The Library of Alexandria

I promised Mimzy back in March that I'd do an article on the Library of Alexandria. I've been ages getting to it -- I'm afraid writing books takes precedence -- but here it is at last. Thanks for the suggestion Mimzy.

If anyone else has something they'd like me to write about, do please tell!

The Library of Alexandria was an idea cooked up between two men: Ptolemy I of Egypt, and his son's tutor, Demetrios of Phaleron.

Demetrios suggested to Ptolemy they should gather together all the books in the world into a single place.

Now Demetrios and Ptolemy had one important thing in common: as boys they had both been students of Aristotle, and Aristotle owned a substantial private library. When they sat around talking about their own library, they probably had in mind a super-sized version of what their old school master had.

Demetrios and Ptolemy had just invented the world's first public library.

The benefits seem obvious to us, but that's because we've lived with 2,000+ years of public libraries. What these guys had done was visionary.

It's important to understand what was happening in the world at that time. In the space of one man's life, the largest empire the world had yet seen -- the Persian Empire -- had been toppled by a military genius, and then replaced by an even larger empire. Then Alexander had died, plunging the world into a disastrous series of wars as his Generals struggled for power. Soldiers who had once fought side by side under Alexander were now ripping into each other. National governments rose and then collapsed everywhere. The gold looted from the Persian Empire by the soldiers was carried about as the fighting spread, inducing hyper-inflation wherever they went. People who think we live in tough times today should try spending a few days back then.

Ptolemy and Demetrios had lived through all this. Indeed Ptolemy had been one of Alexander's Generals, and was probably his elder half-brother. Demetrios during the wars had made himself tyrant of Athens, only to be tossed out ten years later. Both men were only too aware of how insubstantial the plans of men could be, and they were looking to build something which could preserve civilisation, which was looking particularly precarious at that moment.

It's easy to get building approval when you're an absolute monarch. Work began at once. They chose a site next to the Temple of Muses. The Muses in Greek religion are spirits who inspire men to create art, science and literature, a meaning we retain to this day. There were temples dedicated to the Muses all over the world, but this particular one was about to become very famous. People began to refer to the area of the library as being part of the temple, in Greek: museion of the Muses. In later Latinised Greek, the suffix was changed to -um. Muse-um.

Next time you go to a museum, keep in mind you are visiting a temple to the Muses.

The words don't stop there. The Greek word for book collection is biblioteke. Look familiar? The word library itself comes from the Latin for book: liber and a collection: librarium. They were all used in reference to the Library of Alexandria.

The problem of growing the collection was solved through an innovative piece of legislation. Ptolemy decreed a law that every single book carried into Egypt had to be handed over to the library. Incoming ships were routinely searched for books and any found were taken.

Scribes at the library copied every incoming book. They were supposed to send the original back to the owner, but what they did, if the book was valuable, was keep the original and send back the copy.

Ptolemy II wrote to all the other rulers of the earth and asked to borrow their books.

You guessed it. He "forgot" to return them. Don't you hate it when someone does that? He did eventually send back copies though.

This reached its peak when Ptolemy III asked the Athenians if he could "borrow" the complete works of Aeshylus, Sophocles and Euripides, all written in their own hands. The value of these books can't be exaggerated. It's like having the complete works of Shakespeare written in his own hand.

The Athenians weren't totally stupid. They refused. Ptolemy offered 15 talents as surety the manuscripts would be returned. The Athenians needed the money; they agreed. Ptolemy III returned copies and forfeited the bond.

I confess this compulsory acquisition system reminds me of a similar effort underway by a well known internet company.

Build it, and they will come. With the entire world's knowledge stored at the Library, philosophers and scientists flocked to the place. They of course wrote their own books, which were stored in the Library. A virtuous cycle had been created which caused the Library to grow organically. One later scholar called Callimachus counted 490,000 books.

There were so many books they had to build an overflow building. Keep in mind, book here means a scroll, or a set of scrolls kept in scroll cases. Zip files on a hard drive were a luxury yet to be, so 490,000 books takes a lot of space. They would certainly have been kept in racks on the walls, and there would have been librarians whose sole job was to know what was where. No dewey numbers for them!

With all the top teachers there, that's where the students went. Fathers paid the academics to teach their sons, creating in the process a model of research funded via teaching, which worked well, because people really wanted the education.

A stellar line up of academics either worked there or visited over the centuries. Archimedes, surely one of the top three scientists of all time, popped in for a visit. Eratosthenes was head Librarian. He worked out the world was round and measured the circumference with astounding accuracy. He also created the Sieve of Eratosthenes, which you probably used in maths class to find prime numbers. Hiero probably invented the world's first steam engine there. Ptolemy the Astronomer came up with his theories. And of course the final star was the amazing Hypatia.

Incredibly, despite everything that's been written about the place, no one knows what the Library actually looked like. You can find lots of people on the net offering their own descriptions, but as far as I'm aware there's not a single reliable original source description. Fundamentally, everyone's guessing.

There are competing theories about how the library was destroyed, beginning with Julius Caesar (very unlikely) and ending with Muslim invasions (not too likely was probably gone by then). It does appear the books were destroyed before the teaching institution went, and fire is the obvious culprit, but the reality is, it doesn't matter, because the Library was effectively destroyed when Hypatia was murdered for the crime of being a smart pagan woman. After that, it was all downhill and the influence of the Library trickled to nothing long before it was physically gone.


Bill Kirton said...

Great article, Gary. Not sure if you've been pointed in the direction of one in the present series of BBC's In Our Time. It was all about the library. It's at:

Gary Corby said...

Hi Bill. That's interesting. I didn't know about the BBC series. Thanks!

Mimzy said...

My evil plan is now confirmed. If I ever get my hands on a time machine I shall go back to the Library and steal all of the scrolls.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Mimzy!

If you get the time machine, can I come too?

Mimzy said...

Of course! I shall need someone to show me around so have the maps ready! Now to find myself a time machine. I bet e-Bay has one...

Shadows said...

Remarkable blog post. This was informative, thanks!