Reincarnation of the ancient Library of Alexandria


The wanton destruction of and Great Library of Alexandria had probably the same effect on the study, transmission and preservation of Greek Literature and scientific writing as would the explosion of nuclear devices simultaneously over Sydney and Canberra, which at once wiped out the university libraries of Sydney, Macquarie and Australian National University as well as the Australian National Library and the New South Wales State Library. The civil war in Alexandria which occasioned the destruction of her famous library also marked the end of a process of political expansion in which Rome extended her control over the vestigial kingdoms of the Ptolemies and the Seleucids. 

This unification of the Greek world, sharing a common culture based on that of 5th and 4th C. Athens, meant that Alexandria would now be only one of several major centers of culture in a world empire. To return to our Australian analogy: the hypothetical destruction of the major academic libraries at Sydney and Canberra would certainly have a disastrous effect on the study of history, classics and oriental studies for which these libraries are famous. It need not spell the end of these academic disciplines in Australia, of course, so long as other cities in the Commonwealth had major centers of learning which escaped destruction. However, the combined strength of these ‘provincial’ libraries could not possibly match the range and depth of what would have been lost at Sydney and Canberra.

Similarly, there were other centers of learning and of bibliophilia in the Hellenistic world besides Alexandria. The city of Pergamum, from which the Pergamene codex drew its name, had been a major centre of book production throughout the Hellenistic period, and possessed a library of some 200,000 volumes – modest by the standard of Alexandria, but not destroyed by her Roman conquerors. The city of Athens remained the premier seat of higher learning, especially in philosophy and rhetoric, with libraries to match her academies and schools flocked the future famous Roman men of letters like Cicero and his friend and correspondent Atticus. The island of Rhodes boasted a famous finishing school for would-be politicians who needed a dash of Greek culture in their cursus honorum, for their political advancement in a world empire in which Latin speakers were a minority. An alumnus of Rhodes was Mark Antony, whose Greek education would have undoubtedly helped his subsequent amorous activities in the Greek-speaking East.

Alexandria continued to be a centre for the study of philosophy and of scientific learning after the civil war among the Ptolemies. It was at Alexandria that the Christian philosopher Clement came under the influence of Pantaenus, head of the Catechetical School of Alexandria. Philo, the famous Jewish author from Alexandria, was a product of the Greek rhetorical schools, judging from his great familiarity with Greek literature, especially the epic and dramatic poets. Once Antioch-on-the- Orontes regained her status as a metropolis in the Roman province of Syria, she, too, would resume her role as a major centre of Hellenic learning – a role which she had played with some distinction under the Seleucids after the loss of the Seleucid eastern capital Seleucia-on-the-Tigris to the Parthians in 165 BC. Nevertheless, the libraries in these centers were not built up by scholars and scientists like those who were active in building up the collection of 700,000 volumes of the Great Library and the 42,800 volumes of the smaller library at Alexandria.


For the educated classes of the predominantly Greek-speaking provinces of the Roman Empire who idolized the culture of Athens, higher education entailed the serious study by young men (aged between 17 to 20) of the Greek literature of the period, from Pericles to Demosthenes and Isocrates. For this they needed books. Under the Empire, urban rivalry had given rise to the city rhetor as the oratorical champion of the city and a training in rhetoric was also seen as essential preparation for the ‘fast-track’ in the Roman civil service. Many ambitious young men would sacrifice everything to pay for a university education at Athens or Antioch. We are extremely fortunate to possess a considerable body of several famous alumni of the rhetorical schools of Athens on the subject of higher education, especially of rhetorical training, in the imperial period. The first of these is the Lives of Sophists (vitae sophistarum) of Philostratus (c. 170-205), who studied in Athens but later settled in Rome. This became the literary model of a similarly titled work by Eunapius of Sardis in the fourth century. Above all, we have a large number of orations and private letters of Libanius of Antioch, which shed a great deal of light on higher education both at Athens and Constantinople, as well as on his native city of Antioch, where he held the Chair of Rhetoric from 374 to his death c. 393.

Once a student had been initiated into a school, he would come under the authority of the head, who would waste no time in reminding him that it was time he should forsake the playing fields and drinking places for serious study. In a university town like Athens, where most students came from the provinces and were safely distant from parental supervision, fighting between rival gangs of students, occasioned undoubtedly by bouts of drinking, were frequent. ‘It was’, says Eunapius,

as if the city after those ancient wars of hers was fostering within her walls the peril of discord, that not one of the sophists ventured to go down in to the city and discourse in public, but they confined their utterances to their private lecture theatres and there discoursed to their students.

—Adapted from Scholars and Students in the Roman East, Samuel N.C. Lieu

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