The Ptolemaic Dynasty & the Great Library of Alexandria

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By Brendan Heard


The Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt was a mysterious and unique reference point in classical history, particularly in regards its fundamental importance to what we consider classical wisdom. Certainly the congregation, documentation, and evolution of accumulated wisdom. It was a singular cultural epoch that sprang up, quite quickly, into its own golden age and flourishing, before a sadly rapid decline and acquiescence to Rome and later invasion, after three hundred years of rule under Ptolemies (from 323 BC to 30 BC). Ending with the death of Cleopatra.

The Death of Cleopatra, 1841, by German von Bohn

As a civilization it was a relatively rare example of a largely tranquil symbiosis; where the philosophical ideas of a Greek ruling class took fertile root in an Egyptian culture already at that time considered impossibly ancient. The particular Ptolemaic world view which rooted and ripened in that immortal Nile valley soil gave classical history three hundred years of highly innovative, self-actuated, archaic-romantic civilization. Though the Greek was the head, or the ruling class, they were as much influenced and altered by that eldritch land of ancient gods they inhabited as the land was by them.

Most notably this fertile hierarchical population plurality led to the creation of the most important place of learning and wisdom in the ancient world. Perhaps ever. The much celebrated (and lamented in loss) great Library of Alexandria.

This history begins with the god-like Macedonian conqueror Alexander The Great, who overtook Egypt in 332 BC, where he was regarded as a liberator from the Persian oppression of the Achaemenid Empire (Artaxerxes III). Alexander was afterward crowned Pharaoh. Now to Egyptians, the pharaohs were the divine link between gods and men, who ascended themselves to godhood in death. The Great Alexander, in turn, secured his own Egyptian godhood by consulting the Oracle of Siwa Oasis, who declared him a son of the god Ammon. From that point on, Alexander considered and referred to himself the son of Zeus-Ammon.

Zeus-Ammon, or Amon-Dias, father of life on earth

In a dream Alexander asked Ammon what he should do, and the god responded that his destiny in Egypt was to found an illustrious city at the site of the island of Pharos. This the great conquerer set forth to do, and this was henceforth to be named after him: the city of Alexandria.

But Alexander was to leave Egypt before the city was built, and never to return, as he was to die soon after in 323 BC.

After his death one of Alexander’s somatophylax, the historian Ptolemy, was appointed satrap of Egypt. Soon after he declared himself pharaoh Ptolemy Soter I (soter meaning saviour). Ptolemy and his descendants adopted Egyptian customs, including religion, and had themselves portrayed sculpturally in Egyptian style. They built magnificent new temples to ancient Egyptian deities and adopted the style of dynastic pharaohs. This was not unusual, as the Greeks from the onset had reverence for Egypt and it’s magnificent longevity, and within a hundred years they had developed a new Greco-Egyptian educated middle class.

Portico of the Temple of Edfou Upper Egypt, David Roberts

Ptolemy I Soter also went so far as to create new gods, to unite his plural populace, primarily Serapis, which was a combination of two Egyptian gods: Apis and Osiris. Additionally Serapis combined elements of the main Greek gods: Zeus, Hades, Asklepios, Dionysos, and Helios, as well as influence from many other cults. Serapis had powers over fertility, the sun, funerary rites, and medicine, and included the worship of the new Ptolemaic line of pharaohs, and to him they built the enormous Serapeum of Alexandria. Ptolemy I also promoted the cult of the deified Alexander, who became the state god of the Ptolemaic kingdom. This was a time when mortal men of sufficient influence really could become gods. Also in homage to the aims of Alexander, Ptolemy soon proclaimed the new port city of Alexandria as the new capital of Egypt.

Fortunately Ptolemy’s desire was to continue the work of his former master, which was to spread Hellenistic culture and Greek wisdom concepts throughout the known world. Where the Greeks had conquered, gymnasiums and libraries were erected. And libraries in particular enhanced a city’s reputation, attracted scholars, and augmented the available intellectual assets of a kingdom.

Any kingdom or nation faces threats to it existence. For Ptolemy the primary hazard came from his former comrades, the somatophylax of Alexander who themselves had been bequeathed rulerships of surrounding satrapies. Each new kingdom which sprung up in the wake of the world’s greatest conquerer were thus set in competition against one other. Luckily for us, this rivalry often manifested itself in competitive feats of wealth and grandeur, of which exhibition of genuine culture was a token of magnificence. A kind of cold war high-culture-race was underway, to have the largest or most impressive edifice, the most athletic and intellectual populace, to produce the greatest genius artist or astronomer, the most ground breaking scientific theory or understanding of archaic mystic philosophy. These were the conditions under which the Greek Pharaoh Ptolemy sought to make Alexandria an unrivaled center of knowledge and learning, and began plans (actual construction was likely begun under Ptolemy II) of the great Library. The construction of which was possibly managed by Demetrius of Phalerum, a student of Aristotle. Ptolemy sought nothing less than a repository of all knowledge, and his library would prove to be unprecedented in scope and scale, for that time, or since.

Massimo Listri, Biblioteca di Mafra I, Portugal

The library was not merely the largest collection of books (scrolls) in antiquity, but was also a kind of think tank, a research institution lavishly funded by the pharaoh. The actual library was housed within a larger building known as the Mouseion (origin of our word museum) dedicated to the nine Greek goddesses of the arts, the Muses. Written research was officially conducted in both Egyptian and Greek. Scholars from across the Greek world and beyond were sought after and invited to live at the library, to practice their science, to teach, and to learn from each other, without domestic distractions. The first-century BC Greek geographer Strabo wrote that scholars were provided with a large salary, free food and lodging, and exemption from taxes.

It was a state-funded elite study group, only with the added advantage of not being invested in consolidating state power. The Greek scholars made no contribution to the economy. The aim of the library was nothing less than the virtuous objective pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. A place where scholars could come together and interchange ideas. Isolationist Egyptian temples had historically contained libraries but the books were kept largely secret from the public, the Egyptian term for priest translated as ‘overseer of the secrets’. This was no longer the case under the low time preference thinking of the Greeks. But the impossibly ancient and staid nature of the Egyptian element of Ptolemaic life only abetted the pursuit of new knowledge, and did not hinder it. As we see in all things truly exceptional, we can find dichotomy, to a certain degree, enhances an ideas power.

In a characteristically Greek style, the action of collecting of scrolls itself became an idealized vocation, a paramount obsession. Visitors to Alexandria arrived with their versions of famous literary texts, while agents were sent abroad collecting everything they could find. Books became a kind of currency, and in terms of this wealth, the library of Alexandria became the largest collection in antiquity, some estimates suggesting the number was as high as 700,000 scrolls, which were not just stored but used for reference and research by the active scholars. These scholars then spent time copying and spreading this accumulated knowledge further across the Greek world and beyond, and it is to this positive endemic effect that we can thank our own surviving awareness regarding classical wisdom. In this way, and in it’s efforts to be the classical worlds’ literate nexus, Alexandria became the symbolic brain of a scattered and oppositional ancient world.

The feats of scholarship soon began to gain notoriety, and as visitors increased, reputation followed. There may have been up to fifty learned men in the community, teaching and interacting at one time. Completely free from daily material burdens to indulge their intellectual pursuits. There were lecture halls, dormitories, and cafeterias, all enmeshed and linked in a manner to encourage the various experts of different disciplines to interact. There was a large communal dining hall, meeting rooms, reading rooms, gardens, lecture halls, and a great hall for the scrolls known as bibliothekai. It is speculated that that the Mouseion may have also had a zoo for exotic animals. There was certainly a medical school where animals were used in the research of human anatomy (using human bodies was forbidden in the wider Greek world). Later the library scholar Herophalus performed medical exams on dead human bodies, elevating the science of anatomy. Herophalus’ sacrilege was tolerated because the Egyptian embalming tradition gradually influenced Ptolemaic Greeks towards a more lax view to human dissection. Again we note the creative virility of the symbiotic relationship of two quite different cultures, existing stably, in mutual influence.

Of the many poets residing at the library there are three of greatest fame for masters of Hellenistic verse: Callimachus, Apollonius of Rhodes, and Theocritus. Of astronomers there is Hipparchus, who figured out the path of stars, and length of solar year while in Alexandria. Aritostenes figured out the circumference of the earth while studying there, by examining the length of cast shadows at certain times of day about sun-drenched Alexandria. He calculated this to an accuracy within 200 miles. The astronomer Aristarchus devised the first heliocentric model of the solar system (the known universe). Later the Mouseion-educated mathematician and astronomer Claudius Ptolemy (no relation) wrote his three influential treatises on astronomy, geography and astrology. Developing what we famously know now as the Ptoelemaic system of astronomy.

Overall Alexandrian research was strongly centred towards mathematics. Among mathematicians under Ptolemaic patronage the most famous was the inventor Archimedes (inventor of the Archimedes screw), the polymath Eratosthenes, and the greatest geometrist of all time, Euclid. After studying at the library of Alexandria Euclid published his great text, The Elements, that immediately superseded all previous geometric literature to that date. And remains the foundation of that science today. It was Euclid’s access to the bibliothekai that allowed him to codify the collected results of basic theorems postulated by others through the centuries. Legend has it that when Euclid showed his work to the pharaoh, he was asked if there was any shortcut to understanding his work, to which Euclid replied there is no royal road to geometry.

As well as poetry and mathematics matters of philosophy and religion were treated with equal reverence, study, and proselytism. Many ancient texts became at this point translated into Greek, including the Septuagint translation of bible, which made the story accessible to others. This is the primary Greek translation of the Old Testament, also known as the Greek Old Testament. Again, this work was done purely out of intellectual (also historical and spiritual) interest. To catalogue, examine, and learn from all available ancient sources. In this sense the pagan religious view had its advantages, in its ability to honestly assess other religions without offending it’s own dogmas, in a way monotheisms generally are not. To again address the strange nature of dichotomy and symbiosis, we might note the cultural invigoration that results from an united catalyst, where the combined efforts to know all things in a spiritual context of understanding unites disciplines such as poetic literature and mathematics in common purpose, which we would today might find unusual. They did not seem to share our quandary over the division of physical and metaphysical, or materialistic and spiritual. Astronomy and astrology were equally venerated, even if the latter were more open to interpretation, or understood to be spiritually speculative. Very seldom, if at all, in the ancient world do we see overt supplications to atheism or hard materialism. And that is despite it being a world where the main gods changed with generations, and the good ones became evil, and vise versa, and new kings invented new gods altogether. All the many studied disciplines at Alexandria, from anatomy to Platonism to topography, were interwoven in a tapestry of mutual educative striving, beneath the hierarchy of the Pharaonic society, and were not the mutually exclusive and warring cultural scientific/artistic/religious disciplines we practice today. The monarchic system itself, quite alien to us now, was also woven into this mesh as the unquestionable order, the foundational bedrock supporting the pursuit of high culture. We are reminded of these more esoteric and archaic foundations in the name Alexandria itself. For let us not forget, the city was named after the great godking Alexander, who created it, and all that followed, upon the basis of a vision.

Of specifically philosophy and mysticism, Alexandria nourished Neopythagoreanism, Middle Platonism, Neoplatonism, Theurgy, and Gnosticism, all of which flourished and were studied and transcribed by busy scholars under patronage of the Ptolemies over the centuries. In the name of these mystic and rational philosophies, and to the copying of scribes, and to the boundless ideas therein represented, we may also pay our respects to the memory of this golden classical city. The Greek kings in Egypt created for the idealistic endeavour of expanding comprehension itself.

Abstractly speaking, the library, acting as a storehouse of philosophy, religions, history, and science, secured beyond its finite physical existence its sacred purpose – the dissemination of knowledge across distance and time. Many manuscripts that were ancient in Ptolemy’s day survive down to us thanks to the purposeful copying, as well as the travelling, and the devoted teaching. In this way the historic reverberations of the library, as historic milestone, issue about recorded history like ripples upon the surface of water – reaching ever outward, causing counter-ripples.

The decline and fall of this institution was synonymous with that of the Ptolemies themselves. The precise cause of destruction are lost to time amid conflicting reports, and is often a controversial subject, beginning with the rise of Rome in that region.

Roman primary interest in Egypt was always the reliable delivery of grain to the city of Rome. To this end the Roman administration made no essential change to the Ptolemaic system of government, however they were in all but name subjugated before the powerful new empire. The Romans, like the Ptolemies, respected and protected Egyptian religion and customs, although the cult of the Roman state and of the Emperor was gradually introduced. The great library was at least in part burned accidentally by Julius Caesar in 48 BC. But there are accounts of its existence by notable visitors who accessed its resources around 20 BC. However, overall, it dwindled during the roman period, and suffered from a lack of funding after the Ptolemaic dynasty ended with the death of Cleopatra.

Around 270 AD the library may have been destroyed further in a rebellion. By 400 AD paganism was outlawed and the The Serapeum was demolished by Christians under orders from pope Theophilus of Alexandria, but it may not have housed many books at that time, and was primarily a meeting place for NeoPlatonist philosophers following Iamblichus. In 616 AD the Persians conquered, and this was followed in the same century by Arab conquest, and whatever remained then of the library was finally destroyed for good in their sacking of the city by the order of Caliph Omar.

Whatever had remained of the collection at that point was no doubt finally lost. But as all things have a finite material existence, they do also contain within them a portion which belongs to the infinite. That virtuous intellectual Platonic Form, which the library of Alexandria was in imitation of, lives on eternally.

The library.

Which is the true posterity of the Ptolemaic project: namely the accumulation of ancient texts, the widespread theorizing and practice of new knowledge based on them, and the respect for patronaged thinking as a vocation. These virtuous ideas did not die out, but seeded future incarnations.

So that on this very day, you can read on the internet my own humble interpretation of the work that took place in Alexandria from 305 to 30 BC, under the orders of the Alexandrain somatophylax and Pharaoh Ptolemy.

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