The boring truth about the Library of Alexandria
November 20, 2023 8:00 AM   Subscribe

Modern writers make different claims about who destroyed the Library of Alexandria. Some blame Julius Caesar while others blame a Christian mob or the invading Arabs. But who is really responsible for the Library's demise? The boring truth according to @premodernist_history.
posted by dmh (39 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
We all know the legendary accounts of YouTube being a repository of all human knowledge; that every time any video was recorded, it was copied on to their servers and distributed to all of humanity for free. We also all know that they were destroyed by Jeff Bezos when he revoked their AWS access in 1992. I'm skeptical of these accounts. [Takes big bite of scavenged onion]

for serious though if someone's going to talk about the library of alexandria, famously a symbol of the preservation and perishability of human knowledge, and release it as a YouTube video, at least there should be a freaking transcript
posted by phooky at 8:10 AM on November 20 [20 favorites]




Jump to 8:55 for the most important reason: books wear out and have to be copied (by hand) every century or so. A large library needs a small army of scribes just to maintain its collection. So (as usual) austerity and cutbacks to the humanities are the real culprit here.
posted by trotz dem alten drachen at 8:52 AM on November 20 [35 favorites]


This is also why book burnings were rare before the invention of the printing press. If you wanted to suppress a book, all you had to do was tell your scribes not to bother with it.

And also why European history has "dark" periods that are characterized simply by interrupted trade with the Mediterrenean. Without supplies of Egyptian papyrus, your scribes have to become picky about what they write on parchment, and next thing you know you have oral tales of a King Arthur and virtually nothing you can corroborate.
posted by ocschwar at 8:55 AM on November 20 [14 favorites]


okay i am going to shamelessly comment w/o watching the video or reading the transcript, but: iirc correctly (please someone correct me if i'm wrong) the biggest filter for works from antiquity wasn't the destruction of any particular collection, it was the shift from magiscule hands to miniscule hands. if a text survived the transition to miniscule it's very likely we still have it today, but magiscule works that weren't recopied were eventually thrown out because ugh this is in allcaps who wants to read that. i think the scroll-to-codex transition was pretty rough on textual preservation as well?

the reason why it's very important indeed to push back on the "the library of [x] was destroyed therefore we don't have [y] and [z]" narratives is that it presents preserving texts as a matter of preventing certain easily noticed metaphorically and/or literally pyrotechnic events that destroy whole swathes of the record. this is just plain wrong — textual preservation happens year by year as people make small decisions about whether or not to make durable copies of individual texts, and the more we forget that the more modern texts we'll lose going forward.

for my part i've been copying out all my most delightful metafilter comments onto clay tablets which i then bake and bury. if it was good enough for ea-nāṣir it's good enough for me. and without my metafilter comments how will the sinister superscientists of the far future accurately reconstruct me from my writings?
posted by bombastic lowercase pronouncements at 9:08 AM on November 20 [26 favorites]


> books wear out and have to be copied (by hand) every century or so. A large library needs a small army of scribes just to maintain its collection.

well also parchment tends to all else being equal last longer than papyrus, and so the european/near-east texts that made it onto parchment during the "whoops we don't have any papyrus so we gotta use this expensive-ass animal hide instead" phases is likely still around today.
posted by bombastic lowercase pronouncements at 9:15 AM on November 20 [1 favorite]


sigh okay i'll stop commenting over and over again and get to work or some shit now, but:

> Without supplies of Egyptian papyrus, your scribes have to become picky about what they write on parchment,

and also for works from deeper antiquity the answer to the question of whether or not a work survived is often the same as the question of whether or not it ever made it to egypt, since the drier a place was the more texts from there survived. egypt's one of the few places in the world where the a transition between places with good soil and the hardest desert possible is so dramatic that you can practically stand with one foot in farmland and the other in trackless sandy wastes.
posted by bombastic lowercase pronouncements at 9:25 AM on November 20 [3 favorites]


gotta use this expensive-ass animal hide instead

Or recycle.
posted by BWA at 9:31 AM on November 20 [2 favorites]


You can argue that a greater disaster was the destruction of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad by the Mongols in the mid-13thC, which cost a lot of translations of earlier works. The Abbasids had already stolen paper-making from the Chinese, so preservation would have been less fraught than the earlier papyrus….

I gather that there’s some dispute over whether the stories of the House of Wisdom were exaggerated or not, much like those of the Library of Alexandria.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:41 AM on November 20 [9 favorites]


> ... it's very important indeed to push back on the "the library of [x] was destroyed therefore we don't have [y] and [z]" narratives ...

To be Scrupulously Fair, in the counterfactual where the library of [x] was not destroyed, we presumably do have [y] and [z]. Even though there were many other copies of [y] and [z] that did not survive for whatever reasons, we know of these particular ones that didn't survive because the library didn't.

> books wear out and have to be copied (by hand) every century or so


Assuming that the library of [x] continued to enjoy adequate funding to preserve its collection, that is.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 9:44 AM on November 20 [2 favorites]


well also parchment tends to all else being equal last longer than papyrus,

Which brings its own problems, since parchment is durable enough that you can erase it (by scraping the previously inked layer off.)

We'll never know the tales of Barber Whom.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:28 AM on November 20 [2 favorites]


if we can't blame all this on either Capitalism or religious zealotry, I want no part of it.
posted by philip-random at 10:34 AM on November 20 [11 favorites]


> To be Scrupulously Fair, in the counterfactual where the library of [x] was not destroyed, we presumably do have [y] and [z]. Even though there were many other copies of [y] and [z] that did not survive for whatever reasons, we know of these particular ones that didn't survive because the library didn't.

nah, there were enough copies of stuff around that most big- to medium-name stuff couldn't be destroyed by one big fire, sort of like how torching one data center wouldn't eradicate the works of, i dunno, theodore hook or whatever. the lost works of aristotle and sappho wouldn't be un-lost had alexandria survived, because one fire is a small catastrophe. the big catastrophe is when whole genres become unfashionable, and therefore ignored, and therefore no one ever copies works in them onto parchment written in miniscule.

tbf one big fire could destroy a lot of mundane-seeming records that would have been quite valuable indeed to contemporary historians, since no one's making copies of that stuff. but even in that case, the records being stored in a region that's dry was more important than the records being stored in a place less likely to catch on fire — that's why we've got a way better sense of how roman egypt was managed than we do of other provinces, which is (i've heard) kind of unfortunate for getting a sense of the empire as a whole due to roman egypt being the weirdest/most idiosyncratically managed part of said empire.
posted by bombastic lowercase pronouncements at 10:48 AM on November 20


> if we can't blame all this on either Capitalism or religious zealotry, I want no part of it.

if it helps, we can blame late antique/early medieval monks for deciding to not copy sappho. even in that case though it's less that they didn't copy her because of the content — though the content didn't help — and more because the dialect she wrote in was so wildly different from attic greek.
posted by bombastic lowercase pronouncements at 10:54 AM on November 20 [5 favorites]


I have a master's degree in early modern European history from a pretty prestigious university (not bragging, just trying to express that I have studied with people who really knew what they are talking about), and one thing I took away from it is to be very skeptical of just-so stories about "the Dark Ages" and "superstition" and "collapse" (I remember one hilarious seminar where the prof put in his syllabus that anyone who used the term Dark Ages in their paper would be instantly failed). They are more often than not attitudes and prejudices from a much later age.

So I'm glad to see people taking a more sober look at the Library of Alexandria stories. They never sat quite right with me.
posted by fortitude25 at 11:08 AM on November 20 [6 favorites]


"Julius Caesar was just an editor"
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 11:17 AM on November 20 [2 favorites]


Imagining what it must have been like for scribes, spending their entire lives hunched over a desk copying books in some drafty, dimly-lit room makes modern office life seem downright idyllic. Printing, even in its most simple form, must have been viewed by them as deliverance from a life of drudgery.
posted by tommasz at 11:24 AM on November 20 [1 favorite]


In the ancient Mediterranean, scribes were typically sitting cross-legged on the floor of the colonnade, neither at a desk nor inside. A single strip of parchment fits on your upper leg, which would have been the writing surface. (A scroll is made of many short strips stitched together; the writing is perpendicular to the length of the scroll.)

Whether this is more or less idyllic than a modern office, I do not know. I certainly often lament having to be inside all day. But most scribes in the Roman world were not free people – so we are likely better off by that regard alone.
posted by trotz dem alten drachen at 11:39 AM on November 20 [6 favorites]


I need to see what other jobs my guidance counselor of antiquity is offering before I turn my nose up at scribe
posted by lefty lucky cat at 11:51 AM on November 20 [14 favorites]


> if a text survived the transition to miniscule it's very likely we still have it today, but magiscule works that weren't recopied were eventually thrown out because ugh this is in allcaps who wants to read that.

posted by bombastic lowercase pronouncements at 9:08 AM on November 20


Eponysterical!
posted by sigmagalator at 12:05 PM on November 20 [12 favorites]


My understanding is that most of ancient Egyptian literature is lost, because the annual floods made preserving manuscripts difficult. What we have is what was placed in tombs, which were erected in the desert. E.g. we have just one manuscript of the Dialog of a Man and his Soul, just one of The Shipwrecked Sailor, just four of the Tale of Sinuhe. We have a lot of versions of the Book of the Dead because it was buried with people.

Also, I don't know about Rome, but scribes in Mesopotamia and Egypt were highly valued. It was a middle to upper class position, required years of training, and allowed you to build your own library. We have an entertaining document from Egypt extolling the life of the scribe as compared to just about anything else... it was a document given to beginning scribes for practice.
posted by zompist at 1:09 PM on November 20 [8 favorites]


So (as usual) austerity and cutbacks to the humanities are the real friends we nmade along the way?
posted by evilDoug at 1:40 PM on November 20 [1 favorite]


> My understanding is that most of ancient Egyptian literature is lost, because the annual floods made preserving manuscripts difficult. What we have is what was placed in tombs, which were erected in the desert. E.g. we have just one manuscript of the Dialog of a Man and his Soul, just one of The Shipwrecked Sailor, just four of the Tale of Sinuhe. We have a lot of versions of the Book of the Dead because it was buried with people.

i guess i left out some criteria: texts survived if they made it to egypt 1: during the time it was a province of empire and also 2: those texts were written in latin or greek.

but also at this point i'm wandering a bit far afield from my area of expertise — i'm mostly just repeating pop stuff from historians who actually study mediterranean antiquity, and who are primarily interested in the textual output of bureaucracies rather than literary works.
posted by bombastic lowercase pronouncements at 1:55 PM on November 20


'for serious though if someone's going to talk about the library of alexandria, famously a symbol of the preservation and perishability of human knowledge, and release it as a YouTube video, at least there should be a freaking transcript'

Because making these videos for free is not enough for you? He owes you exactly what now?

He says he had a real problem with the exclusivity of academia, the monetizing of knowledge through university tuitions, paywalled research articles and scholarship. He's a very good speaker and I urge people to watch the video and not just read the transcript. Extremely interesting and informative.
posted by mygraycatbongo at 2:26 PM on November 20 [3 favorites]


Imagining what it must have been like for scribes, spending their entire lives hunched over a desk copying books in some drafty, dimly-lit room makes modern office life seem downright idyllic.

We clearly haven't worked in the same offices.
posted by Cardinal Fang at 2:42 PM on November 20 [2 favorites]


Printing, even in its most simple form, must have been viewed by them as deliverance from a life of drudgery.

Oh, I don't know. Scribing is definitely a skill and hard earned at that, a thing to be proud of. They may have seen the printing press the way Luddites saw looms - a threat to a decent livelihood.

And the forward looking and the heartless sneered, "Learn to set type!"

(Question then arises, by 1456. what percentage of scribes were monks, what percentage secular tradesmen? Anyone?)
posted by BWA at 3:06 PM on November 20 [6 favorites]


Who Mourns for Celsius
posted by clavdivs at 3:10 PM on November 20


The abbot Johannes Trithemius indeed deplored the invention of the printing press because scribing was (to him) an excellent monastic activity, bringing monks closer to God. Also because parchment lasts a lot longer than paper (which is why I assign this crap-ass translation I did -- my Latin is utter shite -- to my library-technology students, because the same argument has been made ad nauseam regarding ebooks vs. codices).

That scriptoria were also an important revenue stream for monasteries had nothing to do with Trithemius's opinions. Nothing at aaaaaaaall.

The ultimate irony is that Trithemius had this particular book printed. Yep. On a printing press. For broader dissemination.
posted by humbug at 4:17 PM on November 20 [6 favorites]


You can argue that a greater disaster was the destruction of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad by the Mongols in the mid-13thC,

Or the Aztec destruction and Spanish conquistadore book burnings that destroyed many Mesoamerican codices where we now only have 20 out of thousands of such scripts that are known to have survived.
posted by Pachylad at 4:22 PM on November 20 [12 favorites]


It seems to me that Timbuktu during its golden era was more like we imagined Alexandria was than Alexandria actually was.
posted by MrVisible at 4:22 PM on November 20 [9 favorites]


You know what the worst thing is about what happened to the Library of Alexandria? That so many of my fellow librarians repeat the myth.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:35 PM on November 20 [2 favorites]


The truth -- that many works were lost simply because no active effort was made to preserve them -- seems much stronger a lesson, particularly for librarians, than the myth of the great big fire.
posted by rifflesby at 9:48 PM on November 20 [7 favorites]


He's a very good speaker and I urge people to watch the video

Thanks for noticing! I also found his presentation to be a real treat. He's sharing a finely honed historical sensibility, with remarkably plain diction, subtly inflected to relay the ironies and vicissitudes through time. I can also recommend his video Advice for time traveling to medieval Europe.
posted by dmh at 3:37 AM on November 21 [2 favorites]


that many works were lost simply because no active effort was made to preserve them -- seems much stronger a lesson, particularly for librarians, than the myth of the great big fire.

Fair enough, but the modern library suffers a problem of excess that would have staggered the ancients. Space vs inflow. A university might be able to build annexes for the texts that, if we're honest, nobody is ever going to read; a small library simply cannot. A few of my more treasured and unusual books are stamped WITHDRAWN, some from name brand colleges. I am ther custondian for now. And when I go?
posted by BWA at 7:03 AM on November 21 [2 favorites]


The Rest is History podcast also has a great, very entertaining episode on the library and the various myths that have grown up around it over the years! See also History for Atheists' blog post.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 1:49 AM on November 22 [1 favorite]


> You can argue that a greater disaster was the destruction of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad by the Mongols in the mid-13thC,

Or the Aztec destruction and Spanish conquistadore book burnings that destroyed many Mesoamerican codices where we now only have 20 out of thousands of such scripts that are known to have survived.


To be fair, while the destruction of the Aztec literary corpus was a monumental and unforgivable disaster, it resulted in the loss of almost certainly 0 classical Mediterranean texts, which is what the FPP was talking about. If we’re talking general “knowledge disasters,” the destruction of texts (and scholars) by the first Chinese Emperor (although disputed) is right up there, and the impact of the slave trade on the intellectual and cultural corpus of West Africa was likewise extreme.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:43 AM on November 22 [3 favorites]


If we’re talking general “knowledge disasters,” the destruction of texts (and scholars) by the first Chinese Emperor (although disputed) is right up there, and the impact of the slave trade on the intellectual and cultural corpus of West Africa was likewise extreme.

I'd add to that the destruction of vast amounts of TV shows by the BBC to save money and space.
posted by Cardinal Fang at 5:43 AM on November 22



and also for works from deeper antiquity the answer to the question of whether or not a work survived is often the same as the question of whether or not it ever made it to egypt, since the drier a place was the more texts from there survived. egypt's one of the few places in the world where the a transition between places with good soil and the hardest desert possible is so dramatic that you can practically stand with one foot in farmland and the other in trackless sandy wastes.


Nerds should definitely celebrate a saint's feast day for the nameless person who decided to wall in a room full of books in Nag Hamadi.

And also, this is the reason for Timbuktu. The region had high literacy, but if you wanted your writings to survive long term, you got on a boat up the Niger River and dropped your books off at the first town that was dry and hot enough for your papers to last: Timbuktu. That's why it served as the region's archive.
posted by ocschwar at 5:59 PM on November 22 [4 favorites]


Speaking as someone who works in a library I still maintain that most libraries are eventually destroyed by librarians who cannot clean up the children's section one more time.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:23 AM on November 24 [2 favorites]


« Older Flag it and move on... to this Free Thread   |   The End of Retirement Newer »


You are not currently logged in. Log in or create a new account to post comments.