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The Great Library of Alexandria

"Nor did the fire fall upon the vessels only: the houses near the sea caught fire from the spreading heat, and the winds fanned the conflagration, till the flames, smitten by the eddying gale, rushed over the roofs as fast as the meteors that often trace a furrow through the sky, though they have nothing solid to feed on and burn by means of air alone."

Lucan, Pharsalia (X.497ff)

Julius Caesar himself provides the first indication of what might have happened to the Great Library at Alexandria. In the Civil Wars, he recounts the Battle of Pharsalus (48 BC) and his pursuit of the defeated Pompey to Alexandria, where Caesar became embroiled in the Alexandrian War between Cleopatra and her younger brother, Ptolemy XIII. There was an attempt by the Egyptians to seize the ships in the harbor, the capture of which would have jeopardized any hope for supplies and reinforcement. Besieged and desperate, Caesar "burned all these vessels and those in the dockyards, since he could not protect so wide an area with his small force" (III.111) and retreated during the fighting to the island of Pharos in the middle of the harbor, which was seized. He then garrisoned the Pharos itself, the famed lighthouse "of great height, a work of wonderful construction, which took its name from the island" (III.112). Access to the sea having been secured, a cordon was drawn around the most important positions, including the adjoining Theater, which commanded access to the harbor. During the night, defensive barriers were established and later strengthened.

Here, Caesar's account ends but is continued by Aulus Hirtius, one of his lieutenants. Battering rams were used to knock down buildings on the island and the barriers extended. Hirtius then interjects that "Alexandria is almost completely secure against fire; the buildings have no carpentry or timber, and are composed of masonry constructed in arches and roofed with rough-cast or flag-stones" (The Alexandrian War, I.1). It is an unexpected observation and, in remarking that the city could not burn, Hirtius may have been trying to counter accusations that it had. There was, in fact, sufficient timber in the roof supports and framing of colonnades, gymnasia, and other public buildings that the Egyptians were able to replace a shortage of oars and even build additional ships (I.13). Certainly, Alexandria burned readily enough in the fires of Aurelian and Diocletian.

Twenty years later, in about 24 BC, Strabo accompanied his friend Aelius Gallus, the new Roman prefect, to Egypt and toured the province (Geography, II.5.12). Strabo was to stay there for five years and reside in Alexandria, which he describes in detail. Opposite the Pharos was the Lochias promontory and a royal palace and then, further on, "the inner royal palaces, which are continuous with those on Lochias and have groves and numerous lodges painted in various colours" (XVII.9). This warren of buildings, monuments, and public spaces extended along the eastern shore and comprised a quarter or even a third of the city, all built up by successive kings and connected with one another and to the harbor (XVII.1.8). Here, too, were the Theater and Temple of Poseidon, the Caesareum, Emporium, and warehouses. Finally, there were the ship-houses, which extended as far as the causeway that connected Pharos to the mainland.

The Mouseion ("a shrine of the muses," in Latin, museum) had been founded by the first Ptolemies in about 283 BC, when Ptolemy II Philadelphus succeeded his father and became sole ruler. It was "a part of the royal palaces" and, like Aristotle's Lyceum upon which it was based, had a colonnaded walkway (peripatos, after which the Peripatetic philosophers were named), exedra with seats, and a large communal building with a refectory or dining hall for the "men of learning" who shared the Museum in common. In charge was a priest, formerly appointed by the Ptolemies but now by the emperor (Augustus) (XVII.1.8).

A major attraction of Alexandria (Herondas, Mimes, I), the Museum is presumed to have had a library, where scrolls would be readily accessible for the recension of texts such as Homer and the Athenian playwrights by scholars who were "at the same time poet and critic," as Philitas of Cos was described (XIV.2.19). But whether this library comprised a collection within the Museum itself or occupied a separate building is not known, although the library at Pergamon suggests that it likely was part of the Museum complex. As Isidore of Seville explains, "a library takes its name from Greek, because books are deposited there" (Etymologies, VI.3.1), and both bibliotheke and bibliotheca simply mean a collection of books.

When the Museum itself is said to have had a zoo, the royal menagerie of Ptolemy II presumably is meant. This collection of exotic animals, "which had never before been seen and were objects of amazement," included a snake more than fifty feet long (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, III.36.3,5). Many of the animals, both wild and domestic, were displayed in a grand procession as part of the Ptolemaieia, a quadrennial festival introduced by Ptolemy in 279 BC. There were elephants, antelopes, hartebeests, ostriches, zebras, and wild asses (as well as caged birds such as parrots, peacocks, and pheasants). The parade ended with a white bear, leopards, genets, caracals, and the two rarest species in captivity at the time—a rhinoceros and a giraffe (Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae, V.201C).

Strabo does not mention the Library of Alexandria (perhaps because it was within the Museum precinct), although he does say, in defense of his predecessor Eratosthenes (its third director or epistates), that the geographer had read many historical treatises "with which he was well supplied if he had a library as large as Hipparchus says it was" (II.1.5), implying that it since had diminished in size (or even no longer existed). But Strabo also speaks of making a comparison between two different authors to discover who might have copied the other (XVII.1.5), which suggests that he had access to a library.

By the time of his visit, more than two decades after the fire, the buildings on Pharos had not been rebuilt and, aside from a few seamen who lived near the lighthouse, the island still was uninhabited, having "been laid waste by the deified Caesar in his war against the Alexandrians" (XVII.1.6). It is not clear whether the royal palaces, of which the Museum was a part, were destroyed as well. When Caesar arrived in Alexandria, he resided in "a small part of the palace" (Civil Wars, III.112). He was besieged there while fighting continued in the streets and a more desperate battle was fought at the port itself. That night, Caesar was able to fortify his position, including the Theater, which seems to imply that this part of town, at least, escaped the fire. Strabo makes no mention of any further destruction, nor does Cicero who, having fought with Pompey at Pharsalus, might have been expected to comment.


Dismissive of the importance of "numberless books and libraries, whose titles their owner can hardly read through in a lifetime," the younger Seneca quotes from a lost book by Livy (Periochae 112) that a library is "a splendid result of the taste and attentive care of the kings" and rejoins that, if "forty thousand books were burned at Alexandria," they had been collected merely for ostentatious display (On the Tranquility of the Mind, IX.5). This passing remark, written sometime after Seneca's return from exile in AD 49 to tutor the young Nero, is the first indication that books (libri) actually had been destroyed in the Caesarean fire a century before. He does not say where these books were lost, but the context implies that they were in the Library. (Gibbon admonishes the Stoic philosopher for his flippancy, "whose wisdom, on this occasion, deviates into nonsense," Decline and Fall, LI.3.)

Seneca was forced to commit suicide, suspected in a plot against Nero—as was his nephew Lucan, author of Pharsalia (or Bellum Civile), an unfinished epic on the civil war. Lucan relates how Caesar took refuge in a section of the palace, where he found himself hemmed in (X.439ff). Unable to breach the gates, the Egyptians made an assault "at the point where the splendid pile projected with bold frontage right over the water" (X.486ff). Caesar ordered firebrands to be hurled against the ships, the wind fanning flames that spread to nearby houses. When the besiegers rushed to fight the fire, he escaped to the Pharos. Here the poem ends, at almost the same point as Caesar's own account. Florus later relates the same event in his epitome of Livy. Caesar thwarted his assailants "by setting fire to neighbouring buildings and docks" and then, making a sudden sally, occupied the Pharos (Epitome of Roman History, II.13.59).

Like Florus, Plutarch wrote during the reign of Hadrian (early in the second century AD). He agrees that Caesar's situation was dire and recounts that "when the enemy tried to cut off his fleet, he was forced to repel the danger by using fire, and this spread from the dockyards and destroyed the great library [megalê bibliothekê]" (Life of Caesar, XLIX.6). This is the first mention that Caesar himself destroyed the Library and not simply its books. Plutarch had visited Alexandria (Quaestiones Convivales, V.5.1), perhaps after AD 83, when there was an eclipse (or earlier, since his grandfather still was alive when he returned), and may have seen the Library, but he says nothing more about it. Nor does Appian, writing sometime before AD 162, who comments only that "various battles took place around the palace and on the neighbouring shores" (Civil Wars, II.90).

Early in the third century AD, Dio Cassius elaborates on what happened. "Many battles occurred between the two forces both by day and by night, and many places were set on fire, with the result that the docks and the storehouses of grain among other buildings were burned, and also the library, whose volumes [biblia], it is said, were of the greatest number and excellence" (XLII.38.2).

Galen, in his commentary on the Epidemics of Hippocrates, says that books arriving in Alexandria were not immediately placed in the Library but first heaped together in warehouses, where they presumably were stored for accessioning, and Dio may have confused these storerooms with the Library itself. (That is not to say, however, that the two locations were not in close proximity.) Writing in the fifth century AD, Orosius also speaks of books "stored in a building which happened to be nearby" (Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII, VI.15.31ff), although it is not clear whether they were there by chance.


During the summer, a strong Etesian wind blows inland from the sea (Geography, XVII.1.7; also Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, XVII.52.2) which, as Caesar complains, had prevented him from sailing out of the harbor (Civil Wars, III.107). Fifty ships then were moored there: quadriremes (four banks of oars) and quinqueremes (five banks), all fitted out and ready to sail, as well as another twenty-two decked ships (III.111). Altogether, relates Hirtius, more than 110 ships, either at anchor or tied up at the quay, were lost (Alexandrine War,  I.12). It was late August and, from Lucan's poetic description of the tarred rigging and waxed decks catching fire, it is easy to imagine burning embers being blown across the harbor onto the wharves, dockside warehouses, nearby houses—and possibly the Great Library itself. The many other places said by Dio to have been set on fire only would have added to the conflagration.

There is a sanguine note, however. Plutarch relates that in 41 BC Marc Antony, in an extravagant gesture to his inamorata Cleopatra, "bestowed upon her the libraries from Pergamum, in which there were two hundred thousand volumes" (Life, LVIII.5), each representing the work of a single author. Such largess was one of a litany of complaints directed against Antony, although, even at the time, most were thought to have been false (LIX.1). The volumes (volumina) may never have been sent. But, if they were, the books would have mitigated the loss a few years before, which suggests that the Library had burned. Casson, on the other hand, takes just the opposite view: that it did survive because the story "could not have been told if the library had ceased to be."

Or it may not have been completely destroyed, as it is difficult to reconcile the Library burning but not the Museum, to which there are subsequent references. Suetonius notes that Claudius, who ruled from AD 41 to 54, "added to the old Museum at Alexandria a new one called after his name" provided that the twenty books of his Etruscan history be read each year from beginning to end (XLII.2; "the modern professors in the Claudian Institute" are compared to a School for Parasites by a playwright in Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae, VI.240B).

There also is a Latin inscription recording that Tiberius Claudius Balbillus, prefect of Egypt (Tacitus, Annals, XIII.22) from AD 55 to 59, was director of the Library, a political appointment presumably in recognition of his service. Balbillus was the grandfather of Julia Balbilla, who later accompanied Hadrian and his wife during their visit to Egypt, writing four epigrams to commemorate the occasion. In AD 130, the tour took Hadrian to the Museum in Alexandria, where the emperor "propounded many questions to the teachers and answered himself what he had propounded" (Historia Augusta, XX.2; Hadrian also enrolled a favorite in the Museum so he could enjoy free meals there, Philostratus, Lives of the Sophists, 524). And an Oxyrhynchus papyrus records the sale in AD 173 of a boat by a certain Valerius Diodorus, "member of the Museum."

If Antony's gift were received, it may explain how later authors could comment on the destruction of the Library and yet imply that its books still were being copied. Suetonius (who was Hadrian's private secretary) records that Domitian, himself indifferent to history or poetry, "provided for having the libraries, which were destroyed by fire, renewed at very great expense, seeking everywhere for copies of the lost works, and sending scribes to Alexandria to transcribe and correct them" (XX).

This occurred at the beginning of his rule, which he assumed upon the death of his brother Titus in AD 81. Two years before, there had been a devastating fire that burned "the Octavian buildings [Portico of Octavia] together with their books" (Dio, LXVI.24.1). And a library associated with the Temple of Augustus had been destroyed shortly before AD 79 (Pliny, XII.94) that also was restored by Domitian (Martial, XII.3.7-8). In the fourth century AD, Aurelius Victor, too, comments on the emperor's largess. "With exemplars sought from everywhere, especially Alexandria, he restored libraries consumed by fire" (De Caesaribus, XI.4).

Aulus Gellius, who died sometime after AD 180, does admit that the destruction of the Library at least was unintentional. "At a later time an enormous quantity of books, nearly seven hundred thousand volumes, was either acquired or written in Egypt under the kings known as Ptolemies; but these were all burned during the sack of the city in our first war with Alexandria, not intentionally or by anyone's order, but accidentally by the auxiliary soldiers" (Attic Nights, VII.17.3).

Athenaeus, writing early in the third century AD (after AD 228, if the Ulpian who hosts the symposium is modeled on the celebrated jurist who was murdered that year), seems to imply that the Museum at Alexandria and its well-fed pedants endlessly quarreling in "the Muses' bird-cage" (I.22D) were a thing of the past. "And concerning the number of books, the establishing of libraries, and the collection in the Hall of the Muses, why need I even speak, since they are in all men's memories?" (V.203D). But the remark also can be understood to mean that the Library was so famous that it was known to all.

The figure of Gellius is repeated by Ammianus Marcellinus, who lived at least until AD 391, the year that the Temple of Serapis in Alexandria was destroyed. Ammianus thinks it still to be standing; indeed, "the whole world beholds nothing more magnificent" (Res Gestae, XXII.16.12). But he mistakenly conflates the Serapeum and the Great Library: "In this 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" (XXII.16.13). (In the same excursus on Egypt, Ammianus also thought that the Pharos had been built by Cleopatra, as well as the causeway to the island, which was constructed in only seven days so that it, too, could regarded as part of her domain. But he may be confusing this improbable exercise with the queen's attempt to repair the damage caused during Caesar's defense of the island.)

Ammianus continues his account of Alexandria "the crown of all cities" (XXII.16.7), which he probably visited on his trip to Egypt, by telling of the civil war that later raged there during the reign of Aurelian, who recaptured the city occupied by those loyal to Zenobia, queen of Palmyra, in AD 273. "The quarrels of the citizens turned into deadly strife; then her walls were destroyed and she lost the greater part of the district called Bruchion, which had long been the abode of distinguished men" (XXII.16.15; Zosimus, New History, I.61, "the Alexandrians, who were disposed to a rebellion, being already in commotion"). If the Library was not destroyed in the Caesarean fire, the assumption is that it surely must have been during the conquest of Aurelian more than three centuries later. (Coincidentally, Firmus, a rich merchant who led the revolt in Alexandria, was said to have "owned so many books that he used often to say in public that he could support an army on the paper and glue," Historia Augusta, III.2.)

Twenty-five years after the Bruchion had been destroyed by Aurelian, Alexandria again was put to the torch in AD 298 by Diocletian who, after an eight-month siege, "set fire to the city and burnt it completely, and he established his authority over it" (John of Nikiu, Chronicle, LXXVII.6). John Malalas relates that Diocletian swore to slaughter the inhabitants until their blood reached the knees of his horse; only when it stumbled over a corpse did the carnage end (Chronicle, XII.41). One wonders if the Bruchion ever did recover from these depredations. Almost a century later (in AD 392), Epiphanius wrote that this quarter of the city still was a wasteland (On Weights and Measures, IX.52b).

To commemorate their salvation, the Alexandrians erected a column to Diocletian in the Serapeum that still marks the site. And it was there in the Serapeum that a second library existeda "daughter" to the Great Library.


Libri, volumina, and Greek biblia all were used to describe papyrus book rolls, but it is not always clear how many books (in the modern sense of an author's composition bound in a volume) were contained in a scroll—whether a single complete work, parts of one, or several shorter works. A scroll often contained only one "book" of an ancient work and was the equivalent of a modern chapter. The Iliad, for example, is a book by Homer but was divided into twenty-four chapters or cantos, each represented by a single scroll.

Seneca says that 40,000 libri were destroyed. Gellius and Ammianus, using a different source than Livy, record the loss of 700,000 volumina. Later ecclesiastical authors cite multiples of these figures: Orosius, who wrote about AD 416, 400,000 books (Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII, VI.15.31ff) and Isidore of Seville (d. AD 636), 70,000 (Etymologies, VI.3.5). This confusion between 40,000 and 400,000, and 70,000 and 700,000 strongly suggests an error by the medieval copyist (different manuscripts preserve all of these numbers). It would take only a horizontal line over the Roman numeral C in the original manuscript, for example, to indicate a multiple by a thousand or an inattentive copyist to confuse quadraginta with quadringenta.

In the twelfth-century, the Byzantine scholar Johannes Tzetzes wrote a scholia on the comedies of Aristophanes in which he states that there were 400,000 mixed rolls inside the palace quarter (presumably comprising more than one work, either from the same or different authors) and 90,000 unmixed rolls (one work); another 42,800 were outside (in the Temple of Serapis)—for a total of 532,800 scrolls (Prolegomena on Comedy, XX).

Epiphanius, who also speaks of two libraries, one in the Bruchion (the royal precinct) and a second in the Serapeum, says that there had been 54,800 (On Weights and Measures, XI.52c), a tenth of that number. Josephus records that originally there were 200,000 books (Antiquities of the Jews, XII.2.1), a figure he takes from the Letter of Aristeas (X), a second-century BC pseudepigraphical text that is the earliest to mention the Library and the size of its collection, the purpose of which was to collect "all the books in the world" (IX).

Although there may have been multiple copies of the same work, Blum is doubtful whether the Great Library ever grew to the size stated by Tzetzes; indeed, it is "inexplicable." He calculates that 400,000 scrolls would require that two thousand Greek authors each wrote ten works averaging twenty scrolls apiece. Bagnall, too, questions the plausibility of such large numbers, assuming that the hundreds of thousands of scrolls actually ever were counted or even read. (By the same token, the 200,000 volumes said to have been given by Antony to Cleopatra seem impossibly high, especially if they each represented the work of a single author.)

Vitruvius does recount, however, the story of Aristophanes of Byzantium, one of the Library's directors, "who with great labour and application was day after day reading through the books in the library." When the winner of a poetry contest was about to be announced, only Aristophanes disagreed with the other judges. Relying on his memory, he "quoted a vast number of books on certain shelves in the library, and comparing them with what had been recited, made the writers confess that they had stolen from them" (On Architecture, VII, Preface, 4ff).

Bagnall posits that about 450 Greek authors (the Library held only works in Greek; other languages were translated) are known to have lived or were born in the fourth century, many of whom are known from only a few surviving lines of text. Another 175 lived or were born in the third century BC (when the Library was founded), who probably wrote only a few scrolls. If all these authors are allowed to have produced an average of fifty scrolls, their output still would total only 31,250, which is fewer than the lowest number given by Seneca. Bagnall further contends that only about 3,773,000 words survive in Greek from authors who lived from the second to the fourth centuries BC, or before (a figure calculated from the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, a searchable database of virtually all surviving texts in Greek from Homer to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and later). Allowing an average of ten thousand words per scroll, this corpus comprises a mere 377 scrolls. Even if the estimate is too low and a hundred times more writings existed than have survived, the number still is less than Seneca's. In short, Bagnall concludes that "the ancient figures for the size of the Library or the number of volumes lost in the Alexandrine War do not deserve any credence."

Other authors have tried to calculate the scrolls in the Library by estimating the number listed in the Pinakes of Callimachus, the complete title of which is Tables of Men Distinguished in Every Branch of Learning, and their Works in 120 books (Suda, K227), an index of authors, a brief biography, and their work (including the approximate number of lines), divided into genres and listed alphabetically. Allowing forty-four lines per column and twenty-seven columns per scroll, Bagnall calculated 142,560 lines in total. If two thirds of these lines are allocated just for titles, there would have been approximately 94,000 in the Library. McKenzie posits different variables: assuming that each scroll was eight meters long with forty lines per column and three lines per entry, she estimates that there were 128,000 scrolls.

Certainly, many were written. The grammarian Didymus of Alexandria, a contemporary of Cicero who flourished in the first century BC, was said to have composed thirty-five hundred books, so many that he could not remember them all and so was given the epithet Bibliolathas ("book forgetter") (Athenaeus, 139D, who himself cites almost eight-hundred authors). "Unsurpassed for the number of books which he wrote," Didymus once was criticized for declaring a story to be absurd only to have forgotten that he had repeated it himself (Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, I.8.20). Seneca the Younger gives the figure as four thousand libri (Epistles, X.88.37), which was such a prodigious number that Didymus also was called Chalcenterus ("bronze guts") because of his "indefatigable industry with regard to books" (Suda, D872)which must have been accessible to him.

As to libraries, a Greek sophist living in first-century Rome purchased more than thirty thousand books (Suda, T1184; another Greek in the time of Nero was said to have done the same, 2004E). And the tutor to Gordian II supposedly left the emperor more than twice that number at his death, an estimated sixty-two thousand books (Historia Augusta, XVIII.2). Diogenes Laertius relates that Theophrastus, a student of Aristotle, left "a very large number of writings," which, given their excellence, he felt compelled to catalog. Approximately 225 titles are listed, which comprised an even greater number of scrolls and totaled 232,808 lines (V.36ff; compared to Aristotle himself, who wrote fewer titles but almost twice the number of lines444,270, V.1ff). Euripides is another example of all that has been lost. Of ninety-two plays that were written, seventy-eight were known to Alexandrian scholars, and only eighteen survive, which still is more than twice the number of either Aeschylus or Sophocles.


Curiously, the Library and the Museum never are mentioned together, only one or the other. Caesar speaks of the fire but not the Library; Strabo, the Museum but not the fire; Seneca, the fire and the loss of books but not the Library; Plutarch, the Library but not the books; Dio, the fire and possibly the Library or perhaps only storehouses of books; Florus, the fire but not the Library or its books; and Appian, neither fire, the Library, or booksonly the battle. As the account of the fire is repeated, so too are its consequences ever more disastrous. In the first century AD, Seneca mentions the loss of 40,000 books; in the second century, Aulus Gellius, almost 700,000; in the third century, Dio, the loss of books "of the greatest number and excellence"; in the fourth century, Ammianus, the burning of a priceless library and 700,000 books; and in the fifth century, Orosius, 400,000 books and the destruction of that "marvelous monument of the literary activity of our ancestors, who had gathered together so many great works of brilliant geniuses."

Insofar as the destruction of the Great Library had a single cause, Plutarch and Ammianus attribute it to Caesar; and Seneca, Dio, Gellius, and Orosius, the Caesarean fire. If so, the loss has to be reconciled with later references to both the Museum and the Library, which, in turn, requires that the two be considered distinct entities (the contention of the Oxford Classical Dictionary) or that the scrolls were not completely lost, replaced if they were, or to be found in other book collections, such as the Serapeum.

The assumption, too, is that, if the Library had been destroyed, Caesar, Hirtius, Cicero, and Strabo all would have commented upon the fact. Delia, for example, makes this argument, contending that "the silence of that omnivorous bibliophile and gossip, Cicero, cannot be similarly ignored [as can that of Hirtius]; on the contrary, it is compelling." But this is an argumentum a silentio or what Fischer calls "the fallacy of the negative proof," where there is "an attempt to sustain a factual proposition merely by negative evidence." An argument from silence often is used to draw conclusions about the past and does not have to be fallacious. But it seems to be so here.

Caesar, who first planned a public library for Rome itself (Suetonius, XLIV), cannot be expected to claim responsibility for the accidental destruction of the Library of Alexandria. Nor would Hirtius want to embarrass his commander by blaming him for its loss. Cicero had been pardoned after the Battle of Pharsalus and very well may have felt some obligation to Caesar, who had "continued to show him honour and kindness" (Plutarch, Cicero, XXXIX.5). And Strabo was thoroughly Roman in his sympathies and likely a citizen. All therefore had reasons to be reticent, and their silence regarding the Library is no more an indication that it was not destroyed than it was. As Fisher cautions: "Not knowing that a thing exists is different from knowing that it does not exist...Not knowing that something exists is simply not knowing."

In the introduction to the Annals, Tacitus laments that "while the glories and disasters of the old Roman commonwealth have been chronicled by famous pens, and intellects of distinction were not lacking to tell the tale of the Augustan age, until the rising tide of sycophancy deterred them, the histories of Tiberius and Caligula, of Claudius and Nero, were falsified through cowardice while they flourished, and composed, when they fell, under the influence of still rankling hatreds" (I.1). Seneca was the first to refer to the loss of books in the Alexandrian fire, and his nephew Lucan, the conflagration leaping from roof to roof, fanned by the wind. Both were forced to commit suicide in AD 65, suspected in a plot against Nero, the last of the Julia-Claudian emperors (who himself would be killed three years later). It would not be until the end of the century that Plutarch says that Caesar himself had destroyed the Great Library.

Coined by John Locke in the seventeenth century, argumentum ad ignorantiam is an argument made from ignorance (that is, a lack of evidence to the contrary) and the conclusion drawn from this negative evidence. The inference is that a proposition is false because it cannot be proven to be true. It is similar to what Fischer calls "the fallacy of the presumptive proof," which "consists in advancing a proposition and shifting the burden of proof or disproof to others." Delia commits it when she contends that "The literary sources do not conclusively prove that the main library was destroyed in 48/47 B.C. and the burden of proof rests squarely with scholars who attempt to substantiate this claim." But she herself does not use these sources to prove the contrary.

Some critics have found it more economical simply to assert that the Library was not destroyed in 48 BC but survived for another three hundred years, until a large part of the Bruchion was burned by Aurelian in AD 273. With the royal quarter destroyed, the presumption is that the Library was consumed there as well. But Ammianus makes no mention of the Library, the Museum, or any lost books in his account of the fire.

Too, there is an entry in the Suda, a tenth-century Byzantine encyclopedia, that describes Theon, the father of Hypatia, as "the man from the Mouseion" who lived during the reign of Theodosius I (T205)more than a century after the fire of Aurelian when, according to Epiphanius, the Bruchion still was a wasteland. All this suggests that the Museum may have been rebuilt or relocated to another part of the city. In about AD 359, for example, it is described as seeming to reach the Serapeum. (The Suda also speaks of Zenodotus as being "the director of the libraries in Alexandria," Z74, implying that there may have been more than one.)

If not consumed in any single conflagration, the reality is that the papyrus scrolls were subject to a coastal Mediterranean climate and the depredations of mice and insects, human use and carelessnessthe "moisture and moths" that had damaged the library of Aristotle (Geography, XIII.1.54). They would have deteriorated gradually and almost imperceptibly over the half millennium since they first were collected. Their loss, contends Bagnall, did not hasten a diminished age so much as reflect one already indifferent to the management and maintenance of the Library.

The replacement by the codex in the fourth century AD only would have aggravated that decline. Once works were copied to a codex, with its neat quires of folded and cut sheets of parchment stitched into a book, pages to which the reader could readily turn, the ancient scrolls no doubt became even more neglected. Jerome, in fact, relates that the famous library at Caesarea, which contained Origen's own collection of books, was preserved by copying its manuscripts on parchment (Lives of Illustrious Men, CXIII)—an effort at conservation not likely to have occurred at the Great Library and its pagan scrolls.


The transition from scroll to book is conveyed by Augustine in his Confessions (VIII.12.29), where he  recounts his conversion to Christianity In despair, Augustine heard from his garden a neighboring child chanting "Pick it up, read it, pick it up, read it" (tolle lege). Opening at random the book he had with him, Augustine read Paul's admonishment to walk honestly, as in the day (Romans 13:13). He mentions the codex one more time.

"Their book is never closed, nor their scroll folded up....Yet heaven and earth also shall pass away, but Thy words shall not pass away. Because the scroll shall be rolled together: and the grass over which it was spread, shall with the goodliness of it pass away; but Thy Word remaineth for ever" (XIII.15.18).


"Toward the philosophers who were called Aristotelians he showed bitter hatred in every way, even going so far as to desire to burn their books, and in particular he abolished their common messes in Alexandria and all the other privileges that they had enjoyed; his grievance against them was that Aristotle was supposed to have been concerned in the death of Alexander."

Dio, Roman History (LXXVIII.7.3)

Dio is speaking of Antoninus (better known by his agnomen Caracalla), the elder son of Septimius Severus, whose name had been changed to Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus to affiliate the Severans with Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, the philosophic author of the Meditations. Caracalla imagined himself to be the reincarnation of Alexander the Great and thought Aristotle to have been complicit in the death of his hero, hence the antipathy toward the philosophers of the Museum. And Arrian does record that some suspected that Aristotle had formulated the drug that poisoned Alexander, although, even at the time, the story was not regarded as credible (Campaigns of Alexander, VII.27; Plutarch, Life of Alexander, LXXVII.3).

Aristotle had been the first man "to have collected books and to have taught the kings in Egypt how to arrange a library" (Strabo, Geography, XIII.1.54; Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, V.2), and it was Demetrius, a student of Aristotle, who advised Ptolemy I Soter in the establishment of the Great Library itself (Letter of Aristeas, IX), which held Aristotle's own books (Deipnosophistae, I.3B; unless they were taken to Rome, Plutarch, Life of Sulla, XXVI.1).

Referring to the passage above from Dio (but mistakenly citing "77.22-3"), El-Abbadi says of the Museum that Caracalla "suspended its revenues, abolished the sustenance of its members and expelled all its foreign members," lines which Phillips paraphrases as "Marcus Aurelius Antoninus suspended the revenues of the Mouseion, abolishing the members’ stipends and expelling all foreign scholars." More than any single cataclysmic event, it was bureaucratic decisions such as these, she contends, that caused the Library's demise.

To be sure, maintenance of the Library must have become increasingly ineffectual, and it always was susceptible to Ptolemaic or imperial dictate. But Caracalla's pique with the Alexandrians is not the best example of such reprisals. Dio does not say that foreign scholars were expelled from the Museum or its revenues abolished. Rather, the inference is derived from a later passage, where he remarks that Caracalla expelled all foreigners from Alexandria (except those who were merchants) and slaughtered the native inhabitants for having ridiculed him (LXXVIII.23.2; also Herodian, IV.9.1). Nor does Dio mention the abolition of Museum revenues and member stipends, which presumably is to be inferred from the loss of "all the other privileges" the Aristotelian philosophers had enjoyed.

Neither is it certain how long "the treatment accorded unhappy Alexandria" (LXXVIII.23.4) actually was in effect. Athenaeus wrote that the scholars in the Museum were "fed like the choicest birds in a coop" (I.22D), and Philostratus speaks of their communal banquets in the Lives of the Sophists, where he relates that Hadrian once had enrolled a favorite "among those who had free meals in the Museum." He then feels compelled to add parenthetically "(By the Museum I mean a dining-table in Egypt to which are invited the most distinguished men of all countries)" (Lives of the Sophists, 524). Caracalla's punishment of the Alexandrians occurred late in AD 215; the Lives were dedicated to Gordian I when he was consul in AD 229-230. If the communal meals (syssitia) were ended by Caracalla, Philostratus' use of the present tense seems to imply that they later were restored.

Caracalla also "abolished the spectacles and the public messes of the Alexandrians" (Dio, LXXVIII.23.3). In the reign of Trajan a century before, Dio Chrysostom had chastised the populace for its frivolity and unreasoned enthusiasm for spectacles, especially the "passion for horses that infects the city" (Discourses, XXXII.77). He also admonished them not to make the Graces vulgar and boorish, so that the Museum will be regarded "not just as a place in the city, as indeed, I fancy, there are other places with labels devoid of meaning, not possessing a character to match the name" (XXXII.100)—yet another reference to the Museum after the Caesarean fire of 48 BC.

Dio Chyrsostom was a friend of Apollonius of Tyana, whose biography was recorded in another, earlier work by Philostratus, the Life of Apollonius, which was written sometime after the death of Julia Domna (the wife of Septimius Severus) in AD 217, two years after Caracalla's visit to Alexandria. Again, Philostratus uses the present tense: "Because the Alexandrians are devoted to horses, and flock into the racecourse to see the spectacle, and murder one another in their partisanship, he [Apollonius] therefore administered a grave rebuke to them over these matters" (V.26). The implication is that the races again were being run when Philostratus wrote.

They took place in the Lageion or hippodrome, situated just below the Acropolis, and continued for hundreds of years. In AD 453, for example, horse races were reinstated after riots two years before (Evagrius, Ecclesiastical History, II.5). If Caracalla really did abolish the communal banquets enjoyed by the philosophers of the Museum as well as the spectacles of the Alexandrians, they seem to have been restored.

A greater threat to the integrity of the Museum had occurred almost four centuries earlier, when Ptolemy VIII Psychon came to the throne in 145 BC. Resentful of those who had opposed his accession, he expelled all the intellectuals from Alexandria"philologians, philosophers, mathematicians, musicians, painters, athletic trainers, physicians, and many other men of skill in their profession. And so they, reduced by poverty to teaching what they knew, instructed many distinguished men." As a result, it was said that "the Alexandrians were the teachers of all Greeks and barbarians" (Deipnosophistae, IV.184B-C).

Pfeiffer has characterized this expulsion as "the first crisis in the history of scholarship." Among those forced into exile was the director of the Library, Aristarchus of Samothrace, who was noted for his recension of the Iliad and Odyssey, and the critical principle that in interpreting Homer one should look to Homer himself, "explaining Homer from Homer" as Porphyry phrased it (Homeric Questions, I.1.12-13). The pupils of Aristarchus, the grammarians Apollodorus of Athens and Dionysius Thrax, were expelled as well.

A papyrus from Oxyrhynchus (POxy.1241) preserves a fragmentary list of the Library's directors. Because of a lacuna, Zenodotus of Ephesus, the first librarian (and first editor of Homer), is not recorded in the text. Rather, it begins with Apollonius of Rhodes (a student of Callimachus and author of the Argonautica), and then Eratosthenes (who calculated the circumference of the earth), Aristophanes of Byzantium (who studied accentuation and punctuation in Greek pronunciation), Apollonius of Alexandria (the Eidographer, i.e., one who classifies by genres, to distinguish him from Apollonius the Rhodian, with whom he may have been confused), and Aristarchus. "After him came Cydas [one] of the spearmen," which suggests that by the later second century BC the importance of the Library had diminished. After Aristarchus, its prestige never would be so great nor its librarians as distinguished.


The scowling bust of Caracalla above, which is in the Pergamon Museum (Berlin), is typical of his portrait, all frown and furrowed brow. In part, this was because he deliberately tried to emulated the appearance of Alexander. Indeed, "After he viewed the body of Alexander of Macedon, he ordered himself to be called 'the Great' and 'Alexander,' having been drawn by the intrigues of flatterers to the point that, with fierce expression and neck turned toward his left shoulder (which he had noted in Alexander's face), he reached the point of conviction and persuaded himself that he was of very similar countenance" (Aurelius Victor, Epitome De Caesaribus, Caracalla, IV; also Herodian, IV.7,1-2).

Within eighteen months of his visit to Alexandria, Caracalla himself would be dead, killed as he relieved himself by the side of the road.


Elaborating on Strabo's remark that the scholars of the museum comprised a synode, sharing their meals and property, MacLeod says that there were "perhaps 30-50 learned men" in the Museum, who were granted exemption from taxes and provided free board and lodging. A footnote cites El-Abbadi, who does make several presumptions regarding taxes and lodging but does not specify the number of scholars. The figure is repeated by Finneran in Alexandria: A City & Myth and is neatly woven into the narrative by Davis in her popular Falco series. But no-one cites a primary source or even a secondary one to support the number.


The detail (top) is from a statue in the Louvre, possibly of the Epicurean philosopher Metrodorus or an adaptation of a sitting Socrates.


References: Caesar: The Civil War Together with The Alexandrian War, The African War, and The Spanish War by Other Hands (1967) translated by Jane F. Gardner (Penguin Classics); Caesar: Civil Wars (1914) translated by A. G. Peskett (Loeb Classical Library); Strabo: Geography (1917-) translated by H. L. Jones (Loeb Classical Library); Lucan: The Civil War (1928) translated by J. D. Duff (Loeb Classical Library); Florus: The Epitome of Roman History (1929) translated by E. S. Forster (Loeb Classical Library); Plutarch: Parallel Lives (1916-) translated by Bernadotte Perrin (Loeb Classical Library); Aulus Gellius: Noctes Atticae (1927) translated by J. C. Rolfe (Loeb Classical Library); Athenaeus: The Deipnosophistae (1927-) translated by Charles Burton Gluck (Loeb Classical Library); Suetonius: The Lives of the Caesars (1914) translated by John C. Rolfe (Loeb Classical Library); Sextus Aurelius Victor: Epitome de Caesaribus (2009) translated by Thomas M. Banchich (curiously, this electronic text does not accord either with the Latin or the translation by H. W. Bird); Zosimus: New History (1982) translated by Ronald T. Ridley; Ammianus Marcellinus: Roman History (Vol. II) (1940) translated by John C. Rolfe (Loeb Classical Library); Seven Books of History Against the Pagans: The Apology of Paulus Orosius (1936) translated by Irving Woodworth Raymond; Epiphanius' Treatise on Weights and Measures (1935) edited by James Elmer Dean; Philostratus and Eunapius: The Lives of the Sophists (1921) translated by Wilmer Cave Wright (Loeb Classical Library); The Chronicle of John of Nikiu (1916) translated by R. H. Charles; Appian: Roman History (Civil Wars) (1913) translated by Horace White (Loeb Classical Library); Historia Augusta (1921-) translated by David Magie (Loeb Classical Library); The Scholia on the Aves of Aristophanes (1914) edited by John Williams White; Philostratus: The Life of Apollonius of Tyana (1912) translated by F. C. Conybeare (Loeb Classical Library); Dio Chrysostom: Discourses (1940) translated by J. W. Cohoon and H. Lamar Crosby (Loeb Classical Library).

"Alexandria: Library of Dreams" (2002) by Roger S. Bagnall, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 146(4), 348-362; Travelling Mathematics: The Fate of Diophantos' Arithemtic (2010) by Ad Meskens; 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; "Cloistered Bookworms in the Chicken-Coop of the Muses: The Ancient Library of Alexandria" by Robert Barnes, in 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; Ptolemaic Alexandria (1972) by P. M. Fraser; Ptolemaic Alexandria (1972) by P. M. Fraser; Kallimachos: The Alexandrian Library and the Origins of Bibliography (1991) by Rudolf Blum; The Vanished Library: A Wonder of the Ancient World (1990) by Luciano Canfora; "The Alexandrian Library and its Aftermath" (1999) by Uwe Jochum, Library History, 15, 5-12; "Tradition's Destruction: On the Library of Alexandria" (2002) by Daniel Heller-Roazen, Obsolescence, 100, 133-153; Libraries in the Ancient World (2001) by Lionel Casson; Arguments from Ignorance (1996) by Douglas Walton; Historians' Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (1970) by David Hackett Fischer; The Life and Fate of the Ancient Library of Alexandria (1990) by Mostafa El-Abbadi (a modest but succinct account published by UNESCO in anticipation of the new library at Alexandria); "The Great Library of Alexandria?" (2010) by Heather Phillips, Library Philosophy and Practice (August); Roman Circuses: Arenas for Chariot Racing (1986) by John H. Humphrey; History of Classical Scholarship: From the Beginnings to the End of the Hellenistic Age (1968) by Rudolph Pfeiffer.

There also is the very satisfying Alexandria (2009) in the Marcus Didius Falco mystery series by Lindsey Davis, which is even more enjoyable when read by Christian Rodska.

See also Scroll and Codex, Hypatia, and Caesar's Giraffe.

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