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The Vanished Library

In response to:

Lost History of the Lost Library from the June 14, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

By reviewing my book The Vanished Library [NYR, June 14], Professor H. Lloyd-Jones makes unfortunately two false statements:

1) p. 28: “Canfora asserts that Neleus deceived Ptolemy, selling him ‘various unimportant treatises…and above all a number of books which had belonged to Aristotle’; this is nothing but a frivolous speculation” Lloyd-Jones is unaware that this is the well supported opinion of the best expert of the Aristotelian tradition, Paul Moraux, Der Aristotelismus bei den Greichen, I, Berlin De Gruyter 1973, p. 13, n. 29: “Gemeint sind also sehr warscheinlich die Bücher, die Aristoteles für seine Bibliothek erworben hatte.”

2) p. 29: Lloyd-Jones repeats insistently: “Canfora in Part I [of The Vanished Library] makes no mention of the episode which in my judgment, and also, it would appear from Part II, in his own, is likely to have caused the gravest losses of the library”: that is the destruction of the Great Library during the war of Aurelian and Zenobia (273 CE)…. “Near the end of Part II Canfora mentions this affair, adding sensibly enough, that it was now that the great library really met its end. But in Part I this episode is suppressed, for it would have spoiled the dramatic effect of the dialogue of Philoponus with the Arab conqueror….” Of course this is not true. Part I, p. 87 of the English translation (p. 96 of my orginal) the “affair” is mentioned by the same words employed by Lloyd-Jones: “In the course of Aurelian’s campaign, the Bruchion district was very seriously damaged: Ammianus tells us, though his account may exaggerate, that it was totally destroyed. A few years later, the city was completely sacked by Diocletian. The Museum, which had enjoyed periods of renewed splendour during early Imperial times…must have suffered terrible damage.”

Luciano Canfora
Bari, Italy

Hugh Lloyd-Jones replies:

Moraux does not say that Neleus “deceived Ptolemy”; he merely says that Neleus sold Ptolemy the books only, retaining the original manuscript of Aristotle’s works, which he possessed. This theory was put forward in order to reconcile the statement in Athenaeus that Neleus sold “everything” to Ptolemy with Strabo’s testimony about Neleus. Moraux accepted this conjecture on the ground that Athenaeus was talking about large collections of books, so that this would suit the context. But as Moraux’s own note shows, many scholars have been unhappy with the statement of Athenaeus: it comes from a series of extracts boiled down from a fuller text, and the whole paragraph in which it occurs is silly and imprecise. The great scholar Hermann Usener wrote in 1892 that Athenaeus’s statement about the sale was “so crude a misunderstanding that one can scarcely attribute it to Athenaeus, even if he was writing from memory.” Moraux was a learned scholar and a friend whom I respected; but I do not think it was wise of him to try to salvage Athenaeus’s statement. Canfora does indeed mention in his Part I the fighting in Alexandria in the reign of Aurelian, which seems to me the likeliest cause of the destruction of the main library, and to that extent my statement may be considered “false.” But he fails to make in this place the all-important point that this was the likeliest cause of the destruction, understandably, since this would have spoiled the dramatic effect of his account of the pleading of Philoponus.

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