Lost History of the Lost Library

If the United States had a secretary of culture, and if President Reagan had given the job to the late Jayne Mansfield, she could hardly have done a better job than the Greek actress Melina Mercouri in the Socialist government of Andreas Papandreou. In her famous movie Never on Sunday Miss Mercouri made popular the notion of the Greek as the modern equivalent of Rousseau’s Noble Savage. But her noble savages are the heirs of the ancient Greeks, and several of her initiatives are calculated to bring this to mind. A few weeks ago she was reported by the newspapers to be supporting a plan to build a vast Greek library to replace the lost library of Alexandria. That library was the chief Greek library of the ancient world, and it is the vanished library of Professor Canfora’s title. Despite its undeniable importance, we have very imperfect evidence for what it contained, for its history and the manner in which it ceased to exist.

The great library of Alexandria was part of an institution called The Museum; both were founded by Ptolemy Soter, king of Egypt from 305 to 285 BCE. After the premature death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, his generals fought over his empire, and several managed to carve out kingdoms for themselves. Ptolemy was the most intelligent of these generals, and his dynasty proved the most durable, lasting until the death of the last monarch, Cleopatra, in 30 BCE. Ptolemy had strong literary interests, and wrote memoirs which many considered to give the best account of Alexander. Alexander had founded Alexandria, and Ptolemy contrived to get hold of his remains and to bury them in a splendid mausoleum in that city, where their talismanic effect was almost as powerful as that exercised later by the bones of saints.

Not far from this tomb Ptolemy established his Museum. Although the modern use of that word is ultimately derived from it, it was not a museum in the sense in which we use the word. A Museum is, properly speaking, a shrine of the Muses, the goddesses of literature and the arts, and the head of the Museum was a priest of the Muses, nominated first by the kings of Egypt and later by the Roman emperors. Ptolemy’s chief adviser in the creation of the Museum was Demetrius of Phaleron, a statesman, philosopher, and man of letters who had governed Athens from 317 to 307 as the agent of the Macedonian dynast Cassander before being expelled by another Macedonian dynast, Demetrius the Besieger. Demetrius of Phaleron had been an associate of Aristotle, who in his school of philosophy at Athens, known as the Lyceum, had assembled a large number of books, and with his pupils had carried out researches in many branches of learning. Demetrius was thus particularly well qualified to advise the king in his creation of a community of scholars and writers and a great library. After the king’s death he …

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Letters

The Vanished Library September 27, 1990

The Vanished Library September 27, 1990