The Great Library of Alexandria?

Author:Phillips, Heather


The Great Library of Alexandria?[1]

From its Gate of the Sun to its Gate of the Moon, temples and palaces lined its spacious streets. Marbled columns and glittering statues dazzled visitors. Alexandria witnessed not only the romance of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra but also the genius of the greatest mathematicians and boasted the world's first and greatest public library, a library whose aim was to contain a copy of every book ever written.[2]

Though it was Alexandria's Pharos lighthouse that was counted among the Seven Wonders of the World,[3] Ancient Alexandria--a city founded by Alexander the Great as a showplace "metropolis linking Greece and Egypt"[4]--was a city in which wonders abounded. The city featured wide boulevards laid out in a grid, and buildings constructed of granite and marble.[5] Some say that Alexander himself had a hand in planning this great city. One of the most notable wonders of the city was the Great Library of Alexandria (hereinafter Great Library or Library), an institution which has assumed legendary proportions in the mythos of western civilization. However, institutions which assume mythological proportions are often obscured by the very legends they generate. While the Great Library's cultural and intellectual achievements resonate to this day, many do not and cannot separate the true nature and history of the Great Library from the fog of legend that surrounds it.

Was the Great Library a library in the modern professional sense of the word, or perhaps it was a kind of proto-library containing a large collection of texts? In order to explore these questions and to bring clarity to the topic of the Great Library, this paper will examine the founding and history of the Great Library and illustrate its purpose and philosophy. Finally this paper will then analyze the Great Library according to established library criteria. Section I will provide an overview of the founding, intellectual achievements, and fall of the Great Library. Section II will review the characteristics of the Great Library according to modern professional criteria.

Foundation and Description

The Great Library of Alexandria has assumed legendary qualities in the centuries since its creation and demise. The concept of a universal library, an institution containing all the intellectual works of the world, is one that has enchanted scholars for centuries. But where did such a concept originate? While there are indications of earlier attempts,[6] the first lasting attempt, and the one that has become fixed in the cultural consciousness of western civilization is that of Alexander the Great.[7] Old Persian and Armenian traditions indicate that Alexander the Great, upon seeing the great library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh,[8] was inspired to combine all the works of the various nations he conquered, translate them into Greek, and collect them all under one roof.[9] While this inspiration was certainly prompted at least in part by a desire to consolidate information, and thereby power, under Greek authority, it is also an indication of Alexander's desire for his empire to be a multicultural empire[10]--albeit one unified under the influence of Hellenism.

Alexander died before he was able to create his universal library,[11] but his friend and successor[12] Ptolemy I, known as Ptolemy Soter,[13] was to begin the creation of Alexander's Library in a new Hellenic city which Alexander founded, and one in which his remains were to be ultimately interred[14]-- Alexandria.[15]

The presence of a natural harbor and a nearby supply of fresh water combined with an already existing colony of Macedonians made the selection of the site, in the conquered territory of Egypt, an easy choice for Alexander's new capital and center of Hellenism.[16] Given Alexandria's position as a center of world trade and polyglot nature,[17] it was vital for the Ptolemaic dynasty to unify their city and people so that Alexandria was not merely a place where many different people lived and through which trade passed. Alexandria and Alexandrians needed to have an identity and a uniqueness of their own. As the Greek culture encountered and was changed by others, it became not just Hellenic, but Pan-Hellenic.[18] This new Pan-Hellenism played a vital role in accomplishing a kind of unification. The Ptolemaic dynasty[19] set about making Alexandria the center of learning and culture in the Pan-Hellenic world--containing the intellectual works of all the newly Hellenized nations.[20] In this way, Alexandrians would not only find unity in a common Pan-Hellenic culture but they would, in a very specific sense, be at the very core of that culture. The creation of the Great Library and its attendant institutions were indispensable contributions toward making Alexandria into this intellectual and cultural center.

There is some debate as to which ruler, Ptolemy Soter, or his son Ptolemy II, known as Philadelphius,[21] built the Mouseion Academy (which housed some of the books of the Library) and the Library. The earliest source extant, the Letter of Aristeas,[22] dates from the second century BCE and seems to indicate that the actual building took place under Philadelphius.[23] Later sources assert that it was Soter who first undertook the building of these two intertwined institutions. However, given that Demetrius of Phalerum[24] was very influential in the initial creation of the Great Library, and given that he was close to and admired by Soter, but despised and banished by Philadelphius, most modern scholars are inclined to believe that it is Ptolemy Soter who first undertook the building of the Library.[25] Whoever began the construction, it is unquestionable that an institution of the size and influence of the Great Library would necessarily require the support of more than one ruler to complete. If it was Soter that began the Library, Philadelphius must certainly have played a role in its continued growth.[26]

The Ptolemaic Mouseion Academy (sometimes called the Museum and hereinafter referred to as the Mouseion) was conceived of as a cultural center serving the muses--a concept with deep roots in the Greek world.[27] Originally, a Greek mouseion was a purely religious establishment--a temple to the Muses.[28] It was only later that these institutions took on an intellectual, rather than a religious cast. Still, the connotation of a mouseion was of a place sacred to the Muses, and strictly speaking, the Mouseion remained a religious establishment.[29] Combining the Egyptian tradition of housing libraries within religious temples[30] and the Greek religious and intellectual tradition of the mouseion created a uniquely Pan-Hellenic variation. The Alexandrian Mouseion combined the religious and intellectual attributes of similar Greek institutions with the religious and bibliophilic attributes of analogous Egyptian institutions.[31]

In practical terms, the Mouseion was the physical campus of a self-contained community of scholars,[32] complete with living quarters.[33] As such, the Library was a part of the Mouseion,[34] which was located on the grounds of the royal palace.[35] The Library and the Mouseion cannot be discussed separately. They are institutions so intertwined that the history and influences and characters of one are in many cases identical to the other. They are institutions inextricably tied to each other, with the Library being an integral part of the Mouseion.

Ptolemy Soter initially wanted Theophrastus,[36] Aristotle's favored pupil and leader of the Peripatetic School,[37] to organize and administer the Mouseion.[38] It seems to be no secret that Soter wished to create the Mouseion, at least in part, by transplanting Aristotle's Peripatetic School from Athens to Alexandria.[39] The prestige of doing so would have been enormous, and would have made attracting other scholars much easier. In addition, by transplanting Aristotle's school, Ptolemy Soter would be reinforcing Alexandria's cultural ties to Alexander the Great; not only was the city founded by the great king, but it would also partake of his intellectual tradition by continuing the famed institution of his beloved tutor. Though the Peripatetic School did not actually move to Alexandria, it was to be highly influential on the Mouseion and the Great Library. Not only was Demetrius of Phalerium, devotee of the Peripatetic school,[40] influential in the creation of the library,[41] but the Great Library actually obtained some of the private library of the Peripatetic school's founder, Aristotle himself. [42]

The private library of Aristotle took a circuitous route into the Great Library. First, upon going into voluntary exile, Aristotle left many, if not all of his books to Theophrastus.[43] Theophrastus, in turn, left his library; both those books he collected himself and those left to him by Aristotle, to a man named Neleus.[44] Then, in the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphius, it is said that Neleus sold some of these books to the Great Library.[45] Some of the library of Aristotle was left to Neleus' heirs, who hid them in a cave near Scepsis[46] in order to avoid turning them over to King Eumenes II[47] when he was organizing his library at Pergamum.[48] According to tradition, the hidden books were never recovered.[49] So according to tradition, the entire surviving library of Aristotle went into the holdings of the Great Library of Alexandria.[50]

In order to attract scholars to the Mouseion, the Ptolemies offered scholars free board, lodging, servants, tax exemptions, and handsome salaries--for life.[51] They were able to continue such attractive perquisites because the Mouseion had been gifted with a handsome endowment by Ptolemy Soter in the institution's early years.[52] Some of the scholars that these measures enticed to the Mouseion were Strabo,[53] Zenodotus,[54] Aristophanes,[55] Eratosthenes,[56] Herophilus,[57] and Euclid.[58] Even Archimedes was...

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