Library of Alexandria
Library of Alexandria

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Library of Alexandria

1 Approaching the Library of Alexandria

One of the most important questions for any student of the ancient world to address is ‘How do we know what we know about antiquity?’ Whether we’re thinking about urban architecture, or love poetry, or modern drama, a wide range of factors shape the picture of antiquity that we have today. Interpreting an ancient text, or a piece of material culture, or understanding an historical event, is never a straightforward process of ‘discovery’, but is always affected by things like translation choices, the preservation (or loss) of an archaeological record, or the agendas of scholars – and I’m sure you could think of many more factors to add to this list. These things certainly complicate our access to the ancient world, but they are also what make its study such a rich and rewarding pursuit!

You might find it useful to begin this free course with a quick overview of the Library of Alexandria by listening to the edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] which dealt with the library.

We will begin by taking a look at key features of the Library of Alexandria and its modern counterparts, before examining the dramatic tales that have been told about its destruction, and the symbolic value that it continues to hold today. Although it is a famous ancient icon, there are surprisingly large holes in our knowledge of the Library, which the modern world has attempted to plug in all sorts of fascinating ways. This makes it an ideal topic for thinking about how to interpret and evaluate different kinds of material alongside each other, and about how you might sift the ‘facts’ from the multi-layered stories and ideas that have been created since antiquity.

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