A Brief Outline of the History of Libraries/Chapter 2

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The Alexandrian Library, of which Philadelphus was the founder and the chief benefactor. The variety and number of books in it. Burned, and restored.

THOUGH other libraries of Egypt are little known, we learn that that of Ptolemy Philadelphus was famous and highly renowned. He was the son of Ptolemy Lagus, second of the name and of the line of the Greek kings of Egypt. Being a patron of the arts and sciences he was, of course, a lover of books, and founded the great library of Alexandria, aided by the instruction and example, perhaps even by the very books themselves, of Aristotle. For Aristotle, as I shall note later, had a library which was remarkable for the number and excellence of its books. Speaking of this library, Strabo says that Aristotle was the first private collector of books of whom we have any knowledge, and that he taught the kings of Egypt the principles of classification. This passage from Strabo, however, must be read with care and be properly interpreted; for Aristotle was by no means the first to form a library, and as he lived before the time of Philadelphus, he could not have taught him, save as I have said, by example. Perhaps what Athenaeus says is true, that Aristotle left his books to Theophrastus, he to Neleus, and that from the latter Ptolemy bought them, and transferred them, with others which he purchased in Athens and Rhodes, to fair Alexandria. Other writers, however, do not assent to this statement, as I shall show presently. This much is admitted, however, that he founded a library and collected for it books of every kind from all parts of the world, even seeking out the sacred books of the Hebrews. As soon as the fame of the wisdom of the Hebrews reached his ears, he sent and demanded the books which contained it, and employed men skilled in such matters to translate them into Greek for the common use of all. This translation was called the Septuagint from the number of persons who were engaged in making it. It was made, according to Epiphanius, in the seventeenth year of the reign of Philadelphus, in the one hundred and twenty-seventh Olympiad. Demetrius Phalereus had charge of this library. He was an exile from his native Athens, and was renowned both for his writings and his works. The King held him in high esteem and entrusted to his care the library, and other matters of even greater importance.

Philadelphus likewise collected books from the Chaldeans, the Egyptians, and even from the Romans, and had them translated into Greek. I quote Georgius Cedrenus, who says, " Philadelphus had the sacred books of the Chaldeans, Egyptians, and Romans, as well as some in other languages, to the number of a hundred thousand volumes, translated into Greek, and placed them in his library at Alexandria." I note especially two things in this quotation: first, the diligence shown in translating into the common tongue books in foreign languages,—a very useful custom in my opinion and one which should be adopted to-day by you, O Princes; and second, the statement as to the number of books. This number is very large, it is true, but not large enough if it is meant to include all the books in the library. I think it was not so meant; but that Cedrenus had in mind only the translations, and that the works in the original Greek far surpassed the number of translations. Other writers who have mentioned this library say it was much larger than Cedrenus says it was. Our friend Seneca reports that four hundred thousand volumes, a most precious monument of royal munificence, perished in the flames. Most precious, indeed; beyond all gold or rarest gems! How much more precious if their number had been greater still! And greater in fact it was. This number of Seneca's falls short of the truth, and must be extended to seven hundred thousand. Let Josephus tell us. He says that Demetrius, the librarian I have mentioned, was once asked by Philadelphus how many books he had in the library, and replied that he had two hundred thousand volumes, and hoped soon to have five hundred thousand.

So you see how the library grew under his hands; then consider how much larger it must have grown to be in later years, under other kings, successors of Philadelphus. A. Gellius frankly says that the number rose to seven hundred thousand. To quote him exactly, "A prodigious number of books was collected, either by purchase or by copying, by the Ptolemaic kings of Egypt, nearly seven hundred thousand volumes." Ammianus, from whom I shall quote shortly, says the same, and Isidore also, if his words be properly emended. "In Alexandria, in the days of Philadelphus, there were," he says, "seventy thousand books." I think that he should have said seven hundred thousand.

A precious treasure! But, alas, though it was the offspring of man's immortal spirit it was not itself immortal! For all this vast store of books, whatever their number may have been, perished in the flames. Caesar, in the civil war with Pompey, fought with the Alexandrians in the city itself. He set fire to the ships for his own protection; from the ships the flames spread to houses near the harbour, then to the library itself, and consumed it utterly.

Shame be to Caesar for having brought about, even though without intent, this irreparable loss! Yet he himself does not mention it in the third book of his History of the Civil War; and, later, Hirtius did not speak of it. But others did; Plutarch, for example, and Dion; and Livy also, as may easily be shown by a reference to Seneca, who says, after the words above quoted, "Another has praised the library, even Livy, who says that it had been a splendid monument to the culture and the enlightened zeal of kings." These are the very words used by Livy in speaking of the fire, and of the praise due the library itself and the kings who had collected it.

Ammianus also speaks of this lamentable conflagration, and says: "Among all the temples in Alexandria the Serapeum was preëminent; in it was formerly a library of inestimable value containing, according to the concurrent testimony of the ancient monuments, seven hundred thousand volumes, collected with patient zeal by the Ptolemaic kings. All of these books were consumed by fire when the state, under the dictatorship of Caesar, was disrupted by the Alexandrian war." He wishes to make it appear that this happened while the city was being plundered. A. Gellius says the same: "All these books were burned in the earlier Alexandrian war" (here he is in error; it was in the later war, under Antony), "when the state was disrupted; and the burning was not intentional or premeditated, and possibly was done by the auxiliary soldiers." He excuses Caesar, and with some reason; for did ever any one love books and the humanities more than he? He also excuses the Roman soldiers, and lays the blame on the foreign auxiliaries.

If one consults Plutarch and Dion one may see that they do not think the burning took place during the sack of the city.

Such, then, was the end of this noble library; destroyed in the one hundred and eighty-third Olympiad, after enduring scarcely two hundred and twenty-four years. Yet it lived again,—not the same collection, of course, for that were impossible; but a similar one,—and in the same building, the Serapeum. Cleopatra, she who became famous through her amours with Antony, re-established the library. She received from him, as the beginning or foundation of the new collection, the Attalic or Pergamene library. She accepted the entire collection as a gift and had it brought to Alexandria; then she again decorated the buildings and increased the collection, with the result that even in the time of the Christian fathers it was widely known and much used. Tertullian says, "To this day are to be found in the library of Ptolemy in the Serapeum books in Hebrew characters." Note that, according to this remark of Tertullian's, the library was again installed in the Serapeum, that is, in its porticoes or galleries; and note, further, that Strabo and others tell us that the Serapeum was near the harbour and the ships. Note, once more, that it was called the Ptolemaic library, though it was in fact not the original library, but a similar one; for the original Hebrew texts and the original translation called the Septuagint had perished in the flames. And yet once more note that the reputation and ancient authority of this library were so great that Tertullian uses it as an argument in his exhortation and admonition to the heathen.

For my part, I believe that the library existed as long as did the Serapeum itself, which was a temple of massive construction and of great size, and that, as reported by certain ecclesiastical writers, the Christians, during the reign of Theodosius the Great, demolished it utterly, as a monument of superstition.