don’t burn the library, theophilus!

What I’m going to put here is the short(er) version. The long version is available at http://mjjhoskin.tripod.com/yearfive/id8.html. And a discussion better than mine is available at: http://www.bede.org.uk/library.htm.

Back in August I was up until 3 AM one night researching the fate of the Library at Alexandria and writing that which can be found at the other page. This was triggered by Rex Libris, who–in short–is a librarian superhero and the hero of some pretty cool comic books. The Rex Libris website (http://www.jtillustration.com/rex/library.php) says, “During the Dark Ages, during which many libraries were burned by Christian fanatics, hundreds in the order fled to Persia.”

This statement sparked the investigation and is patently untrue regarding Christian library-burning. Furthermore, “Dark Ages” is a loaded term that some use to include the entire Middle Ages and portions of Late Antiquity.

My only other objection to Rex Libris is that in the first issue, we learn that Rex was a librarian at the Great Library of Alexandria. He had a fling with Hypatia, the last Head Librarian of that magnificent institution. We also learn that Christian fanatics burned the Great Library and killed Hypatia. These are the sum total of my problems with Rex Libris; the comic is otherwise worth reading (you should).

But what really did happen to the Library of Alexandria?

Standard approaches list three burnings (and who am I to argue with standards?): one by the pagan Julius Caesar, another by the Christian Bishop Theophilus, and the last by the Muslim Caliph Omar in 642 AD. There is also a fourth. We’ll get to it later.

Caesar

To make some Late Republican history short, Caesar shows up in Alexandria in 48 BC hunting down Pompey. After being handed Pompey’s head, Caesar cries. Then he gets down to business. Alexandria was home to a venerable university—second only to Athens (see Argyle)—that had been founded c. 300 BC. Its library was so vast that it had expanded from this mother library out into a daughter library at the Temple of Serapis (Serapeum) by 200 BC (Thiem, 508). The Library of Alexandria hoped to one day hold all the books in the world.

Alexandria was also home to many feuds. Caesar suddenly found himself entangled in these feuds (and Cleopatra, of course). Rather than complete his defeat of Pompey’s supporters, he found himself settling a dispute between Cleopatra and her brother, Ptolemy XII. His solution did not impress Ptolemy’s supporters, so they trapped him and his small force in the palace quarters of the city for the winter 48-47 BC (http://www.roman-empire.net/republic/laterep-index.html).

To prevent his opponents from stealing his own ships, Caesar ordered that they burned. This move burned both his ships and the Egyptians, but unfortunately spread to the city. According to Plutarch, one of the buildings that fell victim to the burning was the library (chapter 49). In AD 49, Seneca (who did not lament this event) cited the number of books burned at 40 000 (De Tranquillitate Animi, quoted in Thiem, 511).

The Concise Oxford Companion to Classical Literature states, “more probably it was a storehouse of books accidentally destroyed” (“Alexandrian Library”). This view is also supported by The Catholic Encyclopedia, which cites Orosius and the Bellum Alexandrinum to that affect.

Later, when Mark Antony was Cleopatra’s lover, he allegedly gave her 200 000 books from the library at Pergamum to make up for it.

Theophilus

This is the burning from Rex Libris. Except that the comic confuses events. First of all, Hypatia died in AD 415, most likely as the result of a mob uprising caused by Cyril, the controversial Patriarch of Alexandria who, if memory serves me correctly, had his very own gang of monks to go beat up heretics and pagans for him. This is the version Rex Libris gives us, conflating it with the burning of the Library. However, the burning of the Library they cite would actually have happened in 391 at the command of Patriarch Theophilus, not Cyril.

The writers of Rex Libris have probably relied heavily on Edward Gibbon. Unfortunately, Gibbon is decidedly anti-Christian. He saw Christianity as the cause of the fall of Rome, both in the West (AD 476) and the East (AD 1453). Thiem gives a précis of Gibbon:

the Christian bigotry of the Alexandrian bishop Theophilus caused a civil war between the pagan worshippers of Serapis and the Christians (c. 390 A.D.). During a truce, the Emperor Theodosius ordered the abolition of pagan idolatry [said edict available online–see bibliography], whereupon Theophilus led the Christians in the destruction of the Serapeum and its famous library. (n. 8, p. 510)

Theophilus may be an example of zeal gone too far.

Yet despite Gibbon’s assertions that the library was destroyed by Theophilus, Hannam evaluates the major sources for the burning, and none of them mention the destruction of the library. His interpretation is that the library no longer existed, having already been destroyed.

On the other hand, one could just as easily say that since it was such a famous library, its destruction would be assumed with the destruction of the Serapeum itself. His evaluation does provide us a refutation of Gibbon’s assertion that “the appearance of the empty shelves excited the regret and indignation of every spectator whose mind was not totally darkened by religious prejudice.”

Omar

To cite Hannam, here is the legend:

The Moslems invaded Egypt during the seventh century as their fanaticism carried them on conquests that would take form an empire stretching from Spain to India. There was not much of a struggle in Egypt and the locals found the rule of the Caliph to be more tolerant than that of the Byzantines before them. However, when a Christian called John informed the local Arab general that there existed in Alexandria a great Library preserving all the knowledge in the world he was perturbed. Eventually he sent word to Mecca where Caliph Omar ordered that all the books in the library should be destroyed because, as he said “they will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous.” Therefore, the books and scrolls were taken out of the library and distributed as fuel to the many bathhouses of the city. So enormous was the volume of literature that it took six months for it all to be burnt to ashes heating the saunas of the conquerors.

Hannam notes that the sources for this alleged destruction are all very late and all Christian. It is more likely a case of anti-Muslim polemic than anti-intellectual Muslims. Gibbon agrees. Most modern sources doubt this final burning, although there are notable exceptions (Thiem, 508)

One More

I, personally, think that the more likely is the one that the standards tend to miss (guess I am one to argue, eh?).

The Concise Oxford Companion to Classical Literature cites the “true destruction” occurring in the third century. I imagine this “true destruction” being Aurelian’s action in putting down a revolt by Firmus c. AD 272/3 (Körner, chapters 1.6 and 4, Historia Augusta, 32.2-3).

I can’t find any definite citation of Aurelian burning the city and library other than Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aurelian and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Library_of_Alexandria) and the Catholic Encyclopedia (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01303a.htm). Nonetheless, St. Epiphanius of Salamis in Cyprus (c. AD 310-403) says, “He [Ptolemy II] established a library in the same city of Alexander, in the (part) called the Bruchion; this is a quarter of the city today lying waste” (Weights and Measures, 9.25). Hannam notes that Diocletian also burned down the Bruchion.

Were the Diocletianic and Aurelianic burnings the ones that really did it in? The ones that had no religious significance at all? The ones that didn’t involve the romance of Caesar or the polemic of Theophilus? I doubt we’ll ever actually know.

Conclusion(ish)

In conclusion, I quote Preston Chesser:

So who did burn the Library of Alexandria? Unfortunately most of the writers from Plutarch (who apparently blamed Caesar) to Edward Gibbons (a staunch atheist or deist who liked very much to blame Christians and blamed Theophilus) to Bishop Gregory (who was particularly anti-Moslem, blamed Omar) all had an axe to grind and consequently must be seen as biased. Probably everyone mentioned above had some hand in destroying some part of the Library’s holdings. The collection may have ebbed and flowed as some documents were destroyed and others were added. For instance, Mark Antony was supposed to have given Cleopatra over 200,000 scrolls for the Library long after Julius Caesar is accused of burning it.

Stuff Worth Checking Out

“Alexandrian Library” The Concise Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. Ed. M.C. Howatson and Ian Chilvers. Oxford University Press, 1996. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. University of Ottawa. 17 August 2006 http://proxy.bib.uottawa.ca:2249/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t9.e144

Argyle, A. W. “The Ancient University of Alexandria,” The Classical Journal > Vol. 69, No. 4 (Apr., 1974), pp. 348-350.

Hannam, James. “The Mysterious Fate of the Great Library of Alexandria.” Available online at http://www.bede.org.uk/library.htm. Last accessed August 17, 2006.

Thiem, Jon. “The Great Library of Alexandria Burnt: Towards the History of a Symbol,” in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Oct., 1979), pp. 507-526.

Bibliography

“Alexandrian Library” The Concise Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. Ed. M.C. Howatson and Ian Chilvers. Oxford University Press, 1996. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. University of Ottawa. 17 August 2006 http://proxy.bib.uottawa.ca:2249/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t9.e144

Argyle, A. W. “The Ancient University of Alexandria,” The Classical Journal > Vol. 69, No. 4 (Apr., 1974), pp. 348-350.

Chesser, Preston. The Burning of the Library of Alexandria. Available online at http://ehistory.osu.edu/World/articles/ArticleView.cfm?AID=9. Last Accessed August 17, 2006.

Epiphanius of Salamis. Weights and Measures. Available online at http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/epiphanius_weights_03_text.htm#C9. Last accessed August 17, 2006.

Hannam, James. “The Mysterious Fate of the Great Library of Alexandria.” Available online at http://www.bede.org.uk/library.htm. Last accessed August 17, 2006.

Historia Augusta, Aurelian. Available online at http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Historia_Augusta/Aurelian/2*.html. Last accessed August 17, 2006.

Jerome available through The Medieval Sourcebook: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/jerome1.html.

Körner, Christian. Aurelian and Rebellions During His Reign (A.D. 270-275). Available online at http://www.roman-emperors.org/aurelian.htm, last accessed August 17, 2006.

Plutarch, Lives: Julius Caesar. Available online at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.03.0078&query=chapter%3D%2388&layout=&loc=Caes.%2048. Last accessed August 17, 2006.

Theodosius. Codex Theodosianus. Available online at The Medieval Sourcebook: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/codex-theod1.html and http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/theodcodeXVI.html. Last accessed August 17, 2006.

Thiem, Jon. “The Great Library of Alexandria Burnt: Towards the History of a Symbol,” in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Oct., 1979), pp. 507-526.

Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Library_of_Alexandria#The_Destruction_of_the_Library. Last accessed August 17, 2006.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s