What knowledge may have been lost at the Library of Alexandria?

What knowledge may have been lost at the Library of Alexandria?

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Of course we'll never know for sure, but do historians have some reasonable ideas about what knowledge may have been lost at the Library of Serapeum of Alexandria, when it was destroyed by the Decree of Theodosius in 391?

From the movie "Agora" it is shown that the pagan occupants attempted to save whatever they could, and suggests that there may have been philosophical, mathematical, and astronomical research. However, Wikipedia information suggests that at this time the library may not have had such information:

The Serapeum housed part of the Great Library, but it is not known how many, if any, books were contained in it at the time of destruction. Notably, the passage by Socrates makes no clear reference to a library or its contents, only to religious objects. An earlier text by the historian Ammianus Marcellinus indicates that, whatever books might earlier have been housed at the Serapeum, none was there in the last decade of the 4th century. The pagan author Eunapius of Sardis witnessed the demolition, and though he detested Christians, and was a scholar, his account of the Serapeum's destruction makes no mention of any library.

So, my question is: in this or other destructive events, did the Library of Alexandria house information that was lost, and caused for lack of a better term, a setback for the progress of human knowledge?

Italian author Lucio Russo in his book "Forgotten revolution" argues that a large part of the scientific knowledge of Hellenistic world has been lost. I find his arguments very convincing.

Exact sciences in the modern sense of this word originated in Ptolemaic Egypt and other Hellenistic states, and reached very high degree of development. Few first class works survived, like Euclid, Apollonius and Archimedes, but there is a lot of evidence that this is just the tip of the iceberg. For example, almost all writings of Hipparchus, "the father of astronomy" are lost. We know about them from the account of C. Ptolemy who lived 3 centuries later. Or look at the "Antikythera mechanism" on Wikipedia and elsewhere, to get some evidence of what was lost.

L. Russo is a mathematician, and on his opinion, the level of development in some areas of mathematics in Hellenistic time was not really surpassed until XIX century. I am also a mathematician, and I confirm this.

This does not only apply to exact sciences. Critical scientific study of ancient texts, as we understand it now, also apparently originated in these Hellenistic states.

A legend says that one of the Ptolemy rulers tried to buy (from Athens) original texts of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Athenians refused. Then he asked to borrow them to copy. Athenians agreed, but required an enormous security deposit. He payed the deposit, and did not return the original manuscripts:-) I suppose they were kept in Alexandrian Library (where else?).

The same Ptolemy issued the order that all ships arriving to Alexandria must be inspected and searched for books. All books found must be confiscated, and copies made and given to the owners:-)

So we really lost a lot with the Alexandrian library. When exactly it disappeared and how, is also subject to discussion. Some blame Julius Caesar who started a fire during a battle that destroyed a large part of the library. Other people say that it still existed at the time of the Arab conquest, and was destroyed by the conquerors. And many events in between are also mentioned.

The fact is that Claudius Ptolemy (astronomer, who probably worked in Alexandria in 2 century AD) could read Hipparchus. And we cannot. In fact almost all work in astronomy before Ptolemy is lost. And all work in mathematics before Euclid is lost.

We recently learned from secondary sources that there was highly developed combinatorics in the Hellenistic times (Habsieger, L.; Kazarian, M.; and Lando, S. "On the Second Number of Plutarch." Amer. Math. Monthly 105, 446, 1998). None of the original work survived.

We know the name of the great polymath Posidonius (135-51 BC) whose scientific output is comparable with that of Aristoteles. He wrote on all sciences. All his works are lost. Philosopher (logician) Chrysippus (279-206 BC) was regarded by contemporaries higher than Aristoteles. None of his works survived. None of the works of the founder of scientific medicine, Herophilos (335-280), survived. The great engineer (mechanic, hydraulic, pneumatic) Ctesibius (3d century BC) is credited for many inventions. All his work is lost.

Several sources frequently mention enormous warships of Hellenistic era (Tesserakonteres, Leontophoros are the largest mentioned) whose crew could exceed the crew of a modern aircraft carrier. Historians speculate for the last 2000 years how these ships looked and how could they be constructed. No clear description survives.

REMARK for a mathematician. What we know of mathematics before 300 BC mostly comes from Euclid. Imagine that from our contemporary period only Bourbaki books survive…

REMARK 2. There is a consensus among modern scientists that Democritus of Abdera was one of the greatest scientists who ever lived.

Here is the list of all of the works of Democritus, with their titles as given by Diogenes Laertius: Great Cosmology; Little Cosmology; Cosmography; On the Planets; On Nature; On Human Nature; On Intelligence; On the Senses; On the Soul; On Flavors; On Color; On Diverse Movements of the Atoms; Of Changes in Shape; The Causes of Celestial Phenomena; The Causes of Atmospheric Phenomena; On Fire and On Things in Fire; The Causes of Acoustic Phenomena; Concerning the Magnet; The Causes of Seeds, Plants and Fruits; On Animals; A Description of the Sky; Geography; A Description of the Pole; On Geometry; Geometrical Reality; On the Tangents of the Circle and the Sphere; Numbers; On Irrational Lines and Solids; Projections; Astronomy; Astronomical Table; On Rays of Light; On Reflected Images; On Rhythm and Harmony; On Poetry; On the Beauty of Song; On Euphony and Cacophony; Concerning Homer, or on Correct Epic Diction; The Science of Medicine; On Agriculture; On Words; On Names; On Values, or On Virtue; On the Disposition which Characterizes the Wise; On Painting; A Treatise on Tactics; Circumnavigation of the Ocean; On History; The Thought of Chaldea; The Thought of the Phrygians; On the Sacred Writings of Babylon; On the Sacred Writings of Meroe; On Fevers and the Coughs Deriving from Illness; On Aporiae; Legal Questions; Pythagoras; On Logic, or Criterion of Thought; Confirmations; Points of Ethics; On Well-being. All lost…

This is an incomplete list (just samples) of the items that WE KNOW and which are lost. What things were there which we do not know, (because all references to them are also lost) is open to speculation.

The Serapeum is actually a smaller "branch" of the original library, formally part of the Temple of Serapis. The temple was converted to a Christian church by Theophilus around 390 AD, and it appears this is the reference you have noted above. This "branch" was not actually destroyed, but there is no doubt that many documents were destroyed during the conversion.

The official library, known as the Royal Library of Alexandria, was much larger and housed over half a million documents at the height of its glory. There are three different claims to having destroyed the original library, but we may never know exactly who was responsible.

What knowledge may have been lost at the Library of Alexandria?

The library at Alexandria was said to be one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world. At it's peak the Library contained between 40,000 and 400,000 manuscripts, (scrolls) and employed more than 100 staff to maintain the collection. While it's true that their was no single catastrophe or fire which took out the entire collection but rather the institution declined and eroded over time like the empires it belonged too. We can still speak of what lost treasures may have once been perserved in that collection.

The Library of Alexandria
one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world. The Library was part of a larger research institution called the Mouseion, which was dedicated to the Muses, the nine goddesses of the arts.[10] The idea of a universal library in Alexandria may have been proposed by Demetrius of Phalerum, an exiled Athenian statesman living in Alexandria, to Ptolemy I Soter, who may have established plans for the Library, but the Library itself was probably not built until the reign of his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus. The Library quickly acquired a large number of papyrus scrolls, due largely to the Ptolemaic kings' aggressive and well-funded policies for procuring texts. It is unknown precisely how many such scrolls were housed at any given time, but estimates range from 40,000 to 400,000 at its height.

Many important scholars worked there over the centuries.

The Library of Alexandria

  • Zenodotus of Ephesus, who worked towards standardizing the texts of the Homeric poems;
  • Callimachus, who wrote the Pinakes, sometimes considered to be the world's first library catalogue;
  • Apollonius of Rhodes, who composed the epic poem the Argonautica;
  • Eratosthenes of Cyrene, who calculated the circumference of the earth within a few hundred kilometers of accuracy;
  • Aristophanes of Byzantium, who invented the system of Greek diacritics and was the first to divide poetic texts into lines;
  • Aristarchus of Samothrace, who produced the definitive texts of the Homeric poems as well as extensive commentaries on them.
  • Archimedes is said to have invented the Archimedes screw, and early water pump used for irrigation while studying at the Library of Alexandria.

While no compressive Index of Alexandria's lost manuscripts exists, we can safely attribute some if not many of the known lost texts of antiquity to the contents of that library. They Include:

Lost Works

  • Agatharchides':
    • Ta kata ten Asian (Affairs in Asia) in 10 books,
    • Ta kata ten Europen (Affairs in Europe) in 49 books
    • Peri ten Erythras thalasses (On the Erythraean Sea) in 5 books
  • Agrippina the Younger:
    • Casus suorum (Misfortunes of her Family - memoir)
    • Sulpicius Alexander's Historia.
    • Anaxagoras' book of philosophy-only fragments of the first part have survived.
    • Apollodorus of Athens
    • Chronicle (Χρονικά), a Greek history in verse
    • On the Gods (Περὶ θεῶν), known through quotes to have - included etymologies of the names and epithets of the gods
    • A twelve-book essay about Homer's Catalogue of Ships Archimedes'
    • On Sphere-Making
    • On Polyhedra
    • Aristarchus of Samos' astronomy book outlining his heliocentrism (astronomical model in which the Earth and planets revolve around a relatively stationary Sun)
  • Aristotle's
    • second book of Poetics, dealing with comedy
    • On the Pythagoreans1
    • Protrepticus (fragments survived)
  • Augustus:
    • Rescript to Brutus Respecting Cato
    • Exhortations to Philosophy
    • History of His Own Life
    • Sicily (a work in verse)
    • Epigrams
    • Berossus' Babyloniaca (History of Babylonia)
  • Gaius Julius Caesar's
    • Anticatonis Libri II (only fragments survived)
    • Carmina et prolusiones (only fragments survived)
    • De analogia libri II ad M. Tullium Ciceronem De astris liber
    • Dicta collectanea ("collected sayings", also known by the Greek title άποφθέγματα) Letters (only fragments survived)
    • Epistulae ad Ciceronem
    • Epistulae ad familiares Iter (only one fragment survived)
    • Laudes Herculis
    • Libri auspiciorum ("books of auspices", also known as Auguralia) Oedipus
  • other works:
    • contributions to the libri pontificales as pontifex maximus
    • possibly some early love poems
  • Callinicus
    • Against the Philosophical Sects On the Renewal of Rome
    • Prosphonetikon to Gallienus, a salute addressed to the emperor
    • To Cleopatra, On the History of Alexandria, most likely dedicated to Zenobia, who claimed descent from Cleopatra
    • To Lupus, On Bad Taste on Rhetoric
  • Callisthenes'
    • An account of Alexander's expedition
    • A history of Greece from the Peace of Antalcidas (387) to the Phocian war (357)
  • A history of the Phocian war
  • Cato the Elder's:
    • Origines, a 7 book history of Rome and the Italian states.
    • Carmen de moribus, a book of prayers or incantations for the dead in verse.
    • Praecepta ad Filium, a collection of maxims.
    • A collection of his speeches.
  • Quintus Tullius Cicero's:
    • Four tragedies in the Greek style: Tiroas, Erigones, Electra, and one other.
  • Hortensius, a dialogue also known as "On Philosophy".
  • Consolatio, written to soothe his own sadness at the death of his daughter Tullia
  • Claudius'
    • De arte aleae ("the art of playing dice", a book on dice games)
    • an Etruscan dictionary
    • an Etruscan history
    • a history of Augustus' reign
    • eight volumes on Carthaginian history
    • a defense of Cicero against the charges of Asinius Gallus Ctesibius
    • On pneumatics, a work describing force pumps
    • Memorabilia, a compilation of his research works
  • Ctesias':
    • Persica, a history of Assyria and Persia in 23 books.
    • Indica, an account of India Eratosthenes
    • Περὶ τῆς ἀναμετρήσεως τῆς γῆς (On the Measurement of the Earth; lost, summarized by Cleomedes)
    • Geographica (lost, criticized by Strabo)
    • Arsinoe (a memoir of queen Arsinoe; lost; quoted by - Athenaeus in the Deipnosophistae) Euclid's
  • Conics, a work on conic sections later extended by
  • Apollonius of Perga into his famous work on the subject.
  • Porisms, the exact meaning of the title is controversial (probably "corollaries").
  • Pseudaria, or Book of Fallacies, an elementary text about errors in reasoning. Surface Loci concerned either loci (sets of points) on surfaces or loci which were themselves surfaces.
  • Eudemus':
  • History of Arithmetics, on the early history of Greek arithmetics (only one short quote survives)
  • History of Astronomy, on the early history of Greek astronomy (several quotes survive)
  • History of Geometry, on the early history of Greek geometry (several quotes survive)
  • Verrius Flaccus':
  • De Orthographia: De Obscuris Catonis, an elucidation of obscurities in the writings of Cato the Elder
  • Saturnus, dealing with questions of Roman ritual Rerum memoria dignarum libri, an encyclopaedic work much used by Pliny the Elder Res Etruscae, probably on augury.
  • Frontinus:
    • De re militari, a military manual
  • Gorgias':
    • On Non-Existence (or On Nature) - Only two sketches of it exist.
    • Epitaphios - What exists is thought to be only a small fragment of a significantly longer piece.
  • The Hesiodic Catalogue of Women
  • Homer's Margites.
    • The Odyssey mentions the blind singer Demodocus performing a poem recounting the otherwise unknown "Quarrel of Odysseus and Achilles", which might have been an actual work that did not survive
  • Livy: 107 of the 142 books of Ab Urbe Condita, a history of Rome
  • Longinus:
  • On The End: by Longinus in answer to Plotinus and Gentilianus Amelius (preface survives, quoted by Porphyry)
    • On Impulse
    • On Principles
    • Lover of Antiquity
    • On the Natural Life
    • Difficulties in Homer
    • Whether Homer is a Philosopher
    • Homeric Problems and Solutions
    • Things Contrary to History which the Grammarians Explain as Historical
    • On Words in Homer with Multiple Senses
    • Attic Diction
    • Lexicon of Antimachus and Heracleon
  • Lucan's:
    • Catachthonion
    • Iliacon from the Trojan cycle
    • Epigrammata
    • Adlocutio ad Pollam
    • Silvae
    • Saturnalia
    • Medea
    • Salticae Fabulae
    • Laudes Neronis, a praise of Nero
    • Orpheus
    • Prosa oratio in Octavium Sagittam
    • Epistulae ex Campania
    • De Incendio Urbis
    • Manetho's Ægyptiaca (History of Egypt) in 3 books. Only few fragments survive.
    • Memnon of Heraclea's history of Heraclea Pontica.
  • Nicander's:
    • Aetolica, a prose history of Aetolia.
    • Heteroeumena, a mythological epic.
    • Georgica and Melissourgica, of which considerable - fragments are preserved.
    • Ovid's poem Medea, of which only two fragments survive.
    • Pamphilus of Alexandria's comprehensive lexicon in 95 books of foreign or obscure words.
  • Pherecydes of Leros:
    • A history of Leros
    • an essay, On Iphigeneia
    • On the Festivals of Dionysus
    • Genealogies of the gods and heroes, originally in ten books; numerous fragments have been preserved.
    • Pherecydes of Syros' Heptamychia
    • Philo of Byblos' Phoenician History, a Greek translation of the original Phoenician book attributed to Sanchuniathon.Considerable fragments have been preserved, chiefly by Eusebius in the Praeparatio evangelica (i.9; iv.16)
  • Pliny the Elder's:
    • History of the German Wars, some quotations survive in Tacitus' Annals and Germania
  • Studiosus, a detailed work on rhetoric
    • Dubii sermonis, in eight books
    • History of his Times, in thirty-one books, also quoted by Tacitus.
    • De jaculatione equestri a military handbook on missiles thrown from horseback.
    • Gaius Asinius Pollio's Historiae ("Histories")
  • Alexander Polyhistor's Successions of Philosophers.
  • Porphyry:
  • Ad Gedalium (a commentary on Aristotle's Categories in seven books
  • Against the Christian (only fragments survive) Praxagoras's History of Constantine the Great (known from a précis by Photius).
  • Prodicus':
    • On Nature
    • On the Nature of Man
    • "On Propriety of Language"
    • On the Choice of Heracles
  • Protagoras':
    • "On the Gods" (essay)
    • On the Art of Disputation
    • On the Original State of Things
    • On Truth
  • Pytheas of Massalia's τὰ περὶ τοῦ Ὠκεανοῦ (ta peri tou Okeanou) "On the Ocean".
  • Quintilian's De Causis Corruptae Eloquentiae (On the Causes of Corrupted Eloquence)
    • Septimius Severus' autobiography
    • Diodorus Siculus' Bibliotheca historia (Historical Library)- of 40 books, only the first 5 books, and books 10 through 20 are extant.
    • The Hellespontine Sibyl's Sibylline Books
    • Seneca the Younger book on signs. 5000 were compiled
    • Socrates' verse versions of Aesop's Fables. Speusippus On Pythagorean Numbers
    • Strabo's History. Suetonius'
    • De Viris Illustribus ("On Famous Men" - in the field of literature), to which belongs: De Illustribus Grammaticis ("Lives Of The Grammarians"), De Claris Rhetoribus ("Lives Of The Rhetoricians"), and Lives Of The Poets. Some fragments exist.
    • Lives of Famous Whores
    • Royal Biographies
    • Roma ("On Rome"), in four parts: Roman Manners & Customs, The Roman Year, The Roman Festivals, and Roman Dress.
    • Greek Games
    • On Public Offices
    • On Cicero's Republic
    • The Physical Defects of Mankind
    • Methods of Reckoning Time
    • An Essay on Nature
    • Greek Terms of Abuse
    • Grammatical Problems
    • Critical Signs Used in Books
    • Sulla's Memoirs, referenced by Plutarch
    • Thales
    • On the Solstice (possible lost work)
    • On the Equinox (possible lost work)
  • Tiberius
    • Autobiography ("brief and sketchy," per Suetonius
    • Trajan's Dacica (or De bello dacico) Varro
    • Saturarum Menippearum libri CL or Menippean Satires in 150 books
    • Antiquitates rerum humanarum et divinarum libri XLI
    • Logistoricon libri LXXVI
    • Hebdomades vel de imaginibus
    • Disciplinarum libri IX
  • Zenobia:
    • Epitome of the history of Alexandria and the Orient (according to the Historia Augusta)
  • The work of the Cyclic poets (excluding Homer), specifically:
    • six epics of the Epic Cycle: Cypria, Aethiopis, the - Little Iliad, the Iliupersis ("Sack of Troy"), Nostoi ("Returns"), and Telegony.
    • four epics of the Theban Cycle: Oedipodea, Thebaid, Epigoni (epic), and Alcmeonis.
    • other early Greek epics: Titanomachy, Heracleia, Capture of Oechalia, Naupactia, Phocais, Minyas


  • The Library of Alexandria
  • Zenodotus of Ephesus
  • Callimachus
  • Apollonius of Rhodes
  • Eratosthenes
  • Aristophanes of Byzantium
  • Aristarchus of Samothrace
  • Archimedes
  • Lost Works

If the only copy of a work was in one specific library - it was already lost.

In our hurry to reduce history to simple narratives, often the most obvious observations get lost. If the only copy of, say, Aristotle's "Exhortation to Philosophy" was lost to a specific disaster in the Alexandrian library, then clearly the work had already lost its relevance in that world. The more important question is, "Why did so many works from authors that we esteem today perish during Late Antiquity?" The answer cannot be that one specific library in one specific city was destroyed. It is obviously a much more complex question that offers opportunity for rich speculation and research.

(Actually, it's two questions, isn't it? For the flip side of the question is, "Why do we treasure these works that apparently the people of Late Antiquity didn't feel were worth preserving?!")

Of the works written by Euclid, perhaps the most famous Greek philosopher, we have six and have lost six, 50%. For Archimedes we have about 10 works and lost perhaps around 20, a survival rate of 1/3. For the playright Euripides we have 19 plays and have lost about 60 plays, a survival rate of 25%. For other famous authors and scientists there are similar percentages.

It is probably safe to assume that the libraries at Alexandria originally had multiple copies of all of these works.

Which destruction did the damage (or the most damage)? As Wikipedia notes:

Despite the widespread modern belief that the Library was "burned" once and cataclysmically destroyed, the Library actually declined gradually over the course of several centuries, starting with the purging of intellectuals from Alexandria in 145 BC during the reign of Ptolemy VIII Physcon, which resulted in Aristarchus of Samothrace, the head librarian, resigning from his position and exiling himself to Cyprus. Many other scholars, including Dionysius Thrax and Apollodorus of Athens, fled to other cities, where they continued teaching and conducting scholarship. The Library, or part of its collection, was accidentally burned by Julius Caesar during his civil war in 48 BC, but it is unclear how much was actually destroyed and it seems to have either survived or been rebuilt shortly thereafter; the geographer Strabo mentions having visited the Mouseion in around 20 BC and the prodigious scholarly output of Didymus Chalcenterus in Alexandria from this period indicates that he had access to at least some of the Library's resources.

The Library dwindled during the Roman Period, due to lack of funding and support. Its membership appears to have ceased by the 260s AD. Between 270-275 AD, the city of Alexandria saw a rebellion and an imperial counterattack that probably destroyed whatever remained of the Library, if it still existed at that time. The daughter library of the Serapeum may have survived after the main Library's destruction. The Serapeum was vandalized and demolished in 391 AD under a decree issued by Coptic Christian Pope Theophilus of Alexandria, but it does not seem to have housed books at the time and was mainly used as a gathering place for Neoplatonist philosophers following the teachings of Iamblichus.

Whatever institution still existed in the 640s was suppressed at least one more time by Caliph Omar.

The Tragic Real-Life Story Of The Library Of Alexandria

Though not literally one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World–that honor went to a nearby lighthouse–the Royal Library of Alexandria was, in fact, a wonder of the ancient world. Conceived in the Hellenistic, cosmopolitan spirit of Alexander the Great, the Library of Alexandria was built by Alexander's successors to be a central location for all information worth knowing. With this lofty goal in mind, the library became a hub for learning around the Mediterranean, and many of the Classical world's greatest minds flocked to it.

Nevertheless, tragedy struck the Great Library and all its invaluable manuscripts were lost. But how could such a thing happen? Who would want to bring ruin to a temple dedicated to learning and the arts unlike any before or since? The answer, it turns out, is more complicated than you might think. Read on for the tragic fate of the Library of Alexandria.

What happened to the Great Library at Alexandria?

Once the largest library in the ancient world, and containing works by the greatest thinkers and writers of antiquity, including Homer, Plato, Socrates and many more, the Library of Alexandria, northern Egypt, is popularly believed to have been destroyed in a huge fire around 2000 years ago and its volumous works lost.

Since its destruction this wonder of the ancient world has haunted the imagination of poets, historians, travellers and scholars, who have lamented the tragic loss of knowledge and literature. Today, the idea of a 'Universal Library' situated in a city celebrated as the centre of learning in the ancient world, has attained mythical status.


The mystery has been perpetuated by the fact that no architectural remains or archaeological finds that can definitely be attributed to the ancient Library have ever been recovered, surprising for such a supposedly renowned and imposing structure. This lack of physical proof has even persuaded some to wonder if the fabulous Library actually existed at all in the form popularly imagined.

Ancient Alexandria

Once home to the massive Pharos lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonder of the Ancient World, the Mediterranean seaport of Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great around 330 BCE, and like many other cities in his Empire, took its name from him. After his death in 323 BCE, Alexander's Empire was left in the hands of his generals, with Ptolemy I Soter taking Egypt and making Alexandria his capital in 320 BCE. Formerly a small fishing village on the Nile delta, Alexandria became the seat of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt and developed into a great intellectual and cultural centre, perhaps the greatest city in the ancient world.


The Origins of the Ancient Library

The founding of the Library of Alexandria, actually two or more libraries, is obscure. It is believed that around 295 BCE, the scholar and orator Demetrius of Phalerum, an exiled governor of Athens, convinced Ptolemy I Soter to establish the Library. Demetrius envisioned a library that would house a copy of every book in the world, an institution to rival those of Athens itself. Subsequently, under the patronage of Ptolemy I, Demetrius organised the construction of the 'Temple of the Muses' or 'the Musaeum', from where our word 'museum' is derived. This structure was a shrine complex modeled on the Lyceum of Aristotle in Athens, a centre for intellectual and philosophical lectures and discussion.

The Temple of the Muses was to be the first part of the library complex at Alexandria, and was located within the grounds of the Royal Palace, in an area known as the Bruchion or palace quarter, in the Greek district of the city. The Museum was a cult centre with shrines for each of the nine muses, but also functioned as a place of study with lecture areas, laboratories, observatories, botanical gardens, a zoo, living quarters, and dining halls, as well as the Library itself. A priest chosen by Ptolemy I himself was the administrator of the Museum, and there was also a separate Librarian in charge of the manuscript collection. At some time during his reign from 282 BCE to 246 BCE, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the son of Ptolemy I Soter, established the 'Royal Library' to complement the Temple of the Muses set up by his father.

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It is not clear whether the Royal Library, which was to become the main manuscript Library, was a separate building located next to the Museum or was an extension of it. However, the consensus of opinion is that the Royal Library did form part of the Temple of the Muses.

During the reign of Ptolemy II, the idea of the Universal Library seems to have taken shape. Apparently more than 100 scholars were housed within the Museum, whose job it was to carry out scientific research, lecture, publish, translate, copy and collect not only original manuscripts of Greek authors (allegedly including the private collection of Aristotle himself), but translations of works from Egypt, Assyria, Persia, as well as Buddhist texts and Hebrew scriptures.


One story goes that the hunger of Ptolemy III for knowledge was so great that he decreed that all ships docking at the port should surrender their manuscripts to the authorities. Copies were then made by official scribes and delivered to the original owners, the originals being filed away in the Library.

An often quoted figure for the ancient Library holdings at its peak is half a million documents, though whether this refers to the amount of books or the number of papyrus scrolls is unclear. However, in view of the fact that many papyrus rolls were needed to make up an entire book, it is more likely that it refers to the number of scrolls. Even 500,000 scrolls has been thought too high by some scholars, as the construction of a building with such a vast amount of storage space would be an immense, though not impossible undertaking. Nevertheless, during the reign of Ptolemy II the collection at the Royal Library became so vast that a daughter library was established. This library was situated in the precincts of the temple of Serapis, in the Egyptian district of Rhakotis, in the south eastern part of the city. During the librarianship of the Greek writer Callimachus (c. 305 BCE - c . 240 BCE), the daughter library contained 42,800 scrolls, all of which were copies of those in the main Library.

The Burning of the Great Library?

The infamous destruction by fire of the Library of Alexandria, with the consequent loss of the most complete collection of ancient literature ever assembled, has been a point of heated debate for centuries. What exactly happened to this amazing storehouse of ancient knowledge, and who was responsible for its burning? However, it is probable 'the greatest catastrophe of the ancient world', may never have taken place on the scale often supposed.


The prime suspect in destruction of the Library of Alexandria is Julius Caesar. It is alleged that during Caesar's occupation of the city of Alexandria in 48 BCE, he found himself in the Royal Palace, hemmed in by the Egyptian fleet in the harbour. For his own safety he had his men set fire to the Egyptian ships, but the fire got out of control and spread to the parts of the city nearest the shore, which included warehouses, depots and some arsenals.

After Caesar's death it was generally believed that it was he who had destroyed the Library. Roman philosopher and dramatist Seneca, quoting from Livy's History of Rome, written between 63 BCE and 14 CE, says that 40,000 scrolls were destroyed in the fire started by Caesar. Greek historian Plutarch (died 120 CE) mentions that the fire destroyed 'the great Library' and Roman historian Dio Cassius (c. 165 – 235 CE) mentions a warehouse of manuscripts being destroyed during the conflagration.

In his book The Vanished Library, Luciano Canfora interprets the evidence from ancient writers to indicate the destruction of manuscripts stored in warehouses near the port waiting for export, rather than the great Library itself. The great scholar and stoic philosopher Strabo, was working in Alexandria in 20 BC and from his writings it is obvious that the Library was not at that time the world-renowned centre for learning it had been in previous centuries. In fact Strabo does not mention a library as such at all, though he does mention the Museum, which he describes as 'part of the royal palace'. He goes on to say that 'it comprises the covered walk, the exedra or portico, and a great hall in which the learned members of the Museum take their meals in common.'


If the great Library was attached to the Museum then Strabo obviously felt there was no need to mention it separately, and, perhaps more importantly, if he was there in 20 BCE, the Library had obviously not been burned down by Caesar twenty-eight years previously. The existence of the Library in 20 BCE, though in a much less complete form, means that we have to look to someone other than Caesar as the destroyer of Alexandria's ancient wonder.

In 391 CE, as part of his attempt to wipe out paganism, Emperor Theodosius I officially sanctioned the destruction of the Serapeum, or Temple of Serapis at Alexandria. The destruction of the Temple was carried out under Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria, and afterwards a Christian church was built on the site. It has been hypothesised that the daughter library of the Museum, located close to the Temple, and the Royal Library were also razed to the ground at this time. However, whilst it is plausible that manuscripts from the Serapeum library may have been destroyed during this purge, there is no evidence that the Royal Library still existed at the end the 4th century. No ancient sources mention the destruction of any library at this time, though 18th century English historian Edward Gibbon mistakenly attributes it to bishop Theophilus.

The last suggested perpetrator of the crime is the Caliph Omar. In 640 CE the Arabs under General Amrou ibn el-Ass, captured Alexandria after a long siege. According to the story, the conquering Arabs heard about a magnificent library containing all the knowledge of the world and were anxious to see it. But the Caliph, unmoved by this vast collection of learning, apparently stated 'they will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous.'

The manuscripts were then gathered together and used as fuel for the 4,000 bathhouses in the city. In fact there were so many scrolls that they kept the bathhouses of Alexandria heated for six months. These incredible facts were written down 300 years after the supposed event by Christian polymath Gregory Bar Hebraeus (1226-1286 CE). However, while the Arabs may have destroyed a Christian library at Alexandria, it is almost certain that by the mid 7th century CE the Royal Library no longer existed. This is made clear by the fact that no mention is made of such a catastrophic event by contemporary writers such as Christian chronicler John of Nikiou, Byzantine monk and writer John Moschus and Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem.

The Volatile City of Alexandria

Attempting to identify one single devastating fire that destroyed the great Library and all of its holdings is a futile task. Alexandria was often a volatile city, especially during the Roman period, as witnessed by Caesar's burning of the ships, and also in the violent struggle between the occupying forces of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra and the Roman emperor Aurelian in 270-71 CE. Aurelian eventually recovered the city for Rome from Queen Zenobia's armies, but not before many parts of Alexandria had been devastated, and the Bruchion district, which contained the palace and the Library, were apparently 'made into a desert'.

The city was again sacked a few years later by Roman Emperor Diocletian. Such repeated destruction spread over several centuries, along with neglect of the Library's contents as people's opinions and affiliations changed, means that the 'catastrophe' that ended the ancient Library at Alexandria was gradual, taking place over a period of four or five hundred years.

The last recorded Director of the great Library was scholar and mathematician Theon (c. 335 - c. 405 CE), father of the female philosopher Hypatia, brutally murdered by a Christian mob in Alexandria in 415 CE. Perhaps one day, in the deserts of Egypt, scrolls that were once part of the great Library will be discovered. Many archaeologists believe that the buildings that once composed the legendary seat of learning at ancient Alexandria, if not buried under the modern metropolis, could still survive relatively intact somewhere in the north-eastern part of the city.

What knowledge may have been lost at the Library of Alexandria? - History

Bibliotheca Alexandrina: The modern Library of Alexandria

Great question! For those not familiar, I’ll start with a little background on the subject. The Library of Alexandria was founded by either Ptolemy I or his son, Ptolemy II, sometime in the third century B.C. Libraries were nothing new to ancient civilizations, though places to keep etched clay tablets might not be what we would consider a proper library today. The initial goal of the Library of Alexandria was most likely to flaunt Egypt’s enormous wealth rather than provide a place for study and research, but of course the library transformed into something much more.

Charged with collecting the knowledge of the world, many of the workers at the library were busy translating scrolls from “barbarian” languages into Greek. Scrolls were obtained from ancient “book fairs” in Athens and Rhodes. Scrolls from ships that made port were taken to the library and copied. Ptolemy III also borrowed the original manuscripts of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides from Athens. According to Galen, the pharaoh had to pay a hefty price to guarantee that he would return the originals, but Ptolemy III had the scrolls copied and returned the copies. Because much about the library is wrapped in legend, we can’t be sure if this is true, or if it was a story told to show the power of Ptolemaic Egypt.

Needless to say, the library’s collection was vast, but the knowledge of exactly how many scrolls the library contained at any given point has been lost. Estimations range from 40,000 scrolls to 600,000. We do know that the collection spurred the need for a system of library organization. A precursor to today’s library catalogue was developed called Pinakes, or “tablets.” The tablets were divided into genre and sorted by the author’s name. It’s likely that this served as a record of the contents of the library rather than a precise system for finding the scrolls. Scrolls, unlike the books we know today, could not stand up on shelves but lay in heaps, meaning a precise method of organization would be nearly impossible to achieve. Unfortunately, the tablets along with the rest of the library have been lost to fire or time, meaning we have little record of the library’s exact contents.

Partially because of the library, Alexandria became a seat of scholarship and learning. Scholars from all over the Hellenistic world were allowed to browse the library. They researched, discovered, and taught. It was at the library that Euclid wrote his groundbreaking work on geometry (much to the distaste of a majority of high school freshmen everywhere) Eratosthenes discovered how to measure the Earth’s circumference with remarkable accuracy Herophilius learned that the brain controlled thought rather than the heart and Aristarchus stated that the Earth revolves around the sun—1,800 years before Copernicus. The library represented a blending of cultures and minds and we have it to thank for many of our modern ideas about medicine, astronomy, math, and grammar.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end.

To answer your question specifically on what ever happened to the historic library, you’ll often hear it disappeared suddenly in a fire, but this probably isn’t accurate. What actually happened seems to have been a series of events over time that slowly led to the demise of the library.

More specifically, while there are several reports of fires in Alexandria linked to the destruction of the library, there is no solid historical evidence of the “great fire” believed to have destroyed the entire library. That being said, you’ll often hear three names bandied about as the top players in the library’s demise: Julius Caesar, Theophilius of Alexandria, and Caliph Omar of Damascus.

Legend has it that Theophilius, Patriarch of Alexandria in 391 A.D., began destroying pagan temples in the name of Christianity. The classical “pagan” scrolls contained in the library would have been a point of contention, as was the Serapeum temple attached to the library. If Theophilius destroyed a library in Alexandria, though, it is thought it was probably the “daughter library’ set up by Ptolemy III which contained far fewer scrolls than the historic great library. We do know that one of the rare historic mathematicians, philosophers, and astronomers who was female, Hypatia, was brutally murdered by a religious mob in Alexandria around this time (in 415 A.D.) demonstrating some of the strife between certain scholars and the religious in the region, though many scholars today think her death had more to do with her being caught up in political events than specifically her stance on Christianity.

The story about Caliph Omar is almost certainly made up. In 645 A.D., Omar conquered Egypt and supposedly burned the books in the library because they were not in line with the Koran’s teachings. Again, if Omar did burn a library it was probably the one rebuilt at the site of the original daughter library. Most historians think that this story was probably invented in the 12 th century, and as with all stories that emerge long after they were said to take place, it should be considered with a grain of salt.

The most likely origin of the “great fire” theory is Julius Caesar’s actions during a war with Alexandria. Julius Caesar did set fire to the dockyards of Alexandria as well as the Alexandrine Fleet, which he documented in The Civil Wars. He doesn’t say whether or not the fire spread to the library, but it’s thought unlikely that it did, despite certain historic accounts. However, scrolls stored in warehouses along the harbour probably burned, and it is very likely that Caesar’s men looted the library and took a large number of scrolls back to Rome. Seneca wrote that 40,000 books were destroyed in Caesar’s fire, but if this is true, it would have probably been only a portion of the books that the library contained. Later writers, including Strabo and Seutonius, make mention of the museum of which the library was a part, as well as connections to the library scholars. This and other evidence demonstrates that the library survived, at least in part, past Caesar’s time—even if it, perhaps, never returned to the peak of its grandeur.

But if the library wasn’t destroyed by a fire and the original library isn’t standing today, then something must have happened to explain the loss of so much literature. If any one event contributed to the quick demise of the Library of Alexandria, it’s unknown to historians, contrary to popular belief. It is thought more likely that mundane things led to the “destruction” of the library, like time taking its toll on the amassed knowledge, with scrolls experiencing wear and tear and falling apart the librarians at Alexandria faced tough decisions on which scrolls to continue to copy in the face of papyrus shortages. A few conquering emperors took many of the library’s works as spoils of war to other parts of the world, dispersing the texts. It’s possible religious leaders, taking offense to some of the contents, may have had some of the scrolls destroyed as well, though most historians think this latter factor to be wildly exaggerated. (Particularly around the 17th century on it became in vogue by secular scientists to rail against the ignorance and misguided notions of various religious groups, with Catholics tending to be public enemy number one. As a result, many myths popped up, such as that Medieval Christians thought the world was flat and the like- basically attempts to portray religious people throughout history as mindless mobs burning books and rejecting science at every turn, despite this being quite contrary to actual documented evidence on many of these popular stories.)

Whatever the case, the loss of the knowledge contained in the library is enough to still the heart of many an academic today, particularly with hints of such works as the lost “History of the World” three book set, the “Books of Berosus”, written around 290 B.C., and references to other such works that were once there, hinting at how much we’ve lost.

However, this story does have something of a happy ending. In 2002, another library was built near the site of the original Library of Alexandria. Bibliotecha Alexandrina aims to maintain the spirit of the original library. People from all walks of life are coming together with the aim to preserve knowledge, from rare ancient texts to a science museum to computer systems. Countries from all over the world have sent books in an attempt to rebuild the collection that was lost to history. This time, just in case, the building is virtually fireproof.

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Kiwi Hellenist

Alexandria was the chief city of Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, and the most important cultural powerhouse of the ancient Mediterranean. The quotation above comes from this History Channel clip about its famous library, or rather libraries.

The narrator goes on (at the 1 min. 39 sec. mark):

Doctor sitting reading by an armarium holding books
(early 4th cent. CE Met. Mus. Art, New York)
This snippet ranges from absurd to outright false. (Let's do the easy bits right away: Aristotle didn't write comedies, and Aeschylus and Euripides wrote a combined total of about 170 plays.) The only bit that has any basis in reality is the first line, about Caesar burning the Ptolemaic fleet. Everything else is untrue, without any room for doubt on the point.

It's not like the History Channel is conveying an isolated opinion, by the way. It is really widely believed. Here's a full-length documentary that makes similar claims the Wikipedia article on the subject refers to "the incalculable loss of ancient works" Joel Levy's 2006 book Lost Histories calls it "the day that history lost its memory" online forums frequently get questions about just how big a disaster it was.

Important point: I'm not talking today about the historical circumstances of the library's destruction. There certainly was a major fire in 47 BCE, and there may have been other important moments of destruction in later centuries. We're not here to pin down when it disappeared, or who's to blame: this is about the historical significance of the library's loss.

  1. Misconceptions about the role of libraries in the ancient world.
  2. Misconceptions about what kinds of books the Alexandrian library actually held.
  3. Misconceptions about the actual causes for the loss of texts from antiquity.

1. The role of libraries

If the loss of the library was "the single greatest loss of knowledge" in history, that would mean the books destroyed were the only existing copies of those books.

Suppose -- heaven forfend -- that the British Library burned down tomorrow, or the Library of Congress. What kind of a loss would it be? In cultural terms, and purely in monetary terms, it would be catastrophic: millions of manuscripts, autographs, and rare and unique items would be lost, and the cost of replacing the printed collection would be vast.

But barely a scrap of actual knowledge would be lost. Ismail Kadare's novels would survive. The Thirty Years War would not be forgotten. Aeroplanes and computers would not become treasured relics, never to be recreated.

This is because there are lots and lots and lots of repositories of information in the world. And exactly the same was true in Greco-Roman antiquity. There were hundreds of libraries of Greek and Latin texts dotted around the Mediterranean. Alexandria was the biggest, but it was just one fish in a sea of libraries. There were also important centres at Pergamon, Athens, Rome, Constantinople, and many important private collections. Roman aristocrats founded many libraries in the early Principate clubs and gymnasia in Greece were also centres of learning, with their own libraries, and we have inscriptions cataloguing regular deposits of books in their collections. Caesar's fire did not stop Athenaeus and Julius Africanus from being profoundly well-read more than two centuries later, and the likes of Pliny the Elder and Pausanias did their research privately or in Athens, not in Alexandria.

This last point is directly tied to one important function of ancient libraries. As well as being reading rooms, they were also scribal centres that bypassed the book trade. People could commission a scribe to go and make a copy of a book, and it seems this was a pretty economical thing to do. (Remember copyright is irrelevant in a society where reproduction is labour-intensive.) A beautiful example is the sole surviving copy of Aristotle's Constitution of the Athenians. An estate owner living near Hermopolis, Egypt, recycled four scrolls of his farm and business records by commissioning scribes to make a copy of some fairly high-powered intellectual works on the back, including Aristotle's book. (It's not very likely that the copying was done at Alexandria, about 200 km away.) The economics of the situation are telling: the owner was willing to hire professional scribes, but not to pay for clean papyrus. In other words, scribes were cheap.

It is unlikely that more than a handful of texts of any consequence were lost in the fire of 47 BCE, for the simple reason that anything important certainly existed in many copies, in libraries and private collections, all over the Mediterranean.

2. The books in the library

In the popular imagination, the library held all manner of arcane knowledge lost in the mists of time -- Babylonian mathematical treatises, dictionaries of Linear A, diplomatic correspondence between Egypt and Atlantis, the history of Göbekli Tepe, that kind of thing.

Illustrated edition of a poem about Herakles, probably for a popular audience:
Herakles' fight with the Nemean lion (P.Oxy. 2331, 3rd century)
In reality it was not a repository of records left by the Pharaohs of the Old Kingdom. It was a Greek library, of Greek texts, for Greek people, founded around 300 BCE. One late source tells us that there were accessions of Egyptian, Chaldaean, and Roman books, but they were invariably translated into Greek (Syncellus, Chronographia 516,6-10). We don't know if the originals would have been preserved too it doesn't seem likely that they were prized.

We have a very good idea of the kinds of things that were in the library. This is because surviving books routinely cite and discuss other books, including ones that have been lost. Many important pieces of modern research revolve around gathering together the fragments that we obtain this way: the most important such collection, the Fragmente der griechischen Historiker, lists over 1000 lost authors -- and that's just in the genres of history and geography. In some cases we know a huge amount about these books in other cases we know only titles. But it's more than enough to tell us that what we are missing is, essentially, pretty similar to what survived via the mediaeval manuscript tradition.

The thing that we're really missing out on is the colossal book-writing spree that Greek thinkers all round the Mediterranean went on in the late 4th to 1st centuries BCE: we have comparatively few intact books from that period -- we have Aristotle, Euclid, and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, but we're missing out on the likes of Eratosthenes, Hipparchus, and Crates.

3. How ancient texts actually got lost

The destruction of a library is a terrible thing, but it's a drop in the ocean. The disappearance of Greco-Roman texts is a story about culture and economics, not a timeline of specific events. Left to themselves, books vanish over time without any need for someone stepping in to destroy them. Poor storage, poor longevity in the materials, environmental factors, and human agency all hasten that natural decay, but that decay will happen anyway. Over a thousand years, that's plenty to ensure the demise of nearly every book in existence.

Sure, it would be nice if the library of Alexandria had survived to the present day. But that means positing a miracle. No ancient library has survived to the present. Even if the Alexandrian library had survived the fires, eventually it would have gone the same way as the Palatine library in Rome -- which suffered its own series of catastrophic fires (the History Channel never talks about those) -- and the libraries of Pergamon, Tralles, Athens, and so on. Aristotle's Constitution of the Athenians, mentioned above, is a truly extraordinary case: only a handful of texts have survived by being preserved on an intact ancient papyrus.

Codex and scroll (Pompeii, before 79 CE):
left, woman with note-taking codex (wax on wood)
right, man with commercial scroll ( with titulus )
Books survive if many different people ensure that they're copied. And the people of the past who did that copying weren't operating with any top-down, organised plan they weren't members of a worldwide Book Preservation Society. They were independent institutions and individuals living in many different places and many different centuries, and their efforts just happen to have the fortunate combined effect that many texts have survived to the present.

Texts were disappearing long before Rome fell. The 2nd century CE is when we really start to notice extant sources treating old texts as things they haven't personally read -- they only have second- or third-hand information. In other words, that's when texts start vanishing en masse. J. O. Ward, cited above, points out that many oratorical speeches from Cicero's time were already obscure in Tacitus' time. We have no evidence of any of the Epic Cycle surviving beyond the 2nd century. (Some of them did survive that long: so however they were lost, it had nothing to do with events in Alexandria.) Not a single ancient writer ever cites book 2 of Aristotle's Poetics, other than Aristotle himself: it was never as popular as the similar material in his On poets (also lost), which was intended for a wider audience, and about which we hear a great deal. Poetics book 2 may well have disappeared within a century of being written.

The 2nd-3rd centuries were also the time of a massive technical migration: from scroll to codex. ('Codex' is the word for a modern-style book, with pages sewn together at the spine.) The very biggest hurdle for the survival of books is nothing to do with libraries burning, or fictional stories about religious zealots destroying pagan books. It's about a format shift.

We first begin to hear about commercial use of codices by ancient booksellers in the 1st century CE poet Martial, who is impressed after seeing a codex edition of Ovid's Metamorphoses with the entire text in one volume (Epigrams 14.192):

Lionel Casson's Libraries in the Ancient World (2001), pp. 127-8, reports the following proportions in Egyptian papyrus finds:

Scroll Codex
1st-2nd centuries CE 98.5% 1.5%
ca. 300 CE 50% 50%
ca. 400 CE 20% 80%
ca. 500 CE 10% 90%

An armarium for codices: the real reason
for the loss of Greco-Roman texts
(Codex Amiatinus, early 8th cent. CE)
A format shift doesn't only attach an extra cost to the survival of any text, it also attaches a time­-limit. If the storage units in your library are armaria for codices, scrolls that haven't been transferred by the deadline will simply not get stored in the library. In addition, ancient and mediaeval codices were normally stored flat on their backs -- not on end, as in modern bookshelves -- and they couldn't be piled high, if they could be piled at all. So even though a codex could hold a lot more text than a scroll, codices took up more space for the same amount of text!

Scrolls were effectively a self-destruct timer. A book published in scroll form might survive a century or three after 300 CE but if it hadn't been copied into a codex by that date, the text was basically doomed.

Wars and fires don't help of course, but those are pretty minor things in comparison to a format shift that affected all books.

So don't lament for the library of Alexandria: celebrate it for what it was. It's an important chapter in the story of the development of knowledge. But in the story of the loss of knowledge, it barely warrants even a footnote.

Some other popular sources do a perfectly decent job with this topic: Carl Sagan's TV series Cosmos is a bit notorious for being unreliable on history, but it's on relatively steady ground here (1980 episode 1, "The shores of the cosmic ocean") --

1. Foundation

In 332 BC, Alexander III of Macedon ended the Persian rule of Egypt. Then he founded Alexandria on the shore of the Mediterranean, becoming the capital of Egypt. He was greatly influenced by the Assyrian Library of Nineveh, which inspired him to combine all the different works of all the countries he conquered in one place under Greek power as a universal library. But this concept changed with the change of rulers. The library was initially an intellectual center in the service of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Later, when the Romans ruled Egypt, the library fell under the protection of the emperors.

After the death of Alexander, the library was built during the reign of his friend Ptolemy I, known as Soter (323-284 BC).

Traditional action of the "Archimedean screw" pumping water up.

Archimedes&apos screw, also known as the water screw or the Egyptian screw, is a machine used to move water from a low water body into irrigation canals. Water is pumped by rotating a spiral surface inside a tube. Although it is commonly attributed to Archimedes, there is some evidence that the device was used in ancient Egypt long before his era.

The Ptolemies offered free housing, tax breaking, and good salaries to the scientists to attract them to the library. The scholars attracted by privileges were Strabo, Zenodotus, Aristophanes, Eratosthenes, Herophilus, Euclid, and Archimedes.

2. Description

There were two locations for the library:

  • The mother library or Mouseion, meaning the museum, was located on the grounds of the royal palace and contained between 400,000 and 700,000 manuscripts. The Mouseion consisted of an Academy of Sciences, a research center, and a library. The main Academy building and the Library building were connected by a network of tracks, columns. There were also botanical gardens and animal displays to please the scientists. Also, there was an outdoor amphitheater called exedra.
  • By the time of Ptolemy III, known as Eurgertes, a secondary library existed in the temple of Serapeum, which was located in the neighborhood of Rhachotis, a poor neighborhood in southwestern Alexandria. Serapeum contained around 42,800 manuscripts.

3. Library Collection

They wanted the best, most reliable copies of all books in the world if possible. They were willing to buy, borrow, or steal to get it.

During the reign of Ptolemy Urgerts, the library borrowed official Athenian copies of the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, giving Athena a huge sum of money as a guarantee of their return. Library clerks have made wonderful copies of these books with the highest quality manuscript. The originals were kept for the library, and the copies were returned to Athens.

Another story said that during starvation in Athens, ambassadors from the Library of Alexandria forced the sale of valuable manuscripts owned by Athena in interchange for food. In addition to purchasing books, the Ptolemies obtained books by plunder.

It was widely reported that upon entering the port of Alexandria, ships were searched, and whatever books they were carrying were seized. A copy was made and handed over to the original owner, but the original has been kept for the library.

4. The Destroy of the Library

The first story of the destruction of the Library of Alexandria goes back to Julius Caesar. Around 48 BC, Caesar went to Alexandria on his pursuit of Pompey during the Roman Civil War. On reaching Egypt, he learns that Pompey was dead. However, he found himself in the midst of another civil war, between Ptolemy XII and his sister Cleopatra VII on the throne of Egypt. After Caesar had sided with Cleopatra, Ptolemy&aposs army proceeded to besiege Caesar and Cleopatra inside Alexandria. It was said that Caesar set fire to some ships in the port. The fire spread to the sidewalks, and then to the neighborhoods of the neighboring city. According to this story, contemporary writers have estimated that about 40,000 manuscripts were lost during that fire.

Then many events led to the destruction of the library. Especially during the last period of Roman rule in Egypt, through that period, Roman persecution of the Egyptians increased, which led to an increase in vandalism, robbery, and looting.

That situation continued until the year 641 AD, with the arrival of the conqueror Islamic leader Amr bin Al-Aas to Egypt to end the rule of Romans in Egypt. The Egyptians praised him at the time for their liberation from the Romans.

6. Egypt Temple of Knowledge

After Egypt gained its independence, it desperately tried to control its heritage by stemming the massive flood of Egyptian artifacts flowing out of the country to private and public collections around the world. They were eventually able to set up a number of museums, including taking over the Institut d’Égypte (Temple of Knowledge,) which held hundreds of thousands of documents and manuscripts, some dating back to the 1500’s. On December 17, 2011, during the uprising against Egyptian leader President Mubark,violent protests spilled over into the Museum grounds, and a Molotov cocktail was thrown through the window. Despite valiant attempts by bystanders to save the valuable works, only a fraction could be carried out. The rest were destroyed by the flames.

How was the Library of Alexandria Destroyed?

The Library of Alexandria is one of the most famous and well-known buildings in the ancient world. Despite this fame, scholars know little about it and much debate surrounds the details of its existence and eventual destruction. Most disagree on its size, its location, and most of all, how it was ultimately destroyed. [1]

Although the Library of Alexandria was not the first library of its kind in the ancient world, if what its contemporaries say about it is true, it was most certainly the largest. Many libraries existed in antiquity, but none contained as many books or enjoyed the same amount of financial support from the ruling monarchy. The Library of Alexandria was utilized by some of the most famous scholars of its time, and it amassed a collection of books. Some say it was half a million or more. No other institution had such a reputation. Ultimately the library was destroyed, but scholars do not know how or even in what century it met its demise. Although the Library is one of the most famous relics of the ancient world, we know very little about its appearance, the work is done there, or how it eventually came to its end.

Ancient Learning and Libraries

With the invention of writing, believed to have occurred in Mesopotamia around 3200 B.C., came the need to archive and store collections of texts. Most of the earliest clay tablets that were created contained information saved for practical purposes. When their relevance expired, the tablets were either erased and used again or reused as building materials. Their creators did not need to save or archive them, and as such, those first examples of writing are lost.

The earliest known collection of archived content comes from the ancient Sumerian city of Uruk, located in the southeast of Iraq. Archaeologists discovered roughly 4500 texts as part of a collection of varying topics from astronomy to mathematics. This is the earliest known evidence of what archaeologists call “archival behavior.” Other libraries that existed in that time included The Royal Library of Antioch (est. 221 B.C.) and the already ancient Library of Ashurbanipal, located in modern-day Iraq. It is said that, upon seeing Ashurbanipal, Alexander the Great was inspired to establish his own Library, and he bestowed that responsibility upon his Macedonian general Ptolemy I. [2]

Outline of the Museum and the Library

The Library and Museum were founded sometime between 300 and 290 BC. Scholars are unclear who founded it, but most agree it was either the first or the second King from the Ptolemaic dynasty. The Ptolemies were a dynasty of Pharaohs who ruled Egypt for nearly 300 years. The first Ptolemy was a general under Alexander the Great. They financially supported the library and its scholars and earned a reputation in the ancient world for being culturally enlightened rulers. [3]

The Library of Alexandria contained both a library and a museum. The museum was made of a community of scholars who were involved in academic and religious pursuits. The museum was named for the Muses, the Greek goddesses of artistry and scholarship. Its resident scholars studied mathematics, medicine, astronomy, and literature. They are famous for having edited most major Greek texts, including those of Homer and Hesiod. It is also believed that the library scholars served as teachers for privileged members of the community. [4] The library also had gardens, decorated walkways, and a dining hall where all of the museum's fellows ate together [5]

It is not known how many members the museum had. Their names have been lost to history. [6] However, it is known that many famous intellectuals studied and worked there, including Euclid, Callimachus, and Eratosthenes. [7] The scholars were led by a librarian who was appointed by the King. The librarian was the head scholar, head scholar, and tutor to the royal family. [8]

The librarians and the Ptolemies alike went to great lengths to obtain as many books as possible. Scholars were sent to other major cities such as Athens and Rhodes, to buy books. All ships that docked in the harbor were searched, and the books were taken and copied. The copies (not the originals) were returned to the owners. Books known to have been acquired this way include the tragedies of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. [9] It is believed that the Library may have contained as many as half a million scrolls. If these estimates are accurate, the Library of Alexandria was significantly larger than any other libraries of its time.

The Library Destroyed

It is unknown when or how the library was destroyed as there are no primary sources that discuss its destruction. Scholars can’t even be sure about a century when it may have occurred. Some scholars believe it was destroyed as early as 48 A.D. while others place the date six hundred years later in 641. It is not known where the library was located within the city nor how large it was, how many buildings it contained, or how many scholars lived there. There are no eye witness accounts or even primary sources which mention the destruction of the library. [10]

It is most widely believed that the Library of Alexandria was destroyed in a fire that was started when Caesar burned the Egyptian fleet during the Alexandrian Warn in 48 B.C. [11] Instead, Many Islamic scholars believe that Umar's order burned the library, a powerful 7th century Caliph from Mecca, after the Muslim conquest of Alexandria 641 A.D. Others believe that Emperor Theodosius burned it in 390 A.D. Finally, many believe it was destroyed during the recapture of Alexandria by Aurelian during the revolt of Queen Zenobia of Palmyra in 269 A.D.

Despite the best efforts of classical scholars, most details about the Library of Alexandria remain a mystery. What is known is that the Library was an unparalleled center of learning in the ancient world, which enjoyed the patronage of the ruling monarchy for centuries. Scholars traveled from all over the world to study at Alexandria and copy their books, and it has entered our modern psyche as a symbol of a great loss of knowledge and culture. As time goes on, scholars and the general public alike hope to eventually shed light on the mystery of its holdings and its eventual destruction. Until then, the details of the events in the Library of Alexandria's life are left to our imagination.


Empereur, J.-Y., 2008. The Destruction of the Library of Alexandria: An Archaeological Viewpoint. In: M. El-Abbadi & O. M. Fathallah, eds. What Happened to the Ancient Library of Alexandria?. Leiden Boston: Brill, pp. 75-88.

Newitz, A., 2013. The Great Library at Alexandria was Destroyed by Budget Cuts, Not Fire. [Online]
Available at: http://io9.com/the-great-library-at-alexandria-was-destroyed-by-budget-1442659066
[Accessed 8 May 2014].

Plutarch, Life of Julius Caesar ,
[Perrin, B. (trans.), 1919. Plutarch's Lives. London: William Heinemann.]

Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods. Read More

Here are 10 things you need to know about the ancient library of Alexandria.

1) The ancient library of Alexandria was founded by Demetrius of Phaleon, an Athenian politician who fell from power and fled to Egypt. There, he found refuge at the royal court of King Ptolemy I Soter, who ruled Egypt between 323 and 285 BCE. Impressed by the extensive knowledge and deep learning of Demetrius, Ptolemy assigned him the task of creating a library.

2) The ancient library of Alexandria was part of an institution of higher learning known as the Alexandrian Museum. The library was intended as a resource for the scholars who did research at the Museum.

3) The books at the library were divided into the following subjects: rhetoric, law, epic, tragedy, comedy, lyric poetry, history, medicine, mathematics, natural science, and miscellaneous. The library is believed to have housed between 200,000 and 700,000 books, divided between two library branches.

4) Book were acquired for the library through purchases at Athens and Rhodes, the two main book markets in the Ancient Mediterranean through copying and through confiscation.

5) One category of acquired books was called &ldquofrom the ships.&rdquo Whenever a ship arrived at the harbor in Alexandria, government officials went aboard, searching for books. They brought the books they found to the library for inspection. These books were either returned immediately, or confiscated and replaced with a copy made by the library scribes.

The Rosetta Stone, created in 196 B.C.E. in Egypt and contains writing in Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Egyptian demotic script. Source: Wikipedia.

6) Books at the ancient library of Alexandria were mainly written in two languages&mdashGreek and Egyptian, a now extinct Afro-Asian language. It is believed that the entire literary corpus of Ancient Greece was kept at the library, together with works by Aristotle, Sophocles, and Euripides, among others. The Egyptian books were books about the traditions and history of Ancient Egypt.

7) Scholars working at the Alexandrian Museum used the library to create the categorization of Ancient Egypt&rsquos history into 30 dynasties, which is still used today when we study ancient history, as well as the first translation of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Septuagint. To this day, the Septuagint remains a crucial text in critical Bible studies.

8) The ancient library of Alexandria was destroyed on two different occasions. The original library branch was located at the royal palace at Alexandria, near the harbor. When Julius Caesar intervened in the civil war between Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII, Caesar set fire to the ships in the harbor. It is believed that this fire spread to the library and completely destroyed it.

9) The second branch of the library was located inside a temple dedicated to the god Serapis. In 391 CE, Roman Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity the only legal religion of Rome, and ordered all pagan temples to be destroyed. The temple of Serapis at Alexandria was completely destroyed, and with it the second branch of the library.

10) In 2002, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina opened in Alexandria. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina is a research library and cultural center created in commemoration of the ancient library with the intention of making Alexandria into a city of world-renowned learning again. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina houses the world&rsquos largest digital collection of historical manuscripts as well as the largest repository of French books on the African continent.

Interior of Bibliotecha Alexandrina, Alexandria, Egypt. Source: Wikipedia.

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