Christian Mythstory: The Library of Alexandria

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In the epochal historical thriller National Treasure, Nicholas Cage portrays himself portraying Ben Gates, a poorly acted Indiana Jones imposter. (But I repeat myself.) Near the end in the payoff scene where he and his motley collection of treasure hunters finally find ‘the treasure,’ a startling discovery is made on a medium-sized shelf.

“Hey guys, I found the lost scrolls from the Library in Alexandria!”  

 

 

Naturally we must suspend disbelief as a number of questions shyly lift their hands:

  • How does an American History expert (maybe?) know what the scrolls from the Alexandrian Library would look like? After all, if they were ‘lost,’ one would have to have an instantaneous and encyclopedic knowledge of every single work of antiquity to check against.
  • How did these papyrus rolls- transported across the globe in every conceivable environment and over the course of 2200+ years to eventually to sit for 250+ years in a damp and moldy cave- manage to survive with enough identifiability to be instantly recognized?
  • Why is Nicholas Cage in this movie? (obvious question)

Naturally Mr. Cage makes a wonderful and seamless segue into just about any subject, as long as it doesn’t involve him acting. I offer this progression:

Nicolas Cage > Acting > Myth > Library of Alexandra

See? Seamless.

 

The Library of Alexandria

Nothing makes for good ol’ fashioned Christian mythstory like a good ol’ fashioned book burning. In the case of the conflagration in Alexandria, the scene is set like a fine banquet table for a generous feast of ignorance and calumny.

Consider this:

A serene and erudite people who value learning and vault philosophy to the Olympian summits live in peace and harmony, whiling their days away engrossed in esoteric elocution and clad in the garments of tolerance and education. The Library of Alexandria stands as a beacon of light in the dark and barbaric world. Here the pagan and the philosopher can meet in friendship as their world views cast a wide net that is inclusive of all. The Library pierces the clouds of ignorance,  a testament to the mind and a throne to reason.

Without warning the ignorant descend, crosses hung around their necks and blood dripping from their fingers. The darkened minds of the Christians are matched only by the curses they shout, threatening to plunge the world into the blackness of faith. The doors are torn down, book and parchments thrown to the floor like so much rubbish. With glee in their maddened eyes the frenzied mobs set the pyre of reason alight, the flames a sickening irony as the world descends into fear and ignorance.

The Dark Ages have begun.

 

 

The preceding is obviously a hyperbolic account, although judging by the sorts of books that are written, movies that are made and shirts that are sold, it may not be far off. For while it seems baffling to behold the sheer level of stupidity to which moderns strive to attain, these sorts of historical notions become the sine qua non of many people’s opposition to religion.

One such occurrence is the burning of the Library of Alexandria. It is often popularly linked with the murder of the philosopher Hypatia, yet another blunder. The scene sketched above is a little over the top, but as the shirt design indicates, there is a prevalent idea that sometime- who knows when?- in the past Christians burned the Library of Alexendria. Doubtless few could actually give any reason to believe this, (other than “well, everyone knows that…”) but the crucial idea is to establish some indelible opposition between faith and reason, and what better way than with the burning of a library?

A major difficulty, as with most of Christian mythstory, is that the historical evidence for this is quite slim. It would actually be far more accurate to say non-existent.

The actual historical record is a bit tricky since we often conceive of these events as being tragic, one-off moments that send reverberations through time. This occurs because of retrospect, which often attributes far more to a single event than was experienced but those contemporary to it.

 

OOPS!

The Library of Alexandria seems to have been burned at least a couple of times, which is not terribly surprising since in the ancient world cities and buildings often got reused, rebuilt, or they simply built something else on top of it. Nevertheless, there was a time at which it had a lot of documents and then lost them in a fire. The problem for our mythstory is that it wasn’t right before the “Dark Ages” but rather hundreds of years before, and was really more likely an accident.

The first recorded conflagration at the Library in Alexandria was around 47 or 48 B.C., when Julius Caesar was in full-on conquest mode. Seneca relates that over 40,000 books were lost to the fire, and other writers such as Plutarch, Orosius and Ammianus Macellinus corroborate the destruction. (Some writers mention 700,000 books as perishing in the blaze!) There is some ambiguity as to whether the Library itself caught fire or if the books were being stored elsewhere and caught fire there.

Another important tidbit is that the Library held so many books that it couldn’t actually hold them all. Thus, the nearby Temple of Serapion (also known as the Serapeum) seems to have doubled as a storage facility. It may have been this that was caught in the conflagration rather than the library proper.

Caesar himself mentions nothing of the library’s destruction, but rather the events that corroborate the general picture of the fire. While in a tight spot he ordered some of his own ships set ablaze which spread to the docks and eventually into the royal quarter of Alexandria. The tactic was successful, if not destructive.

 

Strabo

Strabo, who wrote sometime in the early 1st century and visited Alexandria and the compounds near where the Library would have been, fails to even mention the library or anything surrounding it, including whether it still existed or was destroyed. He remarks about the Museum, which is where the Library is thought to have been located, but is silent about the Library itself. One might expect him to have said something about something as important as the fire, but his writing follows the event by at least 20 years. He does give a bit of a hint as to why this might be:

On this side the canal is the Sarapium and other ancient sacred places, which are now abandoned on account of the erection of the temples at Nicopolis; for [there are situated] an amphitheatre and a stadium, and there are celebrated quinquennial games; but the ancient rites and customs are neglected.[1. Strabo, Geography, Book  17]

Even in his day the Serapeum had fallen into neglect, but not only the Serapeum; he mentions that the ancient sacred places have been abandoned because of new temples at Nicopolis. Like any time in history, out with the old, in with new.

One further point might be worth noting. As we progress through time and writers become more distant from the event, the fire at Alexandria takes on more and more importance, with the number of volumes lost to the flames increasing. Retrospect tends to make historical events seem more epoch-wrenching than they may have appeared to the people at the time.

After all, war and fires and property loss were a fact of life for ancient societies. Caesar might have air-brushed his part in the Library’s destruction, or he simply might not have cared. In a similar manner Strabo sees that even the people of Alexandria have quickly abandoned the old sacred places in a short period of time.

It’s possible that the Library itself was still intact but simply not being used in the same way as in its glory days. (The loss of many of its documents would not help.) War is expensive, and the funds for the maintenance of the Library of Alexandria could easily be re-appropriated or simply stopped altogether.

On the other hand, like the Serapeum it may simply have not been that interesting in light of newer structures, merely a shell of its former self. This could just as easily explain why Strabo essentially ignores it.

 

Plutarch

Nevertheless, the ancients were plucky scholars and the life of the mind somehow survived. Plutarch tells us that Mark Antony, ahem, borrowed some books from Pergamon and sent them to Cleopatra to make up for Julius’ earlier tantrum. This incident is curious and not generally regarded as reliable since the statement was meant as an accusation against Antony:

Again, Calvisius, who was a companion of Caesar, brought forward against Antony the following charges also regarding his behaviour towards Cleopatra: he had bestowed upon her the libraries from Pergamum, in which there were two hundred thousand volumes…[2. Plutarch, Lives, Antony, Chapter 59]

Most scholars think the 200,000 number is impossibly large, and even Plutarch mentions that most people realized the truth:

However, most of the charges thus brought by Calvisius were thought to be falsehoods…[3. ibid.]

Rather than giving reason to believe the Library of Alexandria was reborn with new volumes, it seems far more likely that Calvisius’ transparency belied the general lack of interest later Romans had in the Library because of both its nature and its lack of prestige. Had 200,000 volumes really been transferred there (which actually isn’t even implied by the accusation, merely that Antony turned possession of it over to Cleopatra) it would have been a thumb in the face of Caesar since Antony was conspiring behind his back with Cleopatra. It would also imply that he had that authority to make such a transfer.

Ah, political machinations.

Plutarch is the first to actually specifically tie Julius Caesar into the destruction of the Library:

In this war, to begin with, Caesar encountered the peril of being shut off from water, since the canals were dammed up by the enemy; in the second place, when the enemy tried to cut off his fleet, he was forced to repel the danger by using fire, and this spread from the dockyards and destroyed the great library; [4. Plutarch, Lives, Caesar, Chapter 49.]

Plutarch is a little ambiguous since the term ‘great library’ could refer to the library itself, parts of the Museum complex, or perhaps even the Serapeum. Aulus Gellius (mid second century) tries his hand at clarifying things:

At a later time an enormous quantity of books, nearly seven hundred thousand, was either acquired or copied in Egypt under the kings known as the Ptolemies. But these were all burned during the sack of the city in our first war with Alexandria, not intentionally or by anyone’s order, but accidentally by the auxiliary soldiers.

If 200,000 books is improbable, 700,000 books is almost certainly impossible. Some scholars believe that Gellius’ testimony is suspect since he seems eager to vindicate Caesar of such a loss of literature. Regardless of the truth of that assertion it is fairly powerful evidence to a prevailing understanding that the Library suffered this conflagration during the war with Alexandria.

 

Seneca the Younger

Beyond the politics of books, many well-to-do Romans had a rather ambivalent attitude towards libraries. Seneca the Younger gives us his opinion of the whole fiasco:

Even for studies, where expenditure is most honourable, it is justifiable only so long as it is kept within bounds. What is the use of having countless books and libraries, whose titles their owners can scarcely read through in a whole lifetime? The learner is, not instructed, but burdened by the mass of them, and it is much better to surrender yourself to a few authors than to wander through many. Forty thousand books were burned at Alexandria; let someone else praise this library as the most noble monument to the wealth of kings, as did Titus Livius, who says that it was the most distinguished achievement of the good taste and solicitude of kings. There was no ‘good taste’ or ‘solicitude’ about it, but only learned luxury — nay, not even ‘learned,’ since they had collected the books, not for the sake of learning, but to make a show, just as many who lack even a child’s knowledge of letters use books, not as the tools of learning, but as decorations for the dining-room. Therefore, let just as many books be acquired as are enough, but none for mere show.[5. Seneca the Younger, On the Tranquility of the Mind.]

Many Romans probably shared this attitude. The destruction of the Library, whether it was compete or partial, just wasn’t that big of a deal. And as Strabo seems to indicate, even to the local Alexandrians the feeling may have been the same.

 

Dio Cassius

Another author- Dio Cassius– relates that

After this many battles occurred between the two forces both by day and by night, and many places were set on fire, with the result that the docks and the storehouses of grain among other buildings were burned, and also the library, whose volumes, it is said, were of the greatest number and excellence.[6. Dio Cassius, Roman History, Book 42, Chapter 38.]

 

Ammianus Marcellinus

In the late fourth century Ammianus Marcellinus mentions how in the temple to Serapis (the Serapeum) there used to be libraries:

Besides this there are many lofty temples, and especially one to Serapis, which, although no words can adequately describe it, we may yet say, from its splendid halls supported by pillars, and its beautiful statues and other embellishments, is so superbly decorated, that next to the Capitol, of which the ever-venerable Rome boasts, the whole world has nothing worthier of admiration. In it were libraries of inestimable value; and the concurrent testimony of ancient records affirm that 70,000 volumes, which had been collected by the anxious care of the Ptolemies, were burnt in the Alexandrian war when the city was sacked in the time of Caesar the Dictator.[7. Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman History, Book 22.]

Marcellinus probably gets his 70,000 from an earlier author, (perhaps Gellius) which means the 700,000 books was quite likely a transcription error. (Similar errors between 40,000 and 400,000 exist) The crucial part of Marcellinus’ testimony is that he speaks of these libraries in the past tense. Additionally, he concurs with the ancient authors notion that much of the destruction happened during Caesar’s assault.

This would seem to comport with Strabo’s ambivalent attitude towards the Museum and the Serapeum, since during his visit they very likely may have been much less grand than at the height of the Alexandrian library’s fame.

Much more important in Marcellinus’ account, however, is when it was written. His Roman History was completed a few years before 391 AD, which is when the Serapeum was destroyed. There is no reason for him to suppose the Alexandrian Library was destroyed by anyone else but Julius Caesar since he did not suppose it to actually be in existence any more.

 

Making of a Myth

Given the seemingly unanimous testimony of antiquity regarding the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, why does the myth persist that Christians tore it down in a fit of anti-reason?

The major event that provides the ground for this claim is in fact the destruction of the Serapeum. Within the mythstory conception hordes of ignorant Christians fell upon the Serapeum in their blind and frothing rage and tore it from its foundations.

The truth, however, is never the mythstory version.

Emperor Theodosius I gained control after Julian (lovingly known as The Apostate), whose aborted return to paganism left lots of ill-will throughout the Empire, and nowhere more so than Alexandria. Most ancients seemed to think there was something in the air or the water that made Alexandrians particularly hot-headed; Marcellinus tells us:

Alexandria, a city which on its own impulse, and without ground, is frequently roused to rebellion and rioting, as the oracles themselves show.[8. ibid.]

Thirty or so years prior to the destruction of the Serapeum there had already been a fair amount of tumult: in 356 the Arian bishop George (who had been installed by Constantius) found a pagan temple’s secret room while preparing the foundation for a church. The Christians took the idols and other such sacred objects and mockingly paraded them through the streets, a gesture the pagan inhabitants returned by killing and crucifying some who participated.[9. Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, Book V, Chapter 7.]

Bishop George had also instigated the stripping of the Serapeum, taking most of what was of value. Interestingly enough, George seems to have been a bibliophile himself, so it stands to reason that whatever books were in the Serapeum at this time (around 360 AD) may have made their way into his library. (Which also indicates that, if the Serapeum was functioning as a library at this time, it was a relatively small affair.) The Emperor Julian writes:

Some men have a passion for horses, others for birds, others, again, for wild beasts; but I, from childhood, have been penetrated by a passionate longing to acquire books. It would therefore be absurd if I should suffer these to be appropriated by men whose inordinate desire for wealth gold alone cannot satiate, and who unscrupulously design to steal these also. Do you therefore grant me this personal favour, that all the books which belonged to George be sought out. For there were in his house many on philosophy, and many on rhetoric; many also on the teachings of the impious Galilaeans. These latter I should wish to be utterly annihilated, but for fear that along with them more useful works may be destroyed by mistake, let all these also be sought for with the greatest care. Let George’s secretary take charge of this search for you, and if he hunts for them faithfully let him know that he will obtain his freedom as a reward, but that if he prove in any way whatever dishonest in the business he will be put to the test of torture. And I know what books George had, many of them, at any rate, if not all; for he lent me some of them to copy, when I was in Cappadocia, and these he received back.[10. Julian, To Ecdicius, Prefect of Egypt.]

This is corroborated by a later Christian writer named Orosius who says

So perished that marvelous monument of the literary activity of our ancestors, who had gathered together so many great works of brilliant geniuses. In regard to this, however true it may be that in some of the temples there remain up to the present time book chests, which we ourselves have seen, and that, as we are told, these were emptied by our own men in our own day when these temples were plundered—this statement is true enough—yet it seems fairer to suppose that other collections had later been formed to rival the ancient love of literature, and not that there had once been another library which had books separate from the four hundred thousand volumes mentioned, and for that reason had escaped destruction.[11. Paulus Orosius, Book 6.]

From Orosius’ statement we see that the Library was still seen as a monument to ancient learning, but the fact that it was known as a monument indicates that it was not perceived as still being what it represented. In fact, Orosius explicitly tells us that while the temples may have contained books (which seems reasonable enough) in chests, these were not themselves the deposit of the Alexandrian library or even another large library that had survived but rather were smaller collections meant to imitate the attainments of the past. No doubt this is why Orosius is talking about other libraries or temples (rather than the Serapeum) since as far as everyone was concerned the Library had been long gone.

Given Marcellinus’ understanding (and he was a very near contemporary) that the Serapeum was not the Library of Alexandria in that it functioned as that, it seems clear that by the late 4th century the Serapeum was pretty much as Orosius describes it- a monument to the past.

 

Tearing it Down

One of the irksome policies of Julian was that Christians could not enter into literary fields. However wide-ranging his policy was meant to be, it was not terribly successful, and after his demise and the ascent of Theodosius I, Christians and pagans were once again engaged in learning and teaching in the same venues as they had done, more or less without issue, for centuries.

The Patriarch of Alexandria Theophilos had been egging the pagans on for awhile. In one incident he demonstrated to the populace that their idols were a sham:

Not content with razing the idols’ temples to the ground, Theophilus exposed the tricks of the priests to the victims of their wiles. For they had constructed statues of bronze and wood hollow within, and fastened the backs of them to the temple walls, leaving in these walls certain invisible openings. Then coming up from their secret chambers they got inside the statues, and through them gave any order they liked; and the hearers, tricked and cheated, obeyed.  These tricks the wise Theophilus exposed to the people.[12. Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History Book 5, Chapter 10.]

The precipitating incident in 391 that led to the destruction of the Serapeum was remarkably similar to the earlier incident propelled by Bishop George. By this time many pagan temples had fallen into decay and disrepair, which Christians were happy to cleanse and re-purpose. During the excavations and remodeling a burial chamber or such filled with human remains was discovered. Some of the pagan population perceived this as sacrilege and began to air their grievances until it escalated into a full-blown (and rather brutal) riot.

Eventually the pagan population felt the tide turning against them and barricaded themselves in the Serapeum while also taking hostages. In imitation of their imperial ancestors the captors forced their captives to make sacrifices or else face torture or death.

Theodosius entered the scene by quelling the riots and allowing the pagan populace involved in the riots to go unpunished. But knowing that the Serapeum was a rallying point just begging for further tumult, he ordered that it be razed. Theodoret tells us

Theophilus went up into the temple of Serapis, which has been described by some as excelling in size and beauty all the temples in the world.  There he saw a huge image of which the bulk struck beholders with terror, increased by a lying report that if any one approached it, there would be a great earthquake, and that all the people would be destroyed.  The bishop looked on all these tales as the mere driveling of tipsy old women, and in utter derision of the lifeless monster’s enormous size, he told a man who had an axe to give Serapis a good blow with it.  No sooner had the man struck, than all the folk cried out, for they were afraid of the threatened catastrophe.  Serapis however, who had received the blow, felt no pain, inasmuch as he was made of wood, and uttered never a word, since he was a lifeless block.  His head was cut off, and immediately out ran multitudes of mice, for the Egyptian god was a dwelling place for mice.  Serapis was broken into small pieces of which some were committed to the flames, but his head was carried through all the town in sight of his worshippers, who mocked the weakness of him to whom they had once bowed the knee.[13. Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, Book 5, Chapter 22.]

A Christian writer named Rufinus– who in all probability witnessed the event- records many details about the whole affair. In the midst of his observations (which form the basis for much of what we know about this whole event) there is no mention of books or a library. Unlike other Christian writers he seems to regard the passing of the Serapeum with a bit of regret but (unsurprisingly) thinks the blame lies entirely with the pagans.[14. James Hannam, The Mysterious Fate of the Great Library of Alexandria, http://jameshannam.com/library.htm.]

One of the pagan holed up in the Serapeum- a Eunapius of Antioch– gives us an eyewitness account of what transpired in the eventual destruction:

For these men, girding themselves in their wrath against our sacred places as though against stones and stone masons, made a raid on the temples. Though they could not allege even a rumour of war to justify them, they demolished the temple of Serapis and made war against the temple offerings and thereby won a victory without meeting a foe or fighting a battle. In this fashion they fought so strenuously against the statues and votive offerings that they not only conquered but also stole them as well. Their only military tactics were to ensure that the thief should escape detection.[15. Eunapius of Antioch, Life of Antonius.]

Eunapius is himself a pagan scholar and writer, yet in his descriptions of the conflagration is far more concerned about the temple offerings and statues than a massive library that bears all of the pagan world’s most treasured knowledge. Given that he is no friend to Christians but presents them in the worst possible light, for him to not mention such a dramatic loss to the flames is curious indeed.

Except, of course, for the fact that there wasn’t a library there to be burned in the first place.

 

Citadels and Libraries

Missing within the account is the mob of frothing Christians who tear the Serapeum down, dooming all of ancient learning to oblivion, for the very reason that they couldn’t.

At this point the Serapeum was a citadel, which meant it was heavily fortified. Anyone holing up in the citadel could hold out for quite some time against an advancing force, which is why (among other reasons) Theodosius let them off without punishment. But the very presence of this citadel in a hot-bed of turmoil like Alexandria was a threat, so it had to go.

Additionally, heavy fortifications are not easy to dismantle. An angry mob who could at any moment be accosted by an opposing mob (which was happening) or engaged by imperial troops would have little to no chance of razing the structure. It would have taken the destructive power of an army (which it did) to actually bring it down once and for all.

By this time the Serapeum had already been plundered at least once a generation before, and contemporary writers (such as Marcellinus) saw little value in it as a major library. Its destruction was not unique, nor were its reverberations that dramatic, save for paganism which saw one of its major religious emblems fall.

But citadels were also quite often libraries of sorts. In ancient cities space is limited and so it must be maximized. Something as expensive as books has to be kept somewhere safe, and citadels tend to meet that description.

A late 4th century author named Aphthonius was a rhetorician who wrote a Progymnasmata– a sort of rhetorical exercise book- to teach rhetoric. In one section he is relating how to form a description, and uses the citadel in Alexandria as his model:

The centre of Athens held the Athenian acropolis; but the citadel which Alexander established for his own city is in fact what he named it, and it is more accurate to call this an acropolis than that on which the Athenians pride themselves…

As one enters the acropolis itself a single space is marked out by four sides; the plan of the arrangement is that of a hollow rectangle. There is a court in the centre, surrounded by a colonnade. Other colonnades succeed the court, colonnades divided by equal columns, and their length could not be exceeded.[16. Aphthonius, Progymnasmata, 12.]

Since he is using the acropolis at Alexandria as sort of standard example, (as it fits the definition more accurately) it is reasonable to assume that many citadels in the ancient world were a sort of book depository, more or less so depending on the academic quality of the city.

Thus, it is reasonable to assume that the Serapeum probably had some volumes, but evidently they weren’t of enough importance or number for those who witnessed their demise to register much regret. It is also possible, since the destruction of the Serapeum would have taken some time, that any volumes might have been plundered beforehand, since this had already happened before. Since the destruction of the Serapeum was ultimately a political calculation on Theodosius’ part, it is not unreasonable to assume that anything of value remaining in it would have been taken.

 

Finding the Source

 

Given all the information that conclusively points away from the destruction of the Library of Alexandria as being caused by an angry and ignorant mob of Christians, how did this idea ever get any traction? Like many other Christian mythstories, we can thank the 18th and 19th centuries for clouding us in ignorance.

Edward Gibbon, in his classic History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, says this about the incident:

The valuable library of Alexandria was pillaged or destroyed; and near twenty years afterwards, the appearance of the empty shelves excited the regret and indignation of every spectator whose mind was not totally darkened by religious prejudice.[17. Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Chapter 28.]

Unfortunately, as we have seen, Gibbon had almost no evidence upon which to base this statement. A note in the text relates to Orosius’ statement, which in and of itself is hardly enough to voice such a strong assertion. More curious is Gibbon’s tendency to wax poetic so as to thinly veil his venom, which in this case causes him to contradict himself. Only a sentence earlier we find this:

Theophilus proceeded to demolish the temple of Serapis, without any other difficulties than those which he found in the weight and solidity of the materials, but these obstacles proved so insuperable that he was obliged to leave the foundations, and to content himself with reducing the edifice itself to a heap of rubbish, a part of which was soon afterwards cleared away, to make room for a church erected in honour of the Christian martyrs.[18. ibid.]

In the recounting of the destruction only the foundations remained, (hence the need for a trained and able workforce to actually dismantle the Serapeum) but then Gibbon decides to imagine some sort of empty shelves (which by definition would have been destroyed) remaining so as to excite regret and indignation.

So many questions. Are these allegorical shelves? Who are these people in whom regret and indignation is excited? Gibbon doesn’t really give us a source, and since most of the ancient authors already saw the Serapeum as merely a monument to something long gone, it seems the regret and indignation may chiefly be found in Gibbon himself.

He does, however, give a note that says this:

Though a bigot and a controversial writer, Orosius seems to blush.[19. ibid.]

The allusion is to Orosius’ remarks on this incident, but what is far more interesting is that immediately preceding them Orosius essentially regurgitates the already unanimously accepted theory that the great library suffered the death stroke during the time of Julius Caesar. Gibbon seems to be hinting that Orosius perceives an uncomfortable similarity and wishes to exculpate the Christians of book burning, but that really only has weight if the destruction of the library in Alexandria is assumed to have suffered its worst blow during the incident at the Serapeum, which is contrary to every other testimony.

From the quote that Gibbon gives in the note- “book chests, which we ourselves have seen, and that, as we are told, these were emptied by our own men in our own day when these temples were plundered”– one might assume that Orosius is describing the death of the Library at Alexandria. (Gibbon seems to think this is what he is describing.) However, there is little reason to ascribe this to the quote for a number of reasons:

  1. Orosius isn’t even necessarily describing the Serapeum in this quote. He actually speaks of many temples (since temples often housed books) being emptied instead of the one Great Library at Alexandria. His purpose is to dispel the idea that the books from the Library from Julius’ time made their way to all these other temples; instead, he thinks it more reasonable to assume that these other temples had created their own collections.
  2. He doesn’t suppose there to have been another library that housed the Alexandrian Library’s books. Neither, from what we can tell from other writers, did anyone else.
  3. The plundering and emptying that took place did not necessarily involve the destruction of the books. As we have seen in at least one instance this emptying sometimes went into private libraries.
  4. Even if the plundering of these various temples involved the destruction of whatever books may have been housed in them, that the Serapeum specifically was a library at this time that was despoiled and bereft of its magnificent library is clearly not what Orosius is talking about.

Even though Gibbon is surely aware of the vast array of contradictory evidence, he seems to lay the destruction of the Library of Alexandria with the Christians, even though for hundreds of years prior to the event Christians and non-Christians alike had believed that it no longer existed.

Yet Gibbon’s account spurred the mythstory that still resides with us today.

 

Wrapping it Up

Given the evidence available, it is almost certain that Library of Alexandria was not destroyed in 391 AD. Any visage of it that remained at that time was understood as merely a shell of its former self by all concerned.

It is very likely that there was no one destruction of the Library. Certainly the fire in Julius Caesar’s time was devastating, enough that all the earliest historians who speak about this event locate a destruction of either books or the library itself then.

But that does not mean the Library or the Serapeum lay in ruins forever. Centuries come and go and no doubt new book collections were made, although it is highly unlikely they ever reached the scale of its glory days. In 272 AD Alexandria was ravaged yet again during the reign of Aurelian, which no doubt set back whatever gains had been made considerably.

The most likely scenario is that by the 4th century the intellectual center at Alexandria did not focus primarily on the Library but was concerned with the various philosophical schools. Over the years books come and go, decay and are recopied. The sheer amount of unrest in Alexandria probably led to a general and gradual reduction in the number of books present at the Library or the Serapeum.

Certainly by the time of the Serapeum’s destruction in 391 AD there was no major library to speak of. It’s contents had either been taken by various emptyings (such as that of Bishop George) or been moved or reappropriated to different locations. (Such as when Julian took them back for himself.) While Alexandria was still a major city, in the fourth century it did not have the luster of former days. The near silence by any contemporary author about the literary contents of the Serapeum is enough to conclude with confidence that the great library of the ancient world did not suffer in flames and destruction of that incident.

The “Dark Ages” did not immediately follow, not only because the dark Ages are another mythstory of their own, but also for a separate yet very important reason. At this point the Empire the fracturing between east and west, while temporarily patched up under Theodosius, was beginning to effect itself culturally. Alexandria was a quintessentially eastern city. While the western part of the Empire was not cut off from it, its concerns were quite different. (The encroachments of people groups along its wide swaths of borders a major concern on its own.)

Even if we granted that the Library at Alexandria was the bastion of ancient learning so much that its loss would have plunged the Empire into ignorance, in reality such an event would have had a more profound impact on the East than on the West. One of the reasons intellectual centers in the West were few and far between after the final breakup of the Empire is that most of the intellectual centers were located in the east and had always been so.

The de-centralization of the western empire into smaller centers of political power removed the intellectual centers from the cities and moved them into the churches. Given the tenuous and ever-changing political machinations in the West, much of the literary output was concerned with political acts, laws, decrees, land holdings and disbursements, etc, rather than the intellectual effort that had been formerly pursued.

In the East the smaller area and more centralized intellectual centers remained and flourished following the destruction of the Serapeum, flatly contradicting the mythstory of the supposed loss of center of learning.

The loss of the Serapeum is- for the historical tourist- perhaps regrettable, but it was hardly the plunging of the Empire into a thousand years of darkness.

 

Not even an accident did that.

 

* Note: This post was heavily inspired by David Bentley Hart’s excellent book Athiest Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. The chapter The Night of Reason is an excellent overview of the whole mythstory.

 

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  • The Christians burning the greatest library of antiquity was a little known anti-Christian barb until the movie Agora came out in 2009. The movie presents the female philosopher Hypatia as challenging the Ptolemaic geocentric concept with a heliocentric view, and attempting to save the accumulated wisdom of the past found in the Library of Alexandria from destruction by the Christians. Of course she fails and gets herself killed for her efforts. There you go, it must be true, I saw it in a movie.

    • Ah, Agora. I got about 1/3 of the way through that before I was so bored to tears that I had to turn it off. And here I thought that the historical howlers would have at least made it interesting…

      thanks for the comment!

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