Tuesday 22 November 2022

The library of Alexandria and its reputation

Many people are aware that the library of Alexandria is hugely overblown. Sure, there’ll always be people insisting that it was a magical place that held the secrets of Göbekli Tepe, Doggerland, and blond blue-eyed Europeans building pyramids in Mexico and Bolivia: there’s no point engaging with people like that. The thing is, pretty much everyone has heard of it.

Last week the History subreddit paid some attention to a piece I wrote in 2015 dispelling some myths about the Alexandrian library. Which is nice. Some people misread it and thought I was claiming it was true that ‘the burning of the library of Alexandria was “the most destructive fire in the history of human culture”’. That’s a pity, but understandable. (One reader was angry at my claiming to be a Kiwi and a hellenist: that was entertaining.)

On a more serious note, several readers pointed out that there were other library losses in history that were far more destructive. And that’s absolutely correct. Any time books are destroyed that don’t exist in other copies in other libraries, that’s a catastrophic and irreversible loss.

You can argue about whether specific incidents belong in this category. The destruction of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad in 1258 didn’t exactly put an end to the Abbasid knowledge economy and book culture, any more than the Alexandrian fire did in hellenised Egypt.

A genuine candidate for ‘most destructive fire in the history of human culture’: the Museu Nacional, Rio de Janeiro, 2 September 2018. (Photo: CBS News)

But some tragedies really are catastrophically destructive. The fire at the National Museum of Brazil in 2018 destroyed mountains of unique recordings of indigenous languages, irreplaceable archives of extinct languages, and physical artefacts. When a copy of a book gets burned, it can always be replaced if people care. But much of what was lost that day was lost for good. The fire of Rio de Janeiro was far more destructive than the incidents at Baghdad or Alexandria.

So why does the fire in Alexandria have such a vastly overinflated reputation? Why is it such a well known symbol?

Phase 1. Ancient book culture

Let’s revisit a papyrus I mentioned in the 2015 piece: one of Aristotle’s books, the Constitution of the Athenians. This text wasn’t transmitted via the mediaeval manuscript tradition. It survives only in a single papyrus copy, found in Egypt, and now held at the British Library (P. Lond. 131). Here are two interesting facts about the papyrus:

  1. It comes from Hermopolis.
  2. It was made on recycled papyrus (the papyrus was previously used for farming records).

The first fact is interesting because Hermopolis is about 400 km from Alexandria. The second fact is interesting because it shows that it was made on the cheap.

In other words, no one was making an 800 km round trip to Alexandria, on foot, to make this copy. It was made locally.

Hellenised Egypt had a thriving book trade. There were libraries all over the place. And the loss of one big library didn’t suddenly change that.

P. Lond. 131 f. 2r, one of four scrolls that comprise the Aristotle papyrus. The papyrus was originally used for accounts for a farm near Hermopolis in the 70s CE; the blank side was later used to make a copy of the Aristotle, around 80–100 CE.

Similarly, when scholars in Rome wanted to do research, they didn’t travel all the way to Egypt. After all there were libraries in Rome: the Palatine library, the Atrium Libertatis, the Portico of Octavia, the Ulpian library, the library by the temple of Peace, the libraries at the baths of Trajan, the baths of Caracalla, the baths of Diocletian, and more. Outside Rome, there were major libraries in cities like Athens, Pergamon, Ephesos. And we know about plenty of large privately built libraries in lower-profile centres too, like Como in northern Italy, Timgad in Algeria, Prusa in Turkey.

The books that survive today via the mediaeval tradition aren’t ones that were whisked out of a burning library in Alexandria. They’re ones that got copied and so survived the format shifts over the millennia: the shift from manuscript to print in the 15th century, from uncial script to minuscule script in the 9th–10th centuries, from scroll to codex in the 2nd–4th centuries. All of these, especially the transition from scroll to codex, had a far greater impact than any one library could. A library fire affects one copy of a book: a format shift affects all copies everywhere.

Phase 2. ‘The vanity of learning’

Even in antiquity the fire of 48/47 BCE was a potent symbol. But it didn’t symbolise what it does today. Here’s how Seneca the Younger talks about it, writing in the mid-1st century CE (On tranquility of mind 9.5):

Forty thousand books burned at Alexandria. Let someone else praise that as a beautiful monument of royal elegance [elegantia]; like Livy, who says it was a tribute to the elegance of kings and the nobility of curation [cura]. It wasn’t elegance and it wasn’t curation. It was scholarly extravagance. Or rather, no, not even scholarly: since they didn't collect books for scholarship, but for show.

(The number of books varies a great deal in different sources: Seneca’s figure of ‘forty thousand’ is by far the lowest.)

The harbour fire of 48/47 BCE as depicted in Assassin’s creed origins (2017), with the Pharos lighthouse in the background. In the game, the library remains undamaged and can still be visited after the fire. Even more inaccurately, the library makes a cameo appearance in the follow-up Assassin’s creed odyssey (2018) — set a full century before the existence of Alexandria, let alone the library.

The subsequent history of the library’s reputation was mixed. The most famous fable about the library, about Caliph Omar burning the library during the Rashidun conquest around 640 CE, is in a similar vein:

And [‘Amr] received a letter from ‘Umar telling him: ‘As for the books you mention, if there is in it what complies with the Book of God, then it is already there and is not needed and if what is in these books contradict the Book of God there is no need for it. And you can then proceed in destroying them.’
Note. Al-Qifṭī, Ta‘rikh al-Ḥukama, trans. Emily Cottrell; published on Roger Pearse’s website, Sep. 2010.

This is pure morality fable, without an iota of credibility to it. Demetrios of Phaleron’s library went up in flames centuries earlier: the libraries that existed in Alexandria in the 600s CE were entirely new institutions. Still, in the Enlightenment period this fable became the single most influential story about the library of Alexandria.

It’d be easy to make the fable of Caliph Omar the basis for an islamophobic screed, slamming him for anti-intellectualism. That would be ignoring the fact that the Caliph has had plenty of western sympathisers. If Seneca could have lived to the 13th century — when the fable was invented — he would certainly have been among them.

Some later western writers did actively take the Caliph’s side, most notably Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Edward Gibbon. Here’s Rousseau’s Discourse on the sciences and arts (1750):

It is related that the Caliph Omar, being asked what should be done with the library at Alexandria, answered in these words. ‘If the books in the library contain anything contrary to the Alcoran, they are evil and ought to be burnt; if they contain only what the Alcoran teaches, they are superfluous.’ This reasoning has been cited by our men of letters as the height of absurdity; but if Gregory the Great had been in the place of Omar, and the Gospel in the place of the Alcoran, the library would still have been burnt, and it would have been perhaps the finest action of his life.

And here’s Gibbon’s Decline and fall of the Roman empire, volume 9 (1788):

... if the ponderous mass of Arian and Monophysite controversy were indeed consumed in the public baths, a philosopher may allow, with a smile, that [Caliph Omar's burning] was ultimately devoted to the benefit of mankind. I sincerely regret the more valuable libraries which have been involved in the ruin of the Roman empire ...

An important 1979 article by Jon Thiem calls this the ‘vanity of learning’ tradition. Up to the early 20th century, people’s opinions of the library’s destruction were fairly evenly divided between regret for its loss, and smug Schadenfreude that some ancient snobs got their comeuppance.

Gibbon had previously cast the library’s supposed destruction in 391 CE (how many times did he think the same books can get destroyed, exactly?) as evil Christians destroying ‘compositions of ancient genius’, in volume 5 of Decline and fall. Then when it comes to Caliph Omar, suddenly destroying libraries is a good thing. (In his case it’s perhaps more about christianophobia than anything else.)

Rousseau and Gibbon are the most famous voices for ‘vanity of learning’, but they’re not alone. Thiem also points at Louis LeRoy’s De la vicissitude ou variété des choses (1575), and Thomas Browne’s Religio medici (1643) and Vulgar errors (1646); the utopian fictions of Sebastien Mercier’s L’an 2440 (1770) and Étienne Cabet’s Voyage en Icarie (1839), where making a better world depends on burning old books; and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, writers like Jacob Burckhardt and George Bernard Shaw, who took the view that the library’s destruction allowed space for a better future, which could not otherwise have happened.

Phase 3. ‘The loss was incalculable’

Thiem’s article came out in 1979. This was a fortuitous time for an article on the library’s reputation, because the big reversal came the very next year. In late 1980 Carl Sagan released Cosmos, and reinvented the library’s reputation almost out of thin air.

To be sure, there had been voices in the intervening millennia that regarded the fire of 48/47 BCE — or alternatively Caliph Omar’s fictional deeds — as a bad thing. John Lydgate, for one, knew his Seneca and sharply disagreed with him (Fall of princes book 6, written in the 1430s):

Alle the vesselis wer dryue up with a flood
To gret damage of seide Tholome;
Iulius brente hem euene ther thei stood,
And a gret part beside of the cite.
And ther was brent, which was previous hit ful gret pite,
The famous librarie in Egipt of the kyng,
Ful fourti thousande volumys ther liggyng.

Richard de Bury wrote of how ‘the devouring flames consumed so many thousands of innocents’ (Philobiblon, 1345). Boccaccio very sensibly regards it as one library among thousands that were lost (Genealogy of the gentile gods, preface; 1360). And in modern times, the Hollywood blockbuster Cleopatra (1963) has the queen’s advisor Sosigenes lamenting the loss of

Aristotle’s manuscripts! The Platonic commentaries, the plays, the histories! The testament of the Hebrew god! The book of books!

(It shouldn’t need pointing out, but maybe it does, that Aristotle, Plato, and the Hebrew Bible do in fact survive. The script writers evidently switched off their brains when they wrote this line.)

Cleopatra (1963): left, the city burns; right, Sosigenes of Alexandria (Hume Cronyn) laments the loss of books that survived safe and sound in hundreds of other libraries and private collections. By the way, so far as we know the real Sosigenes was neither Alexandrian nor Egyptian.

But the library’s reputation as a magical irreplaceable repository of unique items only became solidified after Carl Sagan said on a TV programme that was broadcast worldwide,

It’s as if an entire civilization had undergone a sort of self-inflicted radical brain surgery so that most of its memories, discoveries, ideas, and passions were irrevocably wiped out. The loss was incalculable. In some cases, we know only the tantalizing titles of books that had been destroyed. In most cases, we know neither the titles nor the authors.

(To be clear, where we do know titles of books that existed in the Alexandrian collection but do not survive today, it’s because they get mentioned by people who read them in lots of places, not just Alexandria, and usually later than the fire of 48/47 BCE. It is the sheerest folly to imagine that only one copy of any given book existed anywhere in the world. Or if this was the case, then the book was already doomed, because no ancient library has survived to the present.)

In eight minutes of television, Sagan invented out of thin air the myths

  • that the library was a unique institution, with no parallels;
  • that lots of knowledge was lost along with the library;
  • that Hypatia’s death had something to do with the library’s destruction;
  • for that matter, that Hypatia had anything at all to do with the library.

All of these are pure fiction, without any basis of any kind. Sagan also repeats a bunch of myths that he didn’t invent: that religion caused the onset of a ‘Dark Age’ and centuries of superstitious ignorance; even the idea that there was still a library in the temple of Serapis when it was destroyed in 391 CE, which is doubtful.

How influential is Cosmos? Insanely influential. I talked about this a little back in 2016, but it bears repeating. Many articles, books, documentaries, and videos about the history of science still have no hesitation over citing Cosmos as the only authority they need. This is crazy, because at least half of what Sagan says about history is outright false, but his authority is still seemingly unimpeachable today, forty-two years after the programme first aired.

This credit screen (right) shows the entirety of the historical research for an influential 2016 video about ancient science (left). As of November 2022, the video has been viewed nearly 25 million times on Facebook and YouTube combined. At least half of it is outright false, and every one of the falsehoods comes from Cosmos.

If you look at an Ngram analysis of the frequency of ‘library of Alexandria’ and related terms in English-language books, it’s easy to see the impact of Cosmos. Previously, the most common title for the institution had been ‘Alexandrian library’. Sagan made ‘Library of Alexandria’ a formal title. ‘Library of Alexandria’, with a capital L, took over as the most common title from 1984 onwards. Sagan also caused the rise of the phrasing 'Great Library of Alexandria', capital G and capital L, which hadn’t been a thing previously.

Google Books Ngram analysis of ‘Library of Alexandria’ and related phrases for the period 1965–2019: link. The Cosmos effect is obvious in other languages too: French, German, Italian, Russian, Spanish.

I’ve often suspected that the library’s popularity has had additional boosts from the Sid Meier’s Civilization games from the 1990s onwards, which have sold many millions of copies, and which feature ‘The Great Library’ as a wonder that a historical civilisation can build. But it isn’t possible to filter out the effects of Civilization among all the noise that Sagan created. Then again, the effect is far more pronounced after the year 2000 if you look at an Ngram analysis of just fiction books, so maybe there are good grounds for seeing the Civilization effect as a real thing too.

Addendum, 8 days later: On checking further into the Ngram of fiction books mentioned in the last paragraph, I see I was probably wrong to see the peak in the 2000s as caused by a Civilization effect. That peak apparently owes a lot to a ‘publisher’ called Library of Alexandria, which at the time was swiping as many out-of-copyright novels off Google Books as it could, and reprinting them, thereby taking them out of the public domain. For the record, publishers like that are harmful to the public good: please avoid them. In any case they do no actual editing, and their production values are atrocious.


  • Thiem, J. 1979. ‘The great library of Alexandria burnt: towards the history of a symbol.’ Journal of the history of ideas 40: 507–526. [JSTOR]


  1. A good debunking article. Thank you. And the greatest irony is that the Egyptian government built a new great library at Alexandria 20 years ago, at vast expense. A colossal boondoggle, recreating something that never really existed.

  2. The modern library of Alexandria is a good thing, both in terms of providing a link to the country's Greco-Roman past and in terms of offering young Alexandrians a western-oriented educational and cultural institution.

  3. Sagan is also behind the popularisation of the nuclear winter myth. It makes one wonder if he consciously took a "the ends justifies the means" approach to information dissemination.

  4. Although they seem to have removed the phrase at some point, if I recall correctly the Internet Archive billed itself as "the online Library of Alexandria" when it was first founded. A tagline heavily dependent on the myth - both envisioning the library as a repository of all knowledge and as a thing that had to be saved from destruction.