Alexandria was the spiritual and cultural capital of the world from the third century BC to the fifth or sixth century AD. Under the largest library of Antiquity, which sought to retain all the knowledge stored in books systematically with exemplary sense of intellectual freedom, lived and worked a college or community of wise and educated persons and scholars who developed the physics, astronomy, mathematics, geometry, geography, engineering, medicine, philosophy, literature, grammar, rhetoric … They were the basis of Western knowledge.
The word "library" (“biblioteca” in Spanish) comes from the Latin word bibliothēca, and this last one comes from the Greek βιβλιοθήκη, composed of βιβλίον, biblíon, book (“libro” in Spanish) and θήκη théke, meaning "box, store, receptacle, wardrobe…”. βιβλίον or βίβλος also means bark or leaf of papyrus, support which was used to write on it, from which it comes the meaning of several words such as "book, writing, paper, document, letter …".
So actually a "library" can be the place or building where books are kept or preserved to be read; it can also mean the institution that acquires and retains those books or the group of all those books; and it can even be the furniture or shelf where they are kept or stored, furniture that in Spanish is also called library, although in Spanish it also means bookstore or bookshop.
The "library" in the mentioned sense or senses is a Greek invention and to them we owe such an important creation. Probably the most famous library in History is the "Library of Alexandria", but more important than this "institution" is the finding or discovery of the concept of "library" itself and its concrete realization.
It is possible that there was an earlier library in Babylon, or the "library of Nineveh", created by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, who reigned between the years 668 and 627 BC, in Greek called Sardanapalus, as places or stores where thousands of boards with commercial, religious, legal and even literary annotations were kept, preserved and retained.
From Egypt, we have very few news, although it is talked about "sacred" libraries in the temples. Diodorus of Sicily, in I, 49, transcribes the story that Hecataeus makes about his visit to the tomb of Ramses in his work "Stories of Egypt", which has not been preserved. There, he says:
"Next it was the sacred library, on which it was written 'Place of Care of the Soul' ".
This enigmatic sentence actually seems not to refer exactly to the library and the books, in spite of the interpretation that has often been made of it, but to the space where the soul of Ramses is supposed to be. See you. http://www.antiquitatem.com/en/care-of-the-soul-library-of-alexandria
But the library as "storage of general knowledge" or as a “store of general knowledge” to be transmitted to other people and, therefore, as a public institution, or as an institution of the State or the monarchy opened to citizens, is a more Greek creation than Egyptian. It's actually another element of the discovery of the concept of "education" or "paideia" itself (from the Greek παιδεία,"education" or "training", and at the same time from the Greek word παις, "child"), which at another time I will talk about, and which answers to the need to transmit to every children and to the youth the knowledge the society has accumulated. The knowledge gained must be preserved or retained by writing it in books and simultaneously these books must be kept or stored in libraries and made available to people for their education. This is not certainly the least important Greek creation, whose importance is still absolutely current today.
Ancient sources give us much information, but we must always welcome them with many reservations and a critical sense due to their inaccuracy, sometimes because of their remoteness from the facts, others because of the many contradictions among themselves and their different concept of history, but in the end they are what we have. So I will use them profusely, at least as evidence that any of my statements is not the result of mere speculation or imagination.
In Greece book collections are very early or ancient, first individual collections, which are opened to the public in some cases, and later public book collections also appeared as well. A fragment (304 K) by Eupolis, playwright of the V century BC, refers to the sale of books in the agora of Athens. And Plato in the Apology or Defense of Socrates, 26e, makes Socrates say that Anaxagoras´ books can be purchased in the agora for one drachma:
“Do you consider them so illiterate as not to know that Calzomenio Anaxagoras’ books are filled with all these words? And what do you think about the youth of Athens? Don´t they learn from me those things they could easily know by simply buying a book for one drachma, otherwise, in the book market in the square? "
Despite what Plato says through the mouth of Socrates, books were quite expensive and only citizens with adequate or enough financial resources could afford them, that is, actually at that time books were only available for wealthy citizens, so it is not right to say that it was easy for young people to buy them in order to learn from them as a self-taught person or autodidact.
Aulus Gellius gives us numerous reports of the first libraries and of the library of Alexandria by following perhaps the lost work of Varro, "De bibliothecis" (About the libraries), but that does not mean his reports respond exactly to reality. So, he admits, without further supports, the story, certainly fabulous, of a very ancient public library in Athens due to Pisistratus. He says in his Noctes Atticae (Attic Nights, III, 17):
Who was the very first one who offered to the public the opportunity to read books? Which number of public books was there in Athens before the disaster with the Persians?
It is said that the first in Athens who offered books of liberal disciplines to be read publicly was the tyrant Pisistratus. Then the Athenians themselves increased their number with new interest and concern; but then, Xerxes, when he took Athens, burned the city together with the Acropolis, stole all that amount of books and carried them to Persia. Later, after many vicissitudes, King Seleucus, who was called Nicanor, worried that all of them were returned to Athens.
Quis omnium primus libros publice praebuerit legendos; quantusque numerus fuerit Athenis ante clades Persicas librorum in bibliothecis publicorum. 1
Libros Athenis disciplinarum liberalium publice ad legendum praebendos primus posuisse dicitur Pisistratus tyrannus. Deinceps studiosius accuratiusque ipsi Athenienses auxerunt; sed omnem illam postea librorum copiam Xerxes, Athenarum potitus, urbe ipsa praeter arcem incensa, abstulit asportavitque in Persas. Eos porro libros universos multis post tempestatibus Seleucus rex, qui Nicanor appellatus est, referendos Athenas curavit.
Pisistratus lived between 607-527 BC. But Athens really did not have a public library until Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-246 BC) and its great public library was the one donated by Hadrian (117-138 AD), being placed in a courtyard or “peripatos” ( lyceum) of a hundred columns.
Aulus Gelius, Noctes Atticae, III,17
About how, according to writers worthy of faith, Plato bought three books written by the Pythagorean Philolaus, and how Aristotle purchased some works written by Speusippus, paying for them huge and incredible amounts.
Former writers tells us how Plato, although he had only got very little money, bought for ten thousand dinars the three books of the Pythagorean Philolaus, ensuring some authors that this amount was given to him by his friend Dion of Syracuse.
It also said that Aristotle, after the death of Speusippus, paid three old talents to buy some books written by this philosopher; amount that, assessed in our currency, makes seventy-two thousand sesterces.
The satirist Timon, in his poem entitled Silos, where he unleashes and lets us see his evilness, apostrophizes Plato with these offensive and false words, who, as we have already said, was very poor, for having bought for too much money a treatise on Pythagorean philosophy, and according to Timon´s false words, taking from it, with numerous kidnappings, his famous dialogue Timaeus (Plato´s well-known dialogue Timaeus). Here are the verses of Timon:
"And you too, Plato, you have also been dominated by the desire to instruct yourself, and you have purchased for a lot of money a little book with the help of which you've gotten yourself to write." (Greek added) (Translation by: Fancisco Navarro y Calvo).
Id quoque esse a gravissimis viris memoriae mandatum, quod tris libros Plato Philolai Pythagorici et Aristoteles pauculos Speusippi philosophi mercati sunt pretiis fidem non capientibus.
Memoriae mandatum est Platonem philosophum tenui admodum pecunia familiari fuisse atque eum tamen tris Philolai Pythagorici libros decem milibus denarium mercatum. Id ei pretium donasse quidam scripserunt amicum eius Dionem Syracosium.
Aristotelem quoque traditum libros pauculos Speusippi philosophi post mortem eius emisse talentis Atticis tribus; ea summa fit nummi nostri sestertia duo et septuaginta milia.
τίμων amarulentus librum maledicentissimum conscripsit, qui σίλλος inscribitur. In eo libro Platonem philosophum contumeliose appellat, quod inpenso pretio librum Pythagoricae disciplinae emisset exque eo Timaeum, nobilem illum dialogum, concinnasset. Versus super ea re τίμωνος hi sunt:
καὶ σύ, πλάτων, καὶ γάρ σε μαθητείης πόθος ἔσχεν,
πολλῶν δ᾽ ἀργυρίων ὀλίγην ἠλλάξαο βίβλον,
῎ενθεν ἀπαρχόμενος τιμαιογραφεῖν ἐδιδάχθης.
It also said that at the same time Polycrates (570 a. C.-522 a.), Tyrant of Samos, founded a library. It also seems that in the heyday of Athens, some private people were busy forming their own private good libraries. The most important are those ones belonging to three famous people: Euclid, Euripides and Aristotle.
Strabo tells us in his Geography, XIII, 1, 55, that Aristotle was the first to be endowed for his knowledge of a book collection and he taught the Egyptians kings how to organize a library. In a coherent passage, apparently based on good sources, and very interesting, he tells us the adventures this library of Aristotle went through:
Socratic philosophers such as Erastus, Coriscus and Neleus, son of Coriscus, disciple of Aristotle and Theophrastus, were natives of Scepsis. Neleus was who went on with the possession of the library of Theophrastus, containing Aristotle´s. Aristotle gave his library and left his lyceum or school to Theophrastus. Aristotle was the first person we know who made a collection of books and advised the kings of Egypt to form a library. Theophrastus left his library to Neleus, who carried it to Scepsis, and bequeathed it to some ignorant people who kept the books locked up, thrown into a mess. When the citizens of Scepsis knew that the Attalid kings, on whom the city depended, were looking for books with great interest, with which they were trying to provide the library of Pergamum, they hid the books underground; then, but not before they had suffered damage from the worms, Neleus´ descendants sold the books of Aristotle and Theophrastus for a large sum of money to Apellicon the Teian . Apellicon was more a bookish or book lover than a philosopher; when he tried to restore the parts that had been eaten or corroded by worms, he made many changes into the original text and introduced them into the new copies; but rather than that what he really did was to supply the defective parts erroneously and publish the books full of errors. This was a disgrace for the ancient post Theophrastus Peripatetics who, being fully undersupplied of Aristotle´s books, but a few only, and these ones only of the type of the exoteric books, were completely unable to philosophize according to the principles of the system, and they had to deal with arranging discussions about common places or platitudes only. Their successors, however, since the very first moment these books were published, philosophized and propagated the doctrine of Aristotle more successfully than their predecessors, but they had to deal with many issues not as sure but just as likely, due to the large number of mistakes which had been made in the copies. Rome also contributed to increase the mistakes; immediately after Apellicon´s death, Sulla, who took Athens, seized for himself the library of Apellicon the Teian. When the library was carried to Rome, Tyrannion the grammarian, who was an admirer of Aristotle, licked the superintendent of the library in order to win his confidence and finally he got its use. Some booksellers, however, employed bad scribes who despised to compare the copies with the original text. This also happened in the case of many other books that were copied for their sale, both here in Rome and in Alexandria.
Note: This Tyrannion, released war prisoner, was a friend of Atticus and Cicero. He prepared an edition of Aristotle´s works, but other less detailed, precise and cared editions also appeared, as it is reflected in the text. Sulla´s library, with the books of Aristotle, was inherited by the megalomaniac Faustus Sulla, Pompey General; when he was ruined he had to sell everything, even the library, and this is how the books of Aristotle disappeared forever. Plutarch tells us in Life of Sulla, 26.1-2:
Having put to sea with all his ships from Ephesus, on the third day he came to anchor in Piraeus. He was now initiated into the mysteries, and seized for himself the library of Apellicon the Teian, in which were most of the treatises of Aristotle and Theophrastus, at that time not yet well known to the public. But it is said that after the library was carried to Rome, Tyrannio the grammarian arranged most of the works in it, and that Andronicus the Rhodian was furnished by him with copies of them, and published them, and drew up the lists now current.
The older Peripatetics were evidently of themselves accomplished and learned men, but they seem to have had neither a large nor an exact acquaintance with the writings of Aristotle and Theophrastus, because the estate of Neleus of Scepsis, to whom Theophrastus bequeathed his books, came into the hands of careless and illiterate people.
Very probably, Strabo´s bizarre statement that Aristotle helped the Egyptian kings to organize a library is due to the fact that it was his disciple, Demetrius of Falera, who exiled to Alexandria from Athens, was the brain of the Ptolemaic project to create the Museum and the Library in Alexandria, as it will be seen below. Aristotle indirectly helped the Ptolemies from Alexandria to develop their library by the hand and participation of his disciple Demetrius. So the phrase of Strabo is only an apparent anachronism.
Diogenes Laertius (V, 52) also informs us about the gift to Neleus.
I cannot resist transcribing another quote confirming most of the statements of Strabo, but contradicting him in something as important as where the books of Aristotle finally ended, regardless of the historical value it may have. Athenaeus, who lived in the second century AD, during the reign of the "philosopher" Emperor Marcus Aurelius, says in his book Deipnosophistae, which mean "dinner-table philosophers" or "authorities on banquets", I, 3A-3B, as he praises scholar Larensius, one of the participant diners:
"It also said he possessed so many ancient Greek books that surpassed all who were admired for his collections: Polycrates of Samos, Pisistratus who was tyrant of Athens, Euclid, also the Athenian Nycocrates of Cyprus, and even the kings of Pergamum, the poet Euripides, the philosopher Aristotle < Theophrastus >, and the one who kept the books of these two last ones, Neleus. It is said that to him they all were bought by our fellow King Ptolemy, surnamed Philadelphus, who carried them, along with those from Athens and those brought from Rhodes, to the beautiful Alexandria."
But as I said, certainly the most famous library in History is the "Library of Alexandria", founded by the Ptolemies, rulers indeed enlightened and educated themselves.
Alexandria is one of the many cities (at least 19 from Egypt to India) founded by Alexander the Great to which he put his name. This one was founded in the year 331 BC in the Nile Delta and grew to nearly a million people or inhabitants, population only surpassed in the ancient times by Rome, so it was the most important of those founded by the Macedonian. Strabo tells us that it has the form of a chlamys, that is, the shape of an almost perfect rectangle (Strabo, XVII, 1, 8):
εστι δὲ χλαμυδοειδὲς τὸ σχῆμα τοῦ ἐδάφους τῆς πόλεως
The shape of the site of the city is that of a chlamys or military cloak
Along with the Egyptians, large groups of Greeks and Jews also lived in Alexandria. It soon became the cultural reference of the ancient world. Its harbor, the largest of Antiquity, opened to the Mediterranean Sea with its famous lighthouse Pharos (one of the wonders of the ancient world), the Museum, the Temple of the Muses, and the Library are the four elements that have given everlasting fame to this city.
The library was an essential tool serving the Alexandrian ecumenism in the Hellenization process of the whole Mediterranean.
The fact that Egypt was the country that monopolized the production of papyrus, necessary support for the writing, certainly had also its importance in creating the library.
In spite of the enormous historical resonance that the Museum and Library of Alexandria have had and still have, the sources on them are slim, both about their founding moments and their last moments before the city of Alexandria disappeared, especially if we consider that many of them are mere repetition of other previous ones, reproducing the same mistakes and causing great confusion. Moreover, archaeological information on this is not relevant either.
According to the tradition, Ptolemy I Soter started creating the library around the year 295 BC, but who really increased and reorganized it systematically was Ptolemy Philadelphus, who named a fixed librarian and endowed it with the necessary means for its proper functioning. Be it known, however, that the first written reference citing the Library is from the second century AD, in the "Letter of Aristeas to Philocrates", in which a Jewish man talks about the famous and otherwise fictional Greek translation of the Pentateuch, the Torah, known as "the translation of the seventy scribes", “of the seventies”, the " Septuagint ", whose miraculous making or confection I will discuss on another occasion. Actually the sources on the Library are very few and most of the authors are very late. Nor we have special data provided by archeology.
The brain of the project must be Demetrius of Falera, who came to Alexandria exiled from Athens, where he had ruled as a tyrant and had been a pupil of Aristotle, so he had the Aristotelian idea of an universal knowledge, the working of the Peripato and the library of Aristotle as a model; he transplanted all that to Alexandria and developed it a big way with the royal protection of the Ptolemies. Therefore, he was the first librarian.
Curiously, about this Demetrius we can say that his intrigues at the royal court probably finished with this curious character. He died bitten by a snake that probably someone may put beside him while he slept. This system of dying from snakebite looks very Egyptian; certainly the famous Cleopatra gave eternal fame to it, no matter whether it is true or not the event of her death by asp bite. Diogenes Laertius tells us in his Book V, 78:
"Since then (after his arrestment) he lived dejected day after day; while he was asleep, a snake bit him in the hand and so he left this life".
Episode Cicero also includes in his Pro Rabidio Postumo, 23:
Demetrium, qui Phalereus vocitatus est, et ex re publica Atheniensi, quam optime gesserat, et ex doctrina nobilem et clarum, in eodem isto Aegyptio regno aspide ad corpus admota vita esse privatum.
We know that Demetrius,—he, too, being a citizen of the free republic of Athens, the affairs of which he had conducted with the greatest ability, and being also a man eminent for, and deeply impressed with, learning,—the one, I mean, who was surnamed Phalereus, was deprived of his life in that selfsame kingdom of Egypt having had an asp applied to his body. (Albert Clark, Ed.)
Actually there were two libraries in Alexandria, the first one known as the "Royal Library" (of royal property; the Hebrew writer Aristeas calls them "royal books" or "books of the King") (this is the Letter of Aristeas, 38:
"Wanting to do something pleasing to them, to all the Jews of the world and their descendants, we have decided to translate your Law, from the language you call Hebrew, into the Greek, so that you can also find it in our library, with the other royal books."
large library (μεγάλη βιβλιοθήκη from μέγας, megas, large, big, great), which was part of the palace complex and The Museum, without its own building, in the neighbourhood of the Bruqión (actually the palace, which was a fortress, filled the whole district) and the other library attached to the Serapeion, in the neighbourhood of Rakhotis, which Bishop Epiphanius of the fourth century called "daughter" of the other library.
Strabo, who was in Alexandria in the second half of the first century BC, gives us a description of the Museum, though without mentioning the Library as exempt building, in his Geography, XVII, 1, 8.
“The museum is a part of the royal palace. It consists of a porch to walk, an exedra with seats and a large room in which the scholars belonging to the museum, eat together. This community has common ownership and they have a priest, who chairs and rules the museum, who was formerly named by the kings and now by the Caesar (Augsutus)”.
These units would correspond to a peripatos or space to walk (from the Greek περίπατος , perépatos , walk, from πέρι , peri, around and πατεῖν , patein , walking), which would actually be an avenue covered with cavities to hold the shelves or "libraries"; an exedra (from the Greek ἐξ ex-, from, outside and έδρα, seat ) or space with seats and an oikos (gr. οἶκος house, room ) or great room.
We deduce, then, from Strabo´s description, apart from other data or sources, that there was not a reading room and therefore that the books and volumes would be in niches placed in the walls of the various agencies, rooms or units and especially in the Peripato, or covered porch in whose sides would be the holes with the shelves for the rolls (βιβλιοθήκαι bibliothekai).
Annexed to the Serapeion (the Temple of Serapis) or within the enclosure or complex, in the neighbourhood called Rakhotis, it was another auxiliary library or another part of the library founded by Ptolemy III. In it there were copies coming from the Museum. The Bishop Epiphanius of the fourth century calls this library "daughter" of the other in his book "Weights and Measures", which he wrote in Syriac with many parts in Greek, whose full title is "Treaty of St. Epiphanius, Bishop of the city of Constance in Cyprus, about the measures, weights and numbers and other things there are in the divine Scriptures" and which is actually a Bible commentary. In the passage where he talks to us with all credulity about the Greek translation of the Pentateuch, the translation called “of the Seventies” or Septuagint, he says in Syriac in chapter 11 (53c) of his work:
And this way the Scriptures, as soon as they had been translated into the Greek language, were placed in the first library, which had been built in the Bruchion, as I already said. And it was arisen, besides this, a second library in the Serapeum, called its daughter. And the period between the ten Ptolemaic kings and Cleopatra's death was two hundred and fifty-nine years.
And in Greek with some variation:
"But later there was also another library in the Serapeum, smaller than the first, which was also called its daughter, in which translations of Aquila, Symmachus, Theodotion and the rest of translated works were placed, two hundred and fifty years later."
In it literati and scientists could continue their studies and readings and lectures were given.
Actually it was therefore an international and cosmopolitan center of the knowledge of the time, in which writers and scientists continued their studies, gave lectures, and madetheir readings. Of course, it was the world book market center, we would say with current macroeconomic terminology.
Thus, the Museum of Alexandria would be a royal institution created from the model of Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum and the Pythagorean community ideal; in fact the museum is chaired by a priest as temple of the Muses (later in the Roman period the Museum will be a public institution and the priest of the Museum will be directly assigned or named by the emperor, as Strabo remembers us). Recall that the Peripatos also had a Museion or temple of the Muses.
The Museum and Library are meeting places of a community of philosophers, scientists, students, people coming from everywhere, funded or maintained by the monarch and therefore without the concerns or worries of the material subsistence. There goes the cultural elite of the world to study and live carefree. Some modern English universities or the Spanish Free Institution of Education, remind us to this Alexandrian community. In summary, as Cánfora says, it is
“a community of scholars isolated from the outside, provided with a complete library and a place to worship the Muses".
As it always happens, even today, among the members of any community, including the scientific, natural rivalries, jealousies and disputes among its members were usual. The cynic and satirist Timon from Filunte, for example, presents us the philosophers like birds quarreling among themselves in a cage:
“In the populous Egypt, many scribblers who scribble on the papyri are fed, while they argue constantly in the cage of the Muses”.
And Athenaeus, in his "Deipnosophistae" confirms this to us, although interpreting Timon´s words with another sense, and really misunderstanding them, when he says in I, 22D:
The satirist author Timon of Phlius somewhere calls the Museum (of Alexandria) "bird cage", mocking the wise hosted on it, because, as the most beautiful birds, they are fed in an aviary.
"In Egypt, rich in races, many scholars armed with quills lived, who keep endless fights in the bird cage of the Muses".
And who was director of the Library, the great Callimachus, author among other things of a catalog or list of works existing there, tells us that among the members of the Museum the "envy" was very frequently given and he did not refer to mere scientific envy.
There were other libraries economically funded or maintained by the State in Antioch, Rhodes, Izmir and other Hellenistic capitals, but there was one that rivaled the Library of Alexandria, and it was the Library of Pergamum. There the king Eumenes II, lover of science and literature, created a huge library which remained despite the prohibition to export papyrus from Egypt made by the Ptolomies.
This prohibition with which Alexandria tried to play dirty forced Pergamum to perfect the art of oriental origin of preparing the skins of animals as a writing support. Precisely from Pergamum comes the word parchment (“pergamino” in Spanish), like skin usually beef, which was used for writing; the skin of the animal non nato (unborn animal) is called "of vitulus" and it is the one of the highest quality to write on it. This support revolutionized the history of the book, giving it the current form of notebook, more durable and more manageable.
Well, the Library of Pergamum was very important. According an untrue statement, Marcus Antonius gave it to Cleopatra and took to Egypt two hundred thousand volumes to replace those lost during the war with Caesar. Plutarch tells us in Antonius, 58, 5, but this statement seems rather to be the result of the blurb that was put forward in Rome against Marcus Antonius:
And Calvisio, Caesar's friend, added to Marcus Antonius ´crimes related to his romantic affair with Cleopatra, the following charges: that he had given to her and presented her with the library of Pergamum, in which there were two hundred thousand simple volumes.
Despite the gaps in the historical sources, despite how little we actually know accurately, the mythic reflections of this great institution arrive until today. In October 2002, it was inaugurated the modern library of Alexandria, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, as a result of the collaboration between the UNESCO and various countries in the world, whose capacity exceeds twenty million books; it already has more than two hundred thousand books, which is not a bad start, but Egypt and the entire area of North Africa and the Middle East, unfortunately is still today as unstable as it was in Antiquity.
But an even more powerful reflection can be appreciated in the modern illusion to give everybody free access to all the knowledge that mankind has accumulated for centuries and centuries in all the languages. Is not this the pretense of popular electronic encyclopedias such as Wikipedia or instruments which aims to provide all books that exist in the world in all the languages? Will it be possible this time?
But all of us must support this great project, because our debt to ancient Alexandria and its library is priceless.