What Was Actually Lost When the Library of Alexandria Burned?

The Library of Alexan­dria has been phys­i­cal­ly gone for about eigh­teen cen­turies now, but the insti­tu­tion endures as a pow­er­ful sym­bol. Today we have the inter­net, which none can deny is at least well on its way to becom­ing a dig­i­tal store of all human knowl­edge. But despite hav­ing emerged from an ever more enor­mous­ly com­plex tech­no­log­i­cal infra­struc­ture, the inter­net is dif­fi­cult to cap­ture in a leg­i­ble men­tal pic­ture. The Library of Alexan­dria, by con­trast, actu­al­ly stood in Egypt for some 300 years after its com­mis­sion­ing by Ptole­my I and II, and ear­ly in the sec­ond cen­tu­ry B.C. it bid fair to hold prac­ti­cal­ly all writ­ten knowl­edge in exis­tence with­in its walls (and those of its “daugh­ter library” the Ser­apeum, con­struct­ed when the main build­ing ran out of space).

Inter­est­ing enough as a lost work of ancient archi­tec­ture, the Library of Alexan­dria is remem­bered for its con­tents — not that his­to­ry has been able to remem­ber in much detail what those con­tents actu­al­ly were. “Some ancient authors claimed that it con­tained 700,000 books,” says ancient-his­to­ry schol­ar Gar­ret Ryan in the video above.

“Books, in this con­text, mean­ing papyrus scrolls,” and their actu­al num­ber was almost cer­tain­ly small­er. By the time the Library itself — or at least part of it — was burned down by Julius Cae­sar in 48 B.C., it had been falling into dis­use for quite some time. “It is some­times said that the destruc­tion of the Library of Alexan­dria set civ­i­liza­tion back by cen­turies,” Ryan tells us. “This is a wild exag­ger­a­tion.”

The Library of Alexan­dria might have been the most impres­sive intel­lec­tu­al repos­i­to­ry in the ancient world, but it was hard­ly the only one. Most of the works in its col­lec­tion, Ryan explains, would also have been held by oth­er libraries, though they would also decline along with the gen­er­al inter­est in clas­si­cal cul­ture. “Although there were cer­tain­ly many works of math­e­mat­ics and physics, the most impor­tant of these were wide­ly dis­sem­i­nat­ed else­where. What per­ished with the Library were, over­whelm­ing­ly, less­er-known works of lit­er­a­ture and phi­los­o­phy, com­men­taries and mono­graphs: all the residue and intro­spec­tion of an extreme­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed lit­er­ary cul­ture.” To schol­ars of ancient lit­er­a­ture, of course, such a loss is incal­cu­la­ble. And in our own cul­ture today, we’ll still do well to hold up the Library of Alexan­dria as an image of what it is to amass human knowl­edge — as well as what it is to let that knowl­edge decay.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Rise and Fall of the Great Library of Alexan­dria: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion

Behold 3,000 Dig­i­tized Man­u­scripts from the Bib­lio­the­ca Palati­na: The Moth­er of All Medieval Libraries Is Get­ting Recon­struct­ed Online

How Ara­bic Trans­la­tors Helped Pre­serve Greek Phi­los­o­phy … and the Clas­si­cal Tra­di­tion

A 16th Cen­tu­ry “Data­base” of Every Book in the World Gets Unearthed: Dis­cov­er the Libro de los Epí­tomes Assem­bled by Christo­pher Colum­bus’ Son

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (3)
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  • Grady says:

    The library is unusu­al in that it was com­mis­sioned in about 2 BC and it was destroyed in 48. BC.

  • Geoff says:

    @Grady Are you sure you read the arti­cle? The library was around for 300 years.

  • Original Thoth says:

    I don’t under­stand how you are able to assert any­one that the texts in the library were mere­ly arts and cul­ture? Do you have any con­crete evi­dence for such wild unsub­stan­ti­at­ed claims?

    Egypt is orig­i­nal pio­neer of math­e­mat­ics, sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy, astron­o­my, lan­guage, art and cul­ture, physic, Khem­istry (Khemet), med­i­cine and surgery, sports, and civ­i­liza­tion, you name it. Read Plato’s debt to Egypt. Pythago­ras, Pla­to and most famous Greek schol­ars were edu­cat­ed by the Egypt­ian priests for decades.

    The arti­cle appears to try­ing to jus­ti­fy the burn­ing of the books by the Romans by claim­ing that the texts were not of impor­tance… Yeah right lol

    Well the Romans failed, the Egyp­tians out­smart­ed them by leav­ing an abun­dance of trace every­where.

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