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"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 (Bibliotheca Alexandrina). 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. Besieged in the palace where he was residing, there was an attempt to seize the ships in the harbor, the capture of which, Caesar writes, would jeopardize any hope for supplies and reinforcement. Desperate, he "burned all these vessels and those in the dockyards, since he could not protect so wide an area with his small force" (III.111). Then he retreated by way of the narrow causeway to Pharos in the middle of the harbor, where he seized and garrisoned the Pharos itself, the famed lighthouse "of great height, a work of wonderful construction, which took its name from the island" (III.112). A cordon was drawn around his most vital positions and defenses strengthened during the night, which were subsequently increased so there might be "a barrier against the foe" (III.112). All this was in that region of the city where Caesar himself was staying, a small part of the palace that was adjacent to the theater, which served as a citadel and commanded access to the harbor and dockyards.
Caesar's account ends here but is continued by Aulus Hirtius, one of his lieutenants. Battering rams were used to knock down buildings and extend the defensive barriers. Hirtius then comments 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). There no doubt was an abundance of stone, but it is an unexpected observation and, in remarking that the city could not burn, Hirtius discretely may have been trying to counter accusations that it had. In fact, the timber used in roof supports and framing was stripped by the Alexandrians from colonnades, gymnasia, and other public buildings to replace a shortage of oars and build additional ships (I.13).
Twenty years later, Strabo accompanied the new Roman prefect to Egypt and toured the province. He was to stay there for five years and reside in Alexandria, which he describes (Geography, XVII.1.6-9). On entering the Great Harbor, one passed the Pharos, "a tower that is admirably constructed of white marble with many stories," erected, as stated in the inscription, to safely guide mariners to its entrance. Opposite was the Lochias promontory and the palace, one of many that comprised a quarter or even a third of the city, all built up and connected both with one another and to the Harbor. Forming part of this royal complex was the Mouseion ("a shrine of the muses," in Latin, museum) which had, says Strabo, a colonnaded walk and exedra with seats, and a large communal building with a refectory or dining hall for members. A priest was in charge, formerly appointed by the Ptolemies but now by the emperor (XVII.1.8). Sailing into the Harbor on the left were "the inner royal palaces, which are continuous with those on Lochias and have groves and numerous lodges painted in various colours" (XVII.9). There also was the theater and Temple of Poseidon, the Caesarium, Emporium, and warehouses. Finally were the ship-houses, extending as far as the causeway.
The Library is presumed to have been near or adjoining the Museum—or, more likely, within the Museum itself, where it could more conveniently serve as book stacks for the recension of texts such as Homer and the Athenian playwrights. And Strabo apparently visited it as, lacking copies himself, he speaks of making a comparison between two different authors to discover which might have copied the other (XVII.1.5). He does observe that the island was uninhabited, aside from a few seamen who lived near the Pharos, having "been laid waste by the deified Caesar in his war against the Alexandrians" (XVII.1.6). No mention, however, is made of the Museum or its Library. Nor is anything said by Cicero, who had fought with Pompey at Pharsalus and, although pardoned by Caesar, might have been thought to have written about their destruction if he were aware of it.
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 from Livy (Periochae 112) that the Library was "a splendid result of the taste and attentive care of the kings" but 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 Caesarian fire a century before. He does not say where these books were lost, but the presumption is that they were in the Library. (For such pert criticism, Gibbon admonishes the Stoic philosopher, "whose wisdom, on this occasion, deviates into nonsense," LI.3).
Seneca was forced to commit suicide in AD 65, suspected in a plot against Nero—as was his nephew Lucan, author of Pharsalia, an unfinished epic on the civil war. Lucan relates how Caesar took refuge in a small section of the palace, where he found himself hemmed in (X.439ff). Unable to breach the gates, his opponents assailed the palace from ships "at the point where the splendid pile projected with bold frontage right over the water" (X.486ff). It was then that Caesar ordered firebrands to be hurled against the the ships the wind fanning flames that spread to nearby houses. When the besiegers rushed to fight the fire, Caesar escaped to the Pharos. Here the poem ends, at almost the same point as Caesar's own account. Florus relates the same events 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 desperate 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" (Life, XLIX.6). This is the first mention that the Library itself was destroyed and not simply 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.
In the early third century AD, Dio 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. Presumably, this is where they were stored on first arrival for accessioning, and it is possible that Dio has confused these storehouses with the Library itself. Caesar then "burned a large number of vessels, and disembarking on Pharos, slew the inhabitants of the island. When the Egyptians on the mainland saw this, they rushed over the bridges to the aid of their friends" (XLII.40.3).
Seneca, then, is the first to record that books actually were lost in the fire started by Caesar in the harbor and dockyards, Plutarch that the fire spread from there and destroyed the great Library, and Dio that the Library (or its stored books) was sufficiently close to the docks and storehouses of grain to have been lost in the conflagration that began there. The problem, of course, is that the location of the Library itself is not known. It is presumed to have been associated with the Museum, which Strabo says was "a part of the royal palaces" that occupied so much of the city and extended from Lochias to the "inner royal palaces" along the eastern shore (the royal precinct known as the Bruchion) all the way to an artificial harbor within the Great Harbor, above which was the theater. Besieged in the palace where he was staying, Caesar relates that "a theatre was attached to the house which took the place of a citadel" (III.112). This would suggest that he resided adjacent to the theater, which Strabo says was beyond the "inner" palaces and Lucan, that it extended into the waters of the Harbor. If the Library had been destroyed, then the royal palaces of which it was a part presumably would have been affected as well. But Caesar's own residence seemingly was not affected, as he speaks of fortifying his position the same night and further strengthening his defenses later.
During the summer, a strong Etesian wind blows inland from the sea (Geography, XVII.1.7; also Diodorus Siculus, XVII.52.2) which, as Caesar himself 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 one-hundred and ten ships, either at anchor or tied up at the quay, were lost (Alexandrine War, I.12). 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 the Library. The many other places said by Dio to have been set on fire 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 most were thought to have been false (LIX.1). Plutarch, at least, seems to think so, and the volumes (volumina) may never have been dispatched. If they were, however, they would have mitigated the Library's destruction.
Or it may not have been completely destroyed. 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). And there is a Latin inscription recording that Tiberius Claudius Balbillus, prefect of Egypt (Tacitus, Annals, XIII.22) from AD 55 to 59, was appointed director of the Library, perhaps in recognition of his service.
Antony's gift, if it was received, also may explain how later authors could comment on the destruction of the Library and yet say 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 consumed "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 remarks on these restorations. "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, admits that the destruction 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 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?" (Deipnosophistae, 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 died in AD 395, although he confuses the Library and the Serapeum. "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" (The Later Roman Empire, XXII.16.13).
Although libri, volumina, and in Greek biblia all are used to describe papyrus book rolls, it is not always clear how many books (in the modern sense of an author's composition bound in a volume) are contained in a scroll—whether a single complete work, or parts of one, or several shorter works. One can say, for example, that The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a book by Gibbon. But it originally was published in six separate volumes, each comprising scores of chapters, which themselves might run to as many as fifty or sixty pages apiece. Seneca says that 40,000 libri were destroyed. Gellius and Ammianus record the loss of 700,000 volumina. Later ecclesiastical authors cite multiples of these figures. Isidore of Seville (d. AD 636), for example, says 70,000 books (Etymologies, VI.3.5) and Orosius, who wrote about AD 418, 400,000 books (Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII, VI.15.31ff), although, since his source is Livy and Seneca says 40,000, the figure may be incorrect. This confusion between 40,000 and 400,000, and 700,000 and 70,000 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 to indicate a multiple by a thousand—or one-hundred thousand.
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 said that there had been 54,800 (On Weights and Measures, IX.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 to Philocrates (IX), a second-century BC pseudepigraphical text by a certain Aristeas that is the earliest to mention the Library and the size of its collection.
Although there may have been copies of the same work, Blum is doubtful whether the great Library ever grew to the size stated by Tzetzes; indeed, it is "inexplicable." Four-hundred thousand 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. He posits that about 450 Greek authors (the Library held only works in Greek) 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 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 one 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."
And yet it is difficult to reconcile so few scrolls with the apparent number that ostensibly were written. The grammarian Didymus of Alexandria, a contemporary of Cicero who lived in the first century BC, was said to have composed 3,500 books, so many that he could not remember them all and so was given the epithet Bibliolathas ("book forgetter") (Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae, 139D, who himself cites almost 800 authors and more than 1,200 sources). "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 4,000 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, 872D).
As to libraries, a Greek sophist living in first-century Rome purchased more than 30,000 books (Suda, 1184T; 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 62,000 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 (Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, V.36ff; compared to Aristotle himself, who wrote fewer titles but almost twice the number of lines—444,270, V.1ff). Euripides is another example of all that has been lost. Of 92 plays that were written, 78 were known to Alexandrian scholars, and only 18 survive, which still is more than twice the number of either Aeschylus or Sophocles.
Ammianus Marcellinus 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 during the reign of Aurelian, who spent more than a year in recapturing the city occupied by Zenobia, the 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).
If the Library was not destroyed in the Caesarian fire, the assumption is that it surely would have been in the Aurelian one. The reality is that the papyrus scrolls, which had collected since the Library's founding by the first Ptolemies in the third century BC, were subject to a humid Mediterranean climate and the depredations of mice and insects, human use and carelessness. If not consumed in any single conflagration, they nevertheless would have deteriorated gradually and almost imperceptibly. Their loss, in other words, did not hasten a diminished age so much as reflect one already indifferent to the maintenance of the Library and its precious scrolls.
Even though the great Library of Alexandria itself very likely was destroyed in 48 BC, a second one did survive called its "daughter."
The detail 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; Lives of the Philosophers and Sophists (1921) translated by Wilmer Cave Wright; The Chronicle of John of Nikiu (1916) translated by R. H. Charles;
"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; 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; Kallimachos: The Alexandrian Library and the Origins of Bibliography (1991) by Rudolf Blum.
See also Scroll and Codex and Hypatia.
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