The Library of Alexandria was one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world[1] and part of a larger research institution called the Mouseion. Despite the widespread modern myth that the library was "burned" once and cataclysmically destroyed, the library actually declined gradually over the course of roughly 800 years,[2] 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 last recorded head librarian, resigning from his position and exiling himself to Cyprus. The library was accidentally burned by Julius Caesar during his civil war in 48 BC, but it is unclear how much of the library was actually destroyed and it may have been rebuilt shortly thereafter.

The library's membership appears to have ceased by the 260s AD and, between 270–275 AD, it was attacked under the orders of the emperor Aurelian, but, by that time, the center of learning in Alexandria had already been moved to the Serapeum. Theon of Alexandria and later his daughter Hypatia were heads of a school in Alexandria called the "Mouseion", which took its name from the Hellenistic institution that had once incorporated the library, but which had little other connection. The Serapeum was burned 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. Theophilus tolerated the school of Hypatia, but her school fell apart after her death in March of 415 AD. Some later legends ascribe the destruction of the Library of Alexandria to the Arabs in or after 642 AD, but there is little evidence to substantiate that there was even a library in Alexandria at the time.

Purge of intellectuals by Ptolemy VIII

In 145 BC, Ptolemy VIII purged Alexandria of intellectuals. Aristarchus of Samothrace, the last recorded head librarian, resigned his position and exiled himself to Cyprus.[3]

Caesar's conquest in 48 BC

The ancient accounts by Plutarch, Aulus Gellius, Ammianus Marcellinus, and Orosius indicate that troops of Caesar accidentally burned the library down during or after the Siege of Alexandria in 48 BC.[4]

Plutarch's Parallel Lives, written at the end of the 1st or beginning of the 2nd century AD, describes the Siege of Alexandria in which Caesar was forced to burn his own ships:

when the enemy endeavored to cut off his communication by sea, he was forced to divert that danger by setting fire to his own ships, which, after burning the docks, thence spread on and destroyed the great library.

— Plutarch, Life of Caesar[5]

However, the editor of Plutarch's translation notes that the "destruction of the Library can have been only partial", and that it occurred specifically in the Museum built by the first Ptolemy (283 BCE).[5]

In the 2nd century AD, the Roman historian Aulus Gellius wrote in his book Attic Nights that the Library was burned by mistake after the siege when some of Caesar’s auxiliary soldiers started a fire. Aulus's translator similarly notes that, although auxiliary forces accidentally burned many books while stationed in Alexandria: "By no means all of the Alexandrian Library was destroyed [in 48 BC] and the losses were made good, at least in part, by Antony in 41 BC. A part of the library was burned under Aurelian, in AD 272, and the destruction seems to have been completed in 391."[6]

William Cherf argued that this scenario had all the ingredients of a firestorm which set fire to the docks and then the library, destroying it.[citation needed] This would have occurred in 48 BC, during the fighting between Caesar and Ptolemy XIII. Furthermore, in the 4th century, both the pagan historian Ammianus[7] and the Christian historian Orosius wrote that the Bibliotheca Alexandrina had been destroyed by Caesar's fire. The anonymous author of the Alexandrian Wars wrote that the fires set by Caesar's soldiers to burn the Egyptian navy in the port also burned a store full of papyri located near the port.[8] However, a geographical study of the location of the historical Bibliotheca Alexandrina in the neighborhood of Bruchion suggests that this store cannot have been the Great Library.[9]

Whether the burned books were only some stored books or books found inside the library itself, the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca (c. 4 BC – AD 65) refers to 40,000 books having been burnt at Alexandria.[10] During his reign of the eastern part of the Empire (40–30 BC), Mark Antony plundered the second largest library in the world (at Pergamon) and presented the collection as a gift to Cleopatra as a replacement for the books lost to Caesar's fire.

Theodore Vrettos describes the damage caused by the fire: "The Roman galleys carrying the Thirty-Seventh Legion from Asia Minor had now reached the Egyptian coast, but because of contrary winds, they were unable to proceed toward Alexandria. At anchor in the harbor off Lochias, the Egyptian fleet posed an additional problem for the Roman ships. However, in a surprise attack, Caesar's soldiers set fire to the Egyptian ships resulting in the flames spreading rapidly and consuming most of the dockyard, including many structures near the palace. This fire resulted in the burning of several thousand books that were housed in one of the buildings. From this incident, historians mistakenly assumed that the Great Library of Alexandria had been destroyed, but the Library was nowhere near the docks... The most immediate damage occurred in the area around the docks, in shipyards, arsenals, and warehouses in which grain and books were stored. Some 40,000 book scrolls were destroyed in the fire. Not at all connected with the Great Library, they were account books and ledgers containing records of Alexandria's export goods bound for Rome and other cities throughout the world."[11]

The Royal Alexandrian Library was not the only library located in the city. Down through Queen Cleopatra of the first century BCE, the Ptolemaic dynasty, stimulated Alexandria's libraries to flourish.[12] There were at least two other libraries in Alexandria: the library of the Serapeum temple and the library of the Cesarion Temple. The continuity of literary and scientific life in Alexandria after the destruction of the Royal Library, as well as the city's status as the world’s center for sciences and literature between the 1st and the 6th centuries AD, depended to a large extent on the presence of these two libraries. Historical records indicate that the Royal Library was private (used by the royal family as well as scientists and researchers), but the libraries of the Serapeum and Cesarion temples were public and accessible to the people.[13]

Furthermore, while the Royal Library was founded by Ptolemy II in the royal quarters of Bruchion near the palaces and the royal gardens, it was his son Ptolemy III who founded the Serapeum temple and its adjoined "Daughter" Library in the popular quarters of Rhakotis.

Florus[14] and Lucan[15] note that the flames Caesar set only burned the fleet and some "houses near the sea".

The next account is from Strabo's Geographica in 28 BC,[16] which does not mention the library specifically, but does mention that he could not find a city map which he had seen when on an earlier trip to Alexandria, before the fire.[disputed ] Abaddi uses this account to infer that the library was destroyed to its foundations.[citation needed]

Therefore, the Royal Alexandrian Library may have been burned after Strabo's visit to the city (25 BC) but before the beginning of the 2nd century AD when Plutarch wrote. Otherwise Plutarch and later historians would not have mentioned the incident and mistakenly attributed it to Julius Caesar. It is also most probable that the library was destroyed by someone other than Caesar,[clarification needed] although the later generations linked the fire that took place in Alexandria during Caesar's time to the burning of the Bibliotheca.[17] Some researchers believe it most likely that the destruction accompanied the wars between Queen Zenobia and the Roman Emperor Aurelian, in the second half of the 3rd century (see below).[18]

Attack of Aurelian, 3rd century

The Mouseion continued as an institution in the Roman period when Strabo gave his description of it, and according to Suetonius,[19] the emperor Claudius added an additional building.[20] Under the emperors, membership of the Mouseion was awarded to prominent scholars and statesmen, often as a reward to supporters of the emperor.[21] Emperor Caracalla suppressed the Mouseion in 216,[22] perhaps as a temporary measure.[20] By this time, the center of learning in Alexandria had already moved to the Serapeum.[22] The last references to membership in the Mouseion date to the 260s AD.[23]

The library itself seems to have been maintained and continued in existence until its contents were largely lost during the taking of the city by the Emperor Aurelian (270–275), who was suppressing a revolt by Queen Zenobia of Palmyra (ruled Egypt AD 269–274).[24] During the course of the fighting, the areas of the city in which the main library was located were damaged.[25] The smaller library located at the Serapeum survived, but some of its contents may have been taken to Constantinople during the 4th century to adorn the new capital. However, Ammianus Marcellinus, writing around AD 378, seems to speak of the library in the Serapeum temple as a thing of the past and states that many of the Serapeum library's volumes were burnt when Caesar sacked Alexandria. In Book 22.16.12–13, he says:

Besides this there are many lofty temples, and especially one to Serapis, which, although no words can adequately describe it, we may yet say, from its splendid halls supported by pillars, and its beautiful statues and other embellishments, is so superbly decorated, that next to the Capitol, of which the ever-venerable Rome boasts, the whole world has nothing worthier of admiration. In it were libraries of inestimable value; and the concurrent testimony of ancient records affirm that 70,000 volumes, which had been collected by the anxious care of the Ptolemies, were burnt in the Alexandrian war when the city was sacked in the time of Caesar the Dictator.

— Marcellinus, Ammianus (1862), "Roman History: book 22.16.12–13", in Yonge, C.D., Roman History, London: H.G. Bohn 

While Ammianus Marcellinus may be simply reiterating Plutarch's tradition about Caesar's destruction of the library, it is possible that his statement reflects his own empirical knowledge that the Serapeum library collection had either been seriously depleted or was no longer in existence.

Successors to the Mouseion

Two main varieties of Neoplatonism were taught in Alexandria during the late fourth century AD.[26] The first was the overtly pagan religious Neoplatonism taught at the Serapeum, which was greatly influenced by the teachings of Iamblichus.[26] The second variety was the more tolerant, intellectual, and less explicitly pagan variety championed by Hypatia and her father Theon,[27] which was based on the teachings of Plotinus.[27] Although Hypatia herself was a pagan, she was tolerant of Christians.[28] In fact, every one of her known students was Christian.[28] One of her most prominent pupils was Synesius of Cyrene,[29][30][31][32] who went on to become a bishop of Ptolemais (now in eastern Libya) in 410.[33][32]

The Serapeum

Fragment of a 5th-century scroll showing the destruction of the Serapeum by Pope Theophilus of Alexandria

Paganism was made illegal by an edict of the Emperor Theodosius I in 391. The temples of Alexandria were closed by Patriarch Pope Theophilus of Alexandria in AD 391.[34]

Socrates of Constantinople provides the following account of the destruction of the temples in Alexandria, in the fifth book of his Historia Ecclesiastica, written around 440:

At the solicitation of Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria, the emperor issued an order at this time for the demolition of the heathen temples in that city; commanding also that it should be put in execution under the direction of Theophilus. Seizing this opportunity, Theophilus exerted himself to the utmost to expose the pagan mysteries to contempt. And to begin with, he caused the Mithraeum to be cleaned out, and exhibited to public view the tokens of its bloody mysteries. Then he destroyed the Serapeum, and the bloody rites of the Mithreum he publicly caricatured; the Serapeum also he showed full of extravagant superstitions, and he had the phalli of Priapus carried through the midst of the forum. [...] Thus this disturbance having been terminated, the governor of Alexandria, and the commander-in-chief of the troops in Egypt, assisted Theophilus in demolishing the heathen temples.

— Socrates; Roberts, Alexander; Donaldson, James (1885), "Socrates: Book V: Chapter 16", in Philip Schaff; et al., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, II, II 

The Serapeum had 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 the library was destroyed in the time of Julius Caesar; whatever books might earlier have been housed at the Serapeum were no longer there in the last decade of the 4th century (Historia 22, 16, 12-13). The pagan scholar Eunapius of Sardis, witnessed the demolition, and though he detested Christians, his account of the Serapeum's destruction makes no mention of any library. When Orosius discusses the destruction of the Great Library at the time of Caesar in the sixth book of his History against the Pagans, he writes:

So perished that marvelous monument of the literary activity of our ancestors, who had gathered together so many great works of brilliant geniuses. In regard to this, however true it may be that in some of the temples there remain up to the present time book chests, which we ourselves have seen, and that, as we are told, these were emptied by our own men in our own day when these temples were plundered—this statement is true enough—yet it seems fairer to suppose that other collections had later been formed to rival the ancient love of literature, and not that there had once been another library which had books separate from the four hundred thousand volumes mentioned, and for that reason had escaped destruction.

Thus Orosius laments the pillaging of libraries within temples in 'his own time' by 'his own men' and compares it to the destruction of the Great Library destroyed at the time of Julius Caesar. He is certainly referring to the plundering of pagan temples during his lifetime, but this presumably did not include the library of Alexandria, which he assumes was destroyed in Caesar's time. While he admits that the accusations of plundering books are “true enough,” he then suggests that the books in question were not copies of those that had been housed at the Great Library, but rather new books "to rival the ancient love of literature." Orosius does not say where temples' books were taken, whether to Constantinople or to local monastic libraries or elsewhere, and he does not say that the books were destroyed.

School of Theon and Hypatia

Theon of Alexandria was the head of a school called the "Mouseion", which was named in emulation of the Hellenistic Mouseion that had once included the Library of Alexandria.[35] Theon's school was exclusive, highly prestigious, and doctrinally conservative.[36] Theon rejected the teachings of Iamblichus[36] and may have taken pride in teaching a pure, Plotinian Neoplatonism.[36] In around 400 AD, Theon's daughter Hypatia succeeded him as the head of his school.[37]

Theophilus, the same bishop who ordered the burning of the Serapeum, tolerated Hypatia's school and encouraged two of her students to become bishops in territory under his authority.[38] Hypatia was extremely popular with the people of Alexandria[39] and exerted profound political influence.[39] Theophilus respected Alexandria's political structures and raised no objection to the close ties Hypatia established with Roman prefects.[38] Hypatia was later implicated in a political feud between Orestes, the Roman prefect of Alexandria, and Cyril of Alexandria, Theophilus's successor as bishop.[40][28] Rumors spread accusing her of preventing Orestes from reconciling with Cyril[40][28] and, in March of 415 AD, she was murdered by a mob of monks under Cyril's authority known as the parabalani, led by a lector named Peter.[40][28] He had no successor and her school collapsed after her death.[41]

Muslim conquest of Egypt

In AD 642, Alexandria was captured by the Muslim army of 'Amr ibn al-'As. There are four Arabic sources, all at least 500 years after the supposed events, which mention the fate of the library.

  • Abd'l Latif of Baghdad (1162–1231) states that the library of Alexandria was destroyed by Amr, by the order of the Caliph Omar.[42]
  • The story is also found in Al-Qifti (1172–1248), History of Learned Men, from whom Bar Hebraeus copied the story.[43]
  • The longest version of the story is in the Syriac Christian author Bar-Hebraeus (1226–1286), also known as Abu'l Faraj. He translated extracts from his history, the Chronicum Syriacum into Arabic, and added extra material from Arab sources. In this Historia Compendiosa Dynastiarum[44] he describes a certain "John Grammaticus" (490–570) asking Amr for the "books in the royal library." Amr writes to Omar for instructions, and Omar replies: "If those books are in agreement with the Quran, we have no need of them; and if these are opposed to the Quran, destroy them."[45]
  • Al-Maqrizi (1364–1442) also mentions the story briefly, while speaking of the Serapeum.[46]

The story was still in circulation among Copts in Egypt in the 1920s.[47]

Edward Gibbon tells us that many people had credulously believed the story, but "the rational scepticism" of Fr. Eusèbe Renaudot (1713) did not.[48]

Jean de Sismondi,[49] Alfred J. Butler, Victor Chauvin, Paul Casanova, Gustave Le Bon[50] and Eugenio Griffini did not accept the story either.[24]

Bernard Lewis has observed that this version was reinforced in medieval times by Saladin, who decided to break up the Fatimid Caliphate's collection of heretical Isma'ilism texts in Cairo following his restoration of Sunni Islam to Egypt, and will have judged that the story of the Caliph Umar's support of a library's destruction would make his own actions seem more acceptable.[51] Roy MacLeod[53]

Luciano Canfora included the account of Bar Hebraeus in his discussion of the destruction of the library without dismissing it.[54]

See also


  1. ^ Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, Sagan, C 1980, "Episode 1: The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean"
  2. ^ MacLeod, Roy (2004). The Library of Alexandria: Centre of Learning in the Ancient World. I. B. Tauris. pp. 70–74. ISBN 978-1850435945. Retrieved 4 March 2016. 
  3. ^ Daniel Heller-Roazen, "Tradition's Destruction: On the Library of Alexandria" October, 100, Obsolescence (Spring 2002:133-1530 esp. p. 140.
  4. ^ Pollard, Justin, and Reid, Howard. 2006. The Rise and Fall of Alexandria, Birthplace of the Modern World.
  5. ^ a b Plutarch, Life of Caesar, 49.6.
  6. ^ Aulus Gellius. Attic Nights book 7 chapter 17.
  7. ^ See Amm. 22.6; cf. Dio 42.38.
  8. ^ Caesar, de bello alexandrino (the Alexandrian Wars).
  9. ^ Empereur 2002, p. 43.
  10. ^ Seneca, De Tranquillitate Animi (On Tranquility of Mind).
  11. ^ Vrettos, Theodore. "Alexandria, City of the Western Mind". New York: The Free Press, 2001, pp. 93–94.
  12. ^ Murray, Stuart (2009). The Library: An Illustrated History. Chicago: ALA Editions: American Library Association. 
  13. ^ Empereur 2002, p. 41.
  14. ^ Flor. epit. II 13,59
  15. ^ Lucan. bell.civ. X 497 seqq.
  16. ^ Strabo, Book 17 1.7–10
  17. ^ Empereur 2002, p. 18.
  18. ^ Empereur 2002, p. 44.
  19. ^ Suetonius, Claudius, 42
  20. ^ a b Watts 2008, p. 147.
  21. ^ Watts 2008, p. 148.
  22. ^ a b Butler, Alfred, The Arab Conquest of Egypt – And the Last Thirty Years of the Roman Dominion, p. 411.
  23. ^ Watts 2008, p. 150.
  24. ^ a b Staff Report: "What happened to the great Library of Alexandria? The Straight Dope, 6 December 2005
  25. ^ Phillips 2010.
  26. ^ a b Watts 2008, p. 200.
  27. ^ a b Watts 2008, pp. 200-201.
  28. ^ a b c d e Cameron, Long & Sherry 1993.
  29. ^ Watts 2017, pp. 67-70.
  30. ^ Castner 2010, p. 49.
  31. ^ Waithe 1987, p. 173.
  32. ^ a b Curta & Holt 2017, p. 283.
  33. ^ Watts 2017, p. 88.
  34. ^ Gibbon 1776–1789, ch. 28.
  35. ^ Watts 2008, pp. 191-192.
  36. ^ a b c Watts 2008, p. 192.
  37. ^ Oakes 2007, p. 364.
  38. ^ a b Watts 2008, p. 196.
  39. ^ a b Watts 2008, pp. 195-196.
  40. ^ a b c Novak 2010, p. 240.
  41. ^ Watts 2017, p. 117.
  42. ^ De Sacy, Relation de l’Egypte par Abd al-Latif, Paris, 1810: "Above the column of the pillars is a dome supported by this column. I think this building was the portico where Aristotle taught, and after him his disciples; and that this was the academy that Alexander built when he built this city, and where was placed the library which Amr ibn-Alas burned, with the permission of Omar." Google books here. Translation of De Sacy from here. Other versions of Abd-el-Latif in English here.
  43. ^ Samir Khalil, «L’utilisation d’al-Qifṭī par la Chronique arabe d’Ibn al-‘Ibrī († 1286)», in : Samir Khalil Samir (Éd.), Actes du IIe symposium syro-arabicum (Sayyidat al-Bīr, septembre 1998). Études arabes chrétiennes, = Parole de l'Orient 28 (2003) 551–598. An English translation of the passage in Al-Qifti by Emily Cottrell of Leiden University is at the Roger Pearse blog here.
  44. ^ Edward Pococke, Bar Hebraeus: Historia Compendiosa Dynastiarum, Oxford, 1663. Arabic text, Latin translation. This is the only edition and translation ever printed of this work. In 1650 Pococke had previously translated this portion in his Specimen Historiae Arabvm; sive, Gregorii Abul Farajii Malatiensis De origine & moribus Arabum succincta narratio, in linguam latinam conversa, notisque è probatissimis apud ipsos authoribus, fusiùs illus., operâ & studio Edvardi Pocockii. Oxoniae: 1650: excudebat H. Hall. This is a collection of extracts from Arabic histories, all unpublished at that date, intended to determine if there was public interest.
  45. ^ Ed. Pococke, p.181, translation on p.114. Online Latin text and English translation here. Latin: “Quod ad libros quorum mentionem fecisti: si in illis contineatur, quod cum libro Dei conveniat, in libro Dei [est] quod sufficiat absque illo; quod si in illis fuerit quod libro Dei repugnet, neutiquam est eo [nobis] opus, jube igitur e medio tolli.” Jussit ergo Amrus Ebno’lAs dispergi eos per balnea Alexandriae, atque illis calefaciendis comburi; ita spatio semestri consumpti sunt. Audi quid factum fuerit et mirare."
  46. ^ Alfred J. Butler, The Arab Conquest of Egypt and the Last Thirty Years of the Roman Dominion, Oxford, 1902, Chapter 25, p.401 f.: "Thus speaking of the Serapeum he says, ‘Some think that these columns upheld the Porch of Aristotle, who taught philosophy here: that it was a school of learning: and that it contained the library which was burnt by `Amr on the advice of the Caliph Omar’ (Khitat, vol. i. p. 159)."
  47. ^ Alfred J. Butler, The Arab Conquest of Egypt and the Last Thirty Years of the Roman Dominion, Oxford, 1902, Chapter 25, p.403.
  48. ^ E. Gibbon, Decline and Fall, chapter 51 : "It would be endless to enumerate the moderns who have wondered and believed, but I may distinguish with honour the rational scepticism of Renaudot, (Hist. Alex. Patriarch, p. 170: ) historia … habet aliquid ut απιστον ut Arabibus familiare est." However Butler says: "Renaudot thinks the story has an element of untrustworthiness: Gibbon discusses it rather briefly and disbelieves it." (ch.25, p.401)
  49. ^ Simonde de Sismondi, Jean Charles Léonard. Histoire de la chute de l'Empire romain et du déclin de la civilisation occidentale. pp. 56 57 On se demandera sans doute pourquoi je passe sous silence un événement plus célèbre que la conquête de l'Egypte elle–même, la sentence d'Omar contre la bibliothèque d'Alexandrie..., Mais cette histoire étrange fut racontée pour la première fois, six siècles plus tard, par A.bulpharage, sur les confins de la Médie. Les historiens nationaux et contemporains, Eutychius et Elmacin, • n'en font aucune mention. Elle est en opposition di recte avec les préceptes du Korau, et avec le respect profond des musulmans pour tout papier sur lequel le nom de Dieu peut se trouver écrit. D'ailleurs l'antique bibliothèque rassemblée par la magnificence des Ptolémée étoit depuis long temps détruite ; nous n'avons aucune assurance qu'elle eût depuis été remplacée par une autre. 
  50. ^ The civilisation of Arabs, Book no III, 1884, reedition of 1980, page 468
  51. ^ "The Vanished Library by Bernard Lewis". nybooks.com. 
  52. ^ "The Mysterious Fate of the Great Library of Alexandria", James Hannam, fetched 24 January 2014 [1]
  53. ^ MacLeod 2004, p. 71. "The story first appears 500 years after the Arab conquest of Alexandria. James Hannam rejects the story and writes: [52]
  54. ^ Canfora 1990, p. 109.


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