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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 did not long retain the favor of his son and successor, Ptolemy Philadelphus, but the new king fully shared his father’s enthusiasm for the project, and the work went on.

The Museum lay within the quarter of Alexandria that was called “the Palaces” and later the Brucheion; according to the geographer Strabo, a writer of the first century BCE, this formed a quarter or even a third of the main enclosure of the city. It had, the same author tells us, “a covered walk and a portico and a block in which were the refectory and mess of the scholars attached to the Museum.” Strabo adds that this body possessed corporate funds, which does not mean, as the translator makes the book before me state, that “money was held in common in the community,” as it was by the earliest Christians, to the confusion of Ananias and Sapphira. We are painfully ignorant of the way in which the institution functioned. Did the inmates live on the premises, in the manner of the fellows of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges? We do not know. Did they include scientists, as well as men of letters? There is no evidence that they did, as Heinrich von Staden has lately reminded us in his learned study of the great Alexandrian doctor Herophilus,1 but the connection of Demetrius of Phaleron with the enterprise suggests it, since the Aristotelian or Peripatetic school to which he belonged had done scientific work of great importance, and the Alexandria of this period saw most notable developments not only in medicine but in physics and in mathematics. Did the inmates of the Museum teach or lecture? Again many surmise that they must have done so, but direct evidence is lacking.

They certainly engaged in scholarly work of great value, which was closely connected with the great library which was on their premises. Books were collected from every part of the civilized world that could provide them, the aim being, according to Eusebius, the church historian of the fourth century CE, “to collect the writings of all men so far as they were worthy of attention.” Many Oriental writings are said to have been translated into Greek and placed in the library; ancient Egyptian texts, the Hebrew scriptures (of which more presently) and writings ascribed to the Persian prophet Zoroaster are mentioned in this connection. The kings spared no expense. If we can believe Galen, the famous doctor of the second century CE, Ptolemy borrowed the official copy of the works of the great Athenian tragic poets that belonged to the Athenian state in order to have it copied. He was required to lay down as a deposit the vast sum of fifteen talents, but when the work had been completed he chose to forfeit this, sending the copies to Athens but retaining the originals.

Literature was catalogued for the library by no less a person than Callimachus, the great poet of the third century BCE, and other distinguished men of letters helped to establish and put the collections in order. The office of librarian, which was combined with that of tutor to the crown prince, was held by a number of these in succession, including Eratosthenes, who was not only a renowned poet but a considerable mathematician and the founder of scientific geography.

How many books were contained in the collection? For an estimate we must depend on the Byzantine monk John Tzetzes; he lived in the thirteenth century CE, but probably derived his data from much earlier authority. He tells us that “the external library,” by which he probably means a smaller library which was attached to the temple of the god Serapis, contained 42,800 rolls, while the “palace library,” meaning presumably the great library of the Museum, contained 490,000 rolls. Of these 400,000 are described as “mixed” rolls and 90,000 as “unmixed”; presumably a mixed roll is one containing several works, while an unmixed roll contains one work only. A papyrus roll consisted on an average of twenty sheets, the sheets varying between 10 centimeters and 4.5 centimeters in width; the works of ancient authors were divided into “books” which were more or less as large as the average roll, so that 490,000 rolls may have amounted to little more than 70,000 works.2 Using the collections, the scholars who worked in the Museum produced standard editions of the main Greek classics; their work maintained a high level until the second half of the second century BCE, when the tyrannical monarch Ptolemy Euergetes II, nicknamed Physkon (“Potbelly”), drove many of them out.

If this library had survived, the dark ages, despite the dominance of Christianity, might have been a good deal lighter; its loss is one of the greatest of the many disasters that accompanied the ruin of the ancient world. But when did the main loss occur? There was indeed little chance that the library could have survived the conquest of Egypt in 641 CE by the Arabs, most of whom at that time were not more civilized than the late Ayatollah Khomeini; but how much was left there at that time? There are various occasions on which losses are stated to have occurred; but our information is defective, and has been given various interpretations.

Learned and judicious treatment of most of the many problems presented by the history of the library may be found in two standard modern works, the first volume of Rudolf Pfeiffer’s History of Classical Scholarship and P. M. Fraser’s three-volume work on Ptolemaic Alexandria.3 But there is room for a good book devoted to the history of the library; the attempt of E. A. Parsons, made in 1952, is lamentably defective.4

Professor Canfora is a learned man, and a scholarly treatment of the problem of the library from his pen might have been rewarding. But he has apparently been encouraged by the success of a detective story set in the remote past by another Italian scholar, Umberto Eco, to make his book into a tale of mystery, rich with vague hints and fascinating anecdotes, for the delectation of the wider public; and he has been unfortunate in having it translated by a person whose ignorance of the subject matter makes him highly unsuited to the task.

Professor Canfora has chosen to arrange his matter in a manner not at all well suited to a serious work. Part I consists of a narrative more or less continuous, but with numerous digressions, in which the subject is presented as dramatically as possible, many highly questionable statements in ancient authors being presented as though they were certain to be true. This part of the book contains no footnotes, so that the reader cannot check a statement against the alleged authority for it; but Part I is followed by a seven-page list of sources, and Part II consists of a discussion of these, divided, like Part I into brief chapters. Part II also is written in a lively manner, but it is decidedly more scholarly than Part I, and sometimes actually contradicts the dubious assert ions of the latter.

The translation matches the book’s general character. It bowls merrily along, but the translator’s ignorance of the subject matter and general sloppiness leads to some misrepresentation. Also, he is unaware that many classical names take a different form in English from the one they take in Italian; Aristeas becomes “Aristea,” Sosibius becomes “Sosybius,” Hesychius drops his “h,” Zeno becomes “Xeno,” Apellicon of Teos becomes “Apellicontes of Theos,” Euripides becomes “Europides.” He is no Latinist; Cicero, Ad Atticum becomes “Cicero, Ad Attico.” Was the author of the book given no opportunity to correct these howlers?

Canfora ekes out the actual history of the library by the inclusion of three other questions loosely linked with it, as well as other more or less relevant material. First, there is the strange history of the books and manuscripts left by Aristotle and his successor Theophrastus; second, the document misleadingly known as the “Letter of Aristeas,” which purports to explain the origin of the Hellenistic Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint; and finally the description of the Ramesseum at Thebes in Upper Egypt reproduced by Diodorus of Sicily, a historian of the first century BCE, from Hecataeus of Abdera who lived two hundred years earlier under Ptolemy I.

  1. 1

    Heinrich von Staden, Herophilus: The Art of Medicine In Early Alexandria (Cambridge University Press, 1989).

  2. 2

    See E. G. Turner, Greek Papyri: An Introduction (Princeton University Press, 1968).

  3. 3

    R. Pfeiffer, History of Classical Scholarship, Vol. I (Oxford University Press, 1968); P. M. Fraser, Ptolemaic Alexandria, 3 vols. (Oxford University Press, 1972).

  4. 4

    E. A. Parsons, The Alexandrian Library: Glory of the Hellenistic World (Elsevier, 1952).

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