According to tradition thousand times repeated, the famous Library of Alexandria disappeared in a great fire. It seems that this is the tragic end sooner or later to which all libraries are doomed.

But the issue of the destruction of the Library of Alexandria has generated much controversy among modern authors, who analyzed the sources, in large part confusing.

It's certainly no one glorious operation to destroy a library, so no one has claimed. But probably the biggest reason was the decline and cultural apathy that was invading the ancient world from the V century, but also the ideological wars and clashes between Christians and pagans.

There are numerous texts which  refer to the destruction of the Library generally of questionable historical value by the remoteness of the facts they recount and  sometimes being  mere reproductions and contamination of one or the other, some are even contradictory. If anything it can be interesting  playing some because they are the expression of the attention which was given to the issue in antiquity itself.

There are two preliminary questions that should be left clear. Firstly there is no free and grandiose building as a place in which the books are collected, stored and read  such as large current libraries are now. The word •bibliotheca”, "library", comes from Latin Bibliotheca, and this from  Greek βιβλιοθήκη composed of βιβλίον, biblion, book, and  θήκη, theke, meaning "box, tank, receptacle, wardrobe …". βιβλίον or βίβλος also means rind or leaf of papyrus, which was used to support writing on it, from which the meaning of "book, writing paper, letter …" comes. So really “bibliotheca”, "library", means a shelf or shelves where volumes are placed.

Second in Alexandria were actually two libraries, this one  known as the "Royal Library" (real property, the Hebrew writer Aristeas calls them  "royal books" or "books of the King" (Letter of Aristeas, 38)) or large library (μεγάλη βιβλιοθήκη of μέγας, megas, large), which was part of the palace complex and the Museum, without its own building in the neighborhood Bruqión (actually the palace, which was a fortress, occupied the whole neighborhood) and another one library, attached to the Serapeion, in the neighborhood of Rakhotis; some sources, such as Bishop Epiphanius,  IV century, call this small the "daughter" of the  larger library.

According to the texts, the libraries  of Alexandria suffered several mishaps and fires along the  history.

Probably the most famous and known fire is what occurred in the year 48 or 47 BC in Caesar's war with Ptolemy XIII, in which a number of books or volumes were burned, but it is not possible to say that they are books of Library that was in the Museum. As the fire occurred in the warehouses of the docks, it is considered that they were prepared packages of books or rolls for export, very important activity in Alexandria.

The incident apparently occurred in this way: Caesar tried to mediate in the conflict between the brothers children of Ptolemy Auletes, between Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII. During the celebration of a feast in the palace, the general Aquila and tutor of King Potinus  attempted an attack  to Caesar that was discovered. Aquila escaped and prepared  the insurrection of Alexandria, in which Caesar felt backed himself into the palace. That's when the men of Caesar burned the ships of Ptolemy to break the siege by sea. The fire spread from boats to warehouses and then to part of the city. After the war, which Caesar won, he placed Cleopatra and her other brother Ptolemy XIV as her husband on the throne.

Plutarch(between ca 46 and 120),  tells us In Life of Julius Caesar, 49.6:

in the second place, when the enemy tried to cut off his fleet, he was forced to repel the danger by using fire, and this spread from the dockyards and destroyed the great library (English Translation by. Bernadotte Perrin. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. London. William Heinemann Ltd. 1919)

And Aulus Gellius, who was born around the year 130,  tells us that Library had 700,000 (in some manuscripts it is read 70,000) volumes; he also tells us that they disappeared in a fire during Caesar's war, but it happened by accident, also blaming it to the auxiliary troops:

Gelius, Noct. Attic. VII, 17,3:

but these were all burned during the sack of the city in our first war with Alexandria,  not intentionally or by anyone's order, but accidentally by the auxiliary soldiers. (The Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius. With An English Translation. John C. Rolfe. Cambridge. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1927.)

sed ea omnia bello priore Alexandrino, dum diripitur ea civitas, non sponte neque opera consulta, sed a militibus forte auxiliaris incensa sunt.

But the poet Lucan, who entertains himself a little in describing the fire, as a good poet, tells us in his Bellum Civile (or Pharsalia), X, 486-505, it was Caesar who ordered the ships burn:

Held fast the palace as a battlement.
Nor failed they to attack from ships of war
The regal dwelling, where its frontage bold
Made stand apart the waters of the deep:
There, too, was Caesar's all-protecting arm;
For these at point of sword, and those with fire
He forces back, and though besieged he dares
To storm th' assailants: and as lay the ships
Joined rank to rank, bids drop upon their sides
Lamps drenched with reeking tar.  Nor slow the fire
To seize the hempen cables and the decks
Oozing with melting pitch; the oarsman's bench
All in one moment, and the topmost yards
Burst into flame: half merged the vessels lay
While swam the foemen, all in arms, the wave;
Nor fell the blaze upon the ships alone,
But seized with writhing tongues the neighbouring homes,
And fanned to fury by the Southern breeze
Tempestuous, it leaped from roof to roof;
Not otherwise than on its heavenly track,
Unfed by matter, glides the ball of light,
By air alone aflame
This pest recalled
Some of the forces to the city's aid
From the besieged halls

(Ed. Sir Edward Ridley. London. Longmans, Green, and Co. 1905.)

nec non et ratibus temptatur regia, qua se
protulit in medios audaci margine fluctus
luxuriosa domus. sed adest defensor ubique
Caesar et hos aditus gladiis, hos ignibus arcet,
obsessusque gerit, tanta est constantia mentis,                  490
expugnantis opus. piceo iubet unguine tinctas
lampadas inmitti iunctis in uela carinis;
nec piger ignis erat per stuppea uincula perque
manantis cera tabulas, et tempore eodem
transtraque nautarum summique arsere ceruchi.                  495
iam prope semustae merguntur in aequora classes,
iamque hostes et tela natant. nec puppibus ignis
incubuit solis; sed quae uicina fuere
tecta mari longis rapuere uaporibus ignem,
et cladem fouere Noti, percussaque flamma                  500
turbine non alio motu per tecta cucurrit
quam solet aetherio lampas decurrere sulco
materiaque carens atque ardens aere solo.
illa lues paulum clausa reuocauit ab aula
urbis in auxilium populos.

Ammianus Marcellinus  (325/330-after 391), Roman History, XXII, 16, 12 also gives a figure of 700,000 volumes burned in this war:

Besides this there are many lofty temples, and especially one to Serapis, which, although no words can adequately describe it, we may yet say, from its splendid halls supported by pillars, and its beautiful statues and other embellishments, is so superbly decorated, that next to the Capitol, of which the ever-venerable Rome boasts, the whole world has nothing worthier of admiration. In it were libraries of inestimable value; and the concurrent testimony of ancient records affirm that 70,000 volumes, which had been collected by the anxious care of the Ptolemies, were burnt in the Alexandrian war when the city was sacked in the time of Caesar the Dictator. (Translated by C.D.YONGE)

His accedunt altis sufflata fastigiis templa, inter quae eminet Serapeum, quod licet minuatur exilitate verborum, atriis tamen columnatis amplissimus, et spirantibus signorum figmentis, et reliqua operum multitudine ita est exornatum, ut post Capitolium, quo se venerabilis Roma in aeternum attollit, nihil orbis terrarum ambitiosius cernat.   In quo bybliothecae fuerunt inaestimabiles: et loquitur monumentorum veterum concinens fides, septingenta voluminum milia, Ptolomaeis regibus vigiliis intentis composita, bello Alexandrino, dum diripitur civitas, sub dictatore Caesare conflagrasse.

Cassius Dio,  as  Orosius and  Lucan, the most extensive sources,  seem to be  based on the lost text of Livy.

  Cassius Dio, (155 – after 235), Roman History, XLII, 38, 2.

After this many battles occurred between the two forces both by day and by night, and many places were set on fire, with the result that the docks and the storehouses of grain among other buildings were burned, and also the library, whose volumes, it is said, were of the greatest number and excellence. Achillas was in possession of the mainland, with the exception of what Caesar had walled off, and the latter of the sea except the harbour. (Loeb Classical Library edition, 1916; Translation by Earnest Cary.)

This same Cassius Dio  also refers us in LXXVIII 7 the crazy threat of Caracalla of burning the Museum to avenge Alexander the Great, poisoned by Aristotle, as he believed. Caracalla was a crazy fan of Alexander.

Toward the philosophers who were called Aristotelians he showed bitter hatred in every way, even going so far as to desire to burn their books, and in particular he abolished their common messes in Alexandria and all the privileges that they had enjoyed; his grievance against them was that Aristotle was supposed to have been concerned in the death of Alexander. 4 Such was his behaviour in these matters; any more, he even took about with him numerous elephants, that in this respect, also, he might seem to be imitating Alexander, or rather, perhaps, Dionysus. (Loeb Classical Library edition, 1916; Translation by Earnest Cary.)

Seneca (4-65), certainly tighter in the number and fanciful yet undoubtedly,   tells us in De tranquillitate animi, 9,9,4 ff.

Forty thousand books, superb monument of royal opulence, were destroyed by fire in Alexandria. Others apply to boast this library called by Livy masterpiece of taste and care of kings

Quadraginta milia librorum Alexandriae arserunt ;  pulcherrimum regiae opulentiae monimentum alius laudaverit, sicut T. Livius, qui elegantiae regum curaeque egregium id opus ait fuisse

Note that Seneca quotes  Livius as the source.

Orosius (c.383-c.420), History Against the Pagans, VI, 15, 31. says “four hundred thousand”(zero plus zero less …)

During the combat orders were issued to set fire to the royal fleet, which by chance was drawn on shore. The flames spread to part of the city and there burned four hundred thousand books stored in a building which happened to be nearby. So perished that marvelous monument of the literary activity of our ancestors, who had gathered together so many great works of brilliant geniuses. In regard to this, however true it may be that in some of the temples there remain up to the present time book chests, which we ourselves have seen, and that, as we are told, these were emptied by our own men in our own day when these temples were plundered—this statement is true enough—yet it seems fairer to suppose that other collections had later been formed to rival the ancient love of literature, and not that there had once been another library which had books separate from the four hundred thousand volumes mentioned, and for that reason had escaped destruction.

in ipso proelio regia classis forte subducta iubetur incendi. ea flamma cum partem quoque urbis inuasisset, quadringenta milia librorum proximis forte aedibus condita exussit, singulare profecto monumentum studii curaeque maiorum, qui tot tantaque inlustrium ingeniorum opera congesserant.  unde quamlibet hodieque in templis extent, quae et nos uidimus, armaria librorum, quibus direptis exinanita ea a nostris hominibus nostris temporibus memorent – quod quidem uerum est -, tamen honestius creditur alios libros fuisse quaesitos, qui pristinas studiorum curas aemularentur, quam aliam ullam tunc fuisse bibliothecam, quae extra quadringenta milia librorum fuisse ac per hoc euasisse credatur.

Interestingly, several authors who agree to give the number of 40.000 burned volumes, as Seneca, Orosius, Lucan, seem to depend from Livius  text, which  has been lost, but the content is kept in Florus: Epitome of Livy, II, 13, 59:

"And first  he pulled away the projectiles of attackers enemies with fire of nearby buildings and naval stores."

“ ac primum proximorum aedificorum atque navalium incendio infestorum hostium tela submovit”

So  the  the details of burning stockpiles or port warehouses, burning rolls which  were goods at the port and were there by chance,  should be doubt to Livy; They do not were therefore Museum books; it should be  also of Livy the  reference to that fire pulled away the enemies from palace and allowed the defense of the people who attended there (Lucan)

The fire of AD 48. C. by the troops of Julius Caesar was perhaps not as serious as some sources reflect: it was  goods stores which accidentally were there in the port destined to foreign markets (some modern interpreters have interpreted that perhaps the destination outside should be Rome where the rich people created their bulky libraries, as Seneca recounts ). It is the most consistent interpretation according the  texts:

Then later, in the confrontation between Octavian and Antony became  the concerned  rumor  that Marcus Antonius tried to repair the damage of the fire caused by Caesar giving to Cleopatra 200,000 volumes from  the library of Pergamum; in fact it is a slander, among others, to discredit the ignorant Marcus Antonius.  Plutarch says in  Life of Antony, LVIII:

Again, Calvisius, who was a companion of Caesar, brought forward against Antony the following charges also regarding his behaviour towards Cleopatra: he had bestowed upon her the libraries from Pergamum in which there were two hundred thousand volumes;( Plutarch. Plutarch's Lives. with an English Translation by. Bernadotte Perrin. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. London. William Heinemann Ltd. 1920. 9.)

because shortly later in  the beginning of ch. LIX Plutarch himself tells us:

However, most of the charges thus brought by Calvisius were thought to be falsehoods;

Finally, it remains curious that Caesar who refers to this war in their Civil War, III, 111. Does not mention the burning of the Library or of a certain number of books, about which he will certainly not be very proud.

As I said earlier, it seems that the fateful end of every library is a fire, that sometimes it is tried  to alleviate with reconstruction measures. Thus, according to Suetonius, Domitian also collaborated in the replacement ofn works of the Library of Alexandria:

Suetonius (c.70-126), Domi. 20, 1

In the beginning of his reign, he gave up the study of the liberal sciences, though he took care to restore, at a vast expense, the libraries which had been burnt down; collecting manuscripts from all parts, and sending scribes to Alexandria, (Translated by Alexander Thomson, )

Liberalia studia imperii initio neglexit, quanquam bibliothecas incendio absumptas impensissime reparare curasset, exemplaribus undique petitis missisque Alexandream qui describerent emendarentque.

The hardest blow to the Library could take place in the third century, when Aurelian in 272 AD during its war with Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, swept the city and destroyed the Bruquión, where the library was.

Ammianus tells us in XXII, 16,15:

Alexandria itself was not, like other cities, gradually embellished, but at its very outset it was adorned with spacious roads. But after having been long torn by violent seditions, at last, when Aurelian was emperor, and when the intestine quarrels of its citizens had proceeded to deadly strife, its walls were destroyed, and it lost the largest half of its territory, which was called Bruchion, and had long been the abode of eminent men. (Roman History. London: Bohn (1862))

Sed Alexandria ipsa non sensim, ut aliae urbes, sed inter initia prima aucta per spatiosos ambitus, internisque seditionibus diu aspere fatigata, ad ultimum multis post annis Aureliano imperium agente, civilibus iurgiis ad certamina interneciva prolapsis dirutisque moenibus amisit regionis maximam partem, quae Bruchion appellabatur, diuturnum praestantium hominum domicilium.

In times of Diocletian, in the year 296, the city was sacked again by quelling a revolt. Of course, the Library, housed in Serapeion must have suffered a decisive blow in year 391 when Theodosius ordered the destruction of pagan temples and the Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria  closed then and  many wise leave the city of science and culture. From the time of Theodosius the Library would degrade gradually  and books would disappeared.

In the year 415 it takes place the murder by the Christians of the daughter of Theon, Hypatia, philosopher, musicologist, mathematician who studied conic curves, astronomer, in the context of the decline of paganism and Christian groups internal struggles.

Christian Orosius just visited Alexandria in 415 and included in his work the destruction of the library by Christians or what it tarry  as we quoted above. Orosius (c.383-c.420), History Against the Pagans, VI, 15, 31

In regard to this, however true it may be that in some of the temples there remain up to the present time book chests, which we ourselves have seen, and that, as we are told, these were emptied by our own men in our own day when these temples were plundered—this statement is true enough—yet it seems fairer to suppose that other collections had later been formed to rival the ancient love of literature, and not that there had once been another library which had books separate from the four hundred thousand volumes mentioned, and for that reason had escaped destruction.

unde quamlibet hodieque in templis extent, quae et nos uidimus, armaria librorum, quibus direptis exinanita ea a nostris hominibus nostris temporibus memorent – quod quidem uerum est -, tamen honestius creditur alios libros fuisse quaesitos, qui pristinas studiorum curas aemularentur, quam aliam ullam tunc fuisse bibliothecam, quae extra quadringenta milia librorum fuisse ac per hoc euasisse credatur.

Among other things, the books have changed  their appearance, so now they are parchments s but  not scrolls, and they are  copied with many mistakes because the Greek was forgotten.

The fourth century was certainly a bad century for libraries, which were disappearing, some destroyed by fires and  wars or simply closed by  cultural apathy that is spreading.

Ammianus, several times quoted, (325/330-after 391) (what remains of his work relates to what happened between the years 353 and 378), as reminds us Luciano Cánfora, says in XIV, 6, 18:

and while the libraries are shut up forever like tombs

In consequence of this state of things, the few houses that were formerly famed for devotion to serious pursuits now teem with the sports of sluggish indolence, re-echoing to the sound of singing and the tinkling of flutes and lyres. In short, in place of the philosopher the singer is called in, and in place of the orator the teacher of stagecraft, and while the libraries are shut up forever like tombs, water-organs are manufactured and lyres as large as carriages, and flutes and instruments heavy for gesticulating actors. (Ammianus Marcellinus, Rerum Gestarum , John C. Rolfe, Ph.D., Litt.D., Ed. )

Quod cum ita sit, paucae domus studiorum seriis cultibus antea celebratae, nunc ludibriis ignaviae torpentis 1 exundant, vocabili sonu, perflabili tinnitu fidium resultantes. Denique pro philosopho cantor, et in locum oratoris doctor artium ludicrarum accitur, et bibliothecis sepulcrorum ritu in perpetuum clausis, organa fabricantur hydraulica, et lyrae ad speciem 2 carpentorum ingentes, tibiaeque et histrionici gestus instrumenta non levia.

This happened in Alexandria, Pergamum, Antioch, Rome, Athens, Byzantium.

In  Arabic time Library have ceased to exist, but the Arabs met many Greek works, because some of them were known in the medieval West through translations into Arabic and then from Arabic to Latin. In Spain at that time there were some in the famous School of Translators of Toledo and elsewhere.

Only retained what was stored in monasteries and convents .

In any case it is still interesting and funny the episode and phrase attributed to Caliph Omar, who was in Constantinople, who ruled between 634 and 644, and answered the question he asked Amr ibn al-As, the conqueror of city of Alexandria in 642, about the fate of the books in the Library.

Reference to this episode in Eutyches, Annals, II (p. 316 Pococke edition) is made. The core of the dialogue  is in the book  of  Ibn al-Quifti "Ta'rikh al-Hukama (The Chronicle of wise men), of  the thirteenth century.

The conqueror asked the Caliph to the question put to him by John Philoponus, known as the tireless,  commentator of Aristotle, what to do with library books. The episode, fictional undoubtedly, circulated widely in the east and has even survived until recent times among Egyptian Copts, without  rational and historical foundation. The Caliph replied:

"If the library contains only what is in the Koran, it is useless and should be burned; if it contains more than the Koran, then it is bad and also must be burned. "

I reproduce the  translation into Latin made in 1650 by Pococke  of the  work  of Bar Hebraeus, also known as Abu'l Faraj, who wrote in Syriac his Chronicum Syriacum in the thirteenth century.

So, after having written a letter to Omar, he told him what John had said, and he brought  a letter from Omar, in which (Omar) wrote: "About  the books that you have made me mention: if they contain what is according to God's book, in the book of God is what is sufficient without them, but if they are so repugnant to the book of God, no way we need them and  order  that they  be taken out away. Therefore, Amr ibn al-As ordered  to disperse them among  the baths of Alexandria and  to burn them to heat;. well they were consumed in the space of six months.  Listen to what was done, and marvel.

Scriptis ergo ad Omarum literis, notum ei fecit, quid dixisset Johannes, perlataeque sunt ad ipsum ab Omaro literae, in quibus scripsit,  “Quod ad libros quorum mentionem fecisti: si in illis contineatur, quod cum libro Dei conveniat, in libro Dei [est] quod sufficiat absque illo; quod si in illis fuerit quod libro Dei repugnet, neutiquam est eo [nobis] opus, jube igitur e medio tolli.”    Jussit ergo Amrus Ebno’lAs dispergi eos per balnea Alexandriae, atque illis calefaciendis comburi;  ita spatio semestri consumpti sunt. Audi quid factum fuerit et mirare.

The funny thing is that this phrase is a copy of the said above two and half centuries ago by St. Augustine in his "On Christian Doctrine, Book II, chap. XLII:

Sacred Scripture compared with profane authors
But just as poor as the store of gold and silver and garments which the people of Israel brought with them out of Egypt was in comparison with the riches which they afterwards attained at Jerusalem, and which reached their height in the reign of King Solomon, so poor is all the useful knowledge which is gathered from the books of the heathen when compared with the knowledge of Holy Scripture. For whatever man may have learnt from other sources, if it is hurtful, it is there condemned; if it is useful, it is therein contained. And while every man may find there all that he has learnt of useful elsewhere, he will find there in much greater abundance things that are to be found nowhere else, but can be learnt only in the wonderful sublimity and wonderful simplicity of the Scriptures.
When, then, the reader is possessed of the instruction here pointed out, so that unknown signs have ceased to be a hindrance to him; when he is meek and lowly of heart, subject to the easy yoke of Christ, and loaded with His light burden, rooted and grounded and built up in faith, so that knowledge cannot puff him up, let him then approach the consideration and discussion of ambiguous signs in Scripture. And about these I shall now, in a third book, endeavour to say what the Lord shall be pleased to vouchsafe.
(Tr. by  James J. O'Donnell)

Sacrae Scripturae cum profana scientia comparatio.
Quantum autem minor est auri, argenti vestisque copia, quam de Aegypto secum ille populus abs tulit, in comparatione divitiarum quas postea Hierosolymae consecutus est, quae maxime in Salomone rege ostenduntur 72, tanta fit cuncta scientia quae quidem est utilis, collecta de libris Gentium, si divinarum Scripturarum scientiae comparetur. Nam quidquid homo extra didicerit, si noxium est ibi damnatur, si utile est, ibi invenitur. Et cum ibi quisque invenerit omnia quae utiliter alibi didicit, multo abundantius ibi inveniet ea quae nusquam omnino alibi, sed in illarum tantummodo Scripturarum mirabili altitudine et mirabili humilitate discuntur. Hac igitur instructione praeditum cum signa incognita lectorem non impedierint, mitem et humilem corde, subiugatum leniter Christo et oneratum sarcina levi, fundatum et radicatum et aedificatum in caritate quem scientia inflare non possit, accedat ad ambigua signa in Scripturis consideranda et discutienda, de quibus iam tertio volumine dicere aggrediar, quod Dominus donare dignabitur.

But the question really curious and striking is that most of the millennium and a half after St. Augustine and just after  Caliph, there are people, and there are not few who still consider sacred religious books like encyclopedias with the same scientific reasoning: everything is in the Bible, in the Koran or in the Torah or any other book dictated by divinity; and what is not in them is false and unacceptable and the author or owner is deserving of the greatest punishment on earth and in the hereafter …

Of course the wars and intransigence and fanaticism are the greatest enemies of books. Sometimes the fire is the most effective instrument in their destruction and of course there is some kind of topical tradition that the end  of the libraries is always the fire. In the history of the Christianization of Europe there have been numerous episodes of burning books.

The paper (I do not know if papyrus also but their parameters will be similar) burns at  an no excessively high temperature at 451 degrees Fahrenheit or 233 degrees Celsius. "Fahrenheit 451" is just the title of a novel by the American Ray Bradbury and of a famous film of François Truffaut 1966.

The destruction of the Library of Alexandria by fire or successive fires is the most striking symbol of the destruction of culture, the arts and sciences by fanaticism, often religious, that too often seizes men. So in the history of the Christianization of Europe there have been episodes of burning books. Recent episodes of the destruction of the Library of Sarajevo, the destruction of archaeological and historical remains in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Mali … unfortunately  feed the tradition.

Library of Alexandria (5) Did the Library of Alexandria disappeared by a grand fire?

This website uses cookies so that you have the best user experience. If you continue browsing you are giving your consent for the acceptance of the aforementioned cookies and the acceptance of our cookie policy , click the link for more information.

Aviso de cookies