Library of alexandria

The Royal Library of Alexandria, or Ancient Library of Alexandria, was described by many as the largest and most significant great library of the ancient world, it was situated in Alexandria (named after the founder Alexander the Great) in Egypt, It flourished under the patronage of the Ptolemaic dynasty and functioned as a major center of scholarship from its construction in the 3rd century BC until the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BC. The library was conceived and opened either during the reign of Ptolemy I Soter (323–283 BC) or during the reign of his son Ptolemy II (283–246 BC).

Plutarch (AD 46–120) wrote that during his visit to Alexandria in 48 BC Julius Caesar “accidentally” burned the library down when he set fire to his own ships to frustrate Achillas’ attempt to limit his ability to communicate by sea. After its destruction, scholars used a “daughter library” in a temple known as the Serapeum, located in another part of the city. Intended both as a commemoration and an emulation of the original, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina was inaugurated in 2002 near the site of the old library.

In 2004, a Polish-Egyptian excavation team announced that they had discovered the remains of the Library of Alexandria.

Library of alexandria2

The Great Library of Alexandria, O. Von Corven, 19th century

According to the earliest source of information, the pseudepigraphic Letter of Aristeas, the library was initially organized by Demetrius of Phaleron, a student of Aristotle, under the reign of Ptolemy Soter (ca.367 BC—ca.283 BC).

Built in the Brucheion (Royal Quarter) in the style of Aristotle’s Lyceum, adjacent to and in service of the Musaeum (a Greek Temple or “House of Muses”, hence the term “museum”), the library comprised a Peripatos walk, gardens, a room for shared dining, a reading room, lecture halls and meeting rooms. However, the exact layout is not known. The influence of this model may still be seen today in the layout of university campuses. The library itself is known to have had an acquisitions department (possibly built near the stacks, or for utility closer to the harbour), and a cataloguing department. A hall contained shelves for the collections of scrolls (as the books were at this time on papyrus scrolls), known as bibliothekai. Legend has it that carved into the wall above the shelves was an inscription that read: The place of the cure of the soul.

The first known library of its kind to gather a serious collection of books from beyond its country’s borders, the Library at Alexandria was charged with collecting all the world’s knowledge. It did so through an aggressive and well-funded royal mandate involving trips to the book fairs of Rhodes and Athens and a policy of pulling the books off every ship that came into port. They kept the original texts and made copies to send back to their owners. This detail is informed by the fact that Alexandria, because of its man-made bidirectional port between the mainland and the Pharos island, welcomed trade from the East and West, and soon found itself the international hub for trade, as well as the leading producer of papyrus and, soon enough, books.

Alexander the great 200x300

 Alexander the Great

Other than collecting works from the past, the library was also home to a host of international scholars, well-patronized by the Ptolemaic dynasty with travel, lodging and stipends for their whole families. As a research institution, the library filled its stacks with new works in mathematics, astronomy, physics, natural sciences and other subjects. Its empirical standards applied in one of the first and certainly strongest homes for serious textual criticism. As the same text often existed in several different versions, comparative textual criticism was crucial for ensuring their veracity. Once ascertained, canonical copies would then be made for scholars, royalty and wealthy bibliophiles the world over, this commerce bringing income to the library.

The editors at the Library of Alexandria are especially well known for their work on Homeric texts. The more famous editors generally also held the title of head librarian. These included, among others,

  • Zenodotus (early 3rd century BC)
  • Callimachus, (early 3rd century BC), the first bibliographer and developer of the Pinakes, popularly considered to be the first library catalog.
  • Apollonius of Rhodes (mid-3rd century BC)
  • Eratosthenes (late 3rd century BC)
  • Aristophanes of Byzantium (early 2nd century BC)
  • Aristarchus of Samothrace (late 2nd century BC).

It is now impossible to determine the collection’s size in any era with any certainty. Papyrus scrolls comprised the collection, and although parchment codices were used after 300 BC, the Alexandrian Library is never documented as having switched to parchment, perhaps because of its strong links to the papyrus trade. (The Library of Alexandria in fact had an indirect cause in the creation of writing parchment — due to the library’s critical need for papyrus, little was exported and thus an alternate source of copy material became essential.)

Ptolemy ii

Ptolemy II

A single piece of writing might occupy several scrolls, and this division into self-contained “books” was a major aspect of editorial work. King Ptolemy II Philadelphus (309–246 BC) is said to have set 500,000 scrolls as an objective for the library. Mark Antony supposedly gave Cleopatra over 200,000 scrolls (taken from the great Library of Pergamum) for the library as a wedding gift, but this is regarded by some historians as a propagandist claim meant to show Antony’s allegiance to Egypt rather than Rome. No index of the library survives, and it is not possible to know with certainty how large and how diverse the collection may have been. For example, it is likely that even if the Library of Alexandria had hundreds of thousands of scrolls (and thus perhaps tens of thousands of individual works), some of these would have been duplicate copies or alternate versions of the same texts.

Galen detail 248x300

Galen of Pergamon

A possibly apocryphal or exaggerated story concerns how the library’s collection grew so large. By decree of Ptolemy III of Egypt, all visitors to the city were required to surrender all books and scrolls, as well as any form of written media in any language in their possession which, according to Galen, were listed under the heading “books of the ships“. Official scribes then swiftly copied these writings, some copies proving so precise that the originals were put into the library, and the copies delivered to the unsuspecting owners. This process also helped to create a reservoir of books in the relatively new city.

According to Galen, Ptolemy III requested permission from the Athenians to borrow the original scripts of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, for which the Athenians demanded the enormous amount of fifteen talents (450 kg of a precious metal) as guarantee. Ptolemy happily paid the fee but kept the original scripts for the library. This story may also be constructed erroneously to show the power of Alexandria over Athens during the Ptolemaic dynasty.


The library of Alexandria was but one part of the Museum of Alexandria, which functioned as a sort of research institute. In addition to the library, the Museum included rooms for the study of astronomy, anatomy, and even a zoo of exotic animals. The classical thinkers who studied, wrote, and experimented at the museum include the fathers of mathematics, engineering, physiology, geography, and medicine. These included notable thinkers such as Euclid, Archimedes, Eratosthenes, Herophilus, Erasistratus, Hipparchus, Aedesia, Pappus,Hypatia, Aristarchus of Samos, and Catherine of Alexandria.


Ancient and modern sources identify four possible occasions for the partial or complete destruction of the Library of Alexandria: Julius Caesar’s fire in the Alexandrian War, in 48 BC; the attack of Aurelian in 270 – 275 AD; the decree of Coptic Pope Theophilus in AD 391; and the Muslim conquest in 642 AD or thereafter.

Alexandria library inscription2

This Latin inscription regarding Tiberius Claudius Balbilus of Rome (d. c. AD 79) mentions the "ALEXANDRINA BYBLIOTHECE" (line eight).

"There is no ancient account of the foundation of the Library," argues American classical scholar Roger S. Bagnall, but that doesn't stop historians from putting together a probable, but gap-filled account. Ptolemy Soter, the successor of Alexander the Great who had control of Egypt, probably started the world famous Library of Alexandria. In the city where Ptolemy buried Alexander, he started a library that his son completed. (His son may also have been responsible for initiating the project. We just don't know.) Not only was the Library of Alexandria the repository of all the most important written works -- whose numbers may have been wildly exaggerated if Bagnall's reckoning is accurate -- but illustrious scholars, like Eratosthenes and Callimachus, worked, and scribes hand-copied books in its associated Museum/Mouseion. The temple to Serapis known as the Serapeum may have housed some of the materials.

Scholars at the Library of Alexandria, paid by the Ptolemies and then Caesars, worked under a president or priest. Both Museum and Library were near the palace, but exactly where is not known. Other buildings included a dining hall, a covered area for walks, and a lecture hall. A geographer from the turn of the eras, Strabo, writes the following about Alexandria and its educational complex:

And the city contains most beautiful public precincts and also the royal palaces, which constitute one-fourth or even one-third of the whole circuit of the city; for just as each of the kings, from love of splendour, was wont to add some adornment to the public monuments, so also he would invest himself at his own expense with a residence, in addition to those already built, so that now, to quote the words of the poet, "there is building upon building." All, however, are connected with one another and the harbour, even those that lie outside the harbour. The Museum is also a part of the royal palaces; it has a public walk, an Exedra with seats, and a large house, in which is the common mess-hall of the men of learning who share the Museum. This group of men not only hold property in common, but also have a priest in charge of the Museum, who formerly was appointed by the kings, but is now appointed by Caesar.

In Mesopotamia, fire was a friend of the written word, since it baked the clay of the cuneiform tablets. In Egypt, it was a different story. There papyrus was the principal writing surface. The scrolls were destroyed when the Library burned.

1024px the burning of the library at alexandria in 391 ad

The Burning of the Library at Alexandria in 391 AD, an illustration from 'Hutchinsons History of the Nations', c. 1910

In 48 B.C., Caesar's troops burned a collection of books. Some believe this was the Library of Alexandria, but the devastating fire in the Library of Alexandria could have been somewhat later. Bagnall describes this as like a murder mystery -- and a very popular one at that -- with a number of suspects. Besides Caesar, there were the Alexandria-damaging emperors Caracalla, Diocletian, and Aurelian. Religious sides offer up the monks in 391 who destroyed the Serapeum, where there may have been a second Alexandrian library, and Amr, the Arab conqueror of Egypt, in A.D. 642. 


5th century scroll which illustrates the destruction of the Serapeum by Theophilus

Theophilus and the Serapeum. Bishop Theophilus of Alexandria, Gospel book in hand, stands triumphantly atop the Serapeum in 391. The cult image of Serapis, crowned with the modius, is visible within the temple at the bottom. Marginal illustration from a chronicle written in Alexandria in the early fifth century, thus providing a nearly contemporary portrait of Theophilus.

Add a comment

You're using an AdBlock like software. Disable it to allow submit.

Make a free website with - Report abuse