The Library of Ancient Alexandria
by Spencer B. Johnston
“The first true research institute in the history of the world.” –Carl Sagan
The Library of Alexandria was the apex of intellect during the time of its use in Ancient Hellenistic Egypt. Built by Ptolemy I Soter in 307 B.C.E., the library was an addition that helped to solidify the advancement of knowledge and education set forth by Alexander the Great. Alexander knew that the basis for greatness was deeply embedded in education. In fact, his “personal tutor was Aristotle, one of the most influential philosophers in all of Western thought” (Pollard, 2006). The will of Alexander the Great came to great fruition in “what was to become [a] great ‘megalopolis’ of the Hellenistic world” (Empereur, 1998). The achievements of the library’s scholars and patrons are widely considered to be invaluable and are as important today as they were revolutionary in their time of novelty.
Although the Library of Alexandria was not the first library or collection of scrolls in known history, it has become known among much of the academic world as the “most famous of the ancient collections of scrolls” (World Book). Home to over 700,000 writings, the library was a bustling place for people who had a desire to learn, study, write, and perhaps above all- read. As one would have guessed, the books we know and love today are made in a much different fashion than the scrolls used in Alexandria. The papyrus reed, which was plentiful along the basin of the Nile in Lower Egypt, was very important to the Greco-Egyptian library’s success. A precursor to the modern use of paper, it is known that the word paper itself is derived from Papyri (Van Minnen, 1995). The papyrus scrolls made storing, transporting and ultimately reading much easier compared to clay tablets used in other regions. This method of writing was eventually made standard and spread to the rest of the Hellenistic world as well. Ultimately, the papyrus scroll later evolved into what we know as the modern bound book.
The library’s main function of inducing literacy upon its population seemed to be working quite well. Up to this point in Greek history, much of its traditions and knowledge had been passed down or taught through speech. The ability to write and read, allowed one to learn alone, or perhaps more importantly to reference information. Writing on scrolls also lent to the (somewhat) permanence of information, which in turn fueled, the ultimate: The spreading of information and thus, knowledge.
An important aspect of the Library of Alexandria is its ability to function as a museum. Today, we tend to think of a museum as a place to quietly observe precious and valuable art of one form or another. However, during the time of the library, the term museum was given to a space that would act as a “muse” (University College London, 2003) for scholars, inventors and engineers. It was the hope of Ptolemy I Soter that the library’s museum would grant the ideal environment for Alexandria’s greatest minds. His goal was beginning to become a reality when he finished the museum “in 307 BC” (Scaruffi, 1999). At this crucial point, much of what was left to accomplish was left to the flourishing community of scholars of Alexandria.
The support given by the statesmen and rulers of Alexandria to the academic arena was certainly at its height following the completion of the library’s museum. In spite of Alexander the Great’s untimely death in 323 BC (Vrettos, 2001), his grand vision of all that Alexandria could aspire to be was coming to fruition. Ptolemy I Soter continued to expand “incentives” and “royal support for intellectuals…to provide an endowment” (Watts, 2006) for the growing institution.
Because proper measures had been taken to ensure the patron ship of the library and museum of Alexandria, scholars and researchers took to the great facility like moths to a flame. This ensured the unique cerebral communal experience that Hellenistic Alexandria experienced. Many accomplishments by the intellectual and scholarly spheres had been largely limited to isolated events, individuals and times. In spite of the fact that a large number of great minds, artisans, and creators had indeed preceded the library, they had done so in stride alongside other achievements that demanded as much if not more emphasis, in terms of importance to the majority of their respective populous. It makes sense that this esteem took time to develop in the ancient world. A significant part of everyday life was devoted to labor and trade that ensured basic needs being met. For many, these were the driving forces for which they were compelled to see through. Similar to woes of people in the world today, the arduous nature of meeting one’s basic needs can be a hindrance to potential intellectual contributions. Putting it simply, the endowment for scholarship at the Library of Alexandria enabled multi-disciplined researchers and students to devote all of their being to their studies. Although it would not be firmly footed in the intellectual world until the mid-1940s, it seemed as though Ptolemy Soter I and other important leaders of Alexandria were familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. According to Maslow’s theory, once an individual or society’s basic needs have been met, such as food, water and shelter, we’re then able to strive towards less immediate and more cerebral goals, like those of the researchers at Alexandria. By assisting the researchers, Ptolemy and others were meeting their basic needs, thus enabling them to realize their true potential.
Although the works of individual scholars at the library of Alexandria were often quite staggering, in terms of importance to the liberal arts movement to precede them, it was the shift of communal focus that was perhaps the most important contribution made during the time. One would come to this conclusion because furthering the spread of knowledge and practice was extremely evident in the library’s successes. The most honest value of the practices of the scholars of Alexandria was not to be realized for some time. Academic glory is sadly, but arguably necessarily delayed, given the rigors of intellectual proving grounds traveled by theories, ideas and studies. Pillars of modern education are founded in part by the fruits of their labor.
The scholars of the Library of Alexandria include Euclid-the founder of geometric studies, Eratosthenes-who created modern geography, Herophilus-who studied anatomical medicine, Archimedes-engineer and astronomer, Heron-an engineer and inventor, and finally, Callimachas-“introduced…a library classification system” (Pollard, 2006). As mentioned before, the large number of scholars who studied and researched at the library is difficult to negotiate. While, many more are well-known for their contributions to similar disciplines, the names and given areas of expertise offered here perhaps outweigh that of their peers.
Euclid “belonged to the persuasion of and was at home in this philosophy” (Cuomo, 2000). His masterpiece was titled The Elements, a work that’s usefulness in the discipline of math has sustained for nearly 2500 years. Euclid’s writings on geometry are not only pertinent in high schools around the world. In fact, its principles are devout in one of the most important frontiers of our time, harvesting solar energy. ”Geometry is used in surveying and in positioning solar arrays to capture the most sunlight at a given location” (London, 2011). Ironically, solar cells have also helped to propel math classrooms forward as well. A great number of calculators utilize the cells, which can augment battery life, or in most cases omits the need for batteries altogether.
Eratosthenes was another mathematical figure of great significance in Alexandria. He is widely considered “an expert in mathematics and astronomy” (University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 2003), which ultimately resulted in the culmination of his life’s biggest accomplishment: the measurement of the circumference of the earth. Like Euclid, Eratosthenes’ proficiencies in mathematics led to the study of geography. He has been credited as the first person to use the word geography. It’s been written that he “relied…on the immense resources available in the Library at Alexandria.” (Wilson, 2006). Thankfully for future generations of explorers, surveyors, teachers, students, armies, landowners, migrators and travelers, the work of Eratosthenes has been implemented all over the world. Ultimately, his work has been a breakthrough that continues to aid sectors of multiple disciplines.
Herophilus was a researcher and master teacher of human anatomy, biology and medicine. Similar to the way we test hypotheses and theories in science today, “The Herophilean school…always remained open to changes in emphasis, to doctrinal shifts, and to radical revisions” (Von Staden, 1989). One is inclined to believe this demeanor of Herophilus and his school, as this is professional and purely academic approach is likely indicative of his acute intelligence. He took a great number of cues from his predecessor, Hippocrates, who is regarded as “the father of medicine” (Advameg Inc., 2011). Today, we owe much of our practical knowledge of medicine and anatomy to the Herophilean School.
Heron, or Hero, as he has become known, was a brilliant inventor. His life’s work was made up of many very important feats of engineering. For religious ceremonies and offerings, Heron was commissioned to design the world’s first automatic doors, prophetic automata, and wealth-acquiring, coin-operated machines. Above all others was “his most famous invention, the aeolipile, the first steam-powered engine” (Britannica Educational Publishing, 2010). Unfortunately, the potential of the steam engine wasn’t realized until well into the modern industrial revolution. This has left many scholars puzzled, but still very much in awe of Heron. One is left to wonder what could have been if Heron had been aware of his steam-powered engine’s capabilities.
Archimedes is one of the most famous figures of the ancient world. As a student in Alexandria, he studied mathematics, astronomy and engineering.
Archimedes has been credited as coining the phrase, “Eureka!” during a moment of epiphany while working. Perhaps his most famous feat of engineering was a giant water-lifting device that became known as “the Archimedes screw”. This device was “used to lift water to higher levels” (Kenyon College), which ultimately aided the development of civil engineering to reach new heights in itself. Communities and civilizations would look continuously to advancements similar to this to improve their quality of lives indefinitely. In fact, the Archimedes screw is still used in parts of the modern world. It remains “a preferred way to irrigate agricultural fields without electrical pumps.” (Business of Patents, 2008-2011).
Callimachus was a poet and another “man of great learning” (Vrettos, 2001). His literary works are the subject of sustaining study and criticism, contributing greatly to the discipline of language arts. His poetry has been described as “marvelous and prophetic” (Vrettos, 2001). After establishing a renowned reputation for writing, Callimachus began gathering steam in another scholarly discipline while at the Library of Alexandria; the art of library science. The organizational skills he developed in the library became a significant addition to the functionality of the facility itself. Soon, the work of Callimachus’ new found calling resulted in his being named “the father of library science” (Almond, 2004).
The Library of Alexandria was a source of great intellectual achievement and substance. Without its prolific existence, the accomplishments of the western world would be significantly different and frankly, less colorful. The cultural tone set by Alexander the Great was one that hailed education, often above all else. The endowment set forth by his predecessors to the library and its institutions has sustained a domino-effect of important human achievements that remains even today. The lessons we study in today’s classrooms often led us down a path that ends on the steps of the Library of Alexandria.
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