How Many Books Did The Library Of Alexandria Have?

The Library of Alexandria is considered one of the most remarkable creations of the ancient world. It was conceived by scholar and exiled governor of Athens, Demetrius of Phalerum, who imagined a “universal library” in the city center, where any scholar could have access to large swaths of information with which to research and learn. The Egyptian King Ptolemy I Soter supported this idea, making Demetrius his advisor and giving him the resources and budget “to collect, if possible, all the books in the world,” and to fill “his library with the writings of all men as far as they were worth serious attention,” via Britannica.

According to Book Riot, construction began on the library around 295 BCE, and Demetrius set about acquiring books from the book markets in Athens and Rhodes, as well as confiscating books found aboard ships that docked in the Alexandria harbor. Soon, the library contained over half a million documents from places as far away as Assyria, Persia, Greece, and India, and employed over 100 scholars, according to The Ohio State University. The collection grew so large that the library even expanded to include a second branch at the Temple of Serapis at Alexandria.

Some scholars claim the Library of Alexandria could have contained as many as 700,000 books

Demetrius’ goal was to acquire a copy of every book in the world, and while he may not have succeeded in that, he did manage to create the largest library in the ancient world and turned Alexandria into one of the greatest global intellectual and cultural centers. While the number of books that were acquired is undoubtedly high, there is some historical disagreement on just how many books the Library of Alexandria housed. According to Book Riot, the ancient library contained between 200,000 and 700,000 books across two locations, covering wide-ranging topics on everything from law, history, and medicine, to rhetoric, lyric poetry, and comedy.

However, World History believes that number is far too large to be accurate, claiming that the library likely could not have had even 500,000 books. Instead, some scholars argue that the larger number was inflated by counting the number of papyrus rolls it took to make up the books that were housed inside the Library of Alexandria. The daughter library alone contained 42,800 scrolls that were simply copies of the originals that were held in the main branch, as well as housing overflow texts that simply could not fit in the library proper.

The Library of Alexandria was burned in 48 BC

Regardless of whether it was 200,000, 500,000 or even 700,000 books, there is no doubt that the sheer amount of knowledge that was contained in the vast library during its peak was certainly impressive. Unfortunately, many of those books and scrolls were lost when, in the midst of the civil war between Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII, none other than Julius Caesar set fire to a fleet of Egyptian ships that were docked in the Alexandria harbor, according to The Ohio State University. The fire spread into the city, and the great Library of Alexandria was burned to the ground. Although the branch at the Temple of Serapis did manage to survive the fire, it, too, was destroyed in 391 CE, after Christianity took over the empire. In an effort to erase all traces of paganism, Emperor Theodosius I had the Temple and all of its contents, including the library, destroyed and ordered a church to be built in its place, according to Britannica.

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