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Library of Alexandria


This inscription refers to the library as Alexandrina Bibliothece.
Inscription Referring to the Alexandrian library, A.D. 56.

Inscription Referring to the Alexandrian library, A.D. 56.

Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

"There is no ancient account of the foundation of the Library," argues American classical scholar Roger S. Bagnall, but that doesn't stop historians from putting together a probable, but gap-filled account. Ptolemy Soter, the successor of Alexander the Great who had control of Egypt, probably started the world famous Library of Alexandria. In the city where Ptolemy buried Alexander, he started a library that his son completed. (His son may also have been responsible for initiating the project. We just don't know.) Not only was the Library of Alexandria the repository of all the most important written works -- whose numbers may have been wildly exaggerated if Bagnall's reckoning is accurate -- but illustrious scholars, like Eratosthenes and Callimachus, worked, and scribes hand-copied books in its associated Museum/Mouseion. The temple to Serapis known as the Serapeum may have housed some of the materials.

Scholars at the Library of Alexandria, paid by the Ptolemies and then Caesars, worked under a president or priest. Both Museum and Library were near the palace, but exactly where is not known. Other buildings included a dining hall, a covered area for walks, and a lecture hall. A geographer from the turn of the eras, Strabo, writes the following about Alexandria and its educational complex:

And the city contains most beautiful public precincts and also the royal palaces, which constitute one-fourth or even one-third of the whole circuit of the city; for just as each of the kings, from love of splendour, was wont to add some adornment to the public monuments, so also he would invest himself at his own expense with a residence, in addition to those already built, so that now, to quote the words of the poet, "there is building upon building." All, however, are connected with one another and the harbour, even those that lie outside the harbour. The Museum is also a part of the royal palaces; it has a public walk, an Exedra with seats, and a large house, in which is the common mess-hall of the men of learning who share the Museum. This group of men not only hold property in common, but also have a priest in charge of the Museum, who formerly was appointed by the kings, but is now appointed by Caesar.

In Mesopotamia, fire was a friend of the written word, since it baked the clay of the cuneiform tablets. In Egypt, it was a different story. There papyrus was the principal writing surface. The scrolls were destroyed when the Library burned.

In 48 B.C., Caesar's troops burned a collection of books. Some believe this was the Library of Alexandria, but the devastating fire in the Library of Alexandria could have been somewhat later. Bagnall describes this as like a murder mystery -- and a very popular one at that -- with a number of suspects. Besides Caesar, there were the Alexandria-damaging emperors Caracalla, Diocletian, and Aurelian. Religious sides offer up the monks in 391 who destroyed the Serapeum, where there may have been a second Alexandrian library, and Amr, the Arab conqueror of Egypt, in A.D. 642.


Theodore Johannes Haarhoff and Nigel Guy Wilson "Museum" The Oxford Classical Dictionary.

"Alexandria: Library of Dreams," by Roger S. Bagnall; Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 146, No. 4 (Dec., 2002), pp. 348-362.

"Literary Alexandria," by John Rodenbeck The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 42, No. 4, Egypt (Winter, 2001/2002), pp. 524-572.

"Culture and Power in Ptolemaic Egypt: The Museum and Library of Alexandria," by Andrew Erskine; Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Apr., 1995), pp. 38-48.

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