Sunday, February 13, 2011

News on the Serapeum

OK, it's not exactly hot off the press, but an article in the Journal of Roman Studies 94 (2004) 73 - 121, Reconstructing the Serapeum in Alexandria from Archaeological Evidence by Judith McKenzie et al, is certainly of interest to Alexandrian Library watchers.

As we know, the persistent story that Christians destroyed the Great Library of Alexandria comes from Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He mistakenly assumed that there was a library in the Serapeum when it was destroyed by a Christian mob in 391AD. There was once a library there, but it had disappeared before the mob arrived, so it is not mentioned in any of the various accounts of the destruction.

The earliest mention of the Serapeum library is a comment by Tertullian in 197AD (chapter 18 of his Apology) that the copies of the Septuagint can be found there. It is often assumed that this library had been founded by Ptolemy II in the third century BC but this is not explicitly stated in any source until after 1000AD. So, what light can the archaeology of the Serapeum shed on the question?

The first point to note is that two temples were built on the site. The first was constructed by Ptolemy III and is securely dated to his reign by dedicatory inscriptions. This burnt down in 181AD in what seems to have been an accidental fire. The new Roman foundation was much larger and was complete by 217AD. To me, it looks likely that the library dates from this period and was a new addition to the rebuilt and expanded temple. We know from later literary sources that it was not housed in the inner temple, but in the colonnades that surrounded it.

Under the temple, passages have been found that contain niches. It has been romantically suggested that these niches might once have been used to store scrolls from the library, most recently by Richard Miles in his, otherwise excellent, TV show Ancient Worlds. In fact, these niches appear to be part of a mausoleum, perhaps for mummified animals. In other locations, similar niches have been found to contain animal bones.

Of the destruction of the Serapeum in 391AD, archaeology confirms that it was only the temple within the precinct that was razed. The great colonnade remained standing for another 700 years before it was dismantled by Saladin to prove masonry to defend the city from crusaders. Thus, while the archaeology does not tell us what actually happened to the library, it does nothing to contradict the conclusion that it was not destroyed in 391AD as Edward Gibbon had supposed.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


TheOFloinn said...

That explains how Evagrius Scholasticus could write regarding the riots of AD 457 some 67 years after the Serapeum was destroyed:
"Thus Priscus, the rhetorician, recounts, that he arrived at Alexandria from the Thebaid, and that he saw the populace advancing in a mass against the magistrates: that when the troops attempted to repress the tumult, they proceeded to assail them with stones, and put them [the troops] to flight, and on their taking refuge in the old temple of Serapis, carried the place by assault, and committed them alive to the flames: that the emperor, when informed of these events, dispatched two thousand newly levied troops, etc. etc.

Bookworm said...

Perhaps part of the confusion arises because temples, especially Egyptian ones where the priests were highly literate, housed their own sacred texts. Hard to distinguish these collections form other 'libraries'. In the destruction of eight pagan temples in Gaza in the early fifth century, it is well documented ( Life of Porphyry) that 'magic books' were sought out and destroyed so there is no reason to suppose that any similar texts in the Serapeum would not have met the same fate.

Andrew Brew said...

...except that there is no mention in any of the contemporary sources that they did (meet the same fate), or indeed that there were any such texts on the premises.

bookworm said...

I was careful to use the word'perhaps'. The Gaza evidence from 25 years later makes it quite clear that Christians did target and destroy what they termed 'magic books'. Of course, we cannot be sure without further specific evidence if the rebuilt Serapeum held 'magic books' but it would be unusual if it did not as there are quite a lot of cases of priests consulting temple archives when asked for information. The only point that I want to raise was that if there were rumours about the destruction of the Alexandrian Library, they might in fact refer to papyrus rolls from the temple archives that were being destroyed.I suspect that this is one of those specific cases that we will never be able to say for certain even if we do have well documented evidence for destruction of 'magic books' happening in other contexts. So I am leaving the question open.

TheOFloinn said...

The Gaza evidence from 25 years later makes it quite clear that Christians did target and destroy what they termed 'magic books'.

Did not Augustus Caesar target and destroy 'magic books' on a much grander scale back in the day? And of course, Diocletian and his colleagues famously burned all the Christian books they could lay hands on.

But that charge has always been that the Christians destroyed books of classical learning, not the books that told the priests which magical red hat to wear or which rattle to shake.

Anonymous said...

Well, isn't this what Bookworm is saying - that reports of book burning linked to temples are more likely to be of 'magic texts' rather than classical works?

Peter said...

In the post you make the distinction between the
temple within the precinct and the
great colonnade.

Some place I've read about fortress walls around Serapeum. Were these fortress walls something different from the colonnade. What I've read is that in 391, the walls around Serapeum were destroyed so that the temple couldn't be used as a fortress any more.
Any comments to this?

Drastic Plastic said...

Glad you're keeping up an interest in this one. It's a persistent legend.

You probably saw my posts which showed that Bar Hebraeus was merely reprinting an older Arabic source?

Peter said...

It was not on your blog, but somewhere I can't find just now.

James said...


I haven't seen that. Please could you post a link.

The collonade and "walls" would have been one and the same but I can't recall the source that Peter mentions.

Best wishes