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.

It is to the geographer Strabo that we owe our knowledge of the curious history of Aristotle’s collections. Theophrastus left them to the philosopher Neleus, who carried them off to his home at Scepsis, not far from Troy, where his heirs kept them locked up. When they feared that the Attalid kings of Pergamum, who rivaled the Ptolemies as patrons of learning and collectors of books, might try to get them for their own great library, they hid them in a dank and moldy cellar. Finally they sold them to Apellicon of Teos, whom Strabo calls a lover of books rather than a lover of wisdom, who made clumsy attempts to restore by conjecture parts of the texts that had become illegible and sold copies that were full of errors.

Apellicon perished when the Roman dictator Sulla captured Athens from the supporters of the rebellious king of Pontus, Mithridates, and in 84 BC Sulla conveyed the books to Rome, where more faulty copies were circulated. But the grammarian Tyrannio helped to put the material in order, and finally about the middle of the first century BCE they were entrusted to a specialist, Andronicus of Rhodes, for publication. Another authority, Athenaeus, writing during the third century CE, says that Neleus sold the entire collection to Ptolemy, which contradicts the more trustworthy testimony of Strabo; the suggestion that Ptolemy bought simply the works of Aristotle and Theophrastus themselves might conceivably be right, but remains uncertain. Canfora asserts that Neleus deceived Ptolemy, selling him “various unimportant treatises, a quantity of Theophrastus’ works (no rarities, these) and above all a number of books which had belonged to Aristotle”; this is nothing but a frivolous speculation.

Now we come to the “Letter of Aristeas.” The author of this document claims to be a contemporary of Ptolemy I, who he says followed the advice of Demetrius that the library should include “the Jewish Law.” The king, he tells us, arranged that the Pentateuch should be translated by a commission of seventy-two Jewish elders. This version was the nucleus of the translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint, “Seventy,” after the approximate number of the translators; it was not completed until the first century BCE. The Letter of Aristeas is generally agreed to be the work of a Jewish forger, writing during the second half of the second century BCE, as Canfora well knows and tells us in Part II. But in Part I he repeats as if it were undoubted truth the letter’s story of the king’s correspondence with Eleazar, high priest in Jerusalem, and all the rest. Ptolemy I’s keen interest in the Jewish scriptures is not easily credited; for a reasoned account of the Greek attitude to the culture and religion of the Jews and other foreign peoples one must turn to the late Arnaldo Momigliano’s book Alien Wisdom.5

Hecataeus of Abdera’s description of the great compound built by Rameses II at Thebes in the thirteenth century BCE, about a thousand years before Hecataeus’ own time, preserved by Diodorus, has been vindicated against modern skeptics by the excavation of the site. An entrance hall sixty feet by twenty feet led to a square peristyle with sides some 120 feet long; near a doorway stood three great statues, one of them the king’s colossal statue; beyond this was another peristyle containing bas-reliefs depicting not, as Hecataeus thought, his Bactrian campaign, but his campaign against the Hittites, which a Hittite source now known to us indicates may have been a good deal less successful than Rameses was willing to allow. Then came a colonnaded building with statues of judges; then a walk lined by buildings in which every kind of delicious food was seen; here could be seen a relief depicting the king offering to the gods gold and silver from his mines, whose vast annual yields were recorded by inscriptions.

Next came the “sacred library,” inscribed with the title “the Hospital of the Spirit”; near it were statues of all the gods of Egypt, all receiving offerings from the king. Sharing a wall with the library was a building which held statues of gods whom Hecataeus calls Zeus and Hera and of the king, and here the king’s body was believed to be entombed. Rameses II is the same as Ozymandias; “it is irritating to reflect,” the Oxford ancient historian Professor D. M. Lewis lately wrote to me after visiting the place, “how great a degree of immortality the king’s building operations, despite Shelley, have achieved.”

No library has been found; but by arguing that the usual Greek word for library, bibliotheke, which means literally a receptacle for books, might refer to shelving, Canfora is able to indicate a place where books may have been put. This is an ingenious conjecture, and it will be interesting to see how it is received by archaeologists familiar with the site. He next suggests that the idea of a vast temple compound centering on a royal tomb and containing a library may have been suggested to Ptolemy I by his knowledge of the museum of Rameses II. Indeed the tomb of Alexander the Great was not far from the museum.

But when did the library of Alexandria suffer its chief losses? Relying chiefly on a dubious comment in Aulus Gellius, a Roman writer of the second century CE, some scholars have argued that they were caused by a fire which broke out near the harbor in 47 BCE. At that time Julius Caesar, by defeating Pompey and the main body of the Roman aristocracy at Pharsalus in Thessaly had become the most powerful person in the Western world. Pursuing his defeated rival Pompey, Caesar arrived in Alexandria with a small force. As those who know Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra will remember, the teen-age Cleopatra, reluctant to share the throne with her brother, had herself conveyed, wrapped in a carpet, into the presence of the fifty-three-year-old general, and persuaded him to risk his life against a far more numerous force in order to secure her rule. On that occasion a great fire broke out and destroyed many books; but Cassius Dio, a historian of the third century BE, says explicitly that the fire destroyed warehouses near the harbor in which grain and books were stored; the library is not near the harbor, and the conjecture that Caesar had had its contents packed up in order to be sent to Rome does not convince. We know that there were bookstores near the harbor in which newly arrived books were placed to await sorting, and the likeliest interpretation of Dio’s words is that it was these which were destroyed. Plutarch in the second century CE records that Mark Antony presented Cleopatra with 200,000 rolls from the great rival library of Pergamum, and it has been conjectured that he wished to compensate her for the loss of books at Alexandria; but Plutarch himself warns us that his source is not reliable, and the conjecture lacks substance.

Gibbon in the twenty-eighth chapter of the Decline and Fall makes much of the disaster of 391 CE, when a Christian mob led by the bishop Theophilus, “a bold bad man whose hands were alternately polluted with gold and with blood,” destroyed a library. But since the temple of Serapis was destroyed on that occasion, the library in question is likely to have been not the great library, but the smaller library within the Serapeum.

Gibbon writes still more eloquently in his fifty-first chapter about the destruction which followed the capture of Alexandria by the Arabs in 641 CE. Canfora in Part I gives extended treatment to the Arab historian Ibn-al-Kisti’s story of how the venerable philosopher John Philoponus pleaded for the library with Amrou, the conqueror of Egypt; but he cannot overcome the awkward fact that Philoponus was born about 490 and died about 570, so that at the time of the Arab conquest he was about a hundred and fifty years of age.6 Amrou is represented as having been not unwilling to spare the books, but the matter had to be referred to the Caliph Omar, who pronounced that if the books disagreed with the Koran they deserved destruction, and that if they harmonized with it they were not needed. When Gibbon reasonably enough remarks that by this time most of the books left in the library are likely to have been theological—a positive reason for thinking this will be mentioned presently—Canfora suggests that as a man of the Enlightenment Gibbon was trying to acquit the Arabs of the crime in order to blame Caesar and above all Theophilus.

Canfora in Part I 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 to the library. In 273 CE the Roman emperor Aurelian, fresh from his victory over Zenobia, the formidable Arab queen of Palmyra in Syria, was obliged to deal with the rebel Firmus, who had established himself in Alexandria, claiming to be Zenobia’s friend and ally. The fourth-century historian Ammianus Marcellinus writes that at about this time the quarter called the Brucheion was totally destroyed, and the bishop Epiphanius, writing not long after, says that in his day it was a desert; and the Brucheion was the quarter formerly called “the Palaces” where the Museum lay. 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 and the destruction commanded by the Caliph Omar.

The book is padded out with every kind of anecdote, with scant regard for credibility. To single out one item, Callimachus wrote a four-line epigram about a candelabrum with no fewer than twenty lamps that was dedicated in a temple, and ended by addressing to it the words, “Evening star, how you have fallen!” This has reminded people that the prophet Isaiah, gloating over the fall of the proud king of Babylon, writes (14:12) “How have you fallen, bright star!” The coincidence is limited to a single sentence, the two contexts could hardly be more different, and the possibility that the poet and the prophet may independently have uttered similar sentences can hardly be excluded; yet Canfora tells us that “Callimachus was prepared to take his inspiration from the Hebrew literature recently translated, rendering some verses of Isaiah in the form of an epigram in elegiac distichs.” This learned historian is not at home with poetry; he finds that Callimachus was “needlessly sensual” in making the blinding of Tiresias for having happened on Athena bathing the main episode of his hymn to that goddess. Anyone acquainted with the grave and moving treatment of that incident in the hymn must be disgusted with his tastelessness.

What might have been a useful book is utterly ruined by the attempt to secure a cheap popular success.

This Issue

June 14, 1990