History : Aug-Sep 2015
24 AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2015 Roman general Julius Caesar was in Alexandria to support the claim of Cleopatra VII against her sister and rival Arsinoe IV. Forces loyal to Arsinoe besieged Caesar in the city’s forti- fied palace, which was almost certainly home to the library. Caesar was already planning to ship some 40,000 scrolls to Rome, but dur- ing the battle a fire that started in an arsenal spread to the waterfront warehouses where they were being kept, marking the first ma- jor loss for the library. Some sources suggest that the entire library was destroyed as a re- sult of this incident, but this seems unlikely. A few years later Mark Antony—the general, consul, and lover of Queen Cleopatra—is said to have bestowed upon the Library of Alexandria a large number of books from a rival library in Pergamum, perhaps to compensate for those destroyed during Caesar’s fire. Dust Settles on the Shelves Cleopatra’s suicide in 30 b.c . brought an end to the Ptolemaic dynasty. Rome soon seized formal control of Egypt, and Alexandria was forced to live in the shadow of the mighty imperial capital. Thus began a long and inexorable decline for both Alexandria and its library. And yet its fame was slow to fade. It continued to attract students and brilliant scholars, such as the Greek histo- rian Diodorus Siculus and the Greek geographer Strabo. But without a royal patron to support it and pay for upkeep and the expansion of its collections, the library lost momentum and had to abandon the grand ambitions of totality its founders had aspired to. Worse was to come. The second century saw the terrible Antonine Plague which devastated Egypt’s population. The third century was filled with political strife and conflict, which led to a A WORKING LIBRARY This 1876 engraving shows scrolls being stored on shelves, but the library was more than a repository for research materials. It was a cultural and intellectual center, with gardens, a dining hall, reading room, lecture hall, and meeting rooms. THE PRIDE OF THE PTOLEMIES H istorians still debate the exact location and design of the Library of Alexandria. Rather than being a separate building, it was probably part of the royal palaces within the fortified Bruchion district. The Letter of Aristeas from the second century b.c. is the first document to mention the library, saying that the collection began with the “royal books” of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (circa 309-246 b.c.). The core collection was either organized during Philadel- phus’s reign, or during that of his father, Ptolemy I, by the scholar Demetrius of Phalerum. The Museum, or Temple of the Muses, was also part of this palace complex; the library may have been housed in one of its wings. A second library, the Serapeum, was said to have been founded by Ptol- emy III Euergetes, perhaps to handle an ever increas- ing number of scrolls. The Roman historian Ammia- nus compared the splendor of the building to the tem- ples on the Capitoline Hill in Rome. The Serapeum was destroyed in the fourth century, but the Library of Alexandria survived until the Arab conquest in the seventh century. A CITY DEVOTED TO LEARNING AKG/ALBUM Books from the Library of Pergamum were said to have been transferred to the Library of Alexandria by Mark Antony.