The library of Alexandria is a legend. Not a myth, but a legend. The
destruction of the library of the ancient world has been retold many times and
attributed to just as many different factions and rulers, not for the purpose of
chronicling that ediface of education, but as political slander. Much ink has
been spilled, ancient and modern, over the 40,000 volumes housed in grain depots
near the harbor, which were supposedly incinerated when Julius Caesar torched
the fleet of Cleopatra's brother and rival monarch. So says Livy, apparently, in
one of his lost books, which Seneca quotes.
The figure of Hypatia,
a fifth-century scholar and mathematician of Alexandria, being dragged from her
chariot from an angry Pagan-hating mob of monks who flayed her alive then burned
her upon the remnants of the old Library, has found her way into legend as well,
thanks to a few contemporary sources which survived.
Yet while we know of many rumors of the destruction of "The Library"
(in fact, there were at least three different libraries coexisting in the city),
and know of whole schools of Alexandrian scholars and scholarship, there is
scant data about the whereabouts, layout, holdings, organization,
administration, and physical structure of the place.
The first mention we have of the library is in The Letter of Aristeas
(ca. 180-145 B.C.E.), a Jewish scholar housed at the Library chronicling the
translation of the Septuagint into Greek by seventy-two rabbis. This massive
production was commissioned by the Athenian exile Demetrius of Phaleron under
his patron, Ptolemy
I, Ptolemy Soter.
Demetrius himself was a former ruler, no less than a ten-year tyrant of Athens,
and a first-generation Peripatetic scholar. That is, he was one of the students
of Aristotle along with Theophrastus and Alexander the Great. Demetrius, helped
into power in Athens by Alexander's successor Cassander, provided backing
to found a Lyceum devoted to his master's studies and modelled after Plato's
After Ptolemy I Soter, on of Alexander's successful generals, secured the
kingship for himself of conquered Egypt, Theophrastus turned down the Pharoah's
invitation in 297 B.C.E to tutor Ptolemy's heir, and instead recommended
Demetrius, who had recently been driven out from Athens as a result of political
fallout from the conflicts of Alexander's successors [Diog. Laert. 5.37].
According to Aristeas, Demetrius recommended Ptolemy gather a collection of
books on kingship and ruling in the style of Plato's philosopher-kings, and
furthermore to gather books of all the world's people that he might better
understand subjects and trade partners. Demetrius must also have helped inspire
the founding of a Museum in Ptolemy's capital, Alexandria, a temple dedicated to
the Muses. This was not the first such temple dedicated to the divine patrons of
arts and sciences. However, coming as it did in the half-century after the
establishment of Plato's Academy, Aristotle's Lyceum, Zeno's Stoa and the school
and located in a rich center of international trade and cultural
exchange, the place and time were ripe for such an institution to flower.
Scholars were invited there to carry out the Peripatetic activities of
observation and deduction in math, medicine, astronomy, and geometry; and most
of the western world's discoveries were recorded and debated there for the next
Archaeologists have not uncovered the foundations of the Museum, although they
have excavated portions of the "daughter Library" in the nearby temple
of Serapis. From scattered primary sources this much seems relatively clear:
it was in the Brucchium (northeast) sector of the city, probably in or adjacent
to the palace grounds. It was surrounded by courts, gardens, and a zoological
park containing exotic animals from far-flung parts of the Alexandrian empire.
According to Strabo [17.1.8], at its heart was a Great Hall and a circular domed
dining hall (perhaps Roman?) with an observatory in its upper terrace;
classrooms surrounded it. This is very similar to the layout of the Serapeum,
which was begun by Ptolemy II Philadelphus and completed by his son.
An estimated 30-50 scholars were probably permanently housed there, probably fed
and funded first by the royal family, and later, according to an early Roman
papyrus, by public money.
The physical shelves of the Library may have been in one of the outlying lecture
halls or in the garden, or it may have been housed in the Great Hall. They
consisted of pigeonholes or racks for the scrolls, the best of which were
wrapped in linen or leather jackets. Parchment skins--vellum-- came into vogue
after Alexandria stopped exporting papyrus in an attempt to strangle its younger
rival library, set up by the Seleucids in Pergamon. In Roman times, manuscripts
started to be written in codex (book) form, and began to be stored in wooden
chests called armaria .
Aristeas, writing 100 years after the library's inception, records that Ptolemy
I handed over to Demetrius the job of gathering books and scrolls, as well as
letting him supervise a massive effort to translate other cultures' works into
Greek. This process began with the translation of the Septuagint, the Old
Testament, into Greek, for which project Ptolemy hired and housed 72 rabbis at
Demetrius' suggestion. [Letter of Aristeas 9-10]. 
At the time of Demetrius, Greek libraries were usually collections of
manuscripts by private individuals, such as Aristotle's
library of his own and other works. Egypt's temples often had shelves
containing an assortment of religious and official texts, as did certain Museums
in the Greek world. It was Ptolemy I's great ambition to possess all known world
that pushed these idiosyncratic collections-- the web sites of the ancient
world-- into the realm of a true library. John Tzetzes records several centuries
later that Callimachus cataloged 400,000 "mixed" scrolls (probably
those that contained more than one chapter, work, or even author, see example
in Vatican) and 90,000 "unmixed", plus an additional 42,000 in the
Ptolemy's successors' methods for achieving his goal were certainly unique.
Ptolemy III wrote a letter "to all the world's sovereigns" asking to
borrow their books [Galen 17.1 Kühn p. 601ff],
When Athens lent him the texts to Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, he had
them copied, returned the copies, and kept the originals. Supposedly, all ships
that stopped in the port of Alexandria were searched for books which were given
them same treatment, thus the term "ship libraries" for the collection
housed in the Museum. This unorthodox procedure did at least inspire the first
systematic work in emendation and collation of classical texts without which
none of the authors would have survived.
While Demetrius was a convert of Serapis
and thus probably an official of the new Greco-Egyptian cult invented by
Ptolemy, the Serapeum was not yet built at his death and he is remembered
neither as librarian of that institution nor at the Museum. The first recorded
Librarian was Zenodotus of Ephesus, holding that post from the end of Ptolemy
I's reign until 245 B.C.E. His successor Callimachus of Cyrene was perhaps
Alexandria's most famous librarian, creating for the first time a subject
catalog in 120,000 scrolls of the Library's holdings, called the Pinakes
It was by no means comprehensive, but was more like a good subject index on the
web. Apollonius of Rhodes, his younger rival and the writer of the notoriously
meticulous epic, Argonautica, seems to have been Callimachus'
Eratosthenes of Cyrene, Stoic geographer
and mathematician, succeeded him in 235, and compiled his "tetagmenos
epi teis megaleis bibliothekeis", the "scheme of the great
bookshelves". In 195 Aristophanes, a Homeric scholar of no relation to the
comic playwright, took up the position, and updated Callimachus' Pinakes.
The last recorded librarian was Aristarchus of Samothrace, the astronomer, who
took up the position in 180 B.C.E. and was driven out during dynastic struggles
between two Ptolemies. While the library and Museum persisted for many centuries
afterwards, from that time onward scholars are simply recorded as Alexandrian,
and no Librarians are mentioned by name.
While it is doubtful the library had a perfectly systematic organization, but
rather tended to house new chests and shelves of papyri in the groups in which
they were acquired, the Alexandrians from Callimachus onwards tried to keep
track of their holdings via a subject catalog. In this they followed Aristotle's
divisions of knowledge, or at least his style of breaking up what had previously
fallen under the umbrella of "philosophy" into subdivisions of
observational and deductive sciences. Since this paper is an overview of the
work and scholarship carried out at Alexandria, I will adhere to the subject
divisions first set forth by Callimachus in his Pinakes, of mathematics,
medicine, astronomy, and geometry, as well as philology.
I have added the Aristotelian category of mechanics for some of the applied
science which grew out of Alexandrian studies.
Alexandrian mathematicians concerned themselves for the most part with geometry,
but we know of some researches specific to number theory. Prime
numbers were a source of fascination from the time of the Pythagoreans
onwards. Eratosthenes the Librarian dabbled in numbers along with everything
else, and is reported to have invented the "sieve", a method for
finding new ones.
Euclid also was known to have studied this tricky subject.
Eudoxis of Cnidus (see
biography), Euclid's pupil, probably worked out of Alexandria, and is known
for developing an early method of integration, studied the uses of proportions
for problem solving, and contributed various formulas for measuring three
dimensional figures. Pappus (See
biography), a fourth century A.D. scholar, was one of the last of the Greek
mathematicians and concentrated on large numbers and constructions in
Vatican manuscript), and he was also an important transmitter into European
culture of astrology gleaned from eastern sources.
Theon and his daughter Hypatia
also continued work in astronomy, geometry, and mathematics, commenting on their
predecessors, but none of their works survive.
Astronomy was not merely the projection of three-dimensional geometry into a
fourth, time, although this is how many Greek scientists classified it. The
movements of the stars and sun were essential for determining terrestrial
positions, since they provided universal points of reference. In Egypt, this was
particularly vital for property rights, because the yearly inundation often
altered physical landmarks and boundaries between fields. For Alexandria, whose
lifeblood was export of grain and papyrus to the rest of the Mediterranean,
developments in astronomy allowed sailors to do away with consultation of
oracles, and to risk year-round navigation out of sight of the coast.Earlier
Greek astronomers had concentrated on theoretical models of the universe;
Alexandrians now took up the task of detailed observations and mathematical
systems to develop and buttress existing ideas.
Eratosthenes, the versatile third librarian, amassed a poetic catalog of 44
constellations complete with background myths, as well as a list of 475 fixed
Hipparchus was credited with inventing longitude and latitude, importing the
360-degree circular system from Babylonia, calculating the length of a year
within six minutes accuracy, amassing sky-chart of constellations and stars, and
speculated that stars might have both births and deaths.
Aristarchus applied Alexandrian trigonometry to estimate the distances and sizes
of the sun and moon, and also postulated
a heliocentric universe (biography).
A fellow Museum scholar, the Stoic Cleanthus, accused him of blatant impiety.
Hipparchus of Bithynia, during the reign of Ptolemy VII, discovered and measured
the procession of the equinoxes, the size and trajectory of the sun, and the
300 years later Ptolemy (no known relation to royalty, see biography)
worked out mathematically his elegant system of epicycles to support the
and wrote a treatise on astrology, both of which were to become the medieval
(See Vatican manuscript
on astronomy and exhibit
The Alexandrians compiled and set down many of the geometric principles of
mathematicians, and also had access to Babylonian
and Egyptian knowledge on that subject. This is one of the areas in which
the Museum excelled, producing its share of great geometers, right from its
inception. Demetrius of Phaleron is said to have invited the scholar Euclid (biography)
to Alexandria, and his Elements are well-known to be the foundation of
geometry for many centuries. 
His successors, notably Apollonius of the second century B.C.E., carried on his
research in conics (Vatican
as did Hipparchus in the second century A.D. Archimedes (biography)is
credited with the discovery of pi.
The third librarian of Alexandria, Eratosthenes (275-194 B.C.E), calculated the
circumference of the earth to within 1%, based on the measured distance from
Aswan to Alexandria and the fraction of the whole arc determined by differing
shadow-lengths at noon in those two locations. He further suggested that the
seas were connected, that Africa might be circumnavigated, and that "India
could be reached by sailing westward from Spain." Finally, probably drawing
on Egyptian and Near Eastern observations, he deduced the length of the year to
365 1/4 days and first suggested the idea of adding a "leap day" every
biography) was one of the early Alexandria-affiliated scholars to apply
geometers' and astronomers' theories of motion to mechanical devices. Among his
discoveries were the lever and-- as an extension of the same principle-- the
"Archimedes screw," a handcranked device for lifting water.
He also figures in the tale of the scientist arising from his tub with the cry
of "Eureka" after discovering that water is displaced by physical
objects immersed in it.
Hydraulics was an Alexandria-born science which was the principle behind
Hero's Pneumatics, a long work detailing many machines and
"robots" simulating human actions. The distinction between practical
and fanciful probably did not occur to him in his thought-experiments, which
included statues that poured libations, mixed drinks, drank, and sang (via
compressed air). He also invented a windmill-driven pipe organ, a steam boiler
which was later adapted for Roman baths, a self-trimming lamp, and the
candelaria, in which the heat of candle-flames caused a hoop from which were
suspended small figures to spin.
His sometimes whimsical application of the infant sciences are reminiscent of
the modern Rube Goldberg's "inventions" during the technological
revolution of this century.
The study of anatomy, tracing its roots to Aristotle (see
Andrea's case study on Aristotelian anatomy), was conducted extensively by
many Alexandrians, who may have taken advantage both of the zoological gardens
for animal specimens, and Egyptian
burial practices and craft for human anatomy. One of its first scholars,
Herophilus, both collected and compiled the Hippocratic
corpus, and embarked on studies of his own. He first distinguished the brain
and nervous system as a unit, as well as the function of the heart,
the circulation of blood, and probably several other anatomical features. His
successor Eristratos concentrated on the digestive system and the effects of
nutrition, and postulated that nutrition as well as nerves and brain influenced
mental diseases. Finally, in the second century A.D., Galen drew upon
Alexandria's vast researches and his own investigations to compile fifteen books
on anatomy and the art of medicine.
The Museum of Alexandria was founded at a unique place and time which allowed
its scholars to draw on the deductive techniques of Aristotle and Greek thought,
in order to apply these methods to the knowledges of Greece, Egypt, Macedonia,
Babylonia, and beyond. The location of Alexandria as a center of trade, and in
particular as the major exporter of writing material, offered vast opportunities
for the amassing of information from different cultures and schools of thought.
Its scholars' deliberate efforts to compile and critically analyze the knowledge
of their day allowed for the first systematic, long-term research by dedicated
specialists in the new fields of science suggested by Aristotle and Callimachus.
Whole new disciplines, such as grammar, manuscript preservation, and
trigonometry were established. Moreover, the fortuitious collection of documents
in an Egyptian city allowed the transmission and translation of vital classical
texts into Arabic and Hebrew, where they might be preserved long after copies
were lost during the Middle Ages in Europe. Alexandria and its cousins, the
Lyceum, Academy, and the younger Pergamon library, were probably the prototypes
both for the medieval monastery and universities. While modern scholars often
lament the amount of information lost through the centuries since the Museum's
fall, an amazing number of Alexandrian discoveries and theories, especially in
mathematics and geometry, still provide the groundwork for modern research in
these fields. Finally, the methods of research, study, and information storage
and organization developed in the Library are much the same as those used today,
but just as the medium of linear scrolls gave way to books in its halls, we now
are watching the transformation from books to multilayered documents in the
Bevan, Edwyn. The House of Ptolemy. Argonaut Inc. Chicago: 1968.
Canfora, Luciano. The Vanished Library. trans. Martin Ryle. University
of California Press. Berkely: 1989.
Ellis, Ptolemy of Egypt. Routledge. New York: 1994.
Fraser, P. M. Ptolemaic Alexandria. Volume I of III. Oxford University
Press. Oxford: 1972.
Johnson, Emer D. History of Libraries in the Western World. Scarecrow
Press, Inc. Metuchen: 1970.
Marlowe, John. The Golden Age of Alexandria. Trinity Press. London:
... ALEXANDRIA, LIBRARY OF, famous ancient library of Alexandria, Egypt. Founded
by Ptolemy I Soter, king of Egypt, it was expanded by his son Ptolemy II ...
... in Alexandria inspired by the glorious achievements of what was the ancient
of Alexandria. The new Library will be a public research library located on ...
... ALEXANDRINA. In order to revive the idea of the ancient library which
2000 years ago in Alexandria, Egypt, the Arab Republic of Egypt and UNESCO ...
... (I) Directors of the Ancient Library of Alexandria ... (III) Other important
figures related to the Ancient City and Library of Alexandria ...
Digital Library Project
... ADL Project). The name Alexandria comes from the ancient library of
which was considered the center of all knowledge/learning. No one place ...
... the Phoenix; American Research Center in Egypt; Ancient Egyptian Poems; The
Library of Alexandria; Arab Poems; Arabic Poems; Architecture of Islam; The Art
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