Vol. 16
March Issue
Year 2015

Off the Beaten Track

in Vol. 16 - March Issue - Year 2015
A Great Number of Scrolls

The Alexandria Library - a 19th century engraving

Roman woman with stylus and book

"…and please do not hesitate to send us written works of any kind, whether by authors in your land or by authors from other territories..."


This might have been the gist of a letter written by King Ptolemy I in the third century BC, asking sovereigns and rulers to donate scrolls for his new library. His project was ambitious, for he wanted to show off the wealth and power of Egypt by founding the largest library in the world, housing texts on every imaginable subject and by authors from all over the world. Ptolemy I was actually a Macedonian general who inherited a considerable portion of the vast territory conquered by Alexander the Great. He had himself named pharaoh of Egypt and established his base in the city of Alexandria. Ptolemy was keen on learning more about the people under his rule. Therefore he decreed that all works were to be translated into Greek, the intellectual and academic lingua franca of that time. The library’s lofty goal was to collect half a million scrolls and some sources claim that, at its height, the library had amassed over 750,000 texts. The organization and classification of the scrolls was entrusted to a disciple of Aristotle, the Greek scholar Demetrius, who had acquired experience at the library in Athens.
The successive rulers of the Ptolemy dynasty continued to pursue their ancestor’s objective. Delegates were sent on regular purchasing missions to Rhodes and Athens. Often some rather unorthodox methods were used. In fact, any scrolls found on ships arriving in port would be confiscated and taken to the library, where scribes would copy them. The originals were kept in the library and the copies handed back to the owners. It is said that Ptolemy III borrowed some original manuscripts by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides from Athens against the deposit of a great quantity of silver as a guarantee of restitution, only to return copies and letting the Greeks keep the silver.
The Great Library of Alexandria became a center of study and research, attracting scholars from the Mediterranean, Europe and Asia. It continued to grow for about three centuries, suffering occasional fires and damage before being destroyed during a civil war in 48 BC, although some sources claim that it continued to exist until the third century AD.
That such a huge project could even be conceived was indicative of the shift in mentality that took place among enlightened rulers between the fourth and third centuries BC. Up to then, access to libraries was restricted to royalty and aristocratic or religious figures. But private libraries had existed in Greece since the fifth century BC. These private libraries contained scrolls separated between what could be called works of fiction and nonfiction. It is said that Aristotle had a private library of about four hundred texts, including works by several poets and philosophers.
When the Romans conquered Egypt in 48 BC, they were astonished by the size and wealth of the Alexandrian Library. Although private libraries had existed in the Empire since the second century BC, Roman emperors, consuls and military leaders soon followed the example of Alexandria and started to open public libraries as a way of gaining fame and prestige among their fellow citizens. By then writings were collected in books, much easier to store and to handle compared to scrolls. Books in Roman libraries were divided into two sections - one for Latin texts and one for Greek texts.
The collapse of the Roman Empire shifted the center of learning to Christian monasteries spread over Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa; these were later joined by Islamic mosques established in the Middle East and Northern Africa, as well as in Sicily and Spain. Monks in both monasteries and mosques continued their silent and painstaking task of copying books, thus ensuring the preservation and diffusion of knowledge through the ages.
During the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, many aristocrats developed their own private libraries. Some of these private libraries were later donated to become the basis for public libraries that still exist to this day.
The establishment of universities and the invention of movable type in the 1400’s encouraged the spread of books and made culture available to the masses. The first national and state-supported libraries appeared in the 1600’s.
Nowadays the biggest libraries in the world, such as the British Library, the Library of Congress and the Bibliothèque National, just to name a few, contain anywhere between fifty to two hundred million items, including books, photographs and recordings. What a far cry from the great number of scrolls collected in the third century BC!

By Giovanni Gregorat, Contributing Editor MFN                                    

Author: Giovanni Gregorat