The Alexandrian Library: Dissipation Through Neglect And Apathy

Nearly every scholar of classical antiquity seems to have an opinion about the destruction of the Great Library of the Ptolemies at Alexandria in Egypt.  It has become something of a symbol of the triumph of ignorance and superstition over knowledge.  There is much merit to this view; but the picture is a complex one, and it deserves serious consideration.  The ruin of the library–and of others like it in the ancient and medieval worlds–was not a discrete, single event.  It was the gradual outcome of a process that took place over generations.  And when I say “process,” I am referring to neglect, apathy, and negligence.

Myth and history must be kept firmly separated.  We should first remember that the library was not like a modern “lending library;” nor was it similar to the public libraries of Rome during the imperial period.  It was a royal research facility, and one was only granted access with special permission.  The average person could not just walk into the library and start unwinding scrolls.  The library was meant to serve as a symbol of the Ptolemaic dynasty’s prestige and civilized dignity.  As the scholar Michael Handis has shown, the mythologizing of the Alexandrian library started early and was continued during the Roman period.  But we do not even know if the library was a separate building or a part of the research facility known as the Mouseion.  We do not know precisely where the collection was, nor how many volumes it held; but this has not prevented speculation of the wildest kind.

A Byzantine writer of the twelfth century, John Tzetzes, gave the number of books at around 490,000; the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus (XXII.16.13) put the figure at 700,000, as did the writer Aulus Gellius (VII.17.3).  We do not know the exact number; it probably fluctuated over time.  There is no record of any collaboration or cooperation between the Alexandrian library and its other competitor of antiquity, the royal library of Pergamum.  The crux of the matter is that we do not know exactly how the collection came to be destroyed.  But we can make very informed guesses that tell us things we may not care to hear.

Let us summarize the available evidence.  We know that Julius Caesar’s troops accidentally caused a good portion of the collection to be damaged or destroyed in 48 B.C.  When his men set fire to Pompey’s ships in Alexandria, the fire spread through the docks and into part of the city, and the library building was one of the casualties.  We also know that the Roman emperor Caracalla looted part of Alexandria and damaged some property in A.D. 215.  Aurelian recaptured the city from Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, and there is clear evidence that much of the royal district was destroyed.  Earthquakes shook Alexandria in A.D. 320 and 365, and these events may have caused further damage.  And, finally, we know that Christian mobs attacked pagan temples and buildings around 391 in an attempt to carry out a decree of Theodosius II that mandated the closure of all pagan temples.  Any one of these events–or all combined–could have dealt the library a fatal blow.  We just cannot be certain.

That great popularizer of science, Carl Sagan, liked to present the ruin of the library as a specific event, a catastrophic triumph of ignorant mobs over rational, patient scholars like himself.  Sagan may be forgiven for this; he was trying to make a point, even though his history was incorrect.  I say “incorrect,” because it is clear that the library and its holdings had already been dispersed or dissipated through neglect long before the fanatical mobs of Theodosius II.  We can infer this, I think, from a careful examination of the sources.  Both Aulus Gellius and Ammianus speak of the library in the past tense, as if it were a relic of the past:  Gellius was writing around 160 A.D., and Ammianus around 360 A.D.  The library was already a memory by their time.  The historian Edward Gibbon also believed the collection had come to ruin long before A.D. 391:  “[I]f we gradually descend from the age of the Antonines to that of Theodosius, we shall learn from a chain of contemporary witnesses that the royal palace and temple of Serapis no longer contained the four, or the seven, hundred thousand volumes which had been assembled by the curiosity and magnificence of the Ptolemies.” (Decline, Ch. LI).  Gibbon’s editor and distinguished historian in his own right, J.B. Bury, writing in the early 1900s, agreed with him.

For a time before the modern period it was even fashionable to switch the blame for the library’s destruction from Christian mobs to Arab armies.  According to this now-discredited theory, the library was intact upon the arrival of Arab military forces in the early decades of Islam, but was maliciously torched.  Paradoxically, this lie can be traced to the Arab historian Abu al-Faraj, who apparently valued Oriental hyperbole and high drama over fact.  The fantasy was demolished by historian A.J. Butler’s masterful 1901 work The Arab Conquest of Egypt, which remains the most detailed authority on the subject.  Butler notes that every contemporary source, both Greek and Arab, says nothing about any “library” at Alexandria that was destroyed during the conquest.  Al-Tabari does not mention it; neither does Abd al-Hakim.  The Greek chronicler John of Nikiu, “who gives a very full account of the conquest of Egypt,” (as J.B. Bury says), says absolutely nothing; had a library been burned, he would have recorded it.

We must conclude from the weight of the evidence that the library had essentially ceased to exist at some point during the early imperial Roman period.  But how, we ask in dismay, could this have happened?  Wasn’t the collection valued?  Did not anyone raise a voice in protest?  To these questions, the philosopher can only shake his head and remind his interrogator of human nature.  Knowledge is highly perishable, by its very nature.  Unless it is constantly maintained and refurbished, it is in peril of being dissipated.  We should be reminded that no library from antiquity survived.  No Byzantine library escaped the centuries, and neither did any of the Islamic libraries.  One scholar even reached this rather depressing conclusion:

This is a sobering thought, which must ultimately call into question the wisdom of large concentrations of books, in ancient or modern times…Human efforts to bring all literature together may ultimately be doomed to frustration, but there is no doubt that large libraries contribute enormously to the advancement of knowledge while they exist and are maintained. 

[Italics mine.  Quote from König et. al., Ancient Libraries, p. 374].

The point is that libraries, like all institutions of culture, must be maintained and refurbished by every generation.  As I see it, the evidence points to a stark truth that tells us much about human nature.  The primary destroyer of the library, and perhaps of most cultural artifacts, was apathy.  How does this happen, in practice?  It is very simple.  It happens the same way official neglect happens today.  A new king or government minister would have said to himself, “I don’t think we need to allocate funds to the Alexandrian Library right now.  I have other priorities.  I would rather spend the money on ships, the army, or my new summer retreat.”  And this is how it starts.

Then, maybe 20 years later, another worthless ruler will come along and say, “I don’t think we need to allocate funds to rehabilitate the Library, which is falling apart.  I would rather spend the money on my boats, women, luxurious meals, and other things.”  So library staffs would be cut.  Research funds would dry up.  Scholars would get the clear message that they are not welcome.  Then, one day, some crony or flunkie of the king would say something like, “Your majesty, I would like to borrow some of the books from the library collection.  I promise to return them.”  And the corrupt king or corrupt government ministers, being ignorant and dissolute fools, would permit it.  They would not care if or when the books ever come back:  which, of course, they never do.

This is how it happens.  This is how neglect, negligence, and apathy combine to ruin a civilization’s crown jewels.  Remember that the temples and buildings of the ancient world that we still see around us got that way because there was no one left to maintain them.  Allowed to fall into disrepair, they crumbled.  It is the same with knowledge.  The same process, I would argue, is happening all around us right now.  But it is a stealthy, sneaky, incremental form of neglect.  Our modern negligents and incompetents like to present their destructive tendencies as virtues.  “We don’t need physical books any more!,” they shout.  “We have everything in digital forms!”  Or we hear voices telling us that it is “not important” to allocate funds for education, research, or inquiry.  “Look at all the money we can save!,”  they often crow.  How quickly they forget the lessons of the past.

For learning and knowledge perish not though violence, but through apathy and neglect.

Read more in Sallust:

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