The Burning of the Library of Alexandria, the Historical Reality Behind the Myths
by Steven Williams
The Royal Library of Alexandria, more commonly known as the Ancient Library of Alexandria, in Alexandria, Egypt, was probably the largest of the ancient libriaries. It is also the best and often only ancient library known by most contemporary people here at the beginning of the 21st century. Alexandria was founded in 331 BCE, after Alexander III of Macedon, best known today as Alexander the Great, took Egypt from the Persian Empire. The spot it was founded on was at that time only a small town called Rhacotis or Raqote. It was only something of a small resort and a fishing village and is said to have also hosted pirates. Alexander apparently intended Alexandria to replace Naucratis as the center of Greek power in Egypt, as well as act as a commercial and cultural link Greece and the culturally and agriculturally rich Nile Valley.
Alexander assigned the planning and building of the new city to Dinocrates of Rhodes (also known as Deinocrates). Dinocrates was a Greek architect and technical adviser Alexander. He historical reputation is based on the success of his city plan for Alexandria, his construction of the funeral munument for Hephaestion, one of Alexander's most favored generals who died in 324 BCE, and his collaboration in the reconstruction of the temple of Artemis at Ephesus after it was destroyed in 356 BCE in an act of arson and on the very same night that Alexander the Great was born. A story emerged later that Artemis had been too preoccupied with Alexander's birth to look after her burning temple.
Alexander died unexpectedly on either June 10 or 11, 323 BCE, in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II, in Babylon, one month short of his 33rd birthday after a brief illness. He had made no preparations for the succession and is said to have verbally willed his vast, recently conquered empire 'to the strongest' on his deathbed. Because there are attributed contemporary accounts that Alexander had lost the ability to speak near the time of his death, it is more certain that the story that Alexander gave his ring to his general Perdiccas (also known as Perdikkas), one of his personal bodyguard, thereby appointing him regent empire until the birth of his son. Political infighting among the generals prevented this and so initially after Alexander's death, his empire was nominally headed by Alexander's half-brother Philip Arrhidaeus as Philip III as regent for Alexander's infant son Alexander IV, born after Alexander's death.
Borrowing the Persian organizational pattern, Alexander's trusted Greek and Macedonian generals, including the seven Somatophylakes (trusted personal bodyguards), were appointed to Satraps (governorships) of provincial regions. Despite some early efforts to hold Alexander's empire together, soon each general began using his Satrapy as a power base from which to launch a bid for greater power and possible the kingship over the entire Alexandrian conquest. The resulting period of warfare lasted about forty years. It was during this period of almost constant warfare and political chaos that Philip III as well as Alexander IV and his mother Roxane were all murdered. The eventual outcome of the military contest of wills was that the Diodochi (successors) of Alexander carved Alexander's conquests into four major domains: The Antiqonid dynasty in Macedon and central Greece founded by Antigonus, the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt founded by Ptolemy Lagos and based at Alexandria, the Seleucid dynasty in Syria and Mesopotamia founded by Seleucus and based at Antioch, and the Attalid dynasty in Anatolia, present day Turkey, founded by Attalus and based at Pergamum.
In addition to the contest over Alexander's empire, there was also something of a tug of war over his body. Modern sensibilities find this a bit puzzling but in the ruling culture of Alexandrian Macedon, it was a royal prerogative to bury the previous king. It is most likely because of this that Ptolemy stole Alexander's body with the intent of using its possession to legitimize the establishment of his dynastic rule of Egypt. He clearly intended for Alexander's body to play in the new dynasty's propaganda.
Perdiccas, the recipient of Alexander's ring on his deathbed, had decided to send the mummified remains of Alexander the Great to Aigai, the old Macedonian capital, for burial. A magnificent gold funerary cart was designed and constructed to transport Alexander's body to Aigia. A very detailed description of it by Diodoros has survived. The body itself was placed in a gold man-shaped sarcophagus which was enclosed within an outer gold casket which was covered with a purple robe. Alexander's casket and his armor were placed in the funerary cart and the funerary procession began the long journey to Greece.
In 321 BCE Ptolemy, already known as Ptolemy I Soter (Ptolemy the Savior), attacked Alexander's funerary procession and took Alexander's mummified body, sarcophagus, casket, and armor back to Egypt and entombed it all in Memphis, Egypt's old capital and spiritual center. Perdiccas invaded Egypt the same year apparently driven both by his fear of Ptolemy's ambition as well as his desire to regain control of Alexander's body. Perdiccas efforts ended in a disastrous attempt to force an opposed crossing of the Nile river. The damage to his reputation was so great that he was murdered by two of his subordinates. Plolemy's successor, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, eventually transferred Alexander's body in its sarcophagus to Alexandria, probably about 275 or 274 BCE. Once there, the sarcophagus was placed in a publically accessible Mausoleum within the Ptolemaic royal quarter. A cult of Alexander-Ktistes (Founder of the City) developed around the area of the tomb and this area came to be known as the Sema or Soma, which in ancient Greek meant the body. Eventually the entire city disctrict arount the tomb became known as the Sema.
Alexander's body remained in Alexandria until at least Late Antiquity. It was a major tourist destination visited by the likes of Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Caligula. The last reliable records attesting to the existance of Alexander's tomb are from the time of the reign of the Roman emperor Caracalla (211 to 217 CE), born Lucius Septimius Bassianus in 188 CE and later called Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus. In the Early Christian period some awarensess of Alexander's burial in Alexandria seemed to endure. This fact is based on a depiction of Saint Sisois on icons in front of Alexander's corpse. This is understood to be a visual lesson where the saint is contemplating the tragedy of human mortality. Contributing to this loss of awareness of Alexander's final resting spot is the fact that, from about 100 to 350 CE, Alexandria was subjected to combination of earthquakes, tsunami and slow subsidence that had the city all but sliding into the sea by the middle of the fourth century. Finally, on August 21st, 365 CE, a massive tsunami surged into Alexandria killing an estimated 50,000 people and ushering in a period of seismic caused intense subsidence that radically modified the Egyptian coastline. By the very end of the fourth century or early in the fifth though, all knowledge of the location of Alexander's body and his tomb had been lost.
Alexandria endured and flourished as a trading center as well as the political capital of the Ptolemiac Dynasty. The Great Library of Alexandria, or more accurately the Royal Library of Alexandria, was initially founded by Ptolemy II Philadelphus as a compliment to the Museum established by his father, Ptolemy I Soter. Both institutions were located in the Bruchion or palace quarter of the city. The size of the library is essentially based only on speculation and reputation but the there is evidence to suggest that it was a large enough collection to justify its reputation as the greatest of the ancient libraries. Popular culture blames usually blames one of three people for the historical disappearance of the Royal Library of Alexandria by fire: the Roman Julius Caesar, the Christian Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria, and the Islamic Caliph Omar of Damascus. Alexandria suffered a devestating series of earthquakes and floods in the middle ages resulting in the entire palace quarter in the North East of ancient Alexandria ending up underwater in modern times. This makes the possiblity of archaeological work answering the question highly unlikely.
Since archaeological work will most likely be unable to determine when and how the Royal Library of Alexandria was destroyed, textual evidence is the only evidence available. To begin with there is the posible guild of Julius Caesar. Julius Caesar is said to have destroyed the library in 47/48 BCE. He occupied Alexandria after destroying the Egyptian fleet that had been supporting Pompey against him. Caesar resided in the royal with Cleopatra while in Alexandria. The fire was a deliberate defensive move by him after he came under attack by forces of the Pharaoh, Cleopatra's younger brother. Caesar, in his memoirs 'The Civil Wars' written in 44 BCE, described how he set the Alexandrine fleet, docks and surrounding buildings on fire in order to clear the position around him so the enemy had no cover. Though there is no clear evidence that Julius Caesar's actions lead to the destruction of the Royal Library of Alexandria, though there is adequate evidence to conclude that the library was no longer in existance by the late first century CE.
In contrast to Julius Caesar's own, contemporary account, the story that the Christian Patriarch Theophilus destroyed an Alexandrian library was an allegation first made in the late eighteenth century by Gibbon in his 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.' There is reason to believe that his distaste at early Christian rioting and extremism in combination with an inclination to clear the Arabs for responsibility in destroying the Royal Library prejudiced him to misinterprit his source materials. The earliest attribution of the destruction of the Royal Library to Caliph Omar was in 1663. Contemporary accounts of the Arab invasion and conquest of Egypt, including the detailed Coptic Christian chronicle of John of Nikiou, contain not even one hint that the Islamic conquerors destroyed any great library in Alexandria. In addition to this complete lack of contemporary textual evidence, the 1663 Western account of the supposed destruction of the Royal Library of Alexandria by Arab conquerors was exposed as either a hoax or propaganda as early as 1713 by the great French theologian and Orientalist Eusèbe Renaudot.