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Alexandria Library

By:  Ellen N. Brundige

Table of Contents

    1. The Legend of the Library
    2. Foundation
      1. Demetrius of Phaleron
      2. Precedents for the Museum
      3. The Museum
        1. The Stacks
      4. Development of the Library
        1. The Septuagint
        2. Acquisition of Books
        3. The First Librarians
    3. Organization
      1. Mathematics
      2. Astronomy
        1. Maps of Heaven
        2. Schemes of the Universe
      3. Geometry
        1. Eratosthenes and Spherical Geometry: Calculating the Earth's circumference
      4. Mechanics: Applied Science
      5. Medicine
    4. Conclusion
    5. Related Sites of Interest
    6. Bibliography

The Legend of the Library

"And concerning the number of books, the establishment of libraries, and the collection in the Hall of the the Muses, why need I even speak, since they are all in men's memories?"

-- Athenaeus [1]

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.[2] 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.[3] 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.



Demetrius of Phaleron

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.[4] 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 for Theophrastus to found a Lyceum devoted to his master's studies and modelled after Plato's Academy. [5] 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].[6]

Precedents for the Museum

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 of Epicurus,[7] 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 500 years.[8]

The Museum

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.[9] 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.[10]


The Stacks

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 .[11]

Development of the Library

The Septuagint

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]. [12]

Acquisition of Books

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 literature[13] 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 Serapeum.[14] 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][15], 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.

The First Librarians

While Demetrius was a convert of Serapis[16] 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 or Tables.[17] 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' replacement.[18] 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.[19]


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.[20] 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 semicircles (See Vatican manuscript), and he was also an important transmitter into European culture of astrology gleaned from eastern sources.[21] 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.[22] 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.

Maps of Heaven

Eratosthenes, the versatile third librarian, amassed a poetic catalog of 44 constellations complete with background myths, as well as a list of 475 fixed stars.[23] 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.[24]

Schemes of the Universe

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.[25] 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 moon's path.[26] 300 years later Ptolemy (no known relation to royalty, see biography) worked out mathematically his elegant system of epicycles to support the geocentric, Aristotelian view,[27] and wrote a treatise on astrology, both of which were to become the medieval paradigm.[28] (See Vatican manuscript on astronomy and exhibit on geography.)


The Alexandrians compiled and set down many of the geometric principles of earlier Greek 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. [29] His successors, notably Apollonius of the second century B.C.E., carried on his research in conics (Vatican manuscript, biography), as did Hipparchus in the second century A.D. Archimedes (biography)is credited with the discovery of pi.[30]


Eratosthenes and Spherical Geometry: Calculating the Earth's circumference

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 four years.[31]

Mechanics: Applied Science

Archimedes (see 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.[32] 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.[33]

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.[34] 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.[35] (See Vatican manuscript).


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 electronic medium.


Related Sites of Interest


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: 1971.

Research Links


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