Everybody Knows that Christians Destroyed the Library of Alexandria

And everybody is wrong.

Here’s honest atheist Tim O’Neill at his History for Atheists site, doing some badly needed demolition of a beloved urban legend that, while it certainly has gotten mileage in shaming Christians for the crime of being violent partisans of ignorance and folly in the supposed War on Reason, Science, and Knowledge, has the unfortunate disadvantage of not being true at all.

Here’s the salient snippet, but do read the whole thing if you want to get a sense of the sheer scope of the gullibility of which those who imagine themselves opposed to gullibility are capable when it suits their rhetorical needs, their prejudices, and their peers.

The End of the Serapeum and the Beginning of the Myth

While the Great Library was never as large as some of the more fanciful accounts allege, it is clear that its holdings were large enough that at least some of them were stored outside of the Mouseion.  As already noted, this is probably why Caesar’s burning of the dock area was seen as destroying the library collection and why there were at least two “daughter libraries” in the city – one in the Kaisarion or Temple of Caesar, another in the Serapion or Serapeum, the Temple of Serapis and possibly a third.  Serapis was a Greek-Egyptian hybrid deity, combining Zeus and Osiris, and his cult and temple were extremely popular in Ptolemaic Alexandria.  The Ptolemaic temple burned down sometime in the second century AD and was rebuilt in magnificent style and it is possible that its library was established then.  Tertullian mentions that this library included copies of the Old Testament (Tertullian, Apology, 13) and Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis, notes that it was an annex of the Mouseion’s collection, saying “later another library was built in the Serapeum …. which was called the daughter of the first one” (Epiphanius, Weights and Measures, 11).  In 391 AD the Serapeum was indeed torn down by Roman soldiers and a Christian mob and it is here, finally, that we find the seed of the myth.  There is no “fire” involved and it is this daughter library that was supposedly destroyed not the Great Library itself, which had ceased to exist by this point, but the myth is cobbled together from this episode and some garbled reflections of the story of Caesar’s fire.

The problem, however, is that there is no evidence that the Serapeum still contained any library by 391 AD and some good evidence indicating that it did not.

When the mythic version of the story of the destruction of the Serapeum gets told it usually begins without explaining why the temple was attacked.  These retellings focus on the supposed destruction of its library, so they tend to assume that the mob was there simply because they hated learning.  But several accounts of the end of the temple note that it came as the climax of a series of attacks by pagans on Christians in reaction to the desecration of pagan idols.  Sozomen’s account details what happened next:

They killed many of the Christians, wounded others, and seized the Serapion, a temple which was conspicuous for beauty and vastness and which was seated on an eminence. This they converted into a temporary citadel; and hither they conveyed many of the Christians, put them to the torture, and compelled them to offer sacrifice. Those who refused compliance were crucified, had both legs broken, or were put to death in some cruel manner. When the sedition had prevailed for some time, the rulers came and urged the people to remember the laws, to lay down their arms, and to give up the Serapion (Sozomen, History of the Church, VII.15)

Sozomen was writing in the following century and, as a Christian, may not be reliable on the lurid details, but Socrates Scholasticus, writing a little closer to the events, confirms that many Christians were killed in the unrest.  A stand-off followed, with Roman troops surrounding the temple while negotiations went on with the pagan militants inside.  This situation must have continued for many weeks, as a petition went to the emperor in Constantinople about the siege and Theodosius ruled that the pagans should be pardoned for their murders and allowed to leave but that the temple should be demolished.  Angry at this compromise, as the soldiers began to carry out the order, the Christian mob joined in the destruction, and made sure the great idol of Serapis was also destroyed.

We have no less than five accounts of the destruction of the Serapeum – Rufinius Tyrannius, Socrates Scholasticus, Sozomen, Theodoret and Eunapius of Antioch – which is rare in ancient history and actually makes this one of the best documented events in the period.  What is significant about them is that not one of them mentions a library.  Some try to argue that the Christian chroniclers would be ashamed of the crime of destroying the last remnant of the Great Library and so hushed it up in their accounts.  This argument is hard to sustain.  Firstly, Christian historians of the time did record other shameful acts against pagans, including the assassination of Hypatia, so at least one or two of the four Christians who describe the end of the Serapeum could be expected to at least lament the loss of a library.  Socrates Scholasticus, who condemned the death of Hypatia, was a Novatian “heretic” and thus no fan of the bishop Theophilus, who urged on the crowd at the temple’s demolition, yet he makes no mention of a library.  Even more significantly, Eunapius of Antioch was a pagan, a scholar and a vehement anti-Christian, so had every reason to condemn any destruction of a library, yet he too makes no mention of it.  That great defender of New Atheist bad history, the inevitable Richard Carrier, has attempted to dismiss this silence by Eunapius by blithely claiming that “his account is too brief”. Carrier assures his online fan club “[a]ll he describes is the raid on its pagan statues, and some vague looting otherwise. His concern is clearly with the offense to the gods”.  This is, as usual with Carrier, total nonsense.  Eunapius’ account in his Lives of the Philosophers runs to 548 words in English translation. Of these, a full 245 are not about pagan statues etc, but are devoted wholly to detailed denigration of the ignorant Christian monks who destroyed the temple. He calls them “men in appearance (who) led the lives of swine”, says they “fettered the human race to the worship of slaves” and mocks them for their worship of martyrs’ relics and their general stupidity. Given that around 40% of his account is taken up with this scorning and mocking of these monks, it is still very strange that this scholar neglects to mention in his condemnation that these ignorant oafs also happened to destroy one of the best libraries in the world.

The lack of any mention of a library is most likely explained by concluding that it was no longer there by 391 AD.  Temples had begun to be starved of funds with the conversion of the emperors of Christianity and the slower but gradual conversion of many rich patrons and city benefactors.  The Serapeum survived most of the fourth century, but it is very likely that the expense of maintaining an extensive library would have been a strain.  We know that it was ransacked on the orders of the Alexandrian bishop George the Cappodocian c. 360 AD and it is likely the library was looted in this action.  Significantly, writing around 378 AD, Ammianus Marcellinus gave a detailed description of the Serapeum and mentions its libraries using the past tense:

In here have been valuable libraries and the unanimous testimony of ancient records declares that seven hundred thousand books, brought together by the unremitting energy of the Ptolemies, were burned in the Alexandrine War when the city was sacked under the dictator Caesar. (Ammianus, Roman History XXII.16-17)

Ammianus is muddling the Serapeum with the main Mouseion library with his reference to Caesar’s fire and the mythical “700,000” books, but the rest of his description is detailed and unique to his work in many respects.  Other references in his work indicate that he had visited Egypt himself, probably around 363 AD (or three years after the sacking of the temple by Bishop George), so it is highly possible that his account is that of an eye-witness.  This means his use of the past tense about the temple library is significant.  Overall, the idea that there was still any library there when the temple was demolished is dubious at best and almost certainly wrong.

The Muddle of the Myth

The story of the destruction of the Great Library is a positivist fairy tale, cobbled together from disparate elements and bearing almost no relationship to accurate history.  The library was not a secular establishment, it was not as large as is claimed, it was not a particular centre of science and it was not a wellspring of wondrous technology.  Most importantly, it was not destroyed by a crazed Christian mob intent on the destruction of rationally-based knowledge.

The whole idea that the destruction of a single ancient library could have singlehandedly brought on “the Dark Ages” is incoherent, and that’s leaving aside the fact that the whole concept of “the Dark Ages” is gibberish to begin with.  The idea that any ancient library could have survived into the modern era is also ridiculous, given that none of the many other libraries of the time did so. Roger S. Bagnall is characteristically scathing about this silly idea:

It is idle …. to indulge in Gibbon-like reflections as the following claim of Hugh Lloyd-Jones: ‘If this library had survived, the dark ages, despite the dominance of Christianity, might have been a good deal lighter; its loss is one of the greatest of many disasters that accompanied the ruin of the ancient world.’  This is to get things backward.  It is not that the disappearance of a library led to a dark age, not that its survival would have improved those ages. Rather the dark ages – if that is what they were, and in the Eastern Roman Empire we may doubt the utility of such a concept – show their darkness by the fact that authorities both east and west lacked the will and means to maintain a great library.  An unburned building full of decaying books would not have made a particle of difference. (Bagnall, “Alexandria: Library of Dreams”, p.359)

Like all New Atheist pseudo history, the myth of the burning of the Great Library is caricature of the facts, compressed into a moral fable.  Its constant repetition and resistance to any correction is a testament to both the historical illiteracy of the average New Atheist and the ideological zeal with which they cling to convenient fictions.


3 Responses

  1. I’m not so concerned about whether Christians destroyed the Library of Alexandria.
    It’s the indisputable fact that they are destroying our country here and now that sticks in my craw.

  2. “while it certainly has gotten mileage in shaming Christians for the crime …..”
    I despise the concept of collective responsibility. Assuming it is true: then I (a staunch atheist) would be responsible for the Gulag and for the Killing Fields.

Leave a Reply

Follow Mark on Twitter and Facebook

Get updates by email