Library of Alexandria
Library of Alexandria

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Library of Alexandria

3 The destruction of the library

I hope that, after reading the extract from Bagnall, you will have seen that asking ‘how we know what we know’ about the library of Alexandria means acknowledging that we actually know very little. This uncertainty only deepens when we turn to consider its eventual fate. It’s obvious that, at some point in history, the library disappeared; but how? If you are seduced by the idea of the library as a storehouse of universal knowledge, then take a moment to imagine what it would mean for all the world’s books to be lost – or even destroyed. What could possibly lead to such a calamity, and what would its effects be? Even if you take the more moderate (and, to my mind, plausible) view, that the library could not possibly have been ‘universal’, but was at least a very large and ambitious scholarly collection, then you are still likely to be curious about what happened to it, and to lament the disappearance of texts that it might once have contained. The stories that are told about the end of the library of Alexandria are therefore a very important part of how we interpret it. In this section I shall introduce you to some different accounts of the library’s disappearance, and ask you to evaluate them as potential historical sources, before this free course’s final section considers their symbolic potential.

Activity 3

Read the following passages, each of which offers a different perspective on the library’s destruction:

How many versions of events are offered here? As you read, think about any problems that might arise with using these writings as historical sources (for example, look at their dates of composition; you might need to do some background research to find out more about authors with whom you’re unfamiliar, but don’t spend more than half an hour on this), and note where the sources corroborate or contradict each other.

Discussion

Let’s take each of these sources in turn and try to determine whether they tell us anything reliable about the fate of the library. The brief account in Plutarch’s Life of Caesar appears to be a straightforward assertion that the library was destroyed as a (presumably unintended) consequence of a fire started by Julius Caesar, in 48 (or perhaps 47) BCE. Caesar had become embroiled in a conflict between Ptolemy XIII and his sister, Cleopatra, and had taken the famous queen’s side; he was forced to start the fire when Ptolemy’s fleet besieged them in Alexandria, but, as well as burning the ships, many buildings on the harbourside, and perhaps beyond, were destroyed – including, says Plutarch, the library. This account is short on detail, though, and was written at least a century after the events it describes.

Dio Cassius’ reference to the same event is similarly brief, and comes a little later (probably written near the beginning of the third century CE). Careful reading of the original texts should also start to raise some doubts, for while Plutarch uses the Greek word for ‘library’ (bibliothēkē), Dio refers simply to the burning of ‘books’ (biblion). Although you can find this translated as ‘library’ in some versions, the Greek, when read carefully, is talking about ‘warehouses’, which potentially held books as well as grain – so is Dio even describing the destruction of the main library at all?

These two sources exemplify the care we need to take when mining ancient texts for historical information. Translation choices can significantly affect the way we interpret a text, as can the ways in which the texts relate to other kinds of evidence. If we knew for sure that the library of Alexandria was located close to the harbour, then we might be more confident in Plutarch’s account, but, as you saw in the previous section, our ignorance of its position and layout gives us little in the way of corroborating evidence.

Ammianus Marcellinus’ even later (fourth century CE) account of Caesar’s fire further demonstrates how uncertainties over the material presence of the library increase the confusion in written accounts of its fate. Again, we have an account of the library falling victim to Julius Caesar – and note how Ammianus emphasises its awe-inspiring scale – but it is now connected to a temple called the Serapeum. We know enough about the archaeology of Alexandria to be sure that this was located some distance from the Palace Quarter and the harbourside – as you can see from the map in Figure 1 – so what library is Ammianus referring to here? Scholars agree that the Serapeum did house an offshoot of the main library of Alexandria – usually referred to as the ‘daughter library’ – but this was unlikely to have been affected by the 48/47 fire. Read alongside the other sources, then, Ammianus’ account leaves us still more confused over the size, and crucially the location, of the Alexandrian libraries under discussion.

In any case, the next extract that you read, from Edward Gibbon’s account of Rome’s fall, offers us a rather different version of events, one in which the location of a library in the Serapeum makes more sense. Drawing on a number of late antique sources, Gibbon refers to the library of Alexandria rising ‘from its ashes’ (presumably Caesar’s fire) and being reconstituted in the ‘temple of Serapis’, or Serapeum – yet this too was destroyed in 391 CE, when the Christian rulers of Alexandria clamped down on pagan cults in the city and sacked the temple. For Gibbon, this was the real destruction of the library, and he again reinforces the idea of the library as a precious collection of knowledge – valuable, if not universal – and laments what might have been lost in this ‘wreck of idolatry’. This is just what we might expect from this leading scholar of the Enlightenment. You will have noted, I hope, that Gibbon was writing in the 1770s and 1780s: even more distant from the events than our other sources. As with all historical accounts, we must carefully interrogate Gibbon, and recognise how his version of the library’s destruction is shaped by his own cultural and intellectual context. This was a time that held the pursuit of knowledge, scholarship and rational enquiry in very high regard, and so it is not surprising that the perceived loss of the library, as the symbol of all of these things, might be so keenly felt.

Finally, you read yet another account of the library’s destruction – this time laying the blame at the feet of the seventh-century Arab conquerors of Alexandria. The fact that the books apparently fed the furnaces of the city’s baths for six months again suggests that this is the story of the destruction of a monumental library – but is it plausible? If we are to believe in it, it means that a vast library collection must have persisted in Alexandria for centuries, despite the damage apparently wrought by Romans and Christians. Alarm bells should also ring when we learn that this story does not emerge until six centuries after the events it recounts.

Described image
Figure 2 Robert A Dudley, The Burning of the Library at Alexandria in 391 AD, lithograph, c.1910, from Hutchinson's History of the Nations, published United Kingdom, 1910. Photo: Bridgeman Art Library .

You have now read accounts of what seem to be three different ‘destructions’ of a great library in Alexandria – a fire set by Julius Caesar in 48/47 BCE, the destruction of the library as part of the sack of the Serapeum by Christians in 391 CE, and the destruction of a library by Islamic conquerors in 641 CE. Each of them seems to be problematic to a greater or lesser degree, so can we sift through them and hope to arrive at a plausible version of events?

Activity 4

To see an example of the kind of careful analysis that such a jumble of narratives requires, let’s return to Bagnall’s account of the library. Read Roger Bagnall, ‘Alexandria: library of dreams’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (2002), from ‘Nothing in the Library’s history …’ (p. 356) to the end of the article. How does Bagnall explain the library’s disappearance? 

Discussion

You will see that Bagnall offers a considerably less dramatic hypothesis of the library’s fate. His central argument is that gradual processes of neglect and decay would have been just as damaging to the long-term survival of the library as any single act of destruction. The fire in 48/47 probably did destroy a significant number of books, but it is unlikely that the entire library disappeared – as Myrto Hatzimichali (2013) explains in an essay, there is evidence for ongoing library activity in Roman Alexandria, and, building on Dio Cassius’ account, some scholars have suggested that the fire destroyed only papyri in warehouses which had not yet been transported to the main library (or which were perhaps due to be exported). The destruction of the Serapeum probably did destroy significant library holdings, but, as we have no way of knowing what was in the ‘daughter library’, it is misleading to think that the Christians somehow destroyed a great and universal library. The Islamic story is, scholars widely agree, simply fiction; Bernard Lewis (2008), for example, has shown how it has a number of parallels in contemporary myth and folklore. If anything, the most likely occasion for a large-scale destruction of library buildings is the early 270s, when the Emperor Aurelian was locked in fierce combat with Palmyran insurgencies in Alexandria and much of the city was destroyed. The fact that no contemporary sources mention the destruction of the library might simply suggest that nothing very significant remained of the original and great institution by this time.

This stark hypothesis can be difficult to accept. As Bagnall says, we like to have stories that identify villains to blame. Especially when Alexandria’s library is so often presented as a pinnacle of scholarly achievement, can we really believe that such a great collection of knowledge was allowed gradually to deteriorate and disappear? The evidence, such as we have it, says that we must at least seriously entertain that theory – just as we must also readjust our notions of the scope of the library in the first place.

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