religious turmoil of the late fourth and early fifth centuries finally subsided.
In the sixth century, Pope Gregory I (AD 590-604) declared that "the praises of Christ cannot find room in one mouth with the praises of Jupiter" (Epistles, XI.54). It was a sentiment not so different from the apocryphal story of John Grammaticus (John Philoponus) originally mentioned by Abd al-Latif in about 1200. Remarking on the pillars of the Serapeum, where he believed Aristotle had taught, he says in passing that the books there were burned by order of the caliph. A hundred years later, the account was elaborated upon by Ibn al-Qifti and in turn by the Christian bishop Bar Hebraeus (Abu al-Faraj), who relate 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” (III). Although it is disheartening that the story once was believed, Gibbon was sanguine.
"If the ponderous mass of Arian and Monophysite controversy were indeed consumed in the public baths, a philosopher may allow, with a smile, that it was ultimately devoted to the benefit of mankind. I sincerely regret the more valuable libraries which have been involved in the ruin of the Roman empire; but when I seriously compute the lapse of ages, the waste of ignorance, and the calamities of war, our treasures, rather than our losses, are the objects of my surprise."
Both Aphthonius and John Chrysostom 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 the 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 it be 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. "As for the monks, they commit many crimes," Theodosius complained but 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" (XXVIII).
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 the 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).
Jerome, too, seems to be referring to the same tidal wave in his Life of Hilarion (XL).
"At that time there was an earthquake over the whole world, following on the death of Julian [AD 363], which caused the sea to burst its bounds, and left ships hanging on the edge of mountain steeps. It seemed as though God were threatening a second deluge, or all things were returning to original chaos."
In spite of buildings leveled along the shore and ships at Alexandria reputedly washed onto the top of buildings, the ancient sources do not otherwise speak of any damage to specific buildings, even to the Caesareum, which was situated on the eastern shore of the harbor. But it presumably was protected by its breakwater, the long causeway of the Heptastadion, and the island of Pharos. All this notwithstanding, it has been calculated that the tsunami might have crested as high as nine-and-a-half meters at Alexandria.
Twenty-five years before John Chrysostom saw the Septuagint in the Serapeum, the temple had been desecrated by George of Cappadocia, the bishop of Alexandria who "despoiled the god's most holy temple of its images, votive offerings, and such other consecrated apparatus as it contained" (Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, III.3; Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, V.7.9). George had been appointed by Constantius II to succeed Athanasius, who was exiled. But after the accession of the pagan emperor Julian to the throne in AD 361, the prelate was arrested and then murdered by the Alexandrians, which, for their lawlessness, prompted no more than a rebuke from Julian (Epistles, XXI).
Confessing his "passionate longing to acquire books," Julian then directed the prefect of Egypt, as a personal favor, to seek out all George's books. "For there were in his house many on philosophy, and many on rhetoric; many also on the teachings of the impious Galilaeans. These latter I should wish to be utterly annihilated, but for fear that along with them more useful works may be destroyed by mistake, let all these also be sought for with the greatest care. Let George's secretary take charge of this search for you, and if he hunts for them faithfully let him know that he will obtain his freedom as a reward" (XXIII).
Such was his impatience in obtaining these volumes, which, as a boy, he once had read and borrowed from George himself, that Julian then wrote directly to a certain Porphyrius, who may have been the bishop's secretary. Affirming that the library was "very large and complete and contained philosophers of every school and many historians, especially, among these, numerous books of all kinds by the Galilaeans," Julian directed that he "make a thorough search for the whole library without exception and take care to send it to Antioch." If any who may have been suspected of stealing these books could not be persuaded to return them, they were to be compelled to do so, even if slaves had to tortured (XXXVIII).
"A certain one of the presbyters under his jurisdiction, whose name was Arius, possessed of no inconsiderable logical acumen...vigorously responded to what was said by the bishop. 'If,' said he, 'the Father begot the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence: and from this it is evident, that there was a time when the Son was not. It therefore necessarily follows, that he had his substance from nothing.'"
Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History (I.5)
In positing this syllogism, Arius sought to understand the most profound mystery of the Christian church—the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. He reasoned that, if God truly were eternal and uncreated, then Jesus, who was created and not self-extant, could not be God (cf. John 14:28, "my Father is greater than I").
Arius was excommunicated in AD 321 (Ecclesiastical History, I.6) and Arianism declared a heresy at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in AD 325. As promulgated in the Nicene Creed, Jesus Christ was "begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father." In other words, Father and Son were consubstantial or homoousios (of the "same essence"), as opposed to the Arian belief that they were homoiousios (of "similar essence"). It is this "one iota of difference" that defines the essential unity of the Trinity in Christian doctrine.
Pictured above is the ceiling mosaic from the Arian Baptistery (Battistero degli Ariani) at Ravenna, then the capital of the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy. Built at the end of the fifth century AD by Theodoric, it is the Arian counterpart of the Orthodox Baptistery constructed some fifty years earlier.
A bibliographic note: There are three modern English translations of Orosius' Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII (the first, in Anglo-Saxon, was by Alfred the Great, who ruled Wessex in the ninth century AD). 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 Caesarean fire, Fear states in a footnote (226) 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." (This had been Gibbon's contention, as well.)
Fear is referring to a passage in Plutarch, who relates that Marc Antony was accused of bestowing upon Cleopatra "the libraries from Pergamum, in which there were two hundred thousand volumes" (Life of Antony, LVIII.5), presumably to replace those lost in the Caesarean fire seven years before. One of a litany of complaints brought against Antony, most of which, even at the time, were thought to have been false, the gift presumably would have occurred in 41 BC, when Cleopatra had so bewitched Antony on her barge at Tarsus and they became lovers. It was that year 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). It is possible, too, that the scrolls from Pergamum were intended for the Caesareum, newly built by Cleopatra in honor of either Caesar or Antony (cf. Suda, E329, "For Antony [she] was building a big temple, which was therefore left half-worked; it was completed for Augustus").
The axonometric reconstruction above is from McKenzie, Gibson, and Reyes (2004), who consider the descriptions of the Serapeum by Aphthonius and Rufinus to have been "remarkably accurate." It shows the Serapeum as it would have looked in about AD 300: a Greco-Roman temple with six columns across the principal façade (the Ptolemaic temple had four). Books likely were stored in the rooms along the west and possibly the south sides of the court.
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; Philostratus and Eunapius: The Lives of the Sophists (1921) translated by Wilmer Cave Wright (Loeb Classical Library); 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); The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions (1952) translated by Clyde Pharr; The Works of the Emperor Julian (1923) translated by Wilmer Cave Wright (Loeb Classical Library); The Travels of Ibn Jubayr (1952) translated by R. J. C. Broadhurst.
Ptolemaic Alexandria (1972) by P. M. Fraser; "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 Alexandria? (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 Ancient Monuments of Alexandria According to Accounts by Medieval Arab Authors (IX-XV Century)" (1971) by S. K. Hamarneh, Folia Orientalia, 13, 77-110; The Arab Conquest of Egypt and the Last Thirty Years of the Roman Dominion (1902) by Alfred J. Butler; "Ammianus and the Great Tsunami" (2004) by Gavin Kelly, The Journal of Roman Studies, 94, 141-167; "A Reanalysis of the AD 365 Tsunami Impact Along the Egyptian Mediterranean Coast" (2009) by Amr Hamouda, Acta Geophysica, 58(4), 687-704; "A Reanalysis of the AD 365 Tsunami Impact Along the Egyptian Mediterranean Coast" (2010) by Amr Z. Hamouda, Acta Geophysica, 58(4), 687-704; "Ammianus and the Great Tsunami" (2004) by Gavin Kelly, The Journal of Roman Studies, 94, 141-167.
See also Cleopatra at Tarsus and Hypatia.
Return to Top of Page