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The Mysterious Fate of the Great Library of Alexandria


This article has been translated into Russian.

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I have also written a more detailed and heavily annotated study of the Great Library of Alexandria which you can read here.

hat happened to the Royal Library of Alexandria? We can be certain it was there once, founded by Ptolomy II Soter, and we can be equally certain it is not there now. It formed part of the Museum which was located in the Bruchion or palace quarter of the city of Alexandria. This great ancient city, occupying a spit of land on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea, had been founded by Alexander the Great in his flying visit to Egypt and became the capital of the last dynasty of Pharaohs descended from Alexander's general Ptolemy. The Great or more properly Royal Library formed a part of the Museum but whether or not it was a separate building is unclear.

Stories about its demise have been circulating for centuries and date back to at least the first century AD. These stories continue to be told and embellished today by those who wish to make a moral attack against the alleged vandals. We find that three parties are blamed for the destruction and they correspond to the three occupying powers that ruled Alexandria after it had been lost by the Greeks. Let me first tell those stories as we hear them today - without references, largely inaccurate and used as polemic. Then I will try and establish what, if anything we can know before finally and rather indulgently making my own suggestions.

The suspects are respectively a Roman, a Christian and a Moslem - Julius Caesar, Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria and Caliph Omar of Damascus. It is clear that the Royal Library could not have been burnt down or otherwise destroyed by all three of these characters and so we find we have too many sources for the event of the destruction rather than a paucity. As scholars of the Gospels will vouch, this too can be an embarrassment. How we decide to reconcile the stories will depend almost entirely on how we criticise the sources and which of them we choose to consider as most reliable.

Archaeology can be a help with ancient history, although it tends to be silent about the things in which we are most interested, leading the more foolish archaeologists to claim they never happened. In the case of Alexandria a series of earthquakes and floods in the Middle Ages mean that the entire palace quarter in the North East of the city is now submerged and largely inaccessible. Recent work in underwater archaeology has revealed more but we will probably never be able to dig around in the foundations of the Museum. The Great Temple of Serapis, to which we will later return, was in the south-western quarter and parts of its foundations have been excavated.

Julius Caesar

First, let us read the legendary account:

It is often said that the Romans were civilised but their most famous general was responsible for the greatest act of vandalism during antiquity. Julius Caesar was attacking Alexandria in pursuit of his archrival Pompey when he found himself about to be cut off by the Egyptian fleet. Realising that this would leave him in a desperate predicament, he took decisive action and sent fire ships into the harbour. His plan was a success and the enemy fleet was quickly aflame. But the fire did not stop there and jumped onto the dockside which was laden with flammable materials ready for export. Next it spread inland and before anyone could stop it, the Great Library itself was blazing brightly as 400,000 priceless scrolls were reduced to ashes. As for Caesar himself, did not think it important enough to mention in his memoirs.

The accused was indeed in Alexandria in 47BC to 48BC after arriving in pursuit of his rival Pompey. Caesar was able to occupy the city without any trouble after destroying the Egyptian fleet and was residing in the palace with Cleopatra when more trouble started. Some henchmen of the Pharaoh attacked with a sizable force and Caesar suddenly found himself stuck in a hostile city with very few forces. That he still won out is a tribute to his luck and powers of leadership. This much is uncontested but to unravel the fate of the Royal Library we must examine the ancient sources.

Julius Caesar - The Civil Wars

The earliest account we have of this these events is in The Civil Wars penned by Caesar (died 44BC) himself. In it, he explains how he had to set the dockyards and Alexandrine fleet alight for his own safety as he was in dire straits. As to whether the fire spread away from the shore and also damaged the Royal Library, he is silent. The narrative in The Civil Wars breaks off at the start of the campaign in Egypt and the story is taken up by one of his lieutenant's called Hirtius (died 43BC) in The Alexandrine War. It does not include any mention of setting fire to Alexandria but instead states that the city would in fact not burn as it was made purely of stone.

We can log this as a Not Guilty plea by the accused but note that a reason he might have mentioned that Alexandria does not burn would be to hide his own action of burning it. Future history demonstrated many times that Alexandria burns just as well as any other city. The fire is also not mentioned by Cicero in his Philippics against Caesar's ally Mark Anthony. This is a valuable witness for the defence, as Cicero did not like Caesar at all. Unfortunately it is also an argument from silence and it is very possible that Cicero either did not know about everything that happened, saw no need to mention this particular event or mentioned it in the quarter of his works no longer extant.

Strabo - Geography

The great scholar, Strabo (died after 24AD) was in Alexandria in 20BC and. in all his detailed description of the palace and Museum, does not mention the library at all. This omission is often explained by scholars claiming that the library was inside the Museum or annexed to it. But even so, not breathing a word about this famous institution is very suspicious. Can we conclude that the library was no longer there but that political constraints meant that its fate still could not be mentioned?

The modern writer, Mostafa El-Abbadi, comes up with a more subtle point. He shows how Strabo mentions the body of research available to one of the earlier librarians was much greater than Strabo himself had access to. He concludes that this shows that Strabo did not have access to the wisdom of the Royal Library that his illustrious predecessor had. The point is small but potentially significant.

Livy and Florus - Epitome of the History of Rome

The first mention of the fire at Alexandria would seem to come from Livy (died 17AD) in his History of Rome. The book that it was included in is lost and the surviving Summaries are too brief to include it. However, a second century Epitome written by Florus survives and it says that the fire was started by Caesar to clear the area around his position so the enemy had no cover from which to fire arrows. The library itself is not mentioned by Florus, although it was in the same area of the city as Caesar who was occupying the palace at the time.

The Younger Seneca - On Tranquillity of the Mind

In fact we do know that the Royal Library is mentioned by Livy because he is later quoted by Seneca (died 65AD) in his dialogue On the Tranquillity of the Mind where he also says that a great number of books were destroyed. It has been asserted that Seneca must have got his knowledge about the destruction of the books from Livy but a close reading of the dialogue does not bear this out. Seneca actually only states that Livy thought the library was "the most distinguished achievement of the good taste and solicitude of kings" and then only so as he can disagree.

The actual number of books destroyed that Seneca gives is matter of some controversy that we need to briefly address. In ancient manuscripts it is common for large numbers to be expressed as a dot placed above the numeral for each power of ten. Clearly, it is easy for a copiest to make a mistake with the number of dots and so errors by a factor of ten are frequent. That may have happened in the case of On the Tranquillity of the Mind. The manuscript from Monte Cassino actually reads 40,000 books but this is usually corrected to 400,000 by editors as other sources such as Orosius give this figure for the number of scrolls destroyed. I have not seen the manuscript, of course, so do not know if this way the number is expressed. However, even if it was given in words the difference between 40,000 and 400,000 is also pretty small. I propose therefore that the number given by Seneca, and indeed all other ancient sources, should be ruled as inadmissible as evidence because we cannot be sure of what it was originally.

Plutarch and Dio Cassius - Life of Caesar and Roman History

After this, the references become more explicit. Plutarch (died 120AD), in his Life of Caesar throws in a reference to the destruction of the library almost casually. Now Plutarch does not seem to carry a brief against Caesar, although he is happy to criticise him, so we should take this reference seriously. Additionally, he had visited Alexandria and presumably might have noticed if the library was still in existence. Dio Cassius (died 235AD) tells us that warehouses of books near the docks were accidentally burnt by Caesar's men. His words are difficult to pin down and have led some scholars to suggest that only books waiting for export were destroyed. This reads far more into the text than it allows and I do not think that Dio saying that the books 'happened' to be in the path of the flames means that usually they were kept somewhere else.

Aulus Gellius - Attic Nights

Gellius (died 180AD) included in his Attic Nights contain a brief passage about libraries where the destruction of the Royal Library is mentioned as taking place by accident during our first war against Alexandria when auxiliary soldiers started a fire. This first war was Caesar's campaign - the second was when Octavian took Egypt from Mark Anthony and Cleopatra. In The Vanished Library, Luciano Canfora claims that this passage is an interpolation on the strength that the introduction does not mention it but again the evidence for this seems flimsy. Gellius claims 700,000 books went up in smoke.

Ammianus Marcellinus and Orosius - Roman History and History against the Pagans

One of the final pagan Roman historians, Ammianus Marcellinus (died 395AD), tells us about the fate of the library during an aside about the city of Alexandria in his Roman History. He relates the story of the fire started by Julius Caesar is 'the unanimous belief of the ancient authors' but confuses the library building with the Serapeum and increases the number of scrolls destroyed to 700,000 (perhaps Gellius is his source). The story is repeated with the figure of 400,000 scrolls destroyed by Orosius (died after 415AD), an early Christian historian, in his History against the Pagans. Both these writers are far too late to be accurate sources on their own but they do tell us that by the fourth century the Royal Library was widely believed to have been destroyed by Julius Caesar. We will be discussing them further below with regard to the destruction of the Serapeum which occurred in their own time.

The verdict on Caesar

Taken together we can conclude a number of things from these sources:

The earliest descriptions of the Alexandrine War, written by Caesar or his crony, deliberately cover up anything that reflects badly on the great man. Their silence about burning down the world's greatest library, even by accident, is not surprising.
The library as a separate building did not exist by the time of Strabo's visit in 20BC.
The belief that Caesar had destroyed the library was widespread by the time his family no longer occupied the throne of the emperors in the late first century AD. Plutarch, Aulus Gellius and Seneca are all evidence for this. We must therefore assume that the library did not exist at this time. Plutarch, a Greek, would certainly have known if it did.

Although we cannot prove his guilt with first hand evidence, it seems justified to claim that the book stacks of the Royal Library were burnt down by Julius Caesar. Perhaps the reading rooms, which in any case were part of the Museum, survived but, as Seneca and all the other sources tell us, the books themselves perished. That scholarship continued in Alexandria after this time cannot be doubted but I can find no explicit mention of the Royal Library after Caesar's ill-fated visit. Indeed as Athenaeus of Naucratis (died after 200AD) mournfully wrote in the Deipnosophistai "And concerning the number of books and the establishment of libraries and the collection in the Museum, why need I even speak when they are all the the memory of men."


Again, the legendary story first:

Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria, is also the patron saint of arsonists. As Christianity slowly strangled the life out of classical culture in the fourth century it became more and more difficult to be a pagan. There stood in Alexandria the great temple of Serapis called the Serapeum and attached to it was the Great Library of Alexandria where all the wisdom of the ancients was preserved. Now Theophilus knew that as long as this knowledge existed people would be less inclined to believe the bible so he set about destroying the pagan temples. But the Serapeum was a huge structure, high on a hill and beyond the abilities of the raging Christian fanatics to assault. Faced with this edifice, the Patriarch sent word to Rome. There the Emperor Theodosius the Great, who had ordered that paganism be annihilated, gave his permission for the destruction of the Serapeum. Realising they had no chance, the priests and priestesses fled their temple and the mob moved in. The vast structure was razed to it foundations and the scrolls from the library were burnt in huge pyres in the streets of Alexandria.

Theophilus was indeed the Patriarch of Alexandria at the time that the Serapeum was converted into a Christian church although he has never been made a saint. The date for the events recorded is usually given as 391AD when Theodosius was emperor and energetically converting all his subjects to Christianity. The contention made is that there was another library in the Serapeum temple that a Christian mob destroyed during their sacking of the temple. We need to establish if there really was a library there and also if Theophilus destroyed it.

The intervening years

The ancient sources have little to say about the Serapeum library. This is not a surprise because we know already that we cannot be talking about the Royal Library itself. However, Alexandria remained a centre of scholarship and other libraries existed. The Emperor Claudius set up the eponymously named Claudian to be a centre for the study of history and Hadrian founded a library at the Caesarean temple during his visit. Less reliably, Plutarch informs us that Mark Anthony gave Cleopatra the entire contents - some 200,000 rolls - of the Pergamon library as a gift.  Despite the continuation of academic activity, Alexandria suffered much in the years up to 391AD. Augustus reduced it, Caracalla massacred many of its citizens over a perceived insult and Aurelian also sacked the city and the palace quarter in which the Museum was situated. Finally, the city was taken with great destruction by Diocletian at the start of the fourth century.

The 12th century Byzantine scholar, John Tzetzes, in his Prolegomena to Aristophanes preserves some details about the catalogue of the poet Callimachus (died after 250BC) who said there were nearly 500,000 scrolls in the Royal Library and another 42,000 odd in the outer or public library. Note that Callimachus is not known to have referred to the Serapeum Library although he is often assumed to be doing so. The fourth century Bishop Epiphanius of Cyprus (died 402AD) in his Weights and Measures (actually a biblical commentary!) says that there were over 50,000 volumes in the 'daughter' library that he places in the Serapeum. Our previous observations about numbers fully apply here even if it seems fair to say that there were many fewer scrolls in the daughter than in the Royal Library. Epiphanius also tells us that by his day the entire Bruchion quarter of Alexandria was laid waste, no doubt due to the actions of the Emperors Aurelian or Diocletian. There is a detailed report of the acropolis of Alexandria in a Progymnasmata by Aphthonius of Ephesus (died after 400AD) which he presents as an example of how to give a description. He speaks of book repositories open to the public and we can assume this refers to the Serapeum. Unfortunately the date of the description is impossible to determine and nor can we tell if it is an eyewitness account. However, we do have enough evidence in total to assert that there was once a library at the Serapeum even if it is not the same as the 'outer library' attached to the Royal Library.

Ammianus Marcellinus - Roman History

In the Roman History, Ammianus waxes lyrical about the Serapeum but he then gets a bit confused and says that the libraries it held were those burnt by Caesar in the Alexandrine War. This point is vital because he had visited Alexandria in person. Yet says of the Serapeum "in it have been valuable libraries" in the past tense. This was before 391AD when Theophilus and his gang set to work and very strongly suggests there were no books present in the temple at the time of its destruction.

Rufinus Tyrannius - Ecclesiastical History

The earliest description of the sack of the Serapeum was almost certainly one by Sophronius, a Christian scholar, called On the Overthrow of Serapis and now lost. Rufinus (died 410AD) was an orthodox Latin Christian who spent many years of his life in Alexandria. He arrived in 372AD and whether or not he was actually present when the Serapeum was demolished, he was certainly there at around the same time. He rather freely translated Eusebius's History of the Church into Latin and then added his own books X and XI taking the narrative up to his own time. It is in book XI that we find the best source for the events at the Serapeum which he describes in detail. His account largely agrees with the one given above except that he makes no mention of any library or books at all. He seems to regret the passing of the Serapeum but puts the blame squarely on the local pagans for inciting the Christian mob.

Eunapius - Lives of the Philosophers

The pagan writer Eunapius of Antioch (died after 400AD) included an account of the sack of the Serapeum in his Life of Antonius who, before he died in 390AD, had prophesied that all the pagan temples in Alexandria would be destroyed (not a desperately surprising contingency at the time). Eunapius wants to show how right he was. As well as being a pagan, Eunapius is vehemently anti-Christian and spares no effort in making Theophilus and his followers look as foolish as possible. His narrative is laced with venom and sarcasm as he describes the sack of the temple as a battle without an enemy. If a great library had been destroyed then Eunapius, the pagan scholar, would surely have mentioned it. He does not.

Socrates Scholasticus, Hermias Sozomen and Theodoret

Socrates (died after 450AD) also wrote a History of the Church that continued on from that of Eusebius. His was more detailed and in Greek rather than Latin. It contains a chapter about the destruction of the Serapeum which acknowledges that the deed was ordered by the Emperor, that the building was demolished and that it was later converted to a church. Again, no mention is made of any books that might have been in the Serapeum or what could have happened to them. His passage about the cross-shaped hieroglyphics found in the temple gives us some idea of how Christianity turned various pagan symbols to its advantage.

The histories of Sozomen (died 443AD) and Theodoret (died after 457AD) cover a similar period. Despite being pleased to report in detail the Serapeum's destruction they also make no mention of any books although Theodoret says that the wooden idols of Serapis were burnt. Both of these histories are heavily dependent on Socrates but do include details from other sources.

Paulus Orosius - History against the Pagans

Orosius (died after 415AD) was a friend of Saint Augustine who wrote a History against the Pagans that was fully intended to paint all non-Christians in a bad light. So as a historian he is useless but when he says something that suggests that his fellow Christians were not whiter than white, that is to say, against the grain of his usual bias, we have to take it seriously. In his aside on the Great Library, he says something of significance which is both an eyewitness detail and suggests that his fellow Christians are in the wrong. He says "…there exist in temples book chests which we ourselves have seen and when these temples were plundered these, we are told, were emptied by our own men in our own time." His statement that there was no other major library in Alexandria at the time of Caesar's expedition is interesting and would seem to count against there being a Serapeum library at that time. However, Orosius is too late a source to carry much weight in this matter.

From Orosius we can deduce that Christians did empty some temples of books but we cannot go much further. We cannot say the books were destroyed as this is not stated nor can we say which temples he is talking about or who was responsible. However, we can be sure he was not talking about the Serapeum as all sources agree it was razed to the ground and the temples Orosius visited are not only still standing but even have their internal furninshings. The most likely explanation is that the books were removed to Christian libraries or sold.

The verdict on Theophilus

It is hard enough to establish beyond doubt that there was a library in the Serapeum at all but if there was, Ammianus makes clear that it was no longer there by the mid-fourth century. This is confirmed by the silence of all the sources, including one that would be keen to report Christian atrocities, for the destruction of the temple in 391AD. Note that this is not an 'argument from silence' because there is no reason at all to expect a mention of books in the Serapeum when it was demolished. An invalid 'argument from silence' is when we claim something that is not mentioned did not happen, even though other evidence suggests it did. There is no positive evidence for the existence of the library and instead near conclusive eye witness evidence against.

The story that Theophilus destroyed a library is clearly a fiction that we can very precisely lay at the door of Edward Gibbon. It is in his monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that we first find the allegation made. Gibbon seems mainly concerned to clear the Arabs of the responsibility of destroying the library and allows his marked anti-Christian prejudice to cloud his better judgement. His excellent footnotes show he had exactly the same sources as we do but drew the wrong conclusions.  The story has recently been popularised by Carl Sagan who includes it in Cosmos.  He spices the story up with a role for the murdered philosopher Hypatia, even though there is no evidence connecting her to the library at all.

Caliph Omar

First the legendary account:

The Moslems invaded Egypt during the seventh century as their fanaticism carried them on conquests that would form an empire stretching from Spain to India. There was not much of a struggle in Egypt and the locals found the rule of the Caliph to be more tolerant than that of the Byzantines before them. However, when a Christian called John informed the local Arab general that there existed in Alexandria a great library preserving all the knowledge in the world he was perturbed. Eventually he sent word to Mecca where Caliph Omar ordered that all the books in the library should be destroyed because, as he said "they will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous." Therefore, the books and scrolls were taken out of the library and distributed as fuel to the many bathhouses of the city. So enormous was the volume of literature that it took six months for it all to be burnt to ashes heating the saunas of the conquerors.

The leader of the Moslem forces that took Egypt in 640AD was called 'Amr and it was he who was supposed to have asked Omar what to do about the fabled library that he found himself in control of.

There are only a few sources that we need to examine. They are very late. The first of the two late sources dates from the 12th century and is written by Abd al Latif (died 1231) who, in his Account of Egypt, while describing Alexandria, mentions the ruins of the Serapeum. The problems with this as historical evidence are enormous and insurmountable. He admits that the source of his information was rumour and the fantasy about Aristotle does not bode well for the veracity of the rest of the piece.

In the thirteenth century the great Jacobite Christian Bishop Gregory Bar Hebræus (died 1286), called Abû 'l Faraj in Arabic, fleshes the story out and includes the famous epigram about the Koran. Again there is no clue as to where he found the story but it seems to have been one doing the rounds among Christians living under the dominion of the Moslems. Gregory is happy to record plenty of far fetched tales about omens and monstrosities so we must treat this story with the greatest suspicion. As it is not even included in the original version of his history but only in the Arabic version that he translated and abridged himself very late in life, he may not have known the story when he first put pen to parchment. In The Vanished Library, Canfora mentions a Syriac manuscript published in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century by François Nau. It was written by a Christian monk in the ninth century and details the conversation between John and Caliph Omar. After help from email correspondents, I have finally been able to find this elusive document in its French translation and ascertained that it makes no mention of any library and appears to be an example of a theological dialogue between two representative individuals. In other words it is not historical and has no pretensions to be.

The verdict on Omar

The errors in the sources are obvious and the story itself is almost wholly incredible. In the first place, Gregory Bar Hebræus represents the Christian in his story as being one John of Byzantium and that John was certainly dead by the time of the Moslem invasion of Egypt. Also, the prospect of the library taking six months to burn is simply fantastic and just the sort of exaggeration one might expect to find in Arab legends such as the Arabian Nights. However Alfred Butler's famous observation that the books of the library were made of vellum which does not burn is not true. The very late dates of the source material are also suspect as there is no hint of this atrocity in any early literature - even in the Coptic Christian chronicle of John of Nikiou (died after 640AD) who detailed the Arab invasion. Finally, the story comes from the hand of a Christian intellectual who would have been more than happy to show the religion of his rulers in a bad light. Agreeing with Gibbon this time, we can dismiss it as a legend.

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© James Hannam 2007