In early 304 BC, Alexander the Great’s former Bodyguard Ptolemy was crowned pharaoh of Egypt, thus becoming the first person to receive that honor since Alexander himself 27 years earlier. This latest crowning marked the culmination of a long process of calculation and triangulation on the part of Ptolemy.
Both before and after the coronation, the reign of Ptolemy in Egypt was a study in carefully negotiated contradiction. On the one hand, he was an unrepentant and thoroughgoing Greek chauvinist, in that way that perhaps only a man from Macedonia rather than Greece proper could be. He took as a given the superiority of Greek philosophy, art, and literature over those of all other lands. In Egypt, he and his court lived in a bubble, isolated from the people they ruled. He never even made any effort to learn the Egyptian language — for when a man could speak and read Greek, what need had he of any other, less perfect form of communication?
The Egyptians were used to this; their country had been ruled by various semi-contemptuous outsiders at various times since the period which historians now refer to as its New Kingdom had ended in 1069 BC, marking the end of the glory years of pharaonic Egypt. Ptolemy proved unique, however, in that he found a way to remain apart from his subjects without embracing, whether purposefully or inadvertently, the role of foreign oppressor. Grecophile though he was, he recognized the intrinsic potency of Egypt’s rich and impossibly long history, as personified by the pharaonic iconography of old. His court, even his personal mode of dress, took on more and more of its trappings during the years after his victory over Perdiccas, gradually acclimatizing his subjects to his eventual assumption of the title of pharaoh. Likewise, he sought to blend the religious milieus of Greece and Egypt, even though they were very different on the surface — the Greek gods being individual, rambunctious, and ironically human in their fallibility, the Egyptian gods more stately and strange, fundamentally inhuman and therefore unknowable. If the blending was by no means seamless, it did benefit immensely from the live-and-let-live quality of pagan religion, so foreign to our modern, more dogmatic sensibilities: there were remarkably few Spanish Inquisitions in pagan cultures, for the worship of one god or set of gods seldom precluded the worship of others. Thus Egypt could have its traditional religious cake and eat Greek religion too.
It’s tempting to ascribe Ptolemy’s willingness to “go native” where it suited his agenda to the example of Alexander the Great, who had used exactly the same approach, albeit on an accelerated time scale, in getting himself crowned pharaoh in 331 BC. But it must also be remembered that Ptolemy presumably visited Egypt alongside Alexander on that occasion; although he isn’t mentioned in any of the ancient chronicles of this first, brief Macedonian sojourn in the land of the pharaohs, we do have reason to believe that he traveled with Alexander’s army constantly from the time it left Macedonia until the monarch’s death in Babylon. And Ptolemy was known throughout those journeys as an older voice of wisdom and restraint whispering into the ear of the sometimes impetuous young king. It’s therefore perfectly reasonable to ask who was really influencing whom during Alexander’s time in Egypt.
Regardless, there can be no doubt that Ptolemy pulled off the triangulation magnificently when it became his own turn to rule Egypt. To be sure, Ptolemaic Egypt was no beacon of egalitarianism or social justice by modern lights, but it is by no means the only land in the course of history to have had one language and set of standards for its rulers and other elites, another for its everyday people. Like most multicultural societies, not to mention rigidly hierarchical ones, Ptolemaic Egypt had its share of internal tensions, but it would manage to hold together for almost three centuries in the face of the ethnic and cultural prejudices that threatened constantly to rip it apart.
Even as he was working to bring his vision of a Grecian Egypt to fruition internally, Ptolemy also had cause to worry about external events. The death of Perdiccas brought more rather than less chaos to the regions which Alexander the Great had so briefly ruled. Having lost their protector, the manifestly inadequate co-kings Philip III and Alexander IV didn’t stand a chance against the remaining Bodyguards. Philip III was executed in 317 BC; Alexander IV almost made it to adulthood against all the odds, but was killed along with his mother Roxana in 309 BC.
Ptolemy was not directly responsible for either death; judicious as ever, he largely stayed clear of the free-for-all that was going on elsewhere. Unlike the man whose body he had stolen, he had no ambition to rule the world; he was content simply to rule Egypt, one of its richest lands. He did push into territory west and east of the boundaries of Egypt, but only far enough to create a buffer against his most aggressive rivals and to secure the trade routes on which the Egyptian economy depended. Still, one of his strategic moves in this vein will have major implications for our story in due course: he took for his own the land of Judea in the region known as Palestine, along with its capital city of Jerusalem, the epicenter of an obscure and contrary religion known as Judaism.
By the time of Ptolemy’s coronation as pharaoh, the chaos which had followed Alexander the Great’s death was settling into four relatively stable empires. A man named Cassender, the son of the regent Alexander had left behind in Macedonia when he set out on his journey of conquest, ruled Macedonia itself and mainland Greece; a Bodyguard named Antigonus ruled the Mediterranean coast of Asia and the region of Thrace in southeastern Europe; another Bodyguard named Seleucus ruled Mesopotamia and other, still more distant eastern lands; and Ptolemy himself ruled Egypt and other scattered territories in northern Africa and southwestern Asia. And on the whole, that arrangement suited Ptolemy just fine. He was often at war with one or more of his rivals, but said wars were no longer existential in nature.
We don’t know exactly what form his coronation as pharaoh took, nor even on exactly what date it took place, but we can imagine that it must have been quite the spectacle indeed. Personally, I like to picture a bookish, balding, slightly pudgy man — Ptolemy was already 63 years of age at the time — who looks a little incongruous amidst all the pomp and circumstance, who definitely does not cut the same figure that the youthful Alexander did upon his crowning. We can assume that the coronation took place in Memphis, given that city’s long association with Egyptian monarchy, but can imagine that the procession sailed down the Nile in full regalia thereafter to Alexandria. Perhaps the body of Alexander even traveled with them to take up residence in the suitable tomb that the faithful Dinocrates had by now prepared for him. (While various ancient sources mention that a tomb of Alexander existed in his namesake city, neither its date of construction nor its precise location or even appearance are known to us today.) Surely the idea of having Alexander accompany him on this day of days would have been enormously appealing for Ptolemy, being a way to unify the traditions of Egypt with the Greek traditions personified by the great conqueror, and to cast himself as the heir to all of them.
Such things were important to Ptolemy, for he really was an intellectual at heart, much taken with the philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. He drew his theory of good government from the Republic, a transcript of discussions on the subject which the young Plato supposedly heard his mentor Socrates hold with various interlocutors in Athens. No lovers of democracy even though they lived in its birthplace, Socrates and Plato described the ideal ruler as a learned and thoughtful “philosopher king” who enjoyed total power, but who exercised it wisely — exercised it with no regard for the vicissitudes of fashion or politics, but always for the benefit of a populace who might otherwise struggle to determine its own best interest.
Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils — no, nor the human race, as I believe — and then only will this our [ideal] state have a possibility of life and behold the light of day.
So, Ptolemy intended to become the patriarch of a line of enlightened, unabashedly intellectual philosopher kings in the image of the Republic. And for a time at least the experiment would actually prove a success. Indeed, Ptolemaic Egypt stands as one of the great transformations of theory into practice in political history, akin to the founding of the United States on the philosophies of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, or of the Soviet Union on that of Karl Marx.
In the spirit of Plato, Ptolemy intended to make Egypt — more particularly Alexandria — the intellectual capital of the world, if for no other reason than to ensure that he and his successors would always have a rich reservoir of philosophy to draw upon. Therefore he set out to build in Alexandria a museum, and within the museum a library the likes of which the world had never known. The combined institution was, writes Will Durant, “the first establishment ever set up by a state for the promotion of literature and science. It was the distinctive contribution of the Ptolemies and Alexandria to the history of civilization.”
The term “museum” requires a bit of unpacking in this context. The word literally translates to “place of the Muses.” In Greek mythology, the Muses were the divinities who inspired literature, art, philosophy, and all other forms of intellectual and/or creative human endeavor. Thus a “place of the Muses” was a place meant to forward such things. In the interest of its mission, it might very well include beautiful and/or significant objects of the sort that we expect to find in our museums of today, but it was much, much more than a collection of musty exhibits: it was a gathering place for creative thinkers to bounce ideas off one another and find inspiration in one another’s company. In looking for more familiar points of comparison, we might think of the Royal Society in Britain, which played such an important role in the establishment of the modern practice of science during the Enlightenment. Or, to put things in an even more contemporary frame, we might draw a comparison with the modern institution of the think tank.
Ptolemy’s own model for his museum was the Lyceum, a longstanding green space just outside the walls of Athens that we would likely refer to as a public park today. In 334 BC, it was partially repurposed by Aristotle as a haven for philosophy, in the hope that it would enable a continuance of the legacy of Socrates, Plato, and himself after his death. Here the aging sage walked and talked with the students whom he was counting on to carry on his work, and here he collected and exhibited “curiosities,” from exotic animals to unusual works of art, many of them sent to him by his former pupil Alexander the Great from foreign lands. Likewise, here he collected books of all stripes, for Aristotle most definitely did not share Socrates’s quaint belief that wisdom could only be imparted through the back-and-forth of in-person discussion. His Lyceum would survive for centuries after his death in 322 BC, just as he had hoped it would. Yet neither it nor its host city of Athens would continue to reign supreme and unchallenged in the realm of the intellect, for Ptolemy was about to create an even grander version of the same vision in Alexandria. To do so, he would need a library of his own — an even bigger one.
This concept of a library could also benefit from some linguistic unpacking. Our English word “library,” which is derived from liber, the Latin word for “book,” has a different etymology than the word used by most European languages. These others hew to some variation of bibliotheca, a Latinized Greek word which literally means “shelves of books.” Before we go further with the concept, then, we might ask ourselves what we really mean when we talk about a shelf of books in 300 BC.
Said books were, first of all, nothing like the bound books we know today; those would not be invented until shortly after the time of Jesus Christ. In their absence, people came up with various alternative containers for written characters, their solutions inevitably having much to do with the natural resources they had to hand. The ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia, the very first people to develop a system of writing as far as we know, began carving their texts into clay tablets at some time well before 3000 BC, and this practice remained the norm in Mesopotamia for thousands of years thereafter. But the ancient Egyptians, who were probably the second people to create a written form of their language, having probably borrowed the idea from their trading partners to the east, didn’t have a surfeit of clay suitable for the purpose. So, they invented paper instead, making it from the reeds of the papyrus plants which grew wild in great quantities on the banks of the Nile.
Papyrus paper is quite simple to make. One begins by slicing stalks of papyrus into thin strips of equal length. Some of these are then lined up vertically on a flat surface, each strip touching both of its neighbors. Then another layer of strips is set on top in the same fashion, albeit running horizontally rather than vertically this time. Finally, a flat, fairly heavy object is set on top of it all and left there for a period of some hours. The pressure releases natural juices in the papyrus which act as an adhesive, binding the strips into a single contiguous sheet of paper that can be written on with ease using a sharpened reed dipped into some form of ink; the latter substance might be made by mixing the black carbon residue left behind by an oil lamp with water. The Egyptians soon began gluing the individual sheets of papyrus paper together, top to bottom, to make longer rolls; these became their equivalent to our modern books thousands of years before the invention of book-binding.
Papyrus rolls had one clear disadvantage in comparison to clay tablets: whereas the latter were remarkably durable, robust enough to withstand even floods and fires on occasion, the former were fragile. For this reason, a far larger percentage of the ancient clay-tablet than the papyrus-roll corpus has survived to the present day.
In every other sense, however, papyrus paper was the vastly superior medium. While the inherent clumsiness of carving figures into clay made the cuneiform writing of Mesopotamia an unlovely, ofttimes well-nigh indecipherable aggregation of lines — the phrase “chicken scratch” is often used to describe it — the hieroglyphic texts of Egypt can be beautiful to look at even if one has no idea what they mean, being full of delicate curves and flourishes and even admitting the possibility of color for the sufficiently ambitious scribe. And in addition to their superior aesthetics, papyrus texts were quicker to create, and also lighter and more compact. Even many peoples that started out using other materials for writing, such as the ancient Greeks, switched to papyrus paper almost as soon as they came into contact with it; only Mesopotamia and the lands immediately surrounding it persisted with clay tablets beyond about 1000 BC. Because papyrus grew in abundance only on the banks of the Nile, Egypt became the Mediterranean’s principal paper supplier, a status which persisted long after its native literary culture had been eclipsed by that of Greece.
The commercial value of anything in human society is a function of its scarcity and, for finished objects, the amount of labor required to produce it. Although it was easier to write with pen and ink on papyrus paper than it was to carve words into clay tablets, these things are of course relative: I can hardly emphasize enough just how valuable books were during classical times and for many centuries afterward. Prior to the invention of the printing press in AD 1440, every book was a bespoke objet d’art, the product of many hours of labor by the skilled scribe who had copied it out by hand. Few people had the wherewithal to own all that many books, even if they were among the tiny minority of the population literate enough to read them. It’s true that by 300 BC booksellers had become a common sight on the streets of cosmopolitan cities like Babylon, Athens, and Alexandria, selling copies of the philosophical works of Plato and Aristotle alongside the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides and the epics of Homer, the most perennially popular of all ancient authors. The men of wealth who frequented such shops, however, quickly exhausted the limited inventory they kept on hand, and after that could usually aspire to acquire only a handful of books per year. For collecting any but the most commonplace texts required commissioning a scribe to make a new copy from an older one, assuming that the desired volume could be located and borrowed at all. The process of acquiring books was thus subject always to the vagaries of chance, and even in the best case could come complete with a waiting time of months or years. All of this presented an obvious problem for scholars who wished to build upon the literature of the past, and who were often not particularly wealthy. They craved libraries: collections of shared books that could be borrowed and read by many people over the course of many years, thereby making much more efficient use of a precious societal resource.
The first people to create libraries were probably the Mesopotamians. At Nippur, a city that stood about 70 miles (113 kilometers) southeast of Babylon, archaeologists have recovered what may be the world’s first library catalog, dating from approximately 2000 BC; it consists of a simple list of the 87 titles in what would appear to have been a public collection of books. Similar catalogs abound in the later cuneiform clay-tablet corpus, betraying more and more detailed methods of organization as they grow in length. (The librarians had need of good organizational skills, given the physical form of the books they dealt with; the phrase “library stacks” takes on a whole new meaning in the context of a library of clay tablets.) In later centuries at least, it became possible to borrow these books and take them home. Harshly worded injunctions against losing or damaging them, threatening the wrath of the gods rather than the monetary fees with which we modern library patrons are familiar, are commonplace. “He who fears Anu and Antu will take care of [this book] and respect it,” reads one. “In the name of Nabu and Marduk, do not rub out the text!” reads another.
There were doubtless libraries of one sort or another in Egypt and Greece as well prior to the time of Alexander the Great, but the fragility of papyrus rolls means that we know nothing about them. The first public library in Greece for which we do have clear evidence is the one set up by Aristotle for the use of scholars at the Lyceum in Athens. It was thus only natural for Ptolemy to make an Alexandrian library a major priority a short time later, when he set up his own museum in the image of the Lyceum. In fact, he may have hired a man named Demetrius, who had previously served as the Lyceum’s librarian, to become the first to take on the same job in Alexandria.
We know that the Library of Alexandria stood near the palace from which Ptolemy ruled, as did the rest of the museum. Beyond that, though, we know nothing whatsoever about the building’s external appearance. Within, books in the form of papyrus rolls were likely stacked on shelves, with each roll having a tag on its end describing the work and its author. In the early years, there was no systematic method of organizing the collection; this made the aid of the librarians themselves, who held the whole thing in their heads using an ancient talent for memorization that’s deserted most of us modern souls, absolutely essential for finding anything at all.
The profession of librarian in Alexandria was very prestigious and, one has to assume, well-compensated. In 284 BC, the Ptolemaic government initiated the practice of appointing one scholar of great distinction to the lifetime post of Head Librarian; such an appointment might be compared to the awarding of a Nobel Prize today. Zenodotus, a man notable for having edited and synthesized many divergent versions of Homer into a text substantially the same as the one we know today, became the first Head Librarian, and promptly invented the principle of alphabetization for keeping track of a rapidly growing collection.
A notable Alexandrian poet named Callimachus, whom we’ll meet again in a later chapter, was the first to sort the library’s holdings by category during the middle of the third century BC. Seeing that the ever-expanding collection of scrolls was now proving difficult even for the prodigious memories of the librarians to contain, he decided to record every volume in the library’s collection within a single book. Lionel Casson, a modern scholar of library history, describes how he proceeded:
He made an initial basic division into poetry and prose, and broke each down into subdivisions. For poetry there was a table of dramatic poets, with a breakdown into a sub-table of writers of tragedy and another of the writers of comedy; a table of epic poets; a table of lyric poets, and so on. For prose writers there was a table of philosophers, of orators, of historians, of writers on medicine, even a “miscellaneous table” (this is where cookbooks were listed). Each table contained names of authors in alphabetical order. Each author had a brief biographical sketch that included his father’s name, birthplace, and sometimes a nickname — useful details for distinguishing him from other writers with the same name. After the biographical sketch came a list of the author’s works in alphabetical order — which in many cases must have gone on for column after column.
Among the volumes which eventually appeared in the catalog was one entitled Against Callimachus’s Library Lists. With admirable impartiality, Callimachus filed it alongside the rest.
The library’s hunger for books was insatiable. It came to see itself as a repository of all the books — of all the knowledge — in the world. It thus commissioned agents to travel the world and purchase whatever new books they could find. The librarians even went out to the ships that docked in the harbors of Alexandria, to search them for books and seize any unfamiliar ones; if the owner of one of these was lucky, the library would pay a scribe to make a copy for him, whilst confiscating the original for its collection. Soon the number of books in the Library of Alexandria dwarfed those in the Lyceum. In less than a century’s time, the Alexandrian collection would grow to more than half a million books.
But strictly speaking, the library remained a mere adjunct to the museum, an institution that’s far less remembered today. In its time, though, it was just as extraordinary. As with the library, we know painfully few details about its functioning, but we do know that Ptolemy designed it to draw the best and the brightest minds to his burgeoning capital and to let them think, write, and experiment there, free of all of the everyday pressures of life. And it most definitely succeeded in this goal: Alexandria’s ascendancy to intellectual supremacy over even Athens occurred with breathtaking speed.
There must have been some process of application to join the museum — a process which must have been akin to applying to Harvard or Oxford in our own time. But, once again, we know no details about it. After one was accepted, it became a privileged life indeed: free room and board, a comfortable salary, even complete tax exemption, all while one worked in as complete an atmosphere of intellectual freedom as any tenured professor of today could ask for. Ptolemy doted personally on his savants, dropping in frequently to sit in on their debates. All of this spawned inevitable resentment from those stuck outside the ivory tower; their satirical critiques ring all too familiar to us modern souls. One scoffer wrote of “cloistered bookworms” penned in a “chicken coop of the Muses,” another of “the scribbling bookworms who are found in Egypt’s populous nation, in endless debate as they flock around the Muses’ feeding station.”
The naysayers may have had a certain amount of truth on their side; a lot of nonsense probably went on inside the museum, just as it does inside the universities of today. Nevertheless, a parade of truly important thinkers passed through the museum and its library over the course of centuries, reshaping humanity’s view of itself and the world in ways that resonate down to this day.
(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)