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«The Ancient Library of Alexandria. A Model for Classical Scholarship in the Age of Million Book Libraries 1 Monica Berti (monica.berti ...»

-- [ Page 1 ] --

Preprint of paper to be

published in CLIR proceedings

of the International Symposium

on the Scaife Digital Library.

The Ancient Library of Alexandria.

A Model for Classical Scholarship

in the Age of Million Book Libraries 1

Monica Berti (monica.berti@tufts.edu)

Virgilio Costa (costa@lettere.uniroma2.it)

CONTENTS — Prologue: the phoenix-library – 1. Aristotle, Demetrius of Phalerum,

and the Ptolemies – 2. The Museum and its library – 3. Callimachus and the

Pinakes – 4. Remarks on a myth Prologue: the phoenix-library Like the tower of Babel, Atlantis, or the Holy Grail, the library of Alexandria is one of the great archetypes of our civilization. Since antiquity2, legions of scholars, novelists, poets, philosophers, artists, or mere dreamers, have fantasized about a blessed place where all human knowledge, all the books of the world, had been collected; have praised the learned men of the Museum for their conquests in every field of culture; have meditated on the tragic fate of that experience and, more in general, on the fragility of human achievements.

The epopee of the Alexandrian library, in fact, had been short: already in the Severan age, a writer like Aulus Gellius could enthuse over its unthinkable dimensions3.

The longue durée of the Ptolemies’ library in Western cultural tradition has materialized on different levels. Historiography, for example, has tried to elucidate the circumstances of its foundation, its influence on the other major libraries of Late Hellenism, the trustworthiness of the ancient accounts on its “destruction,” etc.; philology has investigated in composition of its collection This paper is dedicated to the memory of Ross Scaife (1960-2008), a pioneer in the application of digital technologies to classical scholarship. In his many brilliant and important contributions, he showed that today it is possible to recreate, in new forms, the collaborative environment that thirteen centuries ago characterized the Museum of Alexandria.

As proof of the antiquity of the Alexandrian library’s fame see, e.g., Athenaeus (Deipnosophistae V, 203e), who in the II century AD says that remembering the collections of books and the activities of the Museum is meaningless, since they are in the memory of all men.

Noctes Atticae VII, 17, 3: ingens postea numerus librorum in Aegypto ab Ptolemaeis regibus uel conquisitus uel confectus est ad milia ferme uoluminum septingenta.

and the Alexandrian role in the transmission of classical literature; hundreds of studies have underlined the nearly religious foundations of the Museum, as an expression of the human yearning towards the wholeness and the unity of knowledge. Like a karstic river, the library of Alexandria resurfaces time after time4, and not only in “high-culture”: in a recent best seller by Steve Berry, The Alexandria link, the library is hidden somewhere in the Sinai peninsula; in Clive Cussler’s Treasure, a rich collection of objects coming from the Museion is discovered near Rome, Texas, at the point where a Roman fleet escaping from political persecution, in the year 319 AD, reached the American continent; in Denis Guedj’s Les cheveux de Bérénice, Alexandria is the background of Eratosthenes’ research on a method to measure the circumference of earth; in Jean-Pierre Luminet’s Le Bâton d’Euclide, Johannes Philoponos vainly tries to dissuade ‘Amr Ibn al-‘Ās – the Arab commander who conquered Alexandria in the year 642 – from burning the books of the town, as caliph ‘Umar has ordered;

in the initial shot of Oliver Stone’s Alexander, Ptolemy I Soter dictates to a scribe his memoirs to a scribe while, around him, in the huge halls filled with scrolls, the Alexandrian scholars are zealously at work. And we could continue.

An explanation of the durable fascination of the Alexandrian library on our culture has been attempted by Jorge Luis Borges, the famous Argentine writer that in the collection Historia de la noche (History of the Night, 1977) dedicates a lyric to the instant in which ‘Umar commands ‘Amr Ibn al-‘Ās to destroy the great library. The medieval legend from which Borges (like Jean-Pierre Luminet) takes inspiration gives a paradoxical motivation for the caliph’s order: “If the books of the faithless conform with the holy Qur’an, they are superfluous; if not, they are undesirable.” But Borges’ re-creation of the myth is – as usual for him – more surprising: “The faithless say that if it were to burn, / history would burn with it. They are wrong. / Unceasing human work gave birth to this / infinity of books. If of them all / not even one remained, man would again / beget each page and every line, / each work and every love of Hercules, / and every teaching of every manuscript. / (...) I, that Omar who subdued the Persians / and who imposes Islam on the Earth, / order my soldiers to destroy / by fire the abundant Library, / which will not perish”5. As long as man remains on the earth, Borges says, the Library – this inventory of all human creativity – will not perish; or better, the Library, as the mythical phoenix, can die over and over again: but every death will be followed by a resurrection, thanks to the work of new generations of authors that will reintegrate its lost pages. This is, of course, only a provocation; in reality, in the destiny of the library of Alexandria, and in Especially significant is the inauguration in 2002 of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (http://www.bibalex.org), the new library of modern Alexandria dedicated to recapture the spirit of the ancient library and promote studies on its early period; see, e.g., Youssef 2002 and Serageldin 2008.

See Borges 1999.

general of all the great books of the past that have gone lost, what strikes our consciousness is exactly the fact that the lost knowledge will never be recovered; and it is from this consciousness that in classical Antiquity, just in Ptolemaic Alexandria, philology arose – this science whose first purpose is to recapture the missing literary legacy of our predecessors.

Given the fortune of the traditions about the Alexandrian library, it can seem somewhat contradictory to point out that the historical sources on it are surprisingly scanty. But the truth is that we can say almost nothing certain about it: where and how the papyrus scrolls were stored; what dimensions its collections really had; what role the other public library of the town, the Serapeum library, had in Alexandrian cultural life; if books continued to be added with the same regularity after the death of Ptolemy III Euergetes, etc.

Even the information about the end of the library refers to a space of six centuries, from the age of Caesar to the age, as we have seen, of the prophet Muhammad.

Despite that, modern studies on Alexandria and its library are countless6. In order to react to a flood of publications filled with conjectures and speculations, in recent years new studies have tried to emphasize – rather than hide or, worse, fill in – the immense gaps in the tradition. As Roger Bagnall writes in a recent paper, The disparity between, on the one hand, the grandeur and importance of this library, both in its reality in antiquity and in its image both ancient and modern, and, on the other, our nearly total ignorance about it, has been unbearable. No one, least of all modern scholars, has been able to accept our lack of knowledge about a phenomenon that embodies so many human aspirations. In consequence, a whole literature of wishful thinking has grown up, in which scholars – even, I fear, the most rigorous – have cast aside the time-tested methods that normally constrain credulity, in order to be able to avoid confessing defeat.7 Our purpose, here, is not to add another example of “wishful thinking” to the already infinite bibliography on the Alexandrian library, nor to suggest new hypotheses on specific problems, but simply to recall a few points pertaining to the importance that the foundation of the Alexandrian library had for the history of scholarship and philology. This, however, is a very topical question, in Other bibliography – in addition to the titles cited in this paper – can be found in Canfora 1990; Jacob-De Poulignac 1992; Canfora 1993; Ballet 1999; MacLeod 2000; Heller-Roazen 2002; ElAbbadi 2004; Pollard-Reid 2006; El-Abbadi-Fathallah 2008.

Bagnall 2002, 348.

the light of recent debates on digital libraries and their potential benefits8. The Alexandrian Museum, in fact, was the most famous scholarly center of classical antiquity and promoted a wide range of studies, gathering scholars from all over the world: in this sense, it can be considered a model for the emerging cyberinfrastructure in the humanities, whose aim is to develop a concept of digital technologies as a new way to study the past and conduct scholarly research in an international and collaborative environment9.

In their turn, the many analogies we can establish between the forms of organization of scientific research in Ptolemaic Alexandria and those in course of definition today, in the age of million book digital libraries, bring us back to an old but still crucial point: how solid, how “imperishable” are our ways of accumulating and storing knowledge? Can we confidently say that we have entered, to use an effective expression of Lucien Polastron10, in the age of flameproof knowledge? To try to formulate some answers we need, in the first place, to briefly recall what the Museum and its library were created for.

1. Aristotle, Demetrius of Phalerum, and the Ptolemies

After Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BC, his empire was divided into three parts: the Antigonids controlled Greece, the Seleucids ruled most of Asia Minor, Syria and Mesopotamia, and the Ptolemies dominated Egypt11. After seizing control of the country, Ptolemy I needed a basis for his rule, and so he attempted to legitimize his position by providing himself with a tradition that placed great emphasis on his own links with Alexander: he stole Alexander’s body and brought it to Egypt, where it was buried first in Memphis, and later – when Ptolemy decided to move his court to a brand-new capital – he brought the body to Alexandria, the city that Alexander had founded in 331 and named after himself12; further stress on his relationship with the glorious son of Philip II was given by the publication of Ptolemy’s history about Alexander’s campaigns, now unfortunately lost and preserved only through later quotations13. Ptolemy was not only a valorous soldier and an astute ruler but Crane 2006; Crane 2009.

Welshons 2006; see also Rosenzweig 2006, 119.

See Polastron 2004, chapter 10.

For an overview of these events see, e.g., Rostovtzeff 1941 (for Ptolemaic Egypt especially 255-422); Erskine 2003 (part II); 2008 (part I); Will 20081; Will 20082; Wheatley 2009.

According to Strabo (XVII, 1, 8), Ptolemy I buried the body in Alexandria, while other sources affirm that he first brought it to Memphis: Marmor Parium, FGrHist 239 B11; Pausanias, Graeciae descriptio I, 6, 3; Curtius Rufus, Historiae Alexandri Magni X, 10, 20; Historiae Alexandri Magni III, 34, 4-6 Kroll. Pausanias (Graeciae descriptio I, 7, 1) writes that Ptolemy II was responsible for the transfer of the corpse to Alexandria. On the history of the kidnapping of Alexander’s body, see Saunders 2006, 33-48; on its significance, Erskine 2002.

Ptolemaeus Lagus, FGrHist 138 F1-35. See Pearson 1960, 188-211; Ellis 1994, 17-22.

also an intellectual, and he succeeded in promoting scholarly activity and patronizing creative artists on a measure never seen before. In this way, he provided himself with a political and dynastic link to Alexander and gave the Greek inhabitants of Egypt a cultural connection with their own Greek past.

In this context belongs the foundation at Alexandria of the Museum (“Temple of the Muses”), a cultural community gathering scholars from all over the world.

Our sources say that “Ptolemy” provided them with a library containing a huge collection of papyrus scrolls, entrusting them with the mission of exploring every field of human knowledge. Now, it is uncertain whether it was founded by Ptolemy I (Soter) or Ptolemy II (Philadelphos), though it is likely that it was set up under Ptolemy the First and developed under his son14. In any case, the Museum and its library played a fundamental role in enhancing the prestige and influence of the royal house. From a certain point of view, the flowering of arts and science in Alexandria was intended to justify the rule of the MacedonianGreek dynasty over Egypt: in fact, we can say that it was the expression of a cultural policy in the true sense of the word15.

The Museum was a typical product of Hellenistic culture, as it was also symptomatic of the competition that arose among the successors of Alexander.

That is why its birth has to be understood in the cultural climate of that period, taking particular account of the personality of the philosopher Aristotle, who had been tutor of the young Alexander and so represented further evidence of the links between the Ptolemies and the great Macedonian king16.

Strabo, the geographer and historian who lived at the time of Augustus, writes that Aristotle “taught the kings of Egypt to organize their library”17. Athenaeus, an erudite author of the II century AD, after giving a list of famous book collectors of antiquity, says that Ptolemy Philadelphos acquired the library of Aristotle from Neleus, who was a student of the philosopher18. This testimony Plutarchus, Non posse suaviter vivi secundum Epicurum 1095d; Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae V 203e; see also Vitruvius, De architectura pr. 4. On the question, see Parsons 1952, 88 (n. 2), 103-105; Fraser 1972, II, 469 n. 69.

Erskine 1995.

Plutarchus, Alexander 7-8.

Strabo, Geographia XIII, 1, 54: ὁ γοῦν Ἀριστοτέλης τὴν ἑαυτοῦ Θεοφράστῳ παρέδωκεν, ᾧπερ καὶ τὴν σχολὴν ἀπέλιπε, πρῶτος ὧν ἴσμεν συναγαγὼν βιβλία καὶ διδάξας τοὺς ἐν Αἰγύπτῳ βασιλέας βιβλιοθήκης σύνταξιν.

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