Randomness: The Ongoing Saga

Library at Alexandria (81)

Issue 75
Issue 76
Issue 77
Issue 78
Issue 79
Issue 80a
Issue 80b
Library at Alexandria (81)

A Beautiful Library Is a Terrible Thing to Waste . . .

The Rex Libris website makes the following statement while discussing the International Order of Librarians:  "During the Dark Ages, during which many libraries were burned by Christian fanatics, hundreds in the order fled to Persia" (from the Rex Libris website about the International Order of Librarians, http://www.jtillustration.com/rex/library.php).  Apparently the 11th century counts as "Dark Ages," since Sahib Al-Masahif is cited as being an archmagus in the order from AD 1015-1037.  I won't argue the misuse of the loaded term "Dark Ages." 


The bulk of the following discussion will deal with the burning of the Library of Alexandria, but first I would like to make a statement regarding the so-called "Dark Ages" and the role of the Christian Church in the preservation of books, knowledge, and libraries.  Without the Church, the bulk of Western learning would have been lost.  We have a great debt to the monks of the early centuries of the church who painstakingly copied out texts of Classical pagan learning as well as Christian in monasteries from Italy to Ireland in the years between the fall of the Western Roman Empire (AD 476) and the rise of the barbarian kingdoms that filled the vacuum of power in the upcoming years.  In fact, it was one such "barbarian" Christian king, Charlemagne, who fostered the arts and learning at his court in the eighth century.  The type used in the first printing press was, in fact, the script developed during the dynasty he founded.  Thus, I find the comments about Christian fanatics burning books during the "Dark Ages" to be unfounded and inflammatory.*


In the first issue of Rex Libris, we learn that Rex was a librarian at the Great Library of Alexandria.  He had a fling with Hypatia, the last Head Librarian of that magnificent institution.  We also learn that Christian fanatics burned the Great Library and killed Hypatia.


But what really did happen to the Library of Alexandria? 


The library seems to have been burned three or four times.  There are three famous burnings of the library, one by the pagan Julius Caesar, another by the Christian Bishop Theophilus, and the last by the Muslim Caliph Omar in 642 AD.  A fourth crops up a couple of times.  The Concise Oxford Companion to Classical Literature cites the “true destruction” occurring in the third century.  I imagine this “true destruction” being Aurelian’s action in putting down a revolt by Firmus c. AD 272/3 (Körner, chapters 1.6 and 4, Historia Augusta, 32.2-3).  I can't find any definite citation of Aurelian burning the city and library other than Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aurelian and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Library_of_Alexandria) and the Catholic Encyclopedia (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01303a.htm).  Nonetheless, St. Epiphanius of Salamis in Cyprus (c. AD 310-403) says, “He [Ptolemy II] established a library in the same city of Alexander, in the (part) called the Bruchion; this is a quarter of the city today lying waste” (Weights and Measures, 9.25). 


Jon Thiem points out that part of the mystery arises from the fact that the Library of Alexandria had two locations.  The Mouseion (the university proper) housed the “Mother” library, and the Temple of Serapis (Serapeum) housed the “Daughter.”  Thus, we can have trouble interpreting the texts that discuss the burning of the library.  He writes:


Most modern literati fail to distinguish between the “Mother” and “Daughter” libraries.  That there were two Alexandrian libraries, however, helps account for various traditions telling of three major conflagrations: first, Julius Caesar may have inadvertently burned all or part of the Mouseion library in 47 BC; then, the Emperor Theodosius may have provoked the burning of the Serapeum library circa 390 A.D.; and finally, the Caliph Omar may have ordered the burning of the same library circa 642 A.D.” (508)


1. Julius Caesar


After alia iacta est,** Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River into Roman territory in 49 BC and began a civil war against his erstwhile ally, Gnaeus Pompeius Maximus (Pompey).  He took control of Rome, then consolidated his western authority in Spain where Pompey had supporters.  He next went East for Pompey himself.  Midsummer 48 BC, Caesar’s and Pompey’s armies met on the plain of Pharsalus, Thessaly, Greece.  Caesar won.  Pompey fled to Alexandria (http://www.roman-empire.net/republic/laterep-index.html).  At Alexandria, Ptolemy XII, hoping to appease Caesar, assassinated Pompey.


When he arrived, Caesar was given the head of Pompey.  He wept.  Now Caesar was in Alexandria, home of a venerable university—second only to Athens (see Argyle)—that had been founded c. 300 BC.  Its library was so vast that it had expanded from this mother library out into a daughter library at the Temple of Serapis (Serapeum) by 200 BC (Thiem, 508).  The Library of Alexandria hoped to one day hold all the books in the world.  Alexandria was also home to many feuds.  Caesar suddenly found himself entangled in these feuds (and Cleopatra, of course).  Rather than complete his defeat of Pompey’s supporters, he found himself settling a dispute between Cleopatra and her brother, Ptolemy XII.  His solution did not impress Ptolemy’s supporters, so they trapped him and his small force in the palace quarters of the city for the winter 48-47 BC (http://www.roman-empire.net/republic/laterep-index.html). 


To prevent his opponents from stealing his own ships, Caesar ordered that they burned.  This move burned both his ships and the Egyptians, but unfortunately spread to the city.  According to Plutarch, one of the buildings that fell victim to the burning was the library (chapter 49).  In AD 49, Seneca (who did not lament this event) cited the number of books burned at 40 000 (De Tranquillitate Animi, quoted in Thiem, 511).  The Concise Oxford Companion to Classical Literature states, “more probably it was a storehouse of books accidentally destroyed” (“Alexandrian Library”).  This view is also supported by The Catholic Encyclopedia, which cites Orosius and the Bellum Alexandrinum to that affect.


Later, when Mark Antony was Cleopatra’s lover, he allegedly gave her 200 000 books from the library at Pergamum to make up for it.


II. Patriarch Theophilus


This burning is the one of which Rex Libris makes mention.  First of all, Hypatia died in AD 415, most likely as the result of a mob uprising caused by Cyril, the controversial Patriarch of Alexandria who, if memory serves me correctly, had his very own gang of monks to go beat up heretics and pagans for him.  This is the version Rex Libris gives us, conflating it with the burning of the Library.  However, the burning of the Library they cite would actually have happened in 391 at the command of Patriarch Theophilus, not Cyril. 


The writers of Rex Libris have probably relied heavily on Edward Gibbon.  Unfortunately, Gibbon is decidedly anti-Christian.  He saw Christianity as the cause of the fall of Rome, both in the West (AD 476) and the East (AD 1453).  Thiem quotes him,


The valuable library of Alexandria was pillaged or destroyed [by the Christians]; and, near [sic] twenty years afterwards, the appearance of the empty shelves excited the regret and indignation of every spectator whose mind was not totally darkened by religious prejudice.  The compositions of ancient genius, so many of which have irretrievably perished, might surely have been excepted from the wreck of idolatry, for the amusement and instruction of succeeding ages. (n. 8, p. 510)


Thiem goes on to give a précis of Gibbon, that “the Christian bigotry of the Alexandrian bishop Theophilus caused a civil war between the pagan worshippers of Serapis and the Christians (c. 390 A.D.).  During a truce, the Emperor Theodosius ordered the abolition of pagan idolatry, whereupon Theophilus led the Christians in the destruction of the Serapeum and its famous library” (n. 8, p. 510).  Theodosius’ “abolition of pagan idolatry” is found in the Codex Theodosianus, XVI.x.4, which orders the immediate closure of all temples and the cessation of sacrifices.  If anyone sacrifices, “let him be stricken with the avenging sword.”  The Codex also states that all who are not Catholic Christians within apostolic tradition are “foolish madmen” (XVI.i.2).


The destruction of the Serapeum library is clearly an instance of zeal going too far.  I saw nothing in the Codex Theodosianus that included the burning of books.  Indeed, the closure of the Serapeum as a temple is one thing.  But the conversion of it into a church and the maintenance of the library could surely have been allowed within the bounds of Theodosius’ decrees.  Sadly, Alexandria was a city with a history of violence amongst Jews, pagans, and Christians.  When people have gone mad with their own ideologies, it takes a lot to subdue them.


Nonetheless, we should not take the burning of the Serapeum by a zealous mob to be the general practice and sentiment of Christians in this era.  Indeed, St. Jerome recommends reading the Classics and using what truth found therein in Christ’s service (Letter LXX), a practice called “spoiling the Egyptians.”  Augustine read Cicero and acknowledges that God used Cicero in his journey to Christ (Confessions).  As well, we must take Boethius’ (AD 480-524) Consolation of Philosophy into account.  I have every mind to read this book, since it has been in my possession for a few years, but have yet to actually do it; but I’m certain it touches on the subject in a favourable light as well.  There are other examples, beginning with St. Paul (Acts 17:28) himself and moving on to today—never has it been the general practice of the Christian Church to destroy books or forsake the knowledge and learning of the ancients.


What ancient sources are there about the destruction of the Serapium? Despite the Catholic Encyclopedia’s claim that “there is no definite statement,” Socrates Scholastica says that the Serapeum was destroyed along with other temples after Theodosius’ edict (book 5, quoted at Wikipedia).  Nonetheless, Hannam evaluates the major sources for the event, and none of them mention the destruction of the library.  His interpretation is that the library no longer existed, having already been destroyed.  On the other hand, one could just as easily say that since it was such a famous library, its destruction would be assumed with the destruction of the Serapeum itself.  His evaluation does provide us a refutation of Gibbon’s assertion that “the appearance of the empty shelves excited the regret and indignation of every spectator whose mind was not totally darkened by religious prejudice.”  No one seems to have mentioned the books.  Furthermore, since the Serapeum itself was destroyed, then no shelves would have existed to be empty and excite regret and indignation.


III. Caliph Omar


The greatest mystery is how on earth the library managed to get burned again!  Caesar partially destroyed some of its books in 48 BC .  Aurelian seems to have burned down the Bruchion where the Museion was located in the third century.  And if he hadn’t done the job, then it seems that Diocletian finished the job for him (Hannam).  Finally, the last remaining portion of the library—which may or may not have been extensive—was destroyed in AD 391 in the zeal of Theophilus’ anti-pagan attacks.


What was left for Omar to burn when he invaded in AD 640?


To cite Hannam, here is the legend:

The Moslems invaded Egypt during the seventh century as their fanaticism carried them on conquests that would take form an empire stretching from Spain to India. There was not much of a struggle in Egypt and the locals found the rule of the Caliph to be more tolerant than that of the Byzantines before them. However, when a Christian called John informed the local Arab general that there existed in Alexandria a great Library preserving all the knowledge in the world he was perturbed. Eventually he sent word to Mecca where Caliph Omar ordered that all the books in the library should be destroyed because, as he said "they will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous." Therefore, the books and scrolls were taken out of the library and distributed as fuel to the many bathhouses of the city. So enormous was the volume of literature that it took six months for it all to be burnt to ashes heating the saunas of the conquerors.

Hannam notes that the sources for this alleged destruction are all very late and all Christian.  It is more likely a case of anti-Muslim polemic than anti-intellectual Muslims.  Gibbon agrees.  Most modern sources doubt this final burning, although there are notable exceptions (Thiem, 508).


In conclusion, allow me to quote Preston Chesser:


So who did burn the Library of Alexandria? Unfortunately most of the writers from Plutarch (who apparently blamed Caesar) to Edward Gibbons (a staunch atheist or deist who liked very much to blame Christians and blamed Theophilus) to Bishop Gregory (who was particularly anti-Moslem, blamed Omar) all had an axe to grind and consequently must be seen as biased. Probably everyone mentioned above had some hand in destroying some part of the Library's holdings. The collection may have ebbed and flowed as some documents were destroyed and others were added. For instance, Mark Antony was supposed to have given Cleopatra over 200,000 scrolls for the Library long after Julius Caesar is accused of burning it.


*When the university of Athens closed, Alexandria and Constantinople remained open.  The library at Constantinople was burned, not by Christian fanatics, but by Muslim invaders in 1453.  The only reason we have any copies of Aristophanes is because someone took some of the plays out a week before the fall of the city.  He escaped to the West and the Renaissance.


**the die is cast, Caesar’s words before crossing the Rubicon.




"Alexandrian Library"  The Concise Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. Ed. M.C. Howatson and Ian Chilvers. Oxford University Press, 1996. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.  University of Ottawa.  17 August 2006  http://proxy.bib.uottawa.ca:2249/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t9.e144


Argyle, A. W. “The Ancient University of Alexandria,” The Classical Journal > Vol. 69, No. 4 (Apr., 1974), pp. 348-350.


Chesser, Preston.  The Burning of the Library of Alexandria. Available online at http://ehistory.osu.edu/World/articles/ArticleView.cfm?AID=9.  Last Accessed August 17, 2006.


Epiphanius of Salamis.  Weights and Measures.  Available online at http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/epiphanius_weights_03_text.htm#C9.  Last accessed August 17, 2006.


Hannam, James.  “The Mysterious Fate of the Great Library of Alexandria.”  Available online at http://www.bede.org.uk/library.htm.  Last accessed August 17, 2006.


Historia Augusta, Aurelian. Available online at http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Historia_Augusta/Aurelian/2*.html.  Last accessed August 17, 2006.


Jerome available through The Medieval Sourcebook: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/jerome1.html.


Körner, Christian.  Aurelian and Rebellions During His Reign (A.D. 270-275). Available online at http://www.roman-emperors.org/aurelian.htm, last accessed August 17, 2006.


Plutarch, Lives: Julius Caesar.  Available online at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.03.0078&query=chapter%3D%2388&layout=&loc=Caes.%2048.  Last accessed August 17, 2006.


Theodosius.  Codex Theodosianus.  Available online at The Medieval Sourcebook: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/codex-theod1.html and http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/theodcodeXVI.html.  Last accessed August 17, 2006.


Thiem, Jon. “The Great Library of Alexandria Burnt: Towards the History of a Symbol,” in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Oct., 1979), pp. 507-526.


Wikipedia.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Library_of_Alexandria#The_Destruction_of_the_Library.  Last accessed August 17, 2006.

Copyright 2006, Matthew Hoskin

Annus Quinque
(Year Five)