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Library of Alexandria (Original)

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Author Topic: Library of Alexandria (Original)  (Read 6298 times)
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« Reply #75 on: April 02, 2008, 01:11:59 pm »

Destruction of the Great Library

One of the reasons so little is known about the Library is that it was lost centuries after its creation. All that is left of many of the volumes are tantalizing titles that hint at all the history lost from the building's destruction. Few events in ancient history are as controversial as the destruction of the Library, as the historical record is both contradictory and incomplete. Not surprisingly, the Great Library became a symbol for knowledge itself, and its destruction was attributed to those who were portrayed as ignorant barbarians, often for purely political reasons.

Much of the debate rests on a different understanding of what constituted the actual Library. Large parts of the Library were likely decentralized, so it is appropriate also to speak of the "Alexandrian libraries." Both the Serapeum, a temple and daughter library, and the Museum itself existed until about AD 400. Only if one believes the Museum to be distinct from the Great Library, an event of destruction prior to that point becomes plausible.

One account of such an event of destruction concerns Julius Caesar. During his invasion of Alexandria in 48 BC–47 BC, Caesar set the enemy fleet in the harbor on fire. Some historians believe that this fire spread into the city and destroyed the entire library. While this interpretation is now a minority view, it is based on several ancient sources, all of which were written at least about 150 years after the destruction supposedly took place. Edward Parsons has analyzed the Caesar theory in his book The Alexandrian Library and summarizes the sources as follows:

A final summary is interesting: of the 16 writers, 10—Caesar himself, the author of The Alexandrian War, Cicero, Strabo, Livy (as far as we know), Lucan, Florus, Suetonius, Appian, and even Athenaeus—apparently knew nothing of the burning of the Museum, of the library, or of books during Caesar's visit to Egypt; and six tell of the incident as follows:

Seneca (AD 49), the first writer to mention it (and that nearly 100 years after the alleged event), definitely says that 40,000 books were burned.
Plutarch (c. 117) says that the fire destroyed the great Library.
Aulus Gellius (123–169) says that during the "sack" of Alexandria 700,000 volumes were all burned.
Dio Cassius (155–235) says that storehouses containing grain and books were burned, and that these books were of great number and excellence.
Ammianus Marcellinus (390) says that in the "sack" of the city 70,000 volumes were burned.
Orosius (c. 415), the last writer, singularly confirms Seneca as to number and the thing destroyed: 40,000 books.
Of all the sources, Plutarch is the only one to refer explicitly to the destruction of the Library. Plutarch was also the first writer to refer to Caesar by name. Ammianus Marcellinus' account seems to be directly based on Aulus Gellius because the wording is almost the same.

The majority of ancient historians, even those strongly politically opposed to Caesar, give no account of the alleged massive disaster. Cecile Orru argued in Antike Bibliotheken (2002, edited by Wolfgang Höpfner) that Caesar could not have destroyed the Library because it was located in the royal quarter of the city, where Caesar's troops were fortified after the fire (which would not have been possible if the fire had spread to that location).

Furthermore, the Library was a very large stone building and the scrolls were stored away in armaria (and some of them put in capsules), so it is hard to see how a fire in the harbor could have affected a significant part of its contents. Lastly, modern archaeological finds have confirmed an extensive ancient water supply network which covered the major parts of the city, including, of course, the royal quarter.

The destruction of the library is attributed by some historians to a period of civil war in the late 3rd century AD — but we know that the Museum, which was adjacent to the library, survived until the 4th century. There are also allegations dating to medieval times that claim that Caliph Omar, during an invasion in the 7th century, ordered the Library to be destroyed, but these claims are generally regarded as a Christian attack on Muslims, and include many indications of fabrication, such as the claim that the contents of the Library took six months to burn in Alexandria's public baths. The legend of Caliph Omar's destruction of the library provides the classical example of a dilemma: Omar is reported to have said that if the books of the library did not contain the teachings of the Qur'an, they were useless and should be destroyed; if the books did contain the teachings of the Qur'an, they were superfluous and should be destroyed.

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« Last Edit: April 02, 2008, 01:13:05 pm by Raven » Report Spam   Logged
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