The Ancient Library of Alexandria
The West's most important repository of learning
• 03/12/2019In March of 415 C.E., on a sunny day in the holy season of Lent, Cyril of Alexandria, the most powerful Christian theologian in the world, murdered Hypatia, the most famous Greco-Roman philosopher of the time. Hypatia was slaughtered like an animal in the church of Caesarion, formerly a sanctuary of emperor worship.1 Cyril may not have been among the gang that pulled Hypatia from her chariot, tearing off her clothes and slashing her with shards of broken tiles, but her murder was surely done under his authority and with his approval.
Cyril (c. 375–444) was the archbishop of Alexandria, the dominant cultural and religious center of the Mediterranean world of the fifth century C.E.2 He replaced his uncle Theophilus in that lofty office in 412 and became both famous and infamous for his leadership in support of what would become known as Orthodox Christianity after the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451), when basic Christian doctrine was solidly established for all time.
Cyril's fame arose mainly from his assaults on other church leaders, and his methods were often brutal and dishonest. He hated Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, for example, because Nestorius thought Christ's divine and human aspects were distinct from one another, whereas Cyril emphasized their unity. At the Council of Ephesus in 431, Cyril arranged for a vote condemning Nestorius to take place before Nestorius's supporters—the bishops from the eastern churches—had time to arrive. Nor was Cyril above abusing his opponents by staging marches and inciting riots. It was such a mob, led by one of Cyril's followers, Peter the Reader, that butchered the last great Neoplatonic philosopher, Hypatia.
Cyril is honored today in Christendom as a saint. But at the time of his death, many of his fellow bishops expressed great relief at his departure. Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrhus, wrote that Cyril's "death made those who survived him joyful, but it grieved most probably the dead; and there is cause to fear lest, finding him too troublesome, they should send him back to us."3
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One reason Cyril had Hypatia murdered, according to the English historian Edward Gibbon, was that Cyril thought Hypatia had the political ear of Alexandria's chief magistrate, who vigorously opposed Cyril's ambition to expel from the city those who held different religious views from his own.4 Cyril was also jealous of Hypatia because scholars from all over the world crowded into her lectures in Alexandria, Athens and elsewhere. Socrates (380–450), a church historian from Constantinople, says of Hypatia:
[She] was so learned that she surpassed all contemporary philosophers. She carried on the Platonic tradition derived from Plotinus, and instructed those who desired to learn in…philosophic discipline. Wherefore all those wishing to work at philosophy streamed in from all parts of the world, collecting around her on account of her learned and courageous character. She maintained a dignified intercourse with the chief people of the city. She was not ashamed to spend time in the society of men, for all esteemed her highly, and admired her for her purity.5
Hypatia's father, Theon, was a leading professor of philosophy and science in Alexandria. He had prepared a recension of Euclid's Elements, which remained the only known Greek text of the great mathematician's work until an earlier version was discovered in the Vatican Library in this century.6 Theon also predicted eclipses of the sun and moon that occurred in 364.
Hypatia, who was born about 355, collaborated with her father from early in her life, editing his works and preparing them for publication. According to one authority, she was "by nature more refined and talented than her father."7 The extant texts of Ptolemy's Almagest and Handy Tables were probably prepared for publication by her.8
Such scientific and philosophical enterprises were not new or surprising in Hypatia's Alexandria, which already boasted a 700-year-old, international reputation for sophisticated scholarship. Founded in 331 B.C.E.9 by command of Alexander the Great, the city contained almost from its beginnings an institution that would remain of immense importance to the world for the next 2,300 years. Originally called the Mouseion, or Shrine of the Muses, this research center and library grew into "an institution that may be conceived of as a library in the modern sense—an organization with a staff headed by a librarian that acquires and arranges bibliographic material for the use of qualified readers."10
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Indeed, the Alexandria Library was much more. It "stimulated an intensive editorial program that spawned the development of critical editions, textual exegesis and such basic research tools as dictionaries, concordances and encyclopedias."11 The library in fact developed into a huge research institution comparable to a modern university—containing a center for the collection of books, a museum for the preservation of scientific artifacts, residences and workrooms for scholars, lecture halls and a refectory. In building this magnificent institution, one modern writer has noted, the Alexandrian scholars "started from scratch"; their gift to civilization is that we never had to start from scratch again.12
In 323 B.C.E., as summer was breaking upon the northern coast of Egypt, Alexander the Great died in Mesopotamia. Within little more than a year, Aristotle died in Chalcis and Demosthenes in Calaurie. To this day, these three gigantic figures, more than any others, save Jesus and Plato perhaps, remain essential to the ideal of civilized life throughout the world. The reason these and other figures remain alive for us today is the ancient library and "university" of Alexandria.13
When Alexander died, his empire was divided among his three senior commanders. Seleucis I Nicator became king of the empire's eastern reaches, founding the Seleucid empire (312–64 B.C.E.) with its capital at Babylon.14 Antigonus I Monopthalmus (the One-Eyed) took possession of Macedonia, Greece and large parts of Asia Minor, where he established the Antigonid dynasty, which lasted until 169 B.C.E.15 A third commander, Ptolemy, assumed the position of satrap, or governor, of Egypt. Ptolemy made Alexandria his capital, brought Alexander's body to the city for a royal entombment and quickly embarked upon a program of urban development.16
Ptolemy's grandest building project was the Alexandria Library, which he founded in 306 B.C.E. Almost immediately the library epitomized the best scholarship of the ancient world, containing the intellectual riches of Mesopotamia, Persia, Greece, Rome and Egypt. Until it was closed in 642 C.E.—when the Arabs conquered Egypt and carried off the library's treasure—it was the major vehicle by which the learning of the past was kept alive.17 Not only did the library preserve the ancient sciences, but it proved to be a vital philosophical and spiritual force behind the surprising new worlds of Judaism, Neoplatonism and Christianity.
The history of the library and its university center falls into five stages. The first, from its founding in 306 B.C.E. to about 150 B.C.E., was the period of Aristotelian science, during which the scientific method was the dominant feature of scholarly investigation. The second, from 150 B.C.E. to 30 B.C.E., was marked by a decided shift away from Aristotelian empiricism to a Platonic preoccupation with metaphysics and religion. This period coincided with the consolidation of Roman influence in the Mediterranean basin. The third was the age of Philo Judaeus's influence, from 30 B.C.E. to 150 C.E. The fourth was the era of the Catechetical School, 150 to 350 C.E., and the fifth was the period of the philosophical movement known as the Alexandrian School, 350 to 642 C.E. Together, these five stages cover a thousand years. No other institution of this kind has proved to be so long-lived or so intellectually dominant of its world and subsequent history as Alexandria's library.
Sometime between 307 and 296 B.C.E., Ptolemy I brought from Athens a noted scholar named Demetrios of Phaleron (345–283 B.C.E.) to undertake his vast library project.
Demetrios set about this task with vigor, providing the course the library was to follow for a millennium. His genius lay in his conception of the library as something more than a receptacle for books; it was also to be a university where new knowledge would be produced. The library's initial design called for ten halls for housing the books. These halls were connected to other university buildings by marble colonnades. Scholars were extended royal appointments with stipends to live and work in this university community. At the same time, task forces commissioned to acquire books were scouring the Mediterranean. Books were even confiscated from ships moored in Alexandria's harbor, copied and then restored to their owners. The scriptorium where the copies were made also served as a bookstore, creating a lucrative enterprise with an international clientele.
In 283 B.C.E. Demetrios was succeeded as chief librarian by Zenodotus of Ephesus (325–260 B.C.E.), who held the office for 25 years. This brilliant scholar was a Greek grammarian, literary critic, poet and editor. He continued Demetrios's work on Homer, making a detailed comparative study of the extant texts, deleting doubtful passages, transposing others and making emendations. He also produced the first critical editions of the Iliad and the Odyssey and set each of them up in the 24 books in which we have them today.
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It was probably Zenodotus who established as part of the library the public lending section known as the Serapeion—so named because it was a sanctuary for the god Serapis as well as a public library. He appointed two assistant librarians: Alexander of Aetolia (born c. 315 B.C.E.), to specialize in the Greek tragic and satiric plays and poetry; and Lycophron of Chalcis (born c. 325 B.C.E.), to concentrate on the comic poets. Both of these men became famous in their own right as writers and scholars.
One of the things we would most like to have today from the Alexandria library is its catalogue, called the Pinakes, the great work of Callimachus of Cyrene (c. 305–235 B.C.E.), who served under four chief librarians but never rose to that position himself. The full title of the Pinakes is Tablets of the Outstanding Works in the Whole of Greek Civilization.18 Pinakes means "tablets" and probably referred originally to the tablets or plaques attached to the stacks, cabinets and rooms of the library, identifying the library's wide variety of books from numerous cultures, most of them translated into Greek.