It is said to be one of the greatest archives of classical knowledge of the ancient world, it housed the books of all times. It was built by the Greek-speaking subjects of the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt in the 3rd century BC. The Library of Alexandria contained hundreds of thousands of papyri (according to some experts, about 700 thousand of them) and was part of the attempt to collect all knowledge on the world.
The great minds who gathered and taught in Alexandria – the cosmopolitan capital of the Mediterranean, founded by Alexander the Great himself, practically had a mission to preserve knowledge for future generations. Here we will discover the knowledge of mathematicians and geographers, as well as the notes of Aristarchus – the first astronomer who assumed that the planets revolved around the sun. He and many others were considered the founders of the Library of Alexandria and its most passionate supporters. This is where the smartest people of the time enjoyed the knowledge of the world and laid the foundations of the civilization we know today.
Then comes Julius Caesar and officially orders the burning of this rich archive. Shortly after that came the fall of the Roman Empire, and this was also the beginning of the dark ages that followed due to the lack of knowledge about Western Civilization.
This romantic story certainly looks beautiful and exciting, but it comes with one particular question: is it true?
The legends about the Library of Alexandria are certainly impressive and provide many serious surprises for any true admirer, but there is one very important detail, the dimensions of the library that are indicated practically make it much smaller than it is praised. If the Library of Alexandria existed, says the professor of the history of ancient libraries – Thomas Hedrickson, then the information about it is very scarce. Even the legend of her managed to inspire the entire ancient world, therefore one should really look for a little more information.
The whole legend begins around the 3rd century BC and it is said that the Library of Alexandria had the largest archive at that time. A man named Aristeas sends a letter to his brother Philocrates and claims to be a courier for the ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy II. His letter recounts in full the vision and beauty of this creation of science.
The letter tells how Demetrius (the director of the library) was paid to collect all the books he could get his hands on. Aristeas even had the opportunity to ask him exactly how many books were available, and the director replied that it was probably more than 200 thousand. In the future, they wanted to collect nearly 500 thousand. The letters of this subject give much information about the library itself and show its universal value, collecting the knowledge of the ancient world.
For Hendrickson, however, this is a pure form of cheating. Most scholars view the letter as about a century later, the 2nd century BC, and have serious doubts about the statement and the first written evidence of the library’s existence. According to the researchers of the time, this is a forged letter and “Jewish” propaganda, which aims to show the meaning of the Greek translation of the Old Hebrew Bible. The author’s letter attempts to increase the size and importance of the library in which Ptolemy II insisted that this particular holy book be included and be the source of all knowledge of the world.
Strangely enough, even some ancient writers expressed their doubt about the contents of the Library of Alexandria and its size. Seneca wrote in AD 49 and estimated that about 40,000 books were burned after Julius Caesar ordered their destruction. The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus will write that about 700 thousand papyri were burned, which were gathered in one place and their fire could be seen very far away. The Roman physicist Galen would write that Ptolemy II was able to amass such a large collection because he had all arriving merchant ships present their books they carried on board to be transcribed and then the copies returned while the originals remained in the library .
Historian Roger Bagnall thinks the 6-figure number is indeed impressive, but there’s one problem, if every single Greek author in the 3rd century BC had managed to write 50 papyri, that means we’d still only have 31,250 books/papyri available. To arrive at a number like 200 or 700 thousand parchments means that in Ancient Greece about 90% of historians and scholars had to create hundreds of identical copies of each text to send to the library.
No one knows exactly the size of the archive, but it is clear that it was this history that allowed humanity to begin collecting books and creating libraries, including the modern one. Caesar returned to Rome with the idea that he would build a library of the same size, even larger than Ptolemy’s, thereby manages to irritate him even more. Octavian Augustus also developed the idea and began building a library. Later, every Roman ruler would try to build at least a few of these, but again it is not clear how they functioned and how much of their knowledge has been lost.
Every single book in antiquity was of incredible value, especially since it was written by hand. The Romans valued all of this and often used books as currency. It has been argued that the libraries of Ancient Rome played the role of museums rather than archives. And yet we will find Egypt winning again in the museum race. The first such was also built in Egypt. Its name literally means “Chair of the Muses”.
Historians to this day point out that no other library will be found destroyed as many times as the Library of Alexandria. Ancient writers and historians competed to show the barbarian enemies who attacked the fortress of knowledge. Usually, Julius Caesar is at the root of all the trouble, having ordered to burn himself. The truth is a little different, Caesar orders the city’s port to be set on fire, but the fire manages to reach and affect the library itself.
He was not the only creator of ruin, other Roman emperors also had credit for the destruction of Alexandria. And let us not forget that in 391 Christian monks were responsible for the destruction of the Serapeum – the sister library of Alexandria. At some point, almost every enemy of Ptolemy managed to scratch the stick of world history. Book burning is indeed a special attention-grabbing campaign, but no one believes or can suspect that the archive has really been destroyed. It is possible that it simply disintegrated over time, as historian Bagnall writes.
Papyri were extremely easy to destroy, and none could cope with the humid climate by the sea. Most likely, the library itself could have survived a little better inland in Egypt, where the climate is much drier. To maintain all the information, the papyri had to be copied again and again, requiring a new copy every few years. Ptolemy left no money to maintain this practice even after his death, so it is possible that this cultural monument has lost its charm over time. There are enough historians who believe that Alexandria was not responsible for the dark ages ahead, and the recorded information is unlikely to provide enough knowledge to ease through them. The truth is that the rulers of the East and the West did not have the will and the desire to continue or preserve their libraries.
This idea would flourish again in the Renaissance, when humanity took a new step and sought to expand its knowledge, and then lay the foundations of the modern era. And let’s not forget that Alexandria left about 2,000 ancient papyri that were preserved at the time and then moved to a safe place. The eruption of Vesuvius would manage to destroy them some 79 years later. The remains were examined and deciphered much later by scientists who used X-ray technology to decipher the oldest available on the planet.