Library of Alexandria, the most famous library of Classical antiquity. It formed part of the research institute at Alexandria in Egypt that is known as the Alexandrian Museum (Mouseion, “shrine of the Muses”).
Libraries and archives were known to many ancient civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria, Asia Minor, and Greece, but the earliest such institutions were of a local and regional nature, primarily concerned with the conservation of their own particular traditions and heritage. The idea of a universal library, like that of Alexandria, arose only after the Greek mind had begun to envisage and encompass a larger worldview. The Greeks were impressed by the achievements of their neighbours, and many Greek intellectuals sought to explore the resources of their knowledge. There is literary evidence of Greek individuals visiting Egypt especially to acquire knowledge: e.g., Herodotus, Plato (particularly in Phaedrus and Timaeus), Theophrastus, and Eudoxus of Cnidus (as detailed by Diogenes Laërtius in the 3rd century CE).
Against that background of avid hunger for knowledge among the Greeks, Alexander launched his global enterprise in 334 BCE, which he accomplished with meteoric speed until his untimely death in 323 BCE. His aim throughout had not been restricted to conquering lands as far from Macedonia as India but had been to also explore them. He required his companions, generals, and scholars to report to him in detail on regions previously unmapped and uncharted. His campaigns resulted in a “considerable addition of empirical knowledge of geography,” as Eratosthenes remarked (as reported by Greek geographer Strabo). The reports that Alexander had acquired survived after his death, and they motivated an unprecedented movement of scientific research and study of the Earth, its natural physical qualities, and its inhabitants. The time was pregnant with a new spirit that engendered a renaissance of human culture. It was in that atmosphere that the great library and Mouseion saw the light of day in Alexandria.
The founding of the library and the Mouseion is unquestionably connected with the name of Demetrius of Phaleron, a member of the Peripatetic school and a former Athenian politician. After his fall from power in Athens, Demetrius sought refuge at the court of King Ptolemy I Soter (c. 297 BCE) and became the king’s adviser. Ptolemy soon took advantage of Demetrius’s wide and versatile knowledge and, about 295 BCE, charged him with the task of founding the library and the Mouseion.
The “Letter of Aristeas” of the 2nd century BCE reveals that the institution was conceived as a universal library:
Demetrius…had at his disposal a large budget in order to collect, if possible, all the books in the world;…to the best of his ability, he carried out the king’s objective. (Letters 9–10.)
The same claim was reiterated more than once: Irenaeus spoke of Ptolemy’s desire to equip “his library with the writings of all men as far as they were worth serious attention.” Undoubtedly, however, the largest amount of material was written in Greek. In fact, judging from the scholarly work produced in Alexandria, it seems likely that the whole corpus of Greek literature was amassed in the library.
One of the major acquisitions for the library was the “books of Aristotle,” concerning which there are two conflicting accounts. According to Athenaeus, Philadelphus purchased that collection for a large sum of money, whereas Strabo reported that Aristotle’s books passed on in succession through different hands, until they were later confiscated in 86 BCE by Sulla, who carried them away to Rome. The two accounts perhaps deal with two different things. Athenaeus may be referring to the collection of books that Aristotle had amassed at his school in Athens, which Philadelphus was able to purchase when his former tutor, Straton, was head of the Lyceum. Strabo’s account may be dealing with the personal writings that Aristotle had bequeathed to his successors as heads of the Lyceum, until they were confiscated by Sulla. In support of the latter understanding is Plutarch’s remark that “the Peripatetics no longer possess the original texts of Aristotle and Theophrastus, because they had fallen into idle and base hands.”
The hunt for books
Fabulous stories circulated about the lengths to which the Ptolemies would go in their avid hunt for books. One method to which they reportedly resorted was to search every ship that sailed into the harbour of Alexandria. If a book was found, it was taken to the library for a decision as to whether to return it or to confiscate it and replace it with a copy made on the spot (with an adequate compensation to the owner). Books acquired in that manner were designated “from the ships.”
Another story (reported by Galen in the writings on Hippocrates) reveals how Ptolemy III managed to obtain the original texts of the great dramatic poets Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The precious texts were safeguarded in the Athenian state archives and were not allowed to be lent out. The king, however, persuaded the governors of Athens to permit him to borrow them in order to have them copied. The enormous sum of 15 talents of silver was deposited in Athens as a pledge for their safe restitution. The king thereupon kept the originals and sent back copies, willingly forfeiting the pledge.
Those irregular methods of collection were supplemented by the purchase of books from different places, especially from Athens and Rhodes, which sustained the largest book markets of the time. Occasionally, the library’s collectors bought different versions of the same work—for example, in the Homeric texts that came “from Chios,” “from Sinope,” and “from Massilia.”
Of languages other than Greek, Egyptian had the largest section. Ptolemy I is said to have encouraged Egyptian priests to accumulate records of their past tradition and heritage and to render them available for use by Greek scholars and men of letters whom he had invited to live in Egypt. Best-known examples from each group were the Egyptian priest Manetho, who had good command of Greek, and the Greek author Hecataeus of Abdera.
Beside the bulk of Greek literature and a full corpus of Egyptian records, there is evidence that the library incorporated the written works of other nations. Early in the 3rd century BCE, a Chaldean priest named Berosus wrote (in Greek) a history of Babylonia. His book quickly became known in Egypt and was probably used by Manetho. According to Pliny the Elder, Hermippus in Alexandria wrote a voluminous book on Zoroastrianism. Buddhist writings would also become available, as a consequence of the exchange of embassies between Ashoka and Philadelphus. The translation of the Pentateuch from Hebrew into Greek was a practical necessity for the large Jewish community in Alexandria, already Hellenized by the end of the 3rd century BCE. The translation of the Septuagint was executed piecemeal during the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE, rendered possible in Alexandria because of the abundance of research material available at the library. The Septuagint has survived as the most valuable work in the history of translation and continues to be indispensable to all biblical studies.
Growth of the library
The association of the library with the Mouseion, whose scholars required a reliable resource, helped the library to develop into a proper research centre. Its location close to the harbour and within the royal palace’s grounds placed it under the direct supervision of the kings. Those circumstances aided the rapid growth of the library’s collection. Within half a century of its foundation circa 295 BCE, the collections of the Royal Library had exceeded the space allotted to contain the accumulated books. It was found necessary to establish an offshoot that could house the surplus volumes. To that end, Ptolemy III (246–221 BCE) incorporated the branch library into the newly built Serapeum, which was situated at a distance from the royal quarter in the Egyptian district south of the city.
Estimates of the total number of books in the library vary. The earliest surviving figure, from the 3rd century BCE, is reported as “more than 200,000 books,” whereas the medieval text of John Tzetzes mentions “42,000 books in the outer library; in the inner (Royal) Library 400,000 mixed books, plus 90,000 unmixed books.” A still higher estimate of 700,000 was reported between the 2nd and 4th centuries CE.
Registration and classification of books
Galen preserved the information that was recorded for each book; it included the work’s title, author, and editor as well as its place of origin, length (in lines), and whether the manuscript was mixed (containing more than one work) or unmixed (a single text). It is worth noting that a scribe’s pay was rated according to the quality of writing and number of lines. In an attempt to standardize costs and wages throughout the empire, Diocletian ranked a scribe’s pay as follows:
to a scribe for the best writing 100 lines, 25 denarii; for second-quality writing 100 lines, 20 denarii; to a notary for writing a petition or legal document 100 lines, 10 denarii.
Further, a bibliographical survey of the contents of the library “in every field of learning,” a tremendous undertaking, was entrusted to Greek poet and scholar Callimachus, who was known for his encyclopedic erudition. The result was the Pinakes (“Tables”), which has survived in only a few fragments. Those remains attest to the following divisions: rhetoric, law, epic, tragedy, comedy, lyric poetry, history, medicine, mathematics, natural science, and miscellaneous. Callimachus’s work instantly became a model for future works of a similar nature. Its influence can be traced to the Middle Ages, to its brilliant 10th-century Arabic counterpart, bookseller Ibn al-Nadīm’s Kitāb al-fihrist (“Index”), which has survived intact.
It was mainly because of the Library of Alexandria that the scholars of the Mouseion were able to maintain scholarship at the highest level in almost all areas of learning. In appreciation of their achievements, Vitruvius, in the 1st century CE, expressed the gratitude felt by subsequent generations for the work of the “predecessors” in preserving the
memory of mankind.…Hence we must render to them indeed the greatest thanks, because they did not let all go in jealous silence, but provided for the record in writing of their ideas in every kind.