In 48 B.C., Julius Caesar was engaged in a fierce battle for power against his arch rival Pompey.
By this time, the Romans largely controlled Egypt, though the descendants of Ptolemy still ruled nominally and were engaged in a succession battle of their own. Caesar decided to make a play for the city of Alexandria to solidify his rule and to one-up Pompey.
But in his haste to carry out his plan, he rushed to the city so hurriedly that he arrived before the bulk of his troops. He was greeted by the Egyptians, who first presented him with the head of Pompey, who had beaten Caesar to the city only to be assassinated.
Then, objecting to the military might displayed by Caesar, the Egyptians rose up against him, too. The Roman ruler laid siege to the city and decided there was only one way to break the stalemate and maintain military control of the harbor — he lit his docked fleet on fire.
The ensuing blaze quickly spread through the city as fires were wont to do in the days of wooden ships and nonexistent fire departments. The flames soon reached the beloved Library of Alexandria. It is believed that nearly 10 percent of the building went up in flames that day, although the specifics of what was burned and the extent of the damage are unknown.
It was the first time the library — a grand church of universal knowledge and scholarship the likes of which the world had never seen — was attacked. It wouldn’t be the last.
The Library of Alexandria is so embedded in our cultural canon that it remains a broadly known and admired institution. Its shadow lingers over the world of scholarship, despite the fact that the library was completely destroyed nearly 2,000 years ago leaving no physical trace behind, including, scholars believe, not a single scroll.
It all started in the 4th century B.C. when Alexander the Great was plowing his way through what we now know of as the Middle East. After adding Egypt to the notches of conquest in his sword, he decided to build a great city there.
His intentions were two-fold. On the one hand, he wanted to create a magnificent tribute to his rule by celebrating all things Greek. But he also needed a port on the coast to help service his further military endeavors, and the area that would become Alexandria fit the bill.
Alexander the Great put his newest project in motion, and then continued on his marauding way. He would never see a single building built. He returned to the grand city that had been named in his honor only after his death, when he was carried there wrapped in gold to be laid to rest.
(Although his final resting place in Alexandria was a bit of a debacle. He was originally supposed to be buried in a city near modern-day Cairo, but the High Priest there rejected the honor, saying, according to E.M. Forster in his epic travelogue Alexandria, “Do not settle him here but at the city he has built at Rhakotis, for wherever this body must lie in the city will be uneasy, disturbed with wars and battles.” His prophecy would prove true.)
After his death, Alexander’s realm was divided between three of his generals, the foremost of whom took over the Egyptian sector including Alexandria. It was under this ruler, Ptolemy, that Alexandria began to become a hub of culture and knowledge.
“He respected mental as well as material activity. He had been present at the foundation of Alexandria, and he had evidently decided that the place would suit him, and now, taking up his abode in the unfinished city, he began to adorn her with architecture and scholarship and song,” Forster wrote.
Of the many improvements to Alexandria that the general-turned-King and Soter (“savior” as he not so humbly titled himself) made, one of his most significant was the creation of the Mouseion.
Accounts differ as to whose idea this was — whether Ptolemy called on the Aristotle acolyte Demetrius of Phalerum, who had just ended a tumultuous rule of Athens, to help him achieve his grand vision, or whether Demetrius propositioned the new ruler to create this space. Either way, the complex was built and it included a museum and the great library that would become a historical fixture.
From the very beginning the library was the most famous and significant aspect of this cultural institution.
According to the Greek bishop Irenaeus, Ptolemy wanted to populate “his library with the writings of all men as far as they were worth serious attention.”
Legends have been passed down detailing the lengths to which the Ptolemies went to make this happen. According to one, the authorities confiscated all books or scrolls from foreign ships that docked in the port of Alexandria, copied them, and then graciously returned the copies to their owners, keeping the originals for the library. They allegedly repeated this same scheme with the works of the dramatic poets held in the Athenian state archive.
Historians believe that eventually around 700,000 books and scrolls were accrued under the roof of the Library of Alexandria. This was by no means the first library to ever exist, but it was the first to take a fully comprehensive approach to gathering knowledge.
Just as books from around the world were collected at the library, so too were scholars who were invited to study there with funding flowing freely from the royal palace. These scholars were not required to teach or do anything other than spend time conducting scholarly inquiries and making discoveries that, of course, would be for “the greater glory of the Ptolemies.”
The library cultivated some of the best minds of the age whose discoveries and inventions changed the course of the world.
It was here that geometry was created by Euclid, that the first measurements of the Earth’s circumference were taken, and that the belief that the Earth was round was propagated.
The leap year was proposed behind these walls to deal with the discrepancies of the 365-day calendar, and medical discoveries were made, including the idea that human thought originated in the brain rather than the heart.
Literature was also widely studied behind the book-filled walls. Homeric scholarship was undertaken, battles over the merits of epic poetry were conducted, and odes to the nature of love were crafted.
“Love as a cruel and wanton boy flits through the literature of Alexandria as through the thousands of terracotta statuettes that have been exhumed from her soil,” wrote Forster. “One tires of [love], but it is appropriate that he should have been born under a dynasty that culminated in Cleopatra.”
This dedication to art and culture and scholarship in Alexandria flourished under the first three Ptolemies, although the middle ruler mostly just encouraged the momentum started by his father rather than making any grand leaps forward of his own. (Philadelphus, a name that aptly means “friend of his sister,” was best known for starting a precarious precedent in his family — that of marrying brother and sister.)
Alexandria reached its peak of splendor, power, and knowledge under the third of the rulers known as Ptolemy Euergetes.
During this early rule of the Ptolemies, the library became so vast that a second branch, known as the “daughter” library was opened, although some scholars believe it mainly contained copies of the holdings in the original space.
But this period of glory couldn’t last forever. What we know today is that no trace of the library (or its daughter branch) remains – at least none that have been found yet. But how the library toppled is still something of a mystery.
Early fingers pointed at Caesar in blame, though more recent scholarship suggests his reckless fire did some damage, but wasn’t the cause of the library’s ultimate destruction.
As the reign of the Ptolemies marched forward in its incestuous fashion, they lost more and more power to the Romans, ultimately falling with Cleopatra.
As Rome came to dominate the city, so too did Christianity, and with it came the persecution and destruction of all things considered pagan, which may have also engulfed parts of the library.
In the end, many speculate that the once-great Library of Alexandria was chipped away bit by bit by the tumultuous conflicts and regime changes that took place over the next several centuries. As new Emperors rose to power, their priorities changed and the money they allotted the museum dried up.
“Much of its downfall was gradual, often bureaucratic, and by comparison to our cultural imaginings, somewhat petty,” Heather Phillips wrote in the journal Library Philosophy and Practice in 2010. “For example, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus suspended the revenues of the Mouseion, abolishing the members’ stipends and expelling all foreign scholars.”
In 642 AD, Alexandria was conquered by Arab forces. While 300 years after their military campaign they were charged with destroyed the library, it appears these accusations were mostly baseless. By this point, the library was most likely already gone.
What was lost with the destruction of the Library of Alexandria is priceless — vast stores of manuscripts, history, and knowledge.
But today, what remains is still significant.
The discoveries that developed under its roof and amid it’s book-lined shelves have helped define the progress of our civilization, and the stories that have been passed down about the epic achievement of the Library of Alexandria are worthy of the tales told in the scrolls that it once so dearly coveted.