The Fire of Alexandria

The knowledge of the Ancient Greek Empire spanned far and wide in both a geographical and disciplinary sense. A great deal of the academic and intellectual success of the empire can be attributed to Alexander the Great, perhaps the most well-known Greek king. Alexander the Great’s military campaign was famously both brief and immensely successful, as he defeated and conquered the numerous territories of the Persians in Egypt, Syria and Asia Minor. On his campaigns, Alexander the Great not only achieved great military conquest, but he also collected information about the neighbors of the Greeks and compiled reports that greatly contributed to the Ancient Greece’s geographical, legal and overall knowledge.


Bust of Alexander the Great, Hellenistic era

(image from: “”)

After Alexander the Great succumbed to fever, his reign was later succeeded by King Ptolemy I Soter. In line with the Ancient Greek’s inquisitive, intellectual spirit, King Ptolemy I Soter commanded Athenian politician Demetrius of Phaleron to found the Library of Alexandria in 295 BCE, naming it after Alexander the Great roughly twenty-eight years after his death.

Historical evidence indicates that the library contained a wide breadth of subject matter, housing not only the reports compiled by Alexander the Great, but also the books of Aristotle (Alexander the Great’s teacher), texts authored by the epic poets Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, writings of Buddhism and of other languages, and Egyptian records. It is thought that the rest of the library’s contents covered the disciplines of rhetoric, law, tragedy, comedy, lyric poetry, natural science, medicine, history, mathematics, and other miscellaneous material collected through trade, military conquest, and other methods. Though historical counts certainly vary, the library is said to have contained between two hundred thousand and seven hundred thousand books. With such a wide scope and large number of books, the library attracted a great deal of scholarship, and academics from a variety of fields studied, edited, commented on, and compiled existing works.


The Great Library of Alexandria, O. Von Corven, 19th century

(image from: “”)

One of our earliest examples of a library could perhaps be considered an archive as well, as according to Irenaeus, a contemporary theologian, the facility contained “the writings of all men as far as they were worth serious attention.” Historical evidence does not necessarily suggest that the collection followed a classification scheme, or if contextual information was otherwise provided along with the documents and literature; however, sources indicate that scholars annotated and compiled the documents, which perhaps could mean that draft versions and edits were housed in the library and some level of aggregation existed.

The Library of Alexandria enjoyed a great deal of success and thrived as an academic hub for quite some time until its eventual demise in the year 48 BCE. Though accounts of what exactly happened vary, it is commonly thought that Julius Caesar burned down the library, whether intentionally or not, in his siege of Alexandria. No account of this destruction exists in Caesar’s own records, though it is known he occupied the city during this time and later evidence points to the library’s destruction during this period. The Library of Alexandria had also spawned a daughter library in order to accommodate for its ever-growing contents, though this facility was said to have been destroyed during the fourth century CE when Christianity took over as the dominant religion.

Regardless of any hyperbole that may exist in historical accounts, literature indicates that the Library of Alexandria was certainly an institution of great scope and contents, belonging to and reflecting the intellectual achievement of one of the most expansive, sophisticated societies in recorded history. To speculate upon the sheer breadth of the knowledge that may forever be lost or undiscovered as a result of the fire is awe-inspiring if historical records of the Library of Alexandria can be held accountable and considered reliable.



Piggott, Michael McKemmish, Sue Upward, Frank, Reed, Barbara. Archives. : Elsevier Science, 2005. ProQuest Ebook Central. Web. 20 September 2016. Created from gla on 2016-09-20 03:48:43.


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