Great Books

Great Library


The Royal Library in Alexandria, Egypt, was one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world. It was dedicated to the Muses, the nine goddesses of the arts. 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, with collections of works, lecture halls, meeting rooms, and gardens. The library was part of a larger research institution called the Musaeum of Alexandria, where many of the most famous thinkers of the ancient world studied.

The library was created by Ptolemy I Soter, who was a Macedonian general and the successor of Alexander the Great. Most of the books were kept as papyrus scrolls. It is unknown how many such scrolls were housed at any given time.

The library is famous for having been burned down, resulting in the loss of many scrolls and books; its destruction has become a symbol for the loss of cultural knowledge. A few sources differ on who is responsible for the destruction and when it occurred. There is mythology regarding this main burning but the library may in truth have suffered several fires or other acts of destruction over many years. Possible occasions for the partial or complete destruction of the Library of Alexandria include a fire set by Julius Caesar in 48 BC and an attack by Aurelian in the AD 270s.

After the main library was fully destroyed, ancient scholars used a “daughter library” in a temple known as the Serapeum, located in another part of the city. According to Socrates of Constantinople, Coptic Pope Theophilus destroyed the Serapeum in AD 391, although it’s not certain that it still contained an offshoot of the library then.

The library was arguably one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world, details about it are a mixture of history and legend. Its main purpose was to show off the wealth of Egypt, with research as a lesser goal, but its contents were used to aid the ruler of Egypt.

According to the earliest source of information, the pseudepigraphic Letter of Aristeas composed between c180 and 145 BC, the library was initially organized by Demetrius of Phaleron, a student of Aristotle, under the reign of Ptolemy I Soter (c.367 BC—c.283 BC). Other sources claim it was instead created under the reign of his son Ptolemy II (283–246 BC).

The Library was 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”, whence the term “museum”).

The Library at Alexandria was in charge of collecting all the world’s knowledge, and most of the staff was occupied with the task of translating works onto papyrus paper. It did so through an aggressive and well-funded royal mandate involving trips to the book fairs of Rhodes and Athens. According to Galen, any books found on ships that came into port were taken to the library, and were listed as “books of the ships”. Official scribes then copied these writings; the originals were kept in the library, and the copies delivered to the owners. Other than collecting works from the past, the library served as home to a host of international scholars, well-patronized by the Ptolemaic dynasty with travel, lodging, and stipends for their whole families.

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 (1,000 lbs./450 kg) of a precious metal as guarantee. Ptolemy III happily paid the fee but kept the original scripts for the library. This story may also be construed erroneously to show the power of Alexandria over Athens during the Ptolemaic dynasty. This detail is due to the fact that Alexandria was a man-made bidirectional port between the mainland and the Pharos island, welcoming trade from the East and West, and soon found itself to be an international hub for trade, the leading producer of papyrus and, soon enough, books.

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 Zenodotus, Apollonius of Rhodes, Eratosthenes, Aristophanes of Byzantium, and Aristarchus of Samothrace, among others. (While Callimachus—the first bibliographer and developer of the “Pinakes”, which is popularly considered the first library catalog—did his most famous work at the Library of Alexandria, he was never the head librarian there.) In the early 2nd century BC scholars began to abandon Alexandria for safer areas with more generous patronage, and in 145 BC Ptolemy VIII expelled all foreign scholars from Alexandria.


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