If there is a story that forms the heart of New Atheist bad history, it’s the tale of the Great Library of Alexandria and its destruction by a Christian mob. It’s the central moral fable of the Draper-White Thesis, where wise and rational Greeks and Romans store up all the wisdom of the pre-Christian ancient world in a single library, treasuring science and reason and bringing western civilisation to the brink of a technological and industrial revolution. But then a screaming mob of irrational Christian zealots puts this treasure of science and learning to the torch, thus ushering in the Dark Ages and setting back technology by one thousand years. It’s certainly a great story, retold in Carl Sagan’s seminal Cosmos TV series (1980) and in Alejandro Amenabar’s film Agora (2009). The only problem is … it never happened.
“You Know You’re a New Atheist Bad Historian When …”
In January 2014 someone posted the meme above to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science page on Facebook. It’s a meme that often pops up on history sites or, in another form (with “book lover” rather than “history fan”), on library and bookshop sites. But when it was posted to the Dawkins group its members showed what “history fans” they were with comments slamming those wicked Christians for destroying the Great Library:
” I STILL hate the church for doing that! I mean, where else could you just hop off of the main road and go to “college”? That place was an intellectual’s heaven.”
“I get upset by the fact that the loss of all this knowledge and wisdom was at human hands, not of some accidental cause.”
“Ignorance destroys enlightenment just because of its own stupidity.”
“It reinforces my hatred for religious zealot’s, and distaste for religion in general – How much greater would our advancements be right now were it not for ridiculous acts and events such as this…”
That last example also included a theme found in many of the other comments – that this alleged Christian destruction set back the natural course of advancing knowledge and technological progress:
“Think of how entirely different the human world ever since would have been. Entire fields of human endeavor following other paths – medicine, agriculture, transportation, architecture, education itself! A virtual alternate universe.”
” If religious barbarians hadn’t destroyed the library of Alexandria, we’d probably have colonies on Mars and the Jovian moons by now.”
“probably the single greatest loss to general knowledge,science engineering etc in history, even hitlers book burning pales by comparison”
“Science was set back two hundred years at least.as an example remember the romans had compex central heating 2000 years ago not widely seen again till 20th century.”
Another comment posited an even greater impact that the loss of Roman “complex central heating” (i.e. a fire under your floor fed by a gang of slaves):
“I have long been of the opinion that if the Library of Alexandria and the other learning centers of the Classical World survived, the Roman Empire would have stayed unified and strong, the migrations of the fourth and fifth centuries would have been stemmed and controlled at the Rhine and Danube frontier in Europe, and that we quite possibly would have gotten into orbit at least 500 years earlier than we did. Of course, for this to have come about, the Roman Empire would have had to do a much better job at suppressing the religious hysterics that kept cropping up, and keeping the Imperial succession peaceful. The constant squabbles between would-be Emperors sapped the Empire’s strength, not to mention the damage the emerging christian church inflicted with it’s incessant guerrilla warfare campaigns against it’s rival superstitions. Had Rome managed that, the economic development necessary for the rest would have come in due time.”
And if that tangle of confused fantasy isn’t enough, no fervid bad history surrounding the Great Library would be complete without linking it to another New Atheist fable, the murder of Hypatia of Alexandria on account of her learning and rationality:
“We would have had a colony on Mars and cured all diseases if the mob didn’t burn down The library, and tore the flesh of the bones of Hypatia, the Great woman that was the head of the library at the time.”
So where are these people getting all this stuff that makes them so angry? Unfortunately, this is another case where the average New Atheist’s grasp of history has been informed not by a historian, but by a scientist and where the scientist has, yet again, got pretty much everything wrong. The main culprit here is, unfortunately, the late Carl Sagan.
I must admit that, like many of my generation, I have a soft spot for Sagan. He was an excellent public educator and something of a showman, who could bring the wonder of science to a broader audience in ways that many of his colleagues could not. His scientific work was not inconsiderable in scope and impact, but he was best known for his popular writing and work to bring science to the general public through mass media, including a novel – Contact (1985), later made into the 1997 Jodie Foster movie of the same name – and books on everything from the origins of language to scepticism, extraterrestrial intelligence and the urgent need for nuclear disarmament. But it was his 1980 TV series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage that made him a household name. It became the most widely watched public television series of the 1980s and virtually single-handedly established a new kind of public science education. Sagan took a wide-ranging theme of the history of the cosmos and how we humans have come to understand it, using science and reason. It was the way he used the history of science to explain scientific concepts that intrigued me as a teenager, though I was later to learn that Sagan was a much better scientist and presenter than he was a historian.
Sagan wrote the series and its accompanying best-selling book in 1978-79, in the shadow of the Cold War, the era of Apartheid and the wake of the Iranian Revolution and years of radical terrorism. The final episode of the series, “Who Speaks for Earth?”, was a reflection on the future of humanity and a plea for sanity in the face of increasing threats to our civilisation. And it’s in this context that Sagan tells a moral fable of the Great Library of Alexandria and its fall to the forces of irrationality and superstition:
The story that Sagan tells is a fine one and the morals he draws from it are admirable, but as a historical account it’s absolutely terrible. He makes a number of dubious claims, presents speculation as fact and makes several flat out factual errors – true history pedants can find a detailed analysis everything he gets wrong or overstates in this post to the Reddit /r/badhistory group. While he also makes the weird claim that Greco-Roman civilisation collapsed because of slavery, it’s the nineteenth century cliches about “the Dark Ages” that were finally relieved by the glorious “Renaissance” that form the basis of his depiction of western intellectual history. In a weird inversion of the actual chronology, somehow Sagan puts the murder of Hypatia of Alexandria before the “abject surrender to mysticism” which he says led to ” the mob [that] came to burn the [Great Library] down”. The influence of his account of the murder of Hypatia is a topic for another article, but it’s his heartfelt paean to the Great Library, his allusions to the advances it could have inspired if it had survived, followed by his condemnation of the forces of “stagnation … pessimism …. [and] mysticism” which caused this jewel to be burned down that continue to inspire anger in many people. Most of the expressions of outrage and hatred against the “religious barbarians” quoted above draw, directly or indirectly, on Sagan’s account.
Of course, Sagan did not invent the tale of a Christian mob burning down the Great Library; in fact, to be fair, he really only alludes to it indirectly. Like many of these positivist fables, the origin of this story seems to lie in the polemics of the eighteenth century: in this case, the main perpetrator is our old friend Edward Gibbon:
“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. The compositions of ancient genius, so many of which have irretrievably perished, might surely have been excepted from the wreck of idolatry, for the amusement and instruction of succeeding ages.” (Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. V, Ch. 28)
Writing between 1776 and 1778, Gibbon was working well before any later ideas about historians being judicious and objective. Like Voltaire and the French philosophes who influenced him, Gibbon had several ideological axes to grind and one of them was anti-Christian. His book shows a strong reaction to the Catholicism he had briefly flirted with as a student and while his anti-Christian polemic won him enemies and angry condemnation from English churchmen on its publication, the fact that most of his wry criticism was seen as aimed at the “Church of Rome” meant that it was largely acceptable to much of his audience. His Decline and Fall became a best-seller and, for all its many historiographical faults, is still rightly regarded as an English literary masterpiece. Since it was the most read book on the subject of the fall of Rome for several centuries, it unfortunately also remains highly influential on popular conceptions of that subject. Sagan was drawing on Gibbon’s tradition in his hymn to the Great Library, which means the New Atheists are getting their ideas on the subject third or fourth hand and from sources that are dubious, patently biased and totally outdated.
What the Great Library Was.
Most modern accounts say that the Great Library of Alexandria was founded at the beginning of the third century BC when Demetrios of Phaleron, a former student of Theophrastos who in turn was the student and successor of Aristotle, went into exile in the fledgling city of Alexandria and proposed a plan for the Library to Ptolemy I Soter. This is a neat story that makes a direct link between the Peripatetic school of Aristotle and the founding of the Library and establishes it as being modelled on Aristotle’s Lyceum in Athens. Unfortunately the story is a little too neat and is actually cobbled together from some fragments of information that could just as easily be read in other ways. There certainly is an account from a century later which attributes the founding of the Library to Demetrios in Ptolemy I’s reign, but there are good reasons to be suspicious of its accuracy. Other sources mention Demetrios in relation to the foundation of the Library, but do so in reference to Ptolemy’s successor, Ptolemy II Philadelphos, and make Demetrios just one of at least four scholars who the second Ptolemy collected books “through” – the others being Alexandros of Aetolia, Lykophron of Chalkis and Zenodotos of Ephesos. Even this is uncertain, however, given that Demetrios actually backed one of Philadelphos’ rivals as successor to the older king and so died in internal exile soon afterwards. This means the later story of him as one of those who helped establish the Library is also dubious.
So we don’t know exactly who founded the Library and we aren’t clear on precisely when. What is clear is that it was quite early in the history of what was to become the great city of Alexandria and that its establishment made the city a centre of learning for centuries to come. What should also be made clear, however, is that it was not actually a “library” that was established at all. The “Great Library” that we refer to was a collection of books associated with a religious shrine – the Musaeum or Mouseion. This institution was, as the name implies, dedicated to the Nine Muses: Clio (history), Urania (astronomy), Calliope (epic poetry and song), Euterpe (lyric song), Polyhymnia (sacred song), Erato (erotic song), Melpomene (tragedy), Thalia (comedy) and Terpsichore (dance). The temple to the Muses had a dedicated priest appointed by the Ptolemaic kings and was the centre of a complex that included an exhedra, or hall, with recesses and seats for lectures and private study. According to the only and rather brief surviving description, given by Strabo in the early first century AD, it also included a communal dining hall with kitchens, a dormitory and other residential apartments, extensive gardens decorated with statues and a shaded walk. What we call the “Great Library” was a collection of books gathered to service the scholars who were housed and worked in the Mouseion and it was stored partially in the complex itself and, later, on other sites including at least three “daughter libraries”. The popular image of the Great Library as an echoing hall lined with shelves of scrolls with desks and tables for scholars is almost certainly inaccurate. That kind of library, which is still the model for many traditionally-styled libraries today, was developed much later by the Romans and the Mouseion would instead have had “a colonnade with a line-up of rooms behind …. the rooms would serve for shelving the holdings and the colonnade provide space for the readers.” (Lionel Casson, Libraries of the Ancient World, Yale University Press, 2001, p. 34)
The Mouseion at Alexandria was far from the only shrine to the Muses in the ancient world, nor was it the only one with an associated centre of study. Pythogoras had recommended the establishment of a shrine to the Muses for the promotion of learning on his first arrival on Croton, for example and the Seleucid kings built one at Antioch in the late second century BC, with an attendant centre for study and a library. The fact that the Great Library was actually associated with a religious shrine is something that is ignored or glossed over in many modern accounts. Sagan, in the video sequence above, mentions about how one of the “daughter libraries” was the Serapeum, which was the temple of Serapis, but he skips around this in a rather gingerly manner. He says the Serapeum was “once a temple, but was later reconsecrated to knowledge”. This is nonsense. The Serapeum was always a temple and was not “reconsecrated” to anything. Libraries were often established as adjuncts to temples but it seems Sagan was attempting to distance the “annex” of the Great Library from the temple in which it sat because this did not quite fit his theme of secular knowledge’s superiority to “mysticism”. Like the Serapeum, the Mouseion was a temple with a research institution and a book collection associated with it.
This aside, the Mouseion really was primarily a research institution and its associated book collection – which we will continue to refer to by the shorthand expression the “Great Library” – was clearly one of it not the most extensive in the ancient world (more on that below). Many famous ancient scholars worked in the Mouseion, including Eratosthenes and probably Ptolemy. But several who are often claimed as working there (or even as being “librarians” of the Great Library, no less) clearly did not. Sagan’s hymn of praise says that Hipparchus studied there, but he seems to have only used some of the books from the collection and there is no evidence he ever even visited from his home on Rhodes. Likewise Sagan says Archimedes worked there, but there is no clear evidence for this and what little we know of Archimedes’ life indicates he spent it in Syracuse. Of the others Sagan mentions, Euclid and Herophilos may have studied there, depending on when the Mouseion was established and Dionysius of Thrace is another maybe, though more likely. On the whole, Sagan’s roll call of great scholars is mainly hyperbole and speculation rather than historical fact. The other figure who is regularly invoked as being associated with the Great Library, and even presented as its “last librarian”, is (again) Hypatia. This is despite the fact that both the Great Library and its daughter library in the Serapeum had ceased to exist by her time.
So we can say that the Great Library was an extensive collection of books associated with the famous institute of learning and research that was the shrine of the Muses in Alexandria. That much is clear. But many of the other things often claimed about it are much less clear and some of them are pure fantasy, so it’s time to turn to the list of things that the “Great Library” was not.
What the Great Library Was Not.
“It was the largest library in the ancient world, containing over 700,000 books.”
It is entirely possible that it was the largest library in the ancient world, though we have no way of confirming this given that we have little reliable information about the size of its collection. Despite this, popular sources regularly repeat the huge figures given for the number of books in the library in several ancient sources, and usually opt for the ones that are the highest. Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt’s popular history The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began (Vintage, 2012) won critical acclaim and even garnered him a Pulitzer Prize, despite being panned by actual historians for its many howlers and weirdly old-fashioned historiography (see my detailed critical review here, with links to other scathing critiques by historians). Greenblatt’s account sticks closely to the nineteenth century narrative of “the dark ages” beloved by New Atheists, so it’s hardly surprising that the myths about the Great Library feature prominently in his account. Thus he informs his readers with great assurance that:
“At its height the Museum contained at least half a million papyrus rolls systematically organised, labelled and shelved according to a clever new system …. alphabetical order.” (Greenblatt, p. 88)
The figure of “half a million scrolls” (or even “half a million books”) is the one that is usually bandied about, but even that colossal number is not quite enough for some polemicists. Attorney and columnist Jonathan Kirsch plumped for a much higher number in his book God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism (Viking, 2004)
“In 390 AD …. a mob of Christian zealots attacked the ancient library of Alexandria, a place where the works of the greatest rarity and antiquity had been collected …. some 700,000 volumes and scrolls in all.” (Kirsch, p. 278)
Obviously the larger the collection in the Great Library the more terrible the tragedy of its loss, so those seeking to apportion blame for the supposed destruction of the Library usually go for these much higher numbers (it may be no surprise to learn that it’s the monotheists who are the “bad guys” in Kirsch’s cartoonish book). But did the Great Library really contain this huge number of books given that these numbers would represent a large library collection even today?
As with most things on this subject, it seems the answer is no. The first problem relevant here is that the sources vary widely in the figures they give for the number of scrolls in the Library. James Hannam in his summary of the evidence (see “The Foundation and Loss of the Royal and Serapeum Libraries of Alexandria”, 2003) provides a useful summary table:
|Author||Number of scrolls||Date of citation||Reference to source|
|Aristeas||200,000 rising to 500,000||100BC||Letter of Aristeas|
|Seneca the Younger||40,000||AD50||Tranquillity of the Mind 5|
|Orosius||400,000||AD400||History against the Pagans 6|
|Aulus Gellius||700,000||AD150||Attic Nights 7:17|
|Ammianus Marcellinus||700,000||AD390||Roman History 22:16:15|
|Epiphanius||54,800||AD380||Weights and Measures 9|
|Isidore of Seville||70,000||AD600||Etymologies 6:3:3|
|John Tzetezes||490,000||AD1100||Prolegomena to Aristophanes|
Some of these figures are interdependent, so for example Ammianus is probably depending, directly or indirectly, on Aulus Gellius for his “700,000” figure, which in turn is where Kirsch gets the same number in the quote above. Others look suspiciously precise, such as Epiphanius’ “54,800”. In summary of a lot of discussion by critical scholars, the best thing to say is that none of these figures is reliable. In her survey of the historiography of the issue, Diana Delia notes “lacking modern inventory systems, ancient librarians, even if they cared to, scarcely had the time or means to count their collections” (see Delia, “From Romance to Rhetoric: The Alexandrian Library in Classical and Islamic Traditions”, The American Historical Review, Vol. 97, No. 5, Dec. 1992, pp. 1449-67, p. 1459). Or as another historian once put it wryly “There are no statistics in ancient sources, just rhetorical flourishes made with numbers.”
One way that historians can make estimates of the size of ancient libraries is by examining the floor plans of their ruins and calculating the space their book niches would have taken up around the walls and then the number of scrolls each niche could hold. This works for some other ancient libraries for which we have surveyable remains, but unfortunately that is not the case for the Mouseion, given that archaeologists still have to guess where exactly it stood. So Columbia University’s Roger S. Bagnall has taken another tack. In a 2002 paper that debunks several of the myths about the Great Library (see Bagnall, “Alexandria: Library of Dreams”, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 146, No. 4, Dec. 2002, pp. 348-362), he begins with how many authors we know were writing in the early Hellenistic period. He notes that we know of around 450 authors for whom we have, at the very least, some lines of writing whose work existed in the fourth century BC and another 175 from the third century BC. He points out that most of these writers probably only wrote works that filled a couple of scrolls at most, though a small number of them – like the playwrights – would have had a total corpus that filled many more than that, even up to 100 scrolls. So by adopting the almost certainly far too high figure of an average of 50 scrolls to contain the work of each writer, Bagnall arrives as a mere 31,250 scrolls to contain all the works of all the writers we know about to the end of the third century. He notes:
“We must then assume, to save the ancient figures for the contents of the Library, either that more than 90 percent of classical authors are not even quoted or cited in what survives, or that the Ptolemies acquired a dozen copies of everything, or some combination of these unlikely hypotheses. If we were (more plausibly) to use a lower average output per author, the hypotheses needed to save the numbers would become proportionally more outlandish.” (Bagnall, p. 353)
Bagnall makes other calculations taking into account guesses at what number of completely lost authors there may have been and still does not manage to get close to most of the figures given in our sources. His analysis makes it fairly clear that these numbers, presented so uncritically by popular authors for rhetorical effect, are probable fantasies. As mentioned above, when we can survey the archaeology of an ancient library’s ruins, some estimate can be made of its holdings. The library in the Forum of Trajan in Rome occupied a large space 27 by 20 metres and Lionel Casson estimates it could have held “in the neighbourhood of 20,000 scrolls” (Casson, p. 88). A similar survey of the remains of the Great Library of Pergamon comes to an estimate of 30,000 scrolls there. Given that this library was considered a genuine rival to the Great Library of Alexandria, it is most likely that the latter held around 40-50,000 scrolls at its height, containing a smaller number of works overall given that ancient works usually took up more than one scroll. This still seems to have made it the largest library collection in the ancient world and thus the source of its renown and later myths, but it’s a far cry from the “500,000” or “700,000” claimed by uncritical popular sources and people with axes to grind.
“It was unique and contained all the wisdom of the ancient world.”
One of the odder elements of the New Atheist myths about the Great Library is the strange idea that its (supposed) destruction somehow singlehandedly wiped out the (alleged) advanced scientific knowledge of the ancient world in one terrible cataclysm. It doesn’t take much thought, however, to realise this makes absolutely no sense. The idea that there was just one library in the whole of the ancient world is clearly absurd and, as the mentions of other rival libraries above have already made clear, there were of course hundreds of libraries, great and small across the ancient world. Libraries and the communities of scholars and scribes that serviced them were established by rulers and civic worthies as the kind of prestige project that was seen as part of their role in ancient society and marked their city or territory as cultured and civilised.
The Ptolemies were not the only successors to Alexander who built a Mouseion with a library – their Seleucid rivals in Syria built one in Antioch in the reigns of Antiochus IX Eusebes (114-95 BC) or Antiochus X Philopater (95-92 BC) did so as well. Roman aristocrats and rulers also included the establishment of substantial libraries as part of their civic service. Julius Caesar had intended to establish a library next to the Forum in Rome but this was ultimately achieved by Gaius Asinius Pollio (75 BC – 4 AD), a soldier, politician and scholar who retired to a life of study after the tumults of the Civil Wars. Augustus established the Palatine Library in the Temple of Apollo and founded another one in the Portus Octaviae, next to the Theatre of Marcellus at the southern end of the Field of Mars. Vespasian established one in the Temple of Peace in 70 AD, but probably the largest of the Roman libraries was that of Trajan in his new forum beside the famous column that celebrates his Dacian wars. As mentioned above, this large building probably contained around 20,000 scrolls and had two main chambers – one for Greek and the other for Latin authors. Trajan’s library also seems to have established a design and layout that would be the model for libraries for centuries: a hall with desks and tables for readers with books in niches or shelves around the walls and on a mezzanine level. Libraries also came to be established in Roman bath complexes, with a very large one at the Baths of Caracalla and another at the Baths of Diocletian.
Several of these libraries were substantial. The Library of Celsus at Ephesus was built in c. 117 AD by the son of Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus in honour of his father, who had been a senator and consul in Rome, and its reconstructed facade is one of the major archaeological features of the site today. It was said to be the third largest library in the ancient world, surpassed only by the great libraries of Pergamon and Alexandria. The Great Library of Pergamon was established by the Attalid rulers of that city state and it was the true rival of the library of the Alexandrian Mouseion. It is said that the Ptolemies were so threatened by its size and the reputation of its scholars that they banned the export of papyrus to Pergamon, causing the Attalids to commission the invention of parchment as a substitute, though this is most likely a legend. What is absolutely clear, however, is that the idea that the Great Library of Alexandria was unique, whether in nature or even in size, is nonsense.
The weird idea that the loss of the Great Library was some kind of singular disaster is at least partially due to the fact that none of the various other great libraries of the ancient world are known to casual readers, so it may be easy for them to assume it was somehow unique. It also seems to stem, again, from the emphasis in popular sources on the mythical immense size of its collection which, as discussed above, is based on a naive acceptance of varied and wildly exaggerated sources. Finally, it seems to stem in no small part from (yet again) Sagan’s influential but fanciful picture of the institution as a distinctively secular hub of scientific research and, by implication, technological innovation.
“It was a centre for the study of science and its loss set back technology by a thousand years.”
Sagan’s roll call of Greek scientists who he claims worked at the Great Library makes it sound like some kind of ancient Mediterranean MIT: Eratosthenes, Hipparchus, Euclid, Dionysius of Thrace, Herophilos, Archimedes, Ptolemy and so on. Unfortunately, only one of these people – Eratosthenes – can definitely be said to be associated with the Great Library. Two others from Sagan’s list – Dionysius and Ptolemy – may have been. And once you take out all the others, that really leaves only Eratosthenes and (maybe) Conon of Samos and, much later, Ptolemy as scholars of the Great Library who did anything like what we would call science. We can perhaps shoehorn in Euclid and the physicians and anatomists Herophilos and Erasistratos, depending on when the Mouseion was established, but overall the evidence for the institution as some great centre of scientific research is actually rather thin.
Which means it is perhaps less surprising to learn, on examining the sources, that the Great Library was actually celebrated mainly for a specialisation which is about as far from modern science as possible: the study of poetry. This makes some sense, given that the Mouseion was dedicated to the Muses, four of whom represented forms of verse. The works of Homer, in particular, were a primary focus of study across the Greek world and his poems permeated thought, writing and everyday speech rather like the works of Shakespeare and the texts of the Bible do today. It was the scholars of the Mouseion who, on gathering and comparing copies of the Illiad and Odyssey from across the Greek-speaking world, noticed textual differences large and small and established the kind of textual analysis still used by editors to this day; working to determine the best possible text from the manuscript variants. Other works of Greek poetry, such as the odes of Pindar, were also analysed and studied in a similar way, as were the works of the great Athenian playwrights.
The importance of literary studies at the Mouseion can be seen by analysing the specialisations of the men we know were directors of the institution and therefore “librarians” of the Great Library. Again, James Hannam has provided a useful table (though I have made a couple of additions):
|Librarian||Approximate period of office (all dates BC)||Intellectual field (among others)|
|PM Fraser||EA Parsons|
|Demetrios (possibly)||na||to 282||Philosophy|
|Zenodotos||285 – 270||282 – 260||Homeric textual criticism|
|Callimachus||na||260 – 240||Bibliography and poetry|
|Apollonius of Rhodes||270 – 245||240 – 230||Epic poetry|
|Eratosthenes||245 – 204/1||230 -195||Geography|
|Aristophanes of Byzantium||204/1 – 189/6||195 – 180||Textual criticism|
|Apollonius Eidographos||189/6 – 175||180 – 160||Textual criticism and grammar|
|Aristarchus of Samothrace||175 – 145||160 -131||Grammar|
Again, of these scholars, only Eratosthenes is known for doing anything that we would consider “science”, the others were devoted to literary and textual analysis, poetry and grammar. Of course, these scholars were polymaths and most of them would probably have ranged over many topics including areas of mathematics and natural philosophy; Eratosthenes himself was nicknamed “Beta” because he covered so many disciplines he was something of a jack of all trades and master of none, so his colleagues mocked him as “Number 2” in all subjects. That aside, the idea that the Mouseion was a major centre of scientific speculation is at best an exaggeration and largely yet another fantasy.
And it is even more of a fantasy that it was a centre of technological innovation. Many of the lamentations from the Dawkins group on Facebook quoted above rhapsodise about the great technical discoveries which could have been made had the Great Library somehow evaded its (alleged) fiery demise at the hands of Christians. This is a consistent theme in New Atheist discussions that mention the Great Library and/or the supposed impact of Christianity on “progress”, with the idea being that the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions were due on some kind of inevitable deterministic historical timetable but were wantonly derailed “for a thousand years” by the destruction of the Great Library, which is supposedly why we don’t live on the moons of Jupiter.
The problem with all this is not just that the scholars of the Mouseion were rather more interested in the textual variants of Pindar’s paianes than studying physics, but also a common modern misunderstanding about the nature of Greek “science”. Many modern people, including modern scientists, hear about the Greeks discussing motion or “atoms” or doing geometry to measure the circumference of the Earth or the distance to the Sun and assume that they were doing “science” in the modern sense of the word. Historians also sometimes refer to Greek natural philosophy as “science” and popularisations of the history of science draw simplistic direct lines between things like Greek discussions of “atoms” and modern atomic theory. But this obscures the fact that Greek proto-science was, while a distant lineal ancestor of the modern sciences, very unlike them in many important respects. At best, it was a highly rational attempt at understanding fundamental precepts of the physical and natural world. But it used induction and common sense more than measurement and experiment. There were exceptions (mainly in geometry and its related field, astronomy), but the Greeks were usually not interested in empirical measurement and so were usually even less interested in genuine experiments. Most Greek proto-science was a highly abstract and philosophical affair, based on some observations, but without modern ideas of carefully designed and repeatable experiments with calibrated measurement and attendant mathematics. Most of their “science” was done by sitting around, thinking and talking about concepts, not by actually dropping weights from towers – though they did do thought experiments which sometimes led to correct conclusions and sometimes did not. Their “science” was not our science.
This means that a Greek conversation about “atoms” was largely an abstract and metaphysical exercise about the philosophical nature of a thing and how many times it could be divided conceptually and what this may mean; the word comes from the Greek ἄτομος meaning “unhewn, uncut, indivisible”. No Greek philosopher walked away from such a conversation and decided to try to build some equipment to explore the physical nature of atomic structure and would probably have considered such an idea absurd. Nor would they have taken the step of considering that different forms of matter, liquid or gas were made up of different combinations of atoms and so decide to experiment with these substances to understand this better, since this was completely contrary to their (erroneous) conception of the “Four Elements” of Earth, Air, Water and Fire. The nature of Greek thought did allow them to draw useful and often correct conclusions about the physical universe, but it also set up barriers to the true scientific method that they simply did not and could not cross.
This was one of the reasons there was no direct link between their proto-scientific “science” and technology. Natural philosophy was, as the term would suggest, the preserve of philosophers. In a world where most of the population had to be devoted to agricultural production and most of the rest often barely got by, sitting around and talking about abstractions like “atoms” was a rich man’s luxury. Most philosophers either came from the upper class (though maybe its lower echelons in many cases) or had rich patrons or both, which meant most philosophers had little interest in making or inventing things: that was generally the preserve of lowly mechanics and slaves. Again, there were exceptions to this – Archimedes seems to have had some interest in the engineering applications of his ideas, even if most of the inventions attributed to him are probably legends. On the whole, however, lofty Greek philosophers didn’t think to soil their hands with something as lowly as inventing and making things.
So the largely unempirical and abstract nature of Greek natural philosophy and the fact that it was generally socially divorced from the practical arts of engineering and architecture meant that most Greek and Roman scientists did little to advance technology, and the idea that the Great Library would have been filled with men excitedly sketching flying machines or submarines is, once again, a fantasy. When all this is pointed out some New Atheists try to invoke counter-evidence. They often claim, for example, that Hero of Alexandria worked at the Great Library and that he invented the steam engine. Even a scientist who has not studied history past high school (i.e. most of them) will have dim memories of the history of the Industrial Revolution and would therefore know it had something to do with the invention of steam engines, so surely Hero brought the ancient world to the brink of industrial transformation. Well, actually, no.
Hero does seem to have been another exception to the rule when it comes to philosophers tinkering with gadgets and it’s possible (though far from certain) that he worked in the Mouseion. But the practical applications of his study of pneumatics and dynamics were more toys and curiosities than any great leaps forward in technology. He famously made an aeolipile, though he didn’t actually invent it, given that it had already been described by the Roman engineer and architect Vitruvius, but this can only be called a “steam engine” in the loosest sense of the term. Hero’s little device was not capable of doing anything more than spinning in place and Roman technology lacked the high tensile metallurgy, the mathematics or the precision tooling that would be required to make a true steam engine. The other technological wonder that is often invoked here is the Antikythera mechanism. Exactly how this intricate mechanical orrery based on a geocentric model is supposed to indicate some nascent Industrial or Scientific Revolution is never made clear, but not only did it have no connection to the Great Library, it was a kind of instrument known since the third century BC. If it is evidence that the Greco-Roman world was on the brink of a technological revolution and was only stymied by the rise of Christianity, one has to wonder what kept them from achieving this wondrous thing for the 600 years between its invention and the conversion of Constantine.
The New Atheist mythic conception of the “Great Library of Alexandria” bears very little resemblance to any historical actuality. It was a shrine with scholars attached to it, not a secular university. Its scholars were far more concerned with poetry, textual analysis, grammar, lexicography and rhetoric than anything we would see as “science”. The proto-science they did do was mainly of a highly abstract and often metaphysical nature rather than anything like modern science. And it was also generally divorced from technical innovation and what little practical application it was given did not much at all to advance technology. The idea that if the Great Library had not been burned down by wicked Christians we’d all be living in gleaming space cities on Europa or Callisto is, therefore, a silly fantasy. And not least because the Great Library … wasn’t burned down by wicked Christians.
Who Killed the Great Library of Alexandria?
The dramatic force of the New Atheist moral fable of the Great Library of Alexandria not only comes from the Library’s supposed size and unique nature, but also from its supposed cataclysmic and fiery end. The moral of this story has added impact if the Great Library ends in a violent catastrophe, so this is the story that tends to get told by those who use the tale as a stick with which to beat Christianity. The fact is, however, that libraries are delicate institutions and most decline slowly rather than ending in a sudden disaster, or – as in the Great Library’s case – decline slowly while suffering a series of disasters. Anyone who works in library services will tell you and the main enemy of a library’s continuation is a lack of funding. Ancient libraries in particular needed constant financial patronage from their founders and sponsors to survive. Papyrus scrolls decayed and fell apart from use, suffered damage from mice and other vermin and, in a period where artificial light tended to be from open oil lamps, were in constant danger from fires, great and small. The Mouseion , like all ancient libraries, needed a large staff to undertake the constant and unending task of repairing, replacing and recopying books and these staffs, even when made up of slaves, were expensive to maintain.
During the Mouseion’s heyday in the third and second centuries BC the funding for this labour and the upkeep of the institution generally would have been regular and reliable. The Mouseion was, after all, one of the jewels in the crown of the Ptolemaic kingdom and it sat in the Broucheion or Royal Quarter where the Ptolemies themselves lived. By the first century BC, however, there is some indication that the prestige of the institution had begun to decline. In its first two centuries the Mouseion’s directors were famous scholars, renowned for their intellects throughout the Greek-speaking world. By the time of the later Ptolemies, however, we find administrators, court favourites and even a former commander of the palace guard taking up the role, which seems to have become, as Lionel Casson puts it, “a political plum” to be awarded to flunkies rather than scholars. This continued under the Romans in the first century AD, with Tiberius Claudius Balbilus being awarded the post by Claudius, though he at least was something of a scholar if not a leading intellect. It is likely that the later Ptolemies began to neglect the institution and Roman imperial patronage of it was probably even less reliable.
But war has always been one of the main destroyers of libraries down the ages and the Great Library’s slow decline was marked by several sacks of the Broucheion which eventually led to the end of the Mouseion. The first and probably the most significant came in 47 BC when Julius Caesar took the side of Cleopatra in her claim on the Ptolemy’s throne and besieged her younger brother, the boy king Ptolemy XIII, in Alexandria. Caesar’s own account mentions that he burned a fleet in the docks of the city, but makes no mention of this fire destroying anything else (Civil Wars, III.11). His account was continued by his lieutenant Aulus Hirtius in his Alexandrine War and he too makes no mention of any fire damaging the city, but he does go out of his way to say “Alexandria is well-nigh fire-proof, because its buildings contain no wooden joinery and are held together by an arched construction and are roofed with rough-cast or tiling” (Alexandrine War, I.1) which could be read as an attempt at a defence against accusations of damage through fire, given his role in the siege. The earliest account of Caesar’s siege damaging Alexandria comes from a lost work by Livy via an epitome by Florus (Florus, II.13) which describes Caesar burning the area around the docks to deprive enemy archers of a position on which to fire on his troops, and this is echoed by Lucan (The Civil War, X.24). It is Plutarch who first depicts this fire destroying the Great Library in an almost casual mention that perhaps assumes this as common knowledge:
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, hewas forced to repel the danger by using fire, and this spread from the dockyards and destroyed the Great Library, and thirdly, when a battle arose at Pharos, he sprang from the mole into a small boat and tried to go to the aid of his men in their struggle, but the Egyptians sailed up against him from every side, so that he threw himself into the sea and with great difficulty escaped by swimming. (Plutarch, Caesar, 49)
Aulus Gellius’ mention of the Great Library says that the collection numbered “nearly seven hundred thousand volumes” and then adds “but these were all burned during the sack of the city in our first war with Alexandria”, referring to Caesar’s siege (Gellius, Attic Nights, VII.17). Dio Cassius gives a slightly longer account:
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. (Dio Cassius, Roman History, XLII.36)
There is some debate about how literally we can take the reports that the whole Great Library was destroyed, especially given that the docks area of Alexandria were some distance from the Mouseion’s likely location. The fact that so many writers agree that Caesar’s fire destroyed the Great Library simply can’t be ignored, however, and at the very least the fire seems to have destroyed a substantial portion of the book collection, probably stored in warehouses on the docks. It is clear that the losses were huge, as Plutarch also tells the story of Mark Antony confiscating the whole collection of the Great Library of Pergamon and giving them to Cleopatra to replace the books lost in the fire (Plutarch, Antony, 58). While this was not the end of the Mouseion and not the end of its whole collection, writers from around the end of the reign of Caesar’s dynasty onwards tend to refer to the Great Library in the past tense and any surviving collection was probably greatly reduced after 47 BC.
Scholarship continued in the Mouseion, however, and the Roman emperors seem to have continued its funding under their patronage when the Ptolemaic dynasty came to an end with the death of Cleopatra. Claudius built a new wing or annex to the Mouseion, which was to house his works of history and see the public reading of them twice a year. But it was the calamitous third century AD that saw a succession of military disasters in Alexandria and seems to have seen the final end of the Mouseion. In 215 AD Caracalla punished Alexandria for mockery of him with a wholesale massacre of its young men, after which his troops plundered parts of the city. It is not known if the Mouseion was sacked in this action, but John Malas records that its funding was stopped by Caracalla at this time (Delia, p. 1463). The real end probably came in 272 AD when Aurelian stormed the Broucheion with Ammianus noting “[Alexandria’s] walls were destroyed and she lost the greater part of the district called Bruchion.” (Ammianus, History, XII.15). If that sack didn’t mean the death blow for the institution, Diocletian probably finished the job when he too sacked the city in 295 AD, and it was later devastated by a major earthquake in 365 AD. The only mention of the Mouseion after this is found in a late source, the tenth century Byzantine encyclopaedia called the Suda, which describes the fourth century philosopher Theon as “the man from the Mouseion“, though it is hard to tell exactly what this means. Given that the Mouseion was most likely long gone by Theon’s time, it could be that some other successor “Mouseion” had been established and Theon studied there or it could be that “the man from the Mouseion” is stylised honorific or even a personal nickname – meaning “a scholar like one from the old days”.
The Mouseion and its library were almost certainly a memory by the late third century, destroyed in a series of calamities after a long period of decline. But what is missing from all this evidence is any howling, pyromaniacal Christian mob. If the Great Library ceased to exist in the century before Chrisitanity came to power in the Empire, how did Christians get stuck with the charge of destroying it? The answer lies not in the evidence about the Great Library, but in the history of its daughter library and annex in the Serapeum.
The End of the Serapeum and the Beginnings of the Myth
While the Great Library was never as large as some of the more fanciful accounts allege, it is clear that its holdings were large enough that at least some of them were stored outside of the Mouseion. As already noted, this is probably why Caesar’s burning of the dock area was seen as destroying the library collection and why there were at least two “daughter libraries” in the city – one in the Kaisarion or Temple of Caesar, another in the Serapion or Serapeum, the Temple of Serapis and possibly a third. Serapis was a Greek-Egyptian hybrid deity, combining Zeus and Osiris, and his cult and temple were extremely popular in Ptolemaic Alexandria. The Ptolemaic temple burned down sometime in the second century AD and was rebuilt in magnificent style and it is possible that its library was established then. Tertullian mentions that this library included copies of the Old Testament (Tertullian, Apology, 13) and Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis, notes that it was an annex of the Mouseion’s collection, saying “later another library was built in the Serapeum …. which was called the daughter of the first one” (Epiphanius, Weights and Measures, 11). In 391 AD the Serapeum was indeed torn down by Roman soldiers and a Christian mob and it is here, finally, that we find the seed of the myth. There is no “fire” involved and it is this daughter library that was supposedly destroyed not the Great Library itself, which had ceased to exist by this point, but the myth is cobbled together from this episode and some garbled reflections of the story of Caesar’s fire.
The problem, however, is that there is no evidence that the Serapeum still contained any library by 391 AD and some good evidence indicating that it did not.
When the mythic version of the story of the destruction of the Serapeum gets told it usually begins without explaining why the temple was attacked. These retellings focus on the supposed destruction of its library, so they tend to assume that the mob was there simply because they hated learning. But several accounts of the end of the temple note that it came as the climax of a series of attacks by pagans on Christians in reaction to the desecration of pagan idols. Sozomen’s account details what happened next:
They killed many of the Christians, wounded others, and seized the Serapion, a temple which was conspicuous for beauty and vastness and which was seated on an eminence. This they converted into a temporary citadel; and hither they conveyed many of the Christians, put them to the torture, and compelled them to offer sacrifice. Those who refused compliance were crucified, had both legs broken, or were put to death in some cruel manner. When the sedition had prevailed for some time, the rulers came and urged the people to remember the laws, to lay down their arms, and to give up the Serapion (Sozomen, History of the Church, VII.15)
Sozomen was writing in the following century and, as a Christian, may not be reliable on the lurid details, but Socrates Scholasticus, writing a little closer to the events, confirms that many Christians were killed in the unrest. A stand-off followed, with Roman troops surrounding the temple while negotiations went on with the pagan militants inside. This situation must have continued for many weeks, as a petition went to the emperor in Constantinople about the siege and Theodosius ruled that the pagans should be pardoned for their murders and allowed to leave but that the temple should be demolished. Angry at this compromise, as the soldiers began to carry out the order, the Christian mob joined in the destruction, and made sure the great idol of Serapis was also destroyed.
We have no less than five accounts of the destruction of the Serapeum – Rufinius Tyrannius, Socrates Scholasticus, Sozomen, Theodoret and Eunapius of Antioch – which is rare in ancient history and actually makes this one of the best documented events in the period. What is significant about them is that not one of them mentions a library. Some try to argue that the Christian chroniclers would be ashamed of the crime of destroying the last remnant of the Great Library and so hushed it up in their accounts. This argument is hard to sustain. Firstly, Christian historians of the time did record other shameful acts against pagans, including the assassination of Hypatia, so at least one or two of the four Christians who describe the end of the Serapeum could be expected to at least lament the loss of a library. Socrates Scholasticus, who condemned the death of Hypatia, was a Novatian “heretic” and thus no fan of the bishop Theophilus, who urged on the crowd at the temple’s demolition, yet he makes no mention of a library. Even more damning, Eunapius of Antioch was a pagan, a scholar and a vehement anti-Christian, so had every reason to condemn any destruction of a library, yet he too makes no mention of it. That great defender of New Atheist bad history, the inevitable Richard Carrier, has attempted to dismiss this silence by Eunapius by blithely claiming that “his account is too brief”. Carrier assures his online fan club “[a]ll he describes is the raid on its pagan statues, and some vague looting otherwise. His concern is clearly with the offense to the gods”. This is, as usual with Carrier, total nonsense. Eunapius’ account account in his Lives of the Philosophers runs to 548 words in English translation. Of these, a full 245 are not about pagan statues etc, but are devoted wholly to denigration of the ignorant Christian monks who destroyed the temple. He calls them “men in appearance (who) led the lives of swine”, says they “fettered the human race to the worship of slaves” and mocks them for their worship of martyrs’ relics and their general stupidity. Given that around 40% of his account is taken up with this scorning and mocking of these monks, it is still very strange that this scholar neglects to mention in his condemnation that these ignorant oafs also happened to destroy one of the best libraries in the world.
The lack of any mention of a library is most likely explained by concluding that it was no longer there by 391 AD. Temples had begun to be starved of funds with the conversion of the emperors of Christianity and the slower but gradual conversion of many rich patrons and city benefactors. The Serapeum survived most of the fourth century, but it is very likely that the expense of maintaining an extensive library would have been a strain. We know that it was ransacked on the orders of the Alexandrian bishop George the Cappodocian c. 360 AD and it is likely the library was looted in this action. Significantly, writing around 378 AD, Ammianus Marcellinus gave a detailed description of the Serapeum and mentions its libraries using the past tense:
In here have been valuable libraries and the unanimous testimony of ancient records declares that seven hundred thousand books, brought together by the unremitting energy of the Ptolemies, were burned in the Alexandrine War when the city was sacked under the dictator Caesar. (Ammianus, Roman History XXII.16-17)
Ammianus is muddling the Serapeum with the main Mouseion library with his reference to Caesar’s fire and the mythical “700,000” books, but the rest of his description is detailed and unique to his work in many respects. Other references in his work indicate that he had visited Egypt himself, probably around 363 AD (or three years after the sacking of the temple by Bishop George), so it is highly possible that his account is that of an eye-witness. This means his use of the past tense about the temple library is significant. Overall, the idea that there was still any library there when the temple was demolished is dubious at best and almost certainly wrong.
The Muddle of the Myth
The story of the destruction of the Great Library is a positivist fairy tale, cobbled together from disparate elements and bearing almost no relationship to accurate history. The library was not a secular establishment, it was not as large as is claimed, it was not a particular centre of science and it was not a wellspring of wondrous technology. Most importantly, it was not destroyed by a crazed Christian mob intent on the destruction of rationally-based knowledge.
The whole idea that the destruction of a single ancient library could have singlehandedly brought on “the Dark Ages” is incoherent, and that’s leaving aside the fact that the whole concept of “the Dark Ages” is gibberish to begin with. The idea that any ancient library could have survived into the modern era is also ridiculous, given that none of the many other libraries of the time did so. Roger S. Bagnall is characteristically scathing about this silly idea:
It is idle …. to indulge in Gibbon-like reflections as the following claim of Hugh Lloyd-Jones: ‘If this library had survived, the dark ages, despite the dominance of Christianity, might have been a good deal lighter; its loss is one of the greatest of many disasters that accompanied the ruin of the ancient world.’ This is to get things backward. It is not that the disappearance of a library led to a dark age, not that its survival would have improved those ages. Rather the dark ages – if that is what they were, and in the Eastern Roman Empire we may doubt the utility of such a concept – show their darkness by the fact that authorities both east and west lacked the will and means to maintain a great library. An unburned building full of decaying books would not have made a particle of difference. (Bagnall, “Alexandria: Library of Dreams”, p.359)
Like all New Atheist pseudo history, the myth of the burning of the Great Library is caricature of the facts, compressed into a moral fable. Its constant repetition and resistance to any correction is a testament to both the historical illiteracy of the average New Atheist and the ideological zeal with which they cling to convenient fictions.
Roger S. Bagnall, “Alexandria: Library of Dreams”, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 146, No. 4, Dec. 2002, pp. 348-362
Lionel Casson, Libraries of the Ancient World, Yale University Press, 2001
Diana Delia, “From Romance to Rhetoric: The Alexandrian Library in Classical and Islamic Traditions”, The American Historical Review, Vol. 97, No. 5, Dec. 1992, pp. 1449-67
James Hannam, “The Foundation and Loss of the Royal and Serapeum Libraries of Alexandria” (bede.org.uk)