Modern Greek History

History of the Great Library of Alexandria

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When Alexander the Great pushed his way east, he did more than just create a Greek Empire. He also spread the Hellenic culture wherever he conquered. One such influence was the great Library of Alexandria, which is considered to be the largest library in the ancient world. Alexandria itself was founded in 331 BC and it is commonly believed that the library followed shortly after around 300 BC. However, the exact date of when it was founded isn’t well known. Though the library was founded after Alexander’s death, in many ways, it is a tribute to all that he accomplished. Here is an overview of the history of this library.

Founding the Library

Ptolemy Lagides, or Ptolemy I Soter founded the Library of Alexandria, also referred to as the Royal Library of Alexandria. After Alexander was assassinated in 323 BC, his empire was torn into three pieces. The Ptolemy Lagides, one of Alexander’s generals, took over the Egyptian portion of the empire. Founding the Library at Alexandria is one of the legacies that he created. The library itself was dedicated to the muses, the goddesses of art, knowledge, and science. It was known for having one of the largest collections of scrolls in the ancient world and was also open to the public.

However, there is some conflicting evidence concerning the founding and history of the library. Some sources claim that Demetrius of Phaleron, one of Aristotle’s students, initially organized the collection. Others claim that Ptolemy II, the son of Ptolemy Lagides, was the true founder of the library. Unfortunately, since the library’s official records were burned in a fire, much of the information has been lost.

The Library’s Structure

Since the library itself was destroyed, not much is truly known about how it was structured. Analyzing ancient texts derives much of what we know about the library’s layout. From these descriptions, we can determine that the library may have inspired the layout of a modern university. There was a place to house the scrolls, an area where people could dine together, rooms for lectures, gardens, and common meeting rooms. The library itself was part of the larger Museum of Alexandria.

Alexandria’s Collection

So what kinds of works were present at the library? Well, since it burned, which destroyed much of its collection, it’s hard to tell. There were both parchment scroll, which were used by the Greeks, and papyrus scrolls, which were used by the Egyptians. This indicates that the collection was fairly comprehensive. One source estimated that there were nearly five hundred scrolls on the works of some of the most notable ancient scholars such as Euclid, Archimedes, and Theon.

Destruction of Alexandria

When the library at Alexandria was burned, most of its scrolls were destroyed. It is hard to know how many of these works were actually recovered. However, the assumption is that much of it was lost. Not much is actually known about how the library was destroyed. However, it is commonly believed that it occurred around 391 AD during the reign of Theodosius who is likely to have ordered Theophilus of Alexandria to start anti-pagan riots. The library was likely destroyed during these riots. Though some of the works may have been salvaged, it is unclear of how many.

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This post was written by Greek Boston

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