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Ch. IV § 5
This webpage reproduces part of
The House of Ptolemy

by E. R. Bevan

published by Methuen Publishing, London,

The text is in the public domain.

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Ch. IV § 7


The People, The Cities, The Court

 p124  § 6. The Museum and Library

Close to the palace at Alexandria was founded, probably by the first Ptolemy, the famous Museum. The word "Museum" did not, of course, mean then what it means now; it still had its original meaning, a temple of the Muses. It was the custom of the philosophic Schools to organize themselves somewhat on the model of a religious fraternity, each having the cult of some deity for its centre. In the Pythagorean schools the cult chosen had been that of the Muses. There was a "Museum" connected with the Peripatetic school at Athens, which preserved the library of Aristotle. The idea of establishing at Alexandria a "Museum," with a library attached to it, may well have arisen first in the brain of Demetrius of Phalerum. It was to be a kind of University, modelled on the Athenian schools of philosophers. The men of letters and savants who obtained the position of Fellows of the Museum received their board free and were exempt from taxation.​96 In this way it was hoped that men of eminence would be attracted to Alexandria from the rest of the Greek world. Under the second and third Ptolemies a very brilliant company indeed of scholars, scientists, and poets were to be found at the Alexandrine court. In philosophy and in social comedy the primacy in the 3rd century B.C. still belonged to Athens, but for literary scholarship, for science (medicine, geography, mathematics), and for poetry Alexandria was the chief centre.

In connexion with the Museum there was formed the largest library of Greek books which existed in the world. Private individuals, or despots like Clearchus of Heraclea, had before Alexander made collections of rolls on subjects  p125 which interested them. Euripides amassed what was considered in the Athens of the time a notable library, and Aristotle had a library which perhaps ran into several hundred papyrus rolls. But no one had had the resources which belonged to the Greek king of Egypt for making a library. All over the Greek world books were bought up for Alexandria. The stories which were afterwards told about this extensive procuring of books, if not true, certainly preserve a memory of the zeal of the first Ptolemies in this line. One story was that Ptolemy III borrowed from Athens the rolls kept by the state containing the authorized text of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, on the pretext that he wanted copies made for the Alexandrine Library. He had to make a deposit of 15 talents, as guarantee that the precious volumes would be returned. Ptolemy, however, kept the Athenian rolls and sent back the copies. Of course, he forfeited the 15 talents.97

A statement ascribed by Tzetzes to Callimachus himself tells us that at the time of Ptolemy III the Alexandrine Library contained 400,000 "mixed" rolls and 90,000 "unmixed." By the latter term is probably meant rolls containing only a single work (or one "Book" of a work divided into "Books"); by "mixed" rolls — papyrus rolls upon which two or several works were written. A subsidiary library (called the "daughter" or the "outer" library) was formed (by Ptolemy II, Tzetzes says) in the Serapeum, containing 42,800 rolls. Birt argues that many of these half-million rolls must have been replicas, because the whole number of works composed up to that time in Greek would not run to that number of volumes. (The contemporary philosophers, Epicurus and Chrysippus, are said to have left behind of their own writings, one 300 rolls and the other 705; but they seem to have been regarded as prodigies.) It seems likely, therefore, that the Alexandrine Library served not only as a reference library for students, but as a place where copies were prepared for the market, and were stored.​98 The Chief Librarian, described by his Greek title as "appointed over the Great Library at Alexandria" (τεταγμένος ἐπὶ τῆς ἐν Ἀλεξανδρείᾳ μεγάλης βυβλιοθήκης), had therefore also to  p126 do the work of editor and publisher. The first Librarian was Zenodotus of Ephesus, a great literary scholar of the day, who held his office from the end of the reign of Ptolemy I till 245 or later. His chief work was done on the text of Homer. In arranging and cataloguing the works of the dramatic poets he was assisted by two contemporary poets, Alexander the Aetolian and Lycophron of Chalcis; Alexander dealt with the tragedies and Lycophron with the comedies. (A poem by Lycophron, called "Alexandra," noted for its pedantic obscurity, we still have.) The second Librarian was perhaps the poet Callimachus of Cyrene; but although it is certain that one of the works of Callimachus was a great "Catalogue raisonné" of the works in the Library, called "Tables (Pinakes) of those who have been illustrious in every branch of letters" — running itself to 120 papyrus rolls — it is not certain whether he was actually Librarian. About 253 B.C. Eratosthenes of Cyrene became Librarian, a man of immense learning, literary and scientific, especially great in the fields of geography and chronology. Ptolemy III entrusted to him the education of the crown-prince, destined to disgrace his old master, when he came to the throne as Ptolemy Philopator. Eratosthenes survived Philopator, and died about 195, over eighty. He was succeeded as Librarian by Aristophanes of Byzantium, who carried on the work of Zenodotus, as a Homeric scholar. The work of Aristophanes extended to the Greek poets generally, and he made a supplement to the Pinakes of Callimachus. Then about 180 Aristophanes was succeeded by another great Homeric scholar, Aristarchus of Samothrace. Like his predecessor Eratosthenes, Aristarchus was called to direct the education of the royal children — perhaps of the young king Ptolemy Philometor and his brother, the future Euergetes II, later on of Philometor's son. He seems to have been amongst the Greek men of letters who, after Philometor's death, had to leave Alexandria, because they had been adherents of the dead king, and so were regarded by Euergetes as his enemies. He died in Cyprus in 145 B.C. or soon afterwards. After Aristarchus, during the days of the companion's decline, no man of equal eminence presided over the Great Library. An inscription has preserved us the name of one Librarian — Onesander, probably a Cypriot, under Ptolemy VIII (Soter II).99

 p127  In connexion with the interest in Hellenic culture shown by the Ptolemies in the institution of the Museum, one may note the fact disclosed by the Papyrus Halensis​100 that schoolmasters and those who conducted the gymnastic training of youth (paidotribai) had special immunities in the matter of taxation — the same immunities which were granted to victors in the great Hellenic games of Alexandria.

The Author's Notes:

96 Documents of Roman times, but which in this matter no doubt reflect also the Ptolemaic age, describe the Fellows as οἱ ἐν τῷ Μουσείῳ σιτούμενοι ἀτελεῖς φιλόσοφοι (OGI II.712, 714; Oxy. III.471).

97 Galen, XVII.I p603.

98 Sir F. Petrie supposes that the Library included translations into Greek of a large number of books in other languages (Egyptian, Hebrew, Punic), but no Greek author shows any knowledge of such translations.

99 OGI 172.

100 Lines 260 ff.

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