N S Gill – Ancient/Classical History

We Don’t Know Much About the Library at Alexandria

Egypt – Obelisk, Alexandria. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection. Public Domain Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Part of the complex built under either Ptolemy I or II in Alexandria, a city built by the Hellenistic Greeks in northern Egypt, the Library at Alexandria (along with the Museum, a shrine to the Muses) supported scholarship in the sciences and literature. Scholars catalogued by genre and edited the scrolls creating the standard work of important authors. Although Strabo doesn’t mention the library, but only the museum, it is the earliest surviving account of the complex, coming 300 years later.

“And the city contains most beautiful public precincts and also the royal palaces, which constitute one-fourth or even one-third of the whole circuit of the city; for just as each of the kings, from love of splendour, was wont to add some adornment to the public monuments, so also he would invest himself at his own expense with a residence, in addition to those already built, so that now, to quote the words of the poet,  “there is building upon building.” All, however, are connected with one another and the harbour, even those that lie outside  the harbour. The Museum is also a part of the royal palaces; it has a public walk, an Exedra with seats, and a large house,  in which is the common mess-hall of the men of learning who share the Museum.   This group of men not only hold property in common, but also have a priest in charge of the Museum, who formerly was appointed by the kings, but is now appointed by Caesar. The Sema also,  as it is called, is a part of the royal palaces.”  Strabo

This failure to mention it means we don’t really know much about the specific building. There is, however, an earlier epistolary mention, in the 2d century B.C. Letter to Philocrates responsible for various aspects of our confusion about the development of the library, as well as the estimate of scroll number. Incidentally, this is also the source for our name for the Greek Bible, the Septuagint.

“9 Demetrius of Phalerum, the president of the king’s library, received vast sums of money, for the purpose of collecting together, as far as he possibly could, all the books in the world. By means of purchase and transcription, he carried out, to the best of his ability, the purpose of the king. On one occasion when I was present he was asked, How many thousand books are there in the library?  10 and he replied, ‘More than two hundred thousand, O king, and I shall make endeavour in the immediate future to gather together the remainder also, so that the total of five hundred thousand may be reached.”  Letter of Aristeas

Although there was a fire under Julius Caesar’s watch, it did not wipe out the library. Exactly what did is not known with certainty. Third and fourth century Roman emperors played a part, Christian emperors may have had a role, and many blame the Muslims for the final touch. In addition, if the books weren’t continually copied, age and nature would have wiped out the collection.


  1. “Culture and Power in Ptolemaic Egypt: The Museum and  Library of Alexandria,” by Andrew Erskine; Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Apr., 1995), pp. 38-48.
  2. “The Ancient University of Alexandria,” by A. W. Argyle; The Classical Journal, Vol. 69, No. 4 (Apr. – May, 1974), pp. 348-350.
  3. “Alexandria: Library of Dreams,” by Roger S. Bagnall; Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 146, No. 4 (Dec., 2002), pp. 348-362.