The Ancient Library of Alexandria: The West’s most important repository of learning

The Ancient Library of Alexandria: The West’s most important repository of learning

The Ancient Library of Alexandria: The West’s most important repository of learning

J. Harold Ellens   •  05/01/2013

J. Harold Ellens’s article “The Ancient Library of Alexandria” originally appeared in Bible Review, along with the sidebars “Greco-Roman Philosophers,” “Whither Aristotle’s Library?” “The Perils of the Alexandria Library: Two Ancient Book-Burnings,” “How to Measure the Earth” and “Alexandria Library Redux.”  

Excerpt follows;

When Alexander the Great died in 323 B.C.E., the Ptolemaic dynasty was given control of Egypt. Ptolemy I (c. 367–283 B.C.E.) established his capital at Alexandria and immediately began to build up the city. Ptolemy’s grandest project, begun in 306 B.C.E., was the Library of Alexandria, a research center that held one million books by the time of Jesus. Scala/Art Resource, NY


In March of 415 C.E., on a sunny day in the holy season of Lent, Cyril of Alexandria, the most powerful Christian theologian in the world, murdered Hypatia, the most famous Greco-Roman philosopher of the time. Hypatia was slaughtered like an animal in the church of Caesarion, formerly a sanctuary of emperor worship.1 Cyril may not have been among the gang that pulled Hypatia from her chariot, tearing off her clothes and slashing her with shards of broken tiles, but her murder was surely done under his authority and with his approval.

Cyril (c. 375–444) was the archbishop of Alexandria, the dominant cultural and religious center of the Mediterranean world of the fifth century C.E. He replaced his uncle Theophilus in that lofty office in 412 and became both famous and infamous for his leadership in support of what would become known as Orthodox Christianity after the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451), when basic Christian doctrine was solidly established for all time.

Cyril’s fame arose mainly from his assaults on other church leaders, and his methods were often brutal and dishonest. He hated Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, for example, because Nestorius thought Christ’s divine and human aspects were distinct from one another, whereas Cyril emphasized their unity. At the Council of Ephesus in 431, Cyril arranged for a vote condemning Nestorius to take place before Nestorius’s supporters—the bishops from the eastern churches—had time to arrive. Nor was Cyril above abusing his opponents by staging marches and inciting riots. It was such a mob, led by one of Cyril’s followers, Peter the Reader, that butchered the last great Neoplatonic philosopher, Hypatia.      ……..

One reason Cyril had Hypatia murdered, according to the English historian Edward Gibbon, was that Cyril thought Hypatia had the political ear of Alexandria’s chief magistrate, who vigorously opposed Cyril’s ambition to expel from the city those who held different religious views from his own.  Cyril was also jealous of Hypatia because scholars from all over the world crowded into her lectures in Alexandria, Athens and elsewhere. Socrates (380–450), a church historian from Constantinople, says of Hypatia:

[She] was so learned that she surpassed all contemporary philosophers. She carried on the Platonic tradition derived from Plotinus, and instructed those who desired to learn in…philosophic discipline. Wherefore all those wishing to work at philosophy streamed in from all parts of the world, collecting around her on account of her learned and courageous character. She maintained a dignified intercourse with the chief people of the city. She was not ashamed to spend time in the society of men, for all esteemed her highly, and admired her for her purity.

Hypatia’s father, Theon, was a leading professor of philosophy and science in Alexandria. He had prepared a recension of Euclid’s Elements, which remained the only known Greek text of the great mathematician’s work until an earlier version was discovered in the Vatican Library in this century.  Theon also predicted eclipses of the sun and moon that occurred in 364.

Hypatia, who was born about 355, collaborated with her father from early in her life, editing his works and preparing them for publication. According to one authority, she was “by nature more refined and talented than her father.”7 The extant texts of Ptolemy’s Almagest and Handy Tables were probably prepared for publication by her.8

Such scientific and philosophical enterprises were not new or surprising in Hypatia’s Alexandria, which already boasted a 700-year-old, international reputation for sophisticated scholarship. Founded in 331 B.C.E.9 by command of Alexander the Great, the city contained almost from its beginnings an institution that would remain of immense importance to the world for the next 2,300 years. Originally called the Mouseion, or Shrine of the Muses, this research center and library grew into “an institution that may be conceived of as a library in the modern sense—an organization with a staff headed by a librarian that acquires and arranges bibliographic material for the use of qualified readers.”   ….

Indeed, the Alexandria Library was much more. It “stimulated an intensive editorial program that spawned the development of critical editions, textual exegesis and such basic research tools as dictionaries, concordances and encyclopedias.”11 The library in fact developed into a huge research institution comparable to a modern university—containing a center for the collection of books, a museum for the preservation of scientific artifacts, residences and workrooms for scholars, lecture halls and a refectory. In building this magnificent institution, one modern writer has noted, the Alexandrian scholars “started from scratch”; their gift to civilization is that we never had to start from scratch again.



a. The best-known book collected from a non-Greek culture and translated into Greek at the library was the Hebrew Bible, known in its Greek form as the Septuagint (LXX). It seems to have reached the state of a largely completed and official Greek text between 150 and 50 B.C.E. Philo Judaeus (30 B.C.E.–50 C.E.) obviously knew and worked with a Greek version of the Hebrew Bible.

1. Maria Dzielska, Hypatia of Alexandria, trans. F. Lyra (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1995), p. 93. Cf. J. Harold Ellens, The Ancient Library of Alexandria and Early Christian Theological Development, Occasional Papers 27, Institute for Antiquity and Christianity (Claremont: Claremont Graduate School, 1993), pp. 44–51.

See also Edward A. Parsons, The Alexandrian Library, Glory of the Hellenic World: Its Rise, Antiquities, and Destructions (London: Cleaver-Hume, 1952), p. 356.

++++++  Much more at


2 thoughts on “The Ancient Library of Alexandria: The West’s most important repository of learning

  1. Thanks for sharing this Steve. A fine, readable, work that give an overview of the whole history of the library is Luciano Canfora’s The Vanished Library: A Wonder of the Ancient World. Included is the tale of its destruction … what a sad day.

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