No aspect of Ptolemaic literacy captures the modern Western imagination as does the library of Alexandria. Its modern narrative goes something like this: After the breakup of Alexander’s empire following his death in 323 BC, Athens found itself a virtual satrap under the rule of Demetrius of Phaleron, who had been appointed by the Macedonian king, Cassander. After Cassander’s death, Demetrius fled to Alexandria, the grandest of the cities founded by the great conqueror.
Demetrius supposedly built a library of half a million scrolls for the greater glory of the first two Ptolemies, with pride of place given to the works of Aristotle and his students, the Peripatetics (so called because the great philosopher lectured while walking). The library was said to contain the literature and intellectual capital of all nations, diligently translated by its scribes into Greek. Amid this Noah’s Ark of knowledge is the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament, so named because seventy-two Jewish scholars—six from each of the twelve tribes—took seventy-two days to accomplish the task. According to another delightful piece of library mythology, the Ptolemies ordered the seizure of all scrolls from arriving ships, and then had royal scribes repay the theft with hastily written replacement copies.
Alas, the library was destroyed: the villain, depending upon which version of the fable is believed, was Julius Caesar, who set fire to it while under siege in the adjoining royal palace; the roman emperor Aurelian, who burned it I the course of suppressing a local revolt in the late third century after Christ; the Coptic Pope Theophilus; or the Muslim general Amr—the last two of whom were supposed to have burned the library and/or its scrolls it he fourth and seventh centuries, respectively, because the writings contained pagan blasphemy.
Needless to say, none of the above has any substantive factual basis. In the first place, the library, to the extent that it existed at all, was not a physical building—no reputable ancient scholar described such a structure. As best historians and classicists can tell, the “library” consisted of a collection of scrolls residing on shelves in the Musaeum (the house of the Muses, hence “museum”), itself possibly housed in one of the royal palaces. Second, the library cannot possibly have contained anywhere near half a million scrolls; even if one generously multiplies all of the ancient world’s known and reported manuscripts by a factor of ten, the number of possible documents runs perhaps into the tens of thousands, not the hundreds of thousands. Last, none of the primary stories of its destruction check out; for example, the eastern Roman geographer Strabo, to whom we owe the best, if somewhat vague, ancient description of the collection, visited it about a century after Caesar’s Egyptian sojourn.
Almost certainly, the library’s contents simply fell prey to time’s ravages. Alexandria, unlike Egypt’s dry interior, is no friend of papyrus, which does not last more than several centuries in its moist coastal climate. Ina addition, handling papyrus drastically shortens its survival; thus, the more important a document, the more ephemeral its existence.
The grandest version of the library’s mythology concludes with Europe plunged into the Dark Ages in the wake of the catastrophic loss of its manuscripts; a canard perpetuated even by eminent scholars. This is unlikely for at least two reasons. In the first place, by late antiquity, the collection at Alexandria, had been surpassed by those at Ephesus and Pergamon in Asia Minor. Further, this notion reverses cause and effect; in the words of classicist Roger Bagnall,
It is not that the disappearance of a library led to a dark age, nor that its survival would have improved those ages. Rather, the dark ages . . . show their darkness by the fact that the authorities both east and west lacked the will and the means to maintain a great library. An unburned building full of decaying books would not have made a particle’s worth of difference.
– Masters of the Word by William J. Bernstein