Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The library of Alexandria: vox populi

You may think I've already spent too much effort on the 'loss' of 'the library' of Alexandria. I make no apology: there is an obsession with the topic in popular culture.

This post isn't meant as a critique but as a sampler. I think it's worth having an awareness of what kinds of things people believe about the Alexandrian libraries. There is a gaping discontinuity between what a trained classicist is likely to think about this topic, and what your average viewer of Cosmos is likely to assume. I think it is salutary to have a reminder of that gap: improved communication of realities about antiquity can only be a good thing.

Relief from Neumagen, Germany, now lost, showing a slave at work in a 2nd century CE bookshop or library (source: Brower and Masen, Antiquitatum et annalium Trevirensium libri XXV [1670] vol. 1 p. 105)

Still, for the sake of clarity, I'd better be explicit about some points that are not popular knowledge.
  1. Libraries existed in the hundreds, maybe thousands, around the ancient Mediterranean. Any book whose survival depended on one specific library was already as good as lost. Books didn't disappear because of a single library, but because of the collapse of a whole system of knowledge exchange. (And, I believe, a format shift.)
  2. The royal archive at Alexandria was indeed burned in the Alexandrian War of 48/7 BCE. But other similar incidents are at best poorly attested, at worst illusions. (The supposed destruction in 389 or 391 CE was invented by Gibbon; the supposed destruction in 642 is a 13th century morality fable inspired by the Letter of Aristeas.)
  3. Libraries don't need calamitous tragedies to destroy them: time will do that all by itself. If you don't believe me, go visit Pergamon and see how many books are still on the shelves.
  4. The fetishisation of the Alexandrian libraries is driven by Gibbon, Carl Sagan, and (probably) Sid Meier's Civilization games. None of them is reliable, and the second and third are actively misleading. To get a more balanced picture, read an actual book about ancient libraries. Try especially Lionel Casson's Libraries in the ancient world (2001), and Yun Lee Too's The idea of the library in the ancient world (2010).
And now, for the sake of grasping how present-day people think about antiquity, I present a list of suggestions of what was lost in the 'destruction' of the libraries. The list is taken from a recent social media discussion; I've done a bit of categorisation to make things easier. I offer relatively little comment, meant more for clarification than as criticism.

Question: 'What books and knowledge did we definitely (and likely) lose in the library of Alexandria?'

Answers #1: non-Greek books

  • the works of emperor Claudius ('an Etruscan history and eight volumes on Carthaginian history, as well as an Etruscan dictionary and a book on dice playing') (1)
  • 'how to make Roman concrete and Greek fire' (2)
  • 'Carthage advances in science', especially their death ray (3)
  • 'the complete works of Julius Caesar' (4)
  • history of Carthage (5)
  • Egyptian music and hymns (6)
Some notes:
  1. We have one piece of testimony, the Letter of Aristeas, that the library acquired some non-Greek material. We have no indication of how much, why, or from which languages, other than Hebrew. (The Letter is about the creation of the Septuagint, which is why it picks out Hebrew.) If you want to speculate on which other source languages were represented in the Alexandrian library, native Egyptian material isn't a terrible candidate. But there's no reason to suspect that would include poetic material like hymns: according to the Letter, these acquisitions were all in Greek translations. Roman texts would be a terrible guess. A stronger candidate would be astronomical and mathematical texts from Achaemenid Persia.
  2. Julius Caesar and Claudius lived later than the destruction of the Ptolemaic royal archive.
  3. The 'Etruscan dictionary and book on dice playing' attributed to Claudius are fictional. Robert Graves made them up.
  4. The 'death ray' is presumably the legendary one associated with Archimedes, a Sicilian, not with the Carthaginians.
  5. We have most of Julius Caesar's historiographical output. The stuff we're missing is rhetoric and rhetorical theory (the De analogia, the Anticato, some legal speeches).

Answers #2: things from long after the library ceased to exist

  • how to make Greek Fire (Byzantine, not Egyptian) (7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12)
  • how to make Damascus steel (introduced westward from India to Syria at some point after the 12th century) (13, 14)
  • the Key of Solomon (14th/15th century; it is extant) (15)
  • the maps that Piri Reis used as a source (early 16th century) (16)
Little comment needed on these, except to note the extraordinary popularity of Greek fire.

Answers #3: 'hidden knowledge'

  • blueprints of the pyramids (17)
  • the location of Atlantis (18)
  • a 'history of man going back 25,000 years' (19)
These contributors appear to be dead serious. I don't think it's worth engaging with them though.

Is this vision from Disney's Atlantis: the lost empire (2001) a real one? What secrets did Disney steal from Alexandria in their time-travelling black helicopters?

Answers #4: things that actually sound sensible ...

... until you pause to think that of course nothing here can possibly have existed in only one copy in only one library.
  • 'most of' Democritus' books (20)
  • history (21, 22)
  • lost plays by Euripides and Aeschylus (23)
  • Sappho (24)
  • the six lost poems of the Epic Cycle (25, 26, 27, 28, 29)
  • 'romances, musics, poem and so on' (30)
  • book 2 of Aristotle's Poetics (31, 32)
  • Heron's work on steam engines (33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38)
  • Hellenistic tactical manuals and the works of Alexander's successors (39)
  • 'all of the world's knowledge on magic' (40, 41)
  • how the Colossus of Rhodes was built (42)
  • Archimedes (43)
  • works of Galen and Hippocrates (44, 45)
  • works of Plato (1)
  • the majority of Aristotle (46)
  • history prior to Herodotus (47)
  • Chrysippus and Cleanthes (48)
  • commentaries on the Iliad (49)
Some notes:
  1. Best to start by repeating that the destruction of one library didn't suddenly obligate every other copy of its books to cease to exist.
  2. All of Democritus is lost.
  3. Sappho still survived in the 7th century CE as a school text (p. Berol. 5006).
  4. On the Epic Cycle: the last indication we have of anyone having personally read intact copies of these poems dates to the late 2nd century CE, in Athenaeus and Pausanias. That's more than 200 years after the destruction of the royal archive at Alexandria, and 200 years before Gibbon's supposed destruction under Theodosius. The heyday of the Cycle was in the 3rd-1st centuries BCE. Some poems (AethiopisTelegony) may have disappeared as early as the 1st century CE; the last remaining pieces of the Cycle probably disappeared in the 200s CE.
  5. Poetics book 2 is never cited by any ancient source other than Aristotle himself. It may well have been lost before it ever left Athens, within decades of being written. (There are those who disagree: notably Richard Janko, in his work on the Tractatus Coislinianus.)
  6. We do, actually, have quite a lot of Galen, Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle, and commentaries on Homer. And Galen spent most of his career in Rome, so that'd be the place to expect copies to be preserved.

Answers #5: and to finish off with ...

  • 'prior era philosophy, science, religious, mathematics, and historical texts that went against the then current era ideologies' (50)
  • 'about everything we ever had as human collective' (51)
  • 'They probably all still exist in the vatican archives' (52)
On the last one, I should perhaps mention that the Vatican Apostolic Library is entirely open to visiting scholars, so feel free to go pay a visit or at least browse the online catalogue. As so often, the confusion here is to do with the Secret Archive, which is (a) mostly open access; (b) for documents relating to the papacy, the Curia, and various religious institutions; (c) its oldest document is a collection of ecclesiastical formulae dating to the 8th/9th century.

A reading room at the Secret Archive, Vatican City (source: ArchivioSegretoVaticano.va)

There are depressingly few joke responses. One person suggests a book about the origins of Cthulhu; books on why aliens helped humans build the pyramids; an autobiography by Jesus. Aside from these, they all take the subject terribly terribly seriously. (I'd like to categorise the Atlantis one here too, but I'm very much afraid that one isn't a joke.)

Multiple respondents also pause to genuflect at the altar of Carl Sagan (53). If you want proof that Sagan is key to the fetishisation of the library, hey presto.

There isn't much point making fun of any of this. I'll admit it's sorely tempting in a number of cases: you can certainly say that it's making fun of them for me to write this post at all.

But ignorance is just a matter of not having done the right research yet. What's really worrying, because they have an impact on present-day society, are the ones espousing heavily teleological views of the history of knowledge, where knowledge is a quantity that changes as a function of time, as though it were a score that humanity has achieved --
  • 'It's impossible to say what subsequent research would have occurred had the library not been burned. Maybe we would have seen the microscope invented centuries earlier.' (54)
  • 'I like to compare knowledge to compound interest. The more knowledge you accrue, the more it returns.' (55)
These are the ones to worry about. Opinions like these have a potential impact on things like research funding and school curricula. They also affect how people think about, and interact with, societies that aren't as wedded as western elite culture is to post-Enlightenment ideas of cultural teleology.

Ignorance, in and of itself, is no problem. I have no quarrel with the other people posting their suggestions on what was lost. We can never expect to fix the misapprehensions of every layperson, and it's unreasonable to expect perfection. However, specialists can realistically aim to be accessible to the people that popularise ancient history -- the Carl Sagans, the QIs, the Wikipedias, the Snopeses. If they can be reached, there's a chance they can teach their readers and viewers to put a high value on accurate facts ... and avoid the alternative ones that we've seen here.


  1. Where are all the people mourning the loss of the majority of the Ptolemaic royal correspondence!?

  2. The Etruscan dictionary supposedly written by Claudius may be fictional, but Suetonius does mention that Claudius wrote a book on dice-playing in his Life of Claudius 33. He writes:

    "Aleam studiosissime lusit, de cuius arte librum quoque emisit, solitus etiam in gestatione ludere, ita essedo alveoque adaptatis ne lusus confunderetur."

    Now it is possible that the book mentioned by Suetonius may have actually been a forgery written by someone other than Claudius under Claudius's name, but Robert Graves definitely didn't make it up; it's mentioned right there in Suetonius.

    Meanwhile, regarding Democritus, it is certainly true that we don't have any complete works by him, but, as I am sure you are already aware, we do have a few fragments of his work that have been preserved through quotation by later writers. I'm willing to charitably give the person who said that "most of" Democritus's works have been lost the benefit of the doubt and assume that they were thinking of the fragments.

    I revisited this article today because I published an article earlier this afternoon responding to a rather imaginative list of things that were supposedly in the Library of Alexandria that someone left under an answer I wrote on Quora. There is some overlap between the list he gave me and the items you have listed here, but a lot of the stuff he listed was new as well.