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The Foundation and Loss of the Royal and Serapeum Libraries of Alexandria


The City of Alexandria
The Royal Library of the Ptolemies
The End of the Royal Library
The Serapeum Library
Omar and the Arabs

The City of Alexandria

To tourists impressed by the remains in Rome and Athens, a visit to the great metropolis of Alexandria, the second city of the Roman Empire, will disappoint. It has been sacked too often, devastated by too many earthquakes and been marginalised by politics and history. The policies of Nasser have ensured that even the mutli-cultural Alexandria of Lawrence Durrell is no more. But once upon a time Alexandria was home to the greatest seat of learning in the classical world. This institution, the Royal Library of the Ptolemies, was lost before the birth of Christ, but it lived on in myth even grander than it had been in reality. Later, another large library was founded at the Serapeum, a huge temple on the acropolis of Alexandria, but this too had disappeared even before the temple itself was demolished by a Christian mob. These libraries became conflated in common memory and today the variety of stories told about them, especially about their ends, can be bewildering. This essay will try to sort out the truth from the fiction and dispel some of the myths.

When Alexander the Great came to Egypt on a flying visit in 330BC, he founded one of the many cities that were to bear his name. He left his administrator, Cleomenes, to build the new city as he made further conquests but soon Alexander was dead and his generals grabbed those parts of his Empire that they could. Ptolemy I Soter took Egypt and, after disposing of Cleomenes, later made Alexandria his capital where he and his descendants ruled for three centuries. They made little effort to integrate the rest of Egypt into their Greek culture but formed their coastal capital into the great intellectual and cultural centre of its age.

It was Rome that eventually spelled the loss of Egyptian independence. Cleopatra VII enlisted Roman support in her own dynastic struggles and fell in love with two of the most glamorous generals, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony[1]. When the latter lost the civil war with Octavian in 30BC, Cleopatra killed herself and after heavy fighting in two wars[2] Alexandria became the second city of the Roman Empire. The city’s history remained turbulent with a Jewish rebellion in AD116[3], a massacre by Caracalla in AD215[4] while in AD273 the city was sacked when it sided against the Emperor Aurelian who reduced the palace quarter to rubble[5]. It was also attacked and badly damaged by Diocletian a couple of decades later[6].

In late antiquity, the city continued to thrive even when hit by a seismic wave, serious earthquakes[7] and more rioting, this time between pagans and various Christian sects. The Persians took the city in AD616, the Byzantines recaptured it ten years and then later lost it again to Islamic Arabs in AD642 after a terrible siege. Alexandria was no longer the city it once was and ceased to be very important once Caliph Omar had built Cairo, his new capital of Egypt, on the Nile.

Luckily, there are several descriptions of Alexandria in its prime from authors like Strabo and Ammianus Marcellinus[8], so while it is impossible to produce a detailed street plan, the major features are reasonably certain. The city is located on a spit of land between the Mediterranean Sea to the north and a lagoon. On the seaward side the small island of Pharos, with its famous lighthouse, was at the end of a short peninsula that divided the eastern and western harbours. The city itself was bisected by two major thoroughfares. The Canopic Way ran east to west from the Gate of the Sun through a twin colonnade of pillars[9] and the Street of the Soma bisected it at the centre of the city. Canopis was the next city along the coast while the Soma supposedly housed the tomb of Alexander the Great which Ptolemy I Soter brought back from the East.

The North East of the city was called the Bruchion or palace quarter and according to Strabo it made up nearly a third of the metropolitan area. Each of the Ptolemaic dynasty seemed to want to make their own mark on the city and so there were several royal residences and other grand public buildings. The Museum is placed among these by Strabo and the Royal Library would almost certainly have occupied a location nearby although there is no description of its exact location or the building that housed it except a very late fragment placing it in the palace[10]. The Serapeum temple, where a later library was founded, stood in the South Eastern corner of the city mounted on an acropolis in an area well away from the royal palaces. The temple may well have been neglected by the time the Romans took over but Strabo still felt it worth mentioning by name[11].

The Royal Library of the Ptolemies

Today a museum is a building containing old objects and young children, but the word really means ‘house of the Muses’ who were the minor classical deities believed to inspire artists. Hence, a museum was both a place of worship and an academic institution. A library would have been an essential part of any such enterprise and it is usually assumed that Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who reigned from 282BC to 246BC, founded the Royal Library as a complement to the Museum set up by his father, Ptolemy I Soter. But although this seems very reasonable, it should do nothing to detract from the fact that for an institution so famous in the common memory, the historical evidence (and archaeological remnant) of the Royal Library is absolutely pitiful and certainly a reasonable case can be made that it never existed in the form popularly imagined. If that is the case, then any attempt to discover its fate will automatically be doomed to failure although the evidence for its existence appears to be sufficient to make its study worthwhile.

The earliest reference to the Royal Library is found in the Letter of Aristeas which was written by an Alexandrine Jew in about 100BC. The author poses as a gentile and intends to provide reassurance to the Greek-speaking Jewish community that their translation of the Bible, known as the Septuagint, was accurate and even divinely inspired. It tells the famous story about the seventy-two scholars who were summoned from Judea to effect the translation work on the instructions of the Royal Library’s first administrator, Demetrius of Phalerum. The king for whom he is working is not named but later authors usually identify him as Ptolemy II Philadelphus[12] who is also said to have imprisoned Demetrius after a row over the succession[13]. The Letter of Aristeas is the original source for the Septuagint story which is repeated with more or fewer embellishments by Josephus, Philo, Epiphanius and others.

When he recites the story, the Byzantine chronicler Georgius Syncellus claims that the Library of Alexandria was founded about 252BC[14] which is towards the end of the life of Ptolemy II Philadelphus. However, as will be seen in section 3, most scholars would think that was far too late a date given the identities of the librarians.

Regarding the running of the Library, there are a fair number of charming legends that are difficult, if not impossible, to verify. For instance, Vitruvius (writing in about 25BC) tells how Aristophanes of Byzantium earned the job of librarian after memorising most of the Library’s contents and catching out some plagiarists[15]. Galen talks about how one of the Ptolemies borrowed the works of the Greek masters from Athens, copied them and then kept the originals while forfeiting the huge deposit he had had to pay[16]. He also mentions how ships that had docked at Alexandria were searched for books which were then deposited in the Library. Later stories say that Aristotle’s books formed the core of the collection[17] although Strabo disagrees and insists that the Philosopher’s books were eventually carried off to Rome by Sulla[18].

The librarians were reputed to include some of the great figures of ancient scholarship. Since the discovery of a scrap of papyrus with a list on it in the rubbish dumps of Oxyrynchus in Egypt[19], it has become easier to figure out who had the job and when. The list dates from about AD200 and, although much earlier than the other evidence, clearly still contains mistakes. From this and other sources, various scholars have tried to reconstruct the roll call of the Librarians. Two versions are given in Table One.

Callimachus’s inclusion as an actual librarian is widely disputed and Demetrius, credited with starting the whole thing off, is also not usually recognised as in fact having had the job of running it. Parsons feels very bad about this and insists on putting him in anyway[20].

After 145BC the librarianship appears to have passed into the hands of retainers and flunkies of the King who do not seem to have had much scholarly standing[21]. Indeed, there is little evidence that there was a meaningful post at all after Aristarchus of Samothrace, which coincides with the decline of intellectual activity in Alexandria following the depredations of Ptolemy VII Psychon (see below).

Librarian Approximate period of office (all dates BC) Intellectual field (among others)
  PM Fraser EA Parsons  
Demetrius na to 282 Philosophy
Zenodotus 285 - 270 282 - 260 Homeric textual criticism
Callimachus na 260 - 240 Bibliography and poetry
Apollonius of Rhodes 270 - 245 240 - 230 Epic poetry
Erastosthenes 245 - 204/1 230 -195 Geography
Aristophanes of Byzantium 204/1 - 189/6 195 - 180 Textual criticism
Apollonius Eidographos 189/6 - 175 180 - 160  
Aristarchus of Samothrace 175 - 145 160 -131 Grammar

Table One

The Royal Library of Alexandria is one of the select group of institutions that continued to grow larger after it had ceased to exist. The number of scrolls it was thought to contain varies widely as the incomplete survey of the sources given in Table Two demonstrates.

Author Number of scrolls Date of citation Reference to source
Aristeas 200,000 rising to 500,000 100BC Letter of Aristeas
Seneca the Younger 40,000 AD50 Tranquillity of the Mind 5
Orosius 400,000 AD400 History against the Pagans 6
Aulus Gellius 700,000 AD150 Attic Nights 7:17
Ammianus Marcellinus 700,000 AD390 Roman History 22:16:15
Epiphanius 54,800 AD380 Weights and Measures 9
Isidore of Seville 70,000 AD600 Etymologies 6:3:3
John Tzetezes 490,000 AD1100 Prolegomena to Aristophanes

Table Two

Half a million books is the number usually bandied around by modern writers, but the figures given above almost certainly refer to the number of papyrus scrolls and many of these were needed to make up an entire book. And to house half a million papyrus rolls would require forty kilometres of shelving or a building well over thirty meters square and five meters high[24]. This would be an enormous structure though by no means impossible for the Alexandrines to construct. On the other hand, no mention of this huge edifice is ever made in any of the sources.

It is unlikely anyone will ever know how many books the Royal Library actually held but the uncritical acceptance of half a million in unsustainable. Seneca’s figure of 40,000, although, as section 5 will show, not uncontroversial, seems a more reasonable figure and still makes the Royal Library much larger than any of the later classical or medieval libraries.

The private library found under the lava at Heraculaneum, which belonged to an enormously rich family who hosted a multitude of scholars, contained only 1,700 scrolls[25]. In his book Libraries of the Ancient World, Lionel Casson gives some useful details about the archaeological remains of many libraries which allow their approximate size to be estimated. Roman Libraries used bookshelves placed in wall niches to store scrolls with the floor of the library being used to provide desk space for scholars. Based on the number and size of the niches given by Casson the number of scrolls the libraries could hold can be estimated as given in Table Three.

Library Page reference in Casson Estimated holding
Palatine Library at Temple of Apollo in Rome page 82 6,000
Library at Trajan's Baths in Rome page 85 20,000 (Casson's own estimate)
Library at Caracalla's Baths in Rome page 90 7,500
Hadrian's Library in Athens page 113 10,000
Library of Celsus in Ephesus page 116 3,000 (Casson's own estimate)
Library of Pergamon page 50 30,000

Table Three

Of all these libraries, only Celsus’s was not endowed by an emperor and it can be seen that a library of just ten thousand scrolls would have been considered enormous by the standards of the era. In its time, the Library of Trajan would have been the finest and largest in the capital of the Roman Empire. That the Royal Library of Alexandria could be twice this size seems reasonable, that it could be twenty-five times larger does not. The library in Pergamon at the Temple of Athena is often said to have contained 200,000 scrolls on very flimsy evidence[26] but a perusal of its extant ruins suggest a figure closer to 30,000 would be more sensible for this major rival of the Alexandrian Library[27]. This illustrates how the holdings of large libraries could easily be exaggerated and that the solid evidence of archaeology provides much smaller figures.

One other hint one has about the size of the Library is the length of the Pinakes put together by Callimachus. These catalogues took up 120 scrolls and listed, with biographical and critical summaries, all the works of Greek literature which Callimachus thought were important. A single scroll could hold either two books of Homer or alternatively one of the rather longer books of Thucydides[28] or Plato’s Symposium[29]. This comes to about 10,000 or 20,000 words meaning the Pinakes would themselves have totalled well over one million words over all 120 scrolls. This is a large document, however, if it is supposed to have catalogued the half a million rolls reputed to be in the Royal Library, it would have allowed them about three words each. As mentioned above, complete books each took up several scrolls, but three words still does not seem like very much especially given the amount of detail Callimachus included[30]. Hence, even though Callimachus would not have included everything held by the Library in the Pinakes, the figure of half a million scrolls again seems to be a considerable exaggeration.

The End of the Royal Library

It is a strange fact that as long as the Royal Library existed no one bothered to say very much about it. Nearly everything that has been written dates from a time after the Library was no more which suggests it was rather taken for granted until it was lost. As shown below, one can say that by about 30BC it was certainly no more or at least greatly reduced in size and prestige. If the comments above on the size of the Library’s holdings are correct, it was not mentioned much when it existed because it was at that stage only an important and large facility. It was only after it had gone that it was transmuted into a mythical institution that contained every work that had ever been written and such a vast number of scrolls that it is a wonder any were left anywhere else.

Strabo was in Alexandria in 20BC and, in all his detailed description of the palace and Museum in the Geography, he does not mention the Library at all[31]. This omission is explained by some scholars who follow Athenaeus by claiming that the library was inside the Museum or annexed to it[32] as Athenaeus wrote in the Deipnosophist:

And concerning the number of books and the establishment of libraries and the collection in the Museum, why need I even speak when they are all the memory of men.[33]

But conversely, Tzetes, in the Prolegomena[34], says that the Library was within the palace and as mentioned above, if the Library was anything like as big as it was supposed to be it would have occupied a very sizeable building.

However, one need not rely on Strabo’s silence or the very late Tzetzes to assert that the Library was no more by the time Strabo wrote his great work, for in the first book of the Geography he writes:

Why, Erastosthenes takes all these matters actually established by the testimony of the men who had been in the regions, for he has read many historical works with which he was well supplied if he had a library as large as Hippachus says it was.[35]

As mentioned in section 3 above, Erastosthenes was one of the librarians of the Royal Library and was also a great geographer. However, Hippachus of Rhodes was not at all happy with Erastosthenes’s work, feeling he had got his sums wrong, so wrote a long critique of it. This critique is now lost, but Strabo seems to suggest it made reference to the size of the Royal Library and by his use of the past tense, Strabo provides further support to the library no longer existing in his own time[36].

Later, the younger Seneca in his dialogue On the Tranquillity of the Mind[37], says that a great number of books were destroyed in Alexandria. It has been asserted that Seneca must have got his knowledge about the destruction of these books from the History of Rome by Livy[38] but a close reading of the dialogue itself does not bear this out. Seneca is actually only stating that Livy thought the library was "the most distinguished achievement of the good taste and solicitude of kings" and then only so he can disagree. The reference to the destruction of the books may well be in Livy too but, as Seneca is not explicit about where he got his facts, it is impossible to be sure.

The actual number of books destroyed according to Seneca is a matter of some controversy that needs to be briefly addressed. The best manuscript, A, from the library of Monte Cassino, gives the figure as 40,000 (that is ‘XL’ with a bar over the top) but even if the number was given in words in earlier copies the difference between the spelling of 40,000 and 400,000 (quadraginta milia versus quadringenti milia) is pretty small. The higher figure of 400,000 is often used because other later sources such as Orosius give this figure and modern editors seem to think that the Great Library ought to have half a million scrolls in it despite that figure being nearly absurd. However, there seems to be no reason to amend Seneca on this point as he is the earliest source and presents the most realistic figure.

Some writers have gone so far as to allege that 40,000 scrolls of an entire holding of 400,000 were destroyed and thus the damage was rather marginal. Although perhaps some books survived, this interpretation places a reliance on ancient numbers that is rather uncritical.

By the second century AD, the age of the Library was certainly well in the past and stories about what happened to it were widely circulating. These are unanimous in pointing the finger of blame at Julius Caesar although they do not seem to start until 150 years after his death.

Julius Caesar was in Alexandria in 47-48BC after arriving in pursuit of his rival Pompey. He was able to occupy the city without any trouble once the Egyptian fleet was destroyed and he was residing in the palace with Cleopatra when more trouble started. Some henchmen of the Pharaoh, Cleopatra’s younger brother, attacked with a sizeable body of troops and Caesar suddenly found himself stuck in a hostile city with very few forces. That he still won out is a tribute to both his luck and powers of leadership. These facts are uncontested but to see how this is related to the Royal Library the ancient sources must be examined one by one.

The earliest account still extant of these events is in The Civil Wars penned by Julius Caesar himself. In it he explains how he had to set the Alexandrine fleet in the harbour alight for his own safety and that some arsenals were also burnt down[39]. The narrative in The Civil Wars breaks off at the start of the campaign in Egypt and the story is taken up by one of his lieutenants, possibly called Hirtius, in The Alexandrine War. It does not include any mention of setting fire to Alexandria but instead states that in fact the city would not burn as it was made entirely of stone[40].

This can be taken as a ‘Not Guilty’ plea by Caesar but one could also note that one reason Hirtius might have mentioned that Alexandria does not burn would be to hide his master’s action of burning it. Subsequent history demonstrated many times that Alexandria burns just as well as any other city[41]. Although this point has been made by historians[42], it seems to place too much weight on what could be entirely innocent words from Hirtius. On the other hand, one should not find the silence about the Library in these books at all surprising even if it really had been destroyed as ancient generals did not write about their own mistakes. The fire is also not mentioned by Cicero in his Philippics against Caesar's ally Mark Anthony. This is a valuable witness for the defence, as Cicero did not like Caesar at all, although it is very possible that Cicero either did not know about everything that happened, saw no need to mention this particular event or mentioned it in the quarter of his works thought to be no longer extant. In any event, it is an argument from silence.

As mentioned in section 5, it seems likely that a fire started by Caesar at Alexandria is also recorded by Livy in his History of Rome. The particular book in which it was included is lost and the surviving Summaries are too brief to mention it. However, a second century Epitome written by Florus survives which says that the fire was started by Caesar to clear the area around his position so the enemy had no cover from which to fire their arrows[43]. Likewise, in his poetical account of the Civil Wars, Lucan describes the fire burning both the ships and buildings near to the shore[44]. However, the Library itself is not mentioned in either of these accounts.

After this, the references to the destruction of the Library become more explicit. Plutarch, writing his Life of Caesar at the end of the first century AD, throws in a reference almost casually when he says that the renowned library was burnt down by the fire Caesar started. Plutarch does not seem to carry a brief against Caesar, although he is happy to criticise him, so this reference should be taken seriously. In addition, he had visited Alexandria[45] and presumably might have noticed if the Library was still in existence.

Aulus Gellius, another second century author, included in his Attic Nights[46] a brief passage about libraries where the destruction of the Royal Library is mentioned as taking place by accident during the Romans’ first war against Alexandria when auxiliary soldiers started a fire. In The Vanished Library, Luciano Canfora claims that this passage is an interpolation on the strength that the introduction does not mention it but the evidence for this seems flimsy[47]. Gellius ups the ante and claims 700,000 books went up in smoke.

In the third century, Dio Cassius tells of how the warehouses of books near the docks were accidentally burnt by Caesar's men. His words are difficult to pin down and have led some scholars to suggest that only books waiting for export were destroyed[48]. This reads far more into the text than it allows as Dio saying that the books 'happened' to be in the path of the flames does not have to mean that usually they were kept somewhere else.

One of the final pagan Roman historians, the fourth century Ammianus Marcellinus, explains about the fate of the Library during an aside about the city of Alexandria in his Roman History. He says that the story about the fire started by Julius Caesar is 'the unanimous belief of the ancient authors' but confuses the library building with the Serapeum temple and again gives the number of scrolls destroyed as 700,000[49] (perhaps Gellius is his source). The story is repeated shortly afterwards with the figure of 400,000 scrolls destroyed, by Orosius, an early Christian historian, in his History Against the Pagans[50]. Both these writers are far too late to be accurate sources on their own, but they do reveal that by the fourth century the Royal Library was widely believed to have been destroyed by Julius Caesar. Both of them will be discussed further below with regard to the destruction of the Serapeum which occurred in their own time.

This concludes the case against Caesar which seems to be pretty good although not watertight. For some reason many modern scholars have been unwilling to accept it even though there is no mention of the Royal Library existing at all after his visit. In fact, one must go all the way back to accounts covering the second century BC before coming across any mention of the Library. So perhaps it had disappeared even before Caesar’s visit and he got the blame only after the Library achieved its mythical status and people started asking where it was. In that case, there seems little harm in some speculation about Ptolemy VIII Psychon.

Ptolemy VIII Psychon’s epithet is Greek for ‘the hostile’ but it eloquently expresses the views of the Alexandrines who gave it to him even in English.

Initially exiled by his brother, this Ptolemy ruled Egypt from 145BC to 116BC and was something of a tyrant who murdered his nephew to gain the throne. According to Polybius he slaughtered or expelled the entire Greek speaking population of the city[51] while one Menecles of Barca says how, as a result of this, the people of Athens were taught by the exiles of Alexandria[52]. Presumably they wandered back after Psychon’s death but it does not seem unlikely that they did not find all their books sitting on the shelves awaiting their return. However, Psychon had scholarly pretensions himself and produced a set of memoirs so he is unlikely to have burnt the Royal Library deliberately. Instead it might have been unintentionally destroyed during the terrible violence that accompanied his reign. There is not any solid evidence for this but it is intriguing that no librarians are named after Psychon’s time on the list given in P. Oxy 1241. This can hardly be due to the lack of scholars of suitable calibre and remains a mystery.

One final possibility that cannot be discounted is that the Royal Library was destroyed in an accidental fire that no chronicler ever bothered to record. Needless to say, investigation of this hypothesis without the benefit of either written sources or archaeological remains is impossible for the moment.

In conclusion, although Caesar was most probably responsible for the loss of the Royal Library, the lack of any solid testimony before Plutarch is distressing. Seneca could just as well be referring to a destruction that did not involve Caesar. That the Library was already missing when Caesar arrived remains a tantalising possibility which may deserve further investigation.

Many, indeed probably the majority, of scholars claim that the Royal Library existed long into the Christian era and cite the continuation of intellectual activity in Alexandria as evidence. This is simply a mistake since it is known that not only was there a library at the Serapeum, but there was also one at the Caesarion as well[53]. To use a modern example, the loss of the Bodleian Library in Oxford would not necessitate a complete halt to academic activity in that city, not least because there are many other smaller libraries to be found there. There are no explicit references to the Royal Library existing after about 100BC[54] while there are many saying that it had been destroyed[55]. On this basis, the suggestion that it still existed into the Christian era cannot be allowed to stand.

The Serapeum Library

The story of the Serapeum is reasonably clear cut. Serapis was a god, invented by the Ptolemies to ally Greek and Egyptian religion by combining Zeus and Orisis, who proved popular among the Greek population of Alexandria and elsewhere but made relatively little headway in upper Egypt where the old gods continued to prevail until the arrival of Christianity. Ptolemy III Euergetes (reigned 246BC to 222BC) built a magnificent temple to the god in the south eastern corner of Alexandria. He even left golden foundation tablets which were recovered during the excavation of the temple[56].

By the time of Strabo’s visit, the area of the temple had fallen into a state of disrepair[57] but eventually, perhaps after some damage in one of Alexandria’s periods of civil unrest, it was completely rebuilt. There is also evidence that the original temple was destroyed or badly damaged by fire as Clement of Alexandria taunts pagans about the various disasters to afflict their places of worship including a blaze at the Serapeum[58] while Syncellus says a fire occurred in AD172 under the Emperor Commodus[59]. From numismatic evidence, the rebuilding is dated to the middle of the second century AD[60] which is consistent with the literary references.

The new Serapeum was a truly magnificent structure of which there are detailed descriptions by the rhetorician Aphthonius[61] and the Christian scholar Rufinus who begins his account “Everyone must have heard of the Serapeum”[62]. Ammianus Marcellinus says that only the Capitol in Rome compared to its splendour.[63] It was this very grandeur that spelt its doom as it was first ransacked by Artemius, prefect of the City, on the orders of the Arian heretic George of Cappadocia in about AD360[64] and then destroyed utterly by a mob incited by Theophilus, the orthodox patriarch of Alexandria, in AD391 who built churches over the site.

The earliest reference to a library at the temple is made by the Christian father Tertullian at the end of the second century AD who mentions in passing that the library of the Ptolemies is stored there and that it contains copies of the Old Testament which local Jews go to hear read[65]. This is yet another retelling of the story from the Letter of Aristeas but the library has been moved to the Serapeum. Likewise, John Chrysostom was haranguing the people of Antioch in AD379 when he said that the temple still held copies of the Greek Old Testament which he claims Ptolemy II Philadelphus deposited there[66].

It seems highly suspicious that when Aristeas, Philo, and Josephus, in short every author up until the Serapeum was rebuilt, tell the story of the translation of the Septuagint, they do not mention a library at the temple but claim the translation was under the auspices of the Royal Library. However, immediately after the rebuilding, Tertullian and then John Chrysostom say that this is where the library was and even think it was set up by the Ptolemies. It therefore seems possible that there was no library in the Serapeum until the Roman rebuilding of the temple. It may have been that it then contained what was left of the Royal Library because it was not unusual for an Emperor to remove treasures from an old institution to adorn his new foundation. On the other hand Tertullian could just be confused about the Ptolemy connection and Chrysostom misinformed. Both men were Christian apologists and so might not be considered the most reliable source of historical facts. Instead they were just telling an old story to make a religious point. Perhaps, realising that the Royal Library no longer existed, they decided to move the library that the Septuagint was supposed to have been deposited in to an institution that was still operating.

John Tzetzes is often said to state that the Ptolemies founded the Serapeum library[67], but unfortunately he never actually mentions the Serapeum by name, instead referring to an outer or public library. Notwithstanding that the Serapeum library was open to the public (as most libraries appear to have been), Tzetzes was writing some fifteen hundred years after the event and he is not backed up by any more ancient source. This means that he should not be used as evidence here and indeed, two much earlier sources contradict him completely.

Firstly, Orosius, as mentioned in section 6, recounts the destruction of the Royal Library by Caesar. However, he goes on to say that there was no other library in Alexandria at the time of Caesar’s visit and that later libraries (including, one presumes, the Serapeum library) were set up in an attempt to emulate the wisdom of the ancients[68].

Secondly there is the evidence of Epiphanius of Salamis who is one of the most revealing ancient sources on the subject of the Royal Library and Serapeum. Writing in about AD400, he tells the Aristeas story again at length, mentioning how the Septuagint was deposited in the Royal Library which he says was the first to be founded[69]. Later, he mentions that the Serapeum, or daughter library, was founded two hundred and fifty years later and that the works of Symmachus, Aquila and Theodotian were deposited there[70]. These three characters are all second century AD translators of the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek which would be consistent with the Roman date for the foundation of the Serapeum Library. However, the reference to two hundred and fifty years is anomalous as it does not fit either the traditional Ptolemaic date or the later Roman one.

Fraser attempts to compromise slightly between Tzetzes and Epiphanius by looking at the archaeological evidence[71]. As the temple was founded by Ptolemy III Euergetes, he suggests that this might be what Epiphanius meant by ‘later’. Thus, the Serapeum Library is both founded by the Ptolemies but later than the Royal Library. He further gives Rowe’s identification of a chamber in the Ptolemaic temple that could have held a library rather more credence than Rowe’s own circumspection justifies. Despite Fraser’s efforts, Tzetzes is so late and allows so much time for confusion over a subject which, as Ammianus demonstrates, the ancients were already confused about, that it is practically worthless as evidence.

There is one other source that must be mentioned here but only in order to dismiss it. Plutarch relays that the 200,000 volumes of the library of Pergamon were given by Mark Antony to his lover Cleopatra[72]. Edward Gibbon[73] is the not the last to suggest that this gift might have been to restock the Royal Library after the losses caused by Antony’s compatriot Julius Caesar. However, quite apart from the massive exaggerated in number of volumes, reading Plutarch in context makes it clear that he is merely reporting a list of slanders against Antony made by Calvisius, one of Octavian’s party, and the reader is not actually supposed to believe any of it. As Plutarch says, “Calvisius, however, was looked upon as the inventor of most of these stories.”

It would be reasonable to conclude that a major library was founded at the Serapeum during its rebuilding in the second century AD and that this library became confused in the minds of various writers with the Royal Library of the Ptolemies that had disappeared over two centuries before.

As mentioned above, the Serapeum ceased to be when a Christian mob tore it down to the foundations under the leadership of the orthodox patriarch Theophilus after he had received word from the Emperor Theodosius. The year this happened is generally fixed to AD391 and it is one of the best attested events in late antiquity.

The earliest description of the sack of the Serapeum was almost certainly one by Sophronius, a Christian scholar, called On the Overthrow of Serapis[74] and it is now lost. Then there is Rufinus Tyrannius, an orthodox Latin Christian who spent many years of his life in Alexandria. He arrived in AD372 and whether or not he was actually present when the Serapeum was demolished, he was certainly in the city at around the same time. Late in life, he made a rather free translation of Eusebius's History of the Church into Latin and then added his own books X and XI taking the narrative up to his own time. It is in book XI that one finds the best source for the events at the Serapeum which he describes in detail[75]. He seems to regret the passing of the Serapeum, but puts the blame squarely on the local pagans for inciting the Christian mob.

The story is repeated with various flourishes by three later Christian chroniclers. Socrates Scholasticus wrote a History of the Church himself early in the fifth century that continued on from that of Eusebius. His is more detailed and in Greek rather than Rufinus’s Latin. It contains a chapter about the destruction of the Serapeum[76] which acknowledges that the deed was ordered by the Emperor, that the building was demolished and that it was later converted to a church. His passage about the cross-shaped hieroglyphics found in the temple gives some idea of how Christianity turned pagan symbolism to its advantage.

The histories of Sozomen and Theodoret were written a little later and cover a similar period. They are pleased to report in detail the Serapeum's destruction[77] and Theodoret says that the wooden idols of Serapis were burnt. Both of these histories are heavily dependent on Socrates but do include details from other sources.

As well as these four Christians, the pagan writer Eunapius of Antioch included an account of the sack of the Serapeum in his Life of Antonius[78] who, before he died in AD390, had prophesied that all the pagan temples in Alexandria would be destroyed (not a desperately surprising contingency at the time). Eunapius wants to show how accurate Antonius’s prediction was to be. As well as being a pagan, Eunapius was vehemently anti-Christian and spared no effort in making Theophilus and his followers look as foolish as possible. His narrative is laced with venom and sarcasm as he describes the sack of the temple as a battle without an enemy.

But the strange thing about all of these accounts is that none of them contain the merest hint of a library or any books. Even Eunapius, who is a scholar and would certainly have mentioned the iniquity of the loss of a large number of books is silent. Those of a conspiratorial frame of mind who might suggest Christian writers expunged the details of their shameful act should note that Christians of this and later periods would have felt neither any shame nor a need to cover up the destruction of a pagan or Jewish book collection. Besides, Socrates reports the murder of the philosopher Hypatia by a Christian mob even though he is clear that this is something he regrets occurred[79] so it is hard to see why he would omit the destruction of a library.

Hypatia of Alexandria, the female mathematician, has become a romantic heroine, a feminist icon and an archetypal victim of religious intolerance. Charles Kingsley of The Water Babies fame published his novel, Hypatia, in 1853 and it was this that started her modern cult. However the sources for her life are scanty to say the least. Socrates is embarrassed to have to report her murder[80], John of Nikiou revels in it[81] and the Suda[82] gives a few more details that need to be treated with the same caution as everything else in that Byzantine encyclopaedia. The Christian bishop Synesius of Cyrene was a pupil of hers and despite her paganism wrote her adoring letters asking for advice[83]. Modern myths about her include that she was a Librarian of the Great Library and that she worked at the Museum. Neither have any basis in fact or the sources and there is nothing to connect her to the Royal or Serapeum libraries at all.

There is also the question of how total the destruction of the temple was. The sources agree it was razed to the foundations but there were ruins still in evidence until the Middle Ages[84]. Rufinus, by his use of the present tense suggests the outer boundaries survived[85]. Evagrius, reporting events of AD451, says that a mob took shelter in the ‘old Serapeum’[86] although this might simply refer to the fortified acropolis on which the temple once stood. With this evidence in mind, it is likely that the outer colonnades did survive while the temple within was torn down.

It can safely be said that the story of Christians destroying the Serapeum library was originated by Edward Gibbon[87] in the late eighteenth century when he read too much into his sources and this story has been repeated ever since. Alexandria Rediscovered by Jean-Yves Empereur, Cosmos by Carl Sagan and From the Holy Mountain by William Dalyrymple are just three recent books to combine this myth with the earlier loss of the Royal Library while even scholars such as Luciano Canfora and Alfred Butler have tried to interpret the evidence to support Gibbon.

The Serapeum library was probably founded as an adornment to the new Roman temple. Although there are no details as to its size, it would have been quite large enough to be confused with the earlier Royal Library. The various descriptions of the temple are highly significant as one, from Aphthonius, has the library in situ, while another, from Ammianus Marcellinus, says it is gone. Both these sources will be examined in some detail.

Aphthonius of Ephesus was a fourth century writer whose Progymnasmata is a textbook on rhetoric with worked examples. He describes the acropolis of Alexandria as his example of how to put together a rhetorical description[88]. He does not actually call the huge edifice on top of the acropolis the Serapeum but one can assume that this is what he was talking about. There were no other buildings present, his words tie in with the available archaeology[89] and the grandeur of what he describes is consistent with other writings[90]. Of the library he says:

Chambers are built within the colonnades. Some are repositories for the books, open to those who are diligent in philosophy and stirring up the whole city to mastery of wisdom.[91]

Aphthonius’s description has caused a good deal of confusion. Parsons has allowed himself to be convinced that the library was not actually part of the Serapeum[92] but this is because he does not seem to realise that the colonnades were part of the temple complex. More surprisingly, Butler claims Aphthonius does not mention the temple itself and so visited after the Christian destruction[93]. In fact the Progymnasmata mentions that “Before one comes to the middle of the court there is set an edifice with many entrances, which are named after the ancient gods” which can only be the pagan temple.

A definitive date for this description would be extremely helpful. Aphthonius was a pupil of Libanius of Antioch[94] who started to teach in that city after AD350 and died in AD393. However, it is unclear whether Aphthonius saw the temple himself or if he is relating something second hand. For this reason, even if one knew the date at which the Progymnasmata itself was written one could not date the actual description of the Serapeum with certainty. One can only say it dates from before the Christian destruction in AD391 and also before Ammianus’s visit (probably shortly after AD363) because when he arrived, the library described in the Progymnasmata was no longer there.

Ammianus describes the temple in glowing terms in his Roman History and says of the library:

In here have been valuable libraries and the unanimous testimony of ancient records declares that seven hundred thousand books, brought together by the unremitting energy of the Ptolemies, were burned in the Alexandrine War when the city was sacked under the dictator Caesar.[95].

He is of course wrong about Caesar who never went near the Serapeum library. It probably did not even exist at the time and Ammianus, like other writers, is confusing it with the Royal Library of the Ptolemies. But whatever his confusion, the fact is that by the time of his visit, the Serapeum contained no library worth mentioning. This is further confirmed by the silence, pointed out above, of all the chroniclers of the temple’s final destruction. Much has been made about Ammianus using a plural form of bibliotheca with claims that he thought there was more than one library[96]. In fact, the use of the plural is purely idiomatic and does not suggest separate institutions – simply one library made up of many sections or rooms.

The date of Ammianus’s visit is also hard to pin down but he appears to have gone on his travels after leaving the army at Antioch in AD363 during the reign of Jovian. One can fairly conclude that some time between the visits of Aphthonius and Ammianus, the Serapeum Library disappeared. Where did it go? The answer is that it was most likely taken to a different institution, probably Christian, like the books that had resided in the temples visited by Orosius in Alexandria which he reports were removed in his own time.[97]

It happens that in the case of the disappearance of the Serapeum Library there is one suspect who had the means to acquire it, certainly would have wanted it, was believed to have similar goods about his person and fits the time scale perfectly. The man in question was George of Cappadocia and this is the case against him.

The Emperor Constantius II was sympathetic towards the heresy of Arianism and after he had deposed the orthodox Christian patriarch of Alexandria, George of Cappadocia was appointed in his stead. George was also an Arian so one should not be surprised that the orthodox Christians hated him. But so too did the pagans who he treated so badly that in AD361, as soon as his protector Constantius was dead, they brutally murdered him[98]. The new Emperor was Julian, also a pagan, who berated his fellows in the name of Serapis for the deed while acknowledging they were provoked when George “…brought an army into the holy city and the Prefect of Egypt seized the most sacred shrine of the God and stripped it of its statues and offerings and of all the ornaments”[99]

Did this clearing out of the Serapeum (for the context makes clear that this is the temple referred to) involve the removal of the library? It may well have done because at much the same time Julian writes to the new Prefect of Egypt, one Ecdicius (the old one, Artemius having been executed for sacking the temple[100]), and asks him to send George’s large private library on to him at Constantinople[101]. This suggests at least that George was a bibliophile and, given he ordered the temple ransacked, he might have liked the library for himself. It further shows he had enough books to come to the notice of the Emperor himself. Julian already knew that George had a good few of them because they had known each other earlier in life

It must have been a lot of books because six months later Julian writes again, on his way to war with Persia, this time to one Porphyrius. He says that George’s book collection was “very large and complete and contained philosophers of every school and many historians.”[102] It is impossible to be sure whether or not Julian ever received the books he asked for or what happened to them. Perhaps they arrived in Constantinople after his departure for Antioch and were incorporated into the Imperial Library there. On the other hand, the Suda, quoting John of Antioch, mentions that the Emperor Jovian destroyed Julian’s library at the Temple of Hadrian in Antioch[103]. For various reasons, including the silence of contemporary pagan writers Ammianus Marcellinus and Libanius who were both in Antioch at the time, this story cannot be relied upon. However, taken as a whole the case of George and Julian seem to supply the best lead as to what happened to the Serapeum Library.

Omar and the Arabs – later myths

One of the most famous myths about the Great Library is that of it being burnt down on the instructions of the Caliph Omar after Alexandria had been captured by the Arabs. The story was best known in Europe due to the translation of George Bar Hebraeus’s Chronology[104] but was successfully debunked by Edward Gibbon[105]. It is rare to find it being defended today although Parsons is convinced and Canfora willing to seriously consider it[106].

For the purposes of this essay, it has been satisfactorily shown that the Royal Library certainly did not exist by the time that the Arabs arrived and this, coupled with the silence on the subject of the near contemporary Christian chronicler John of Nikiou, should lead to a rejection of the Arab connection. It is perhaps possible that the story resulted from the loss of one of Alexandria’s other libraries during the Arab invasion as by no means all of them can be accounted for.

In the modern world, the Library of Alexandria has been used as a parable against tyranny and religion as Caesar, Islam or Christianity were blamed for its loss. It is portrayed as the repository of all ancient wisdom but for whose loss the Dark Ages might never have happened and science could have progressed much more smoothly and quickly. The truth is more satisfying for being more reasonable. The Royal Library was an important institution in the history of literature but its destruction in the first century BC did not spell the end of ancient scholarship and Alexandria remained the Mediterranean’s intellectual capital for seven centuries afterwards. One of the reasons it could do so was the foundation of other libraries like that in the Serapeum and the desire of the Roman Emperors to patronise the city. At last, the Arab invasion ended the story and our inheritance from the ancient world had to be preserved in Constantinople and Baghdad.

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© James Hannam 2003.
Last revised: 10 September, 2011