Posts Tagged ‘scholarship’

The Great Library of Alexandria

April 9, 2013 7 comments


Libraries are nothing new. As we might imagine, book collecting goes back as far as the invention of writing; libraries (or at least private book collections) have been discovered dating to Sumerian times. The first great library were the Royal libraries of Assyria, and in particular, the royal collection of Assurbanipal. These libraries were destroyed during the sack of Nineveh in 612 B.C. (though many written tablets nonetheless survived).

After the invention of the alphabet (at the end of the 2nd milennium B.C.) and the widespread adoption of papyrus for writing manuscripts, by far the greatest collection of books (I should say scrolls) was housed in the Great Library at Alexandria. Other extensive libraries existed, but in the early years of the Roman Empire, the Great Library exceeded them all, at least in fame and prestige. For one thing, the goal of the library was to obtain a copy of every book written up until that time (dates will be discussed in a moment).

A single fact will help us understand the resources expended on writing during the Roman period: a sheet of papyrus can take up to 3 days to dry. When one includes the cultivation of the papyrus reeds and the assembly of the sheets (to say nothing of the effort of writing), we begin to understand how labor-intensive the production and use of scrolls were. Now, for another statistic: the Great Library may have contained more than 500,000 scrolls (which would amount to tens of thousands of literary works and documents).

The library was founded early in the 3rd century B.C. by King Ptolemy I; the date of its destruction, on the other hand, is uncertain; of the four candidate periods, RT suspects that Aurelian’s attack on Alexandria during the Crisis of the Third Century may have been the moment that the majority of the library’s collection was either destroyed or dispersed. If so, the library existed for more than five centuries.


Located in Alexandria’s Royal Quarter, the Great Library was a magnet for scholars, and, to support their work, it provided many services: a Peripatos walk, gardens, a room for shared dining, a reading room, meeting rooms and lecture halls. The library housed acquisitions and cataloging departments and employed copyists and translators to ensure that scrolls were in reasonable condition and available in Greek. The library sent representatives to the book fairs at Rhodes and Athens and, in spite of generous royal funding from Ptolemies, was not above seizing books from boats in the harbor. All of these activities were directed by a head librarian.

Scholars known to have used the library include Euclid, Archimedes, and St. Catherine.


The destruction of the Great Library was, needless to say, a terrible blow to scholarship. We like to think of ourselves as having advanced far beyond the knowledge of ancient times, but, scholars at the library very likely had access to works that their descendants today only know of by name–lost works of Sophocles, for instance. We can only hope that continued excavations and improvements in deciphering techniques will enable us to reclaim a significant fraction of the lost works.


ImageInscription regarding Tiberius Claudius Babillus of Rome, 56 CE; (This inscription confirms that the Library of Alexandria must have existed in some form in the first century AD.) Source: “Forschungen in Ephesos”, Vol. III, Vienna 1923, p.128. WikiCmns; Public Domain.