Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.02.24

Monica Berti, Virgilio Costa, La Biblioteca di Alessandria: storia di un paradiso perduto. Ricerche di filologia, letteratura e storia 10.   Roma:  Edizioni Tored, 2010.  Pp. xvi, 279.  ISBN 9788888617343.  €30.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Alexandra Trachsel, University of Hamburg (


The study on the Library of Alexandria presented in this book is based on the results of the current research projects of the two co-authors. Both scholars are working on fragmentary texts from the Hellenistic period and have edited collections of fragments from ancient authors where the question of the selection and transmission of texts is crucial.1 In addressing this question, the authors have been brought to focus also on the function and the impact of the Library of Alexandria in processes of selection and transmission. Furthermore, both authors are developing their own projects in the field of digital humanities2 and this is an additional reason, as they admit themselves, for their scholarly focus on the Library of Alexandria. The link between these two topics is clearly stated in the first lines of the book and gets fully developed in the last chapter, entitled "Ritorno ad Alessandria." In between, the study offers a very wide panorama, based on an up-to-date bibliography, including both the process which led to the creation of the Library of Alexandria and the activity carried out within this institution. Another distinctive feature of this study, which differentiates it from other works on the Library of Alexandria, is the fact that it is framed by two chapters of a more deliberative nature. The first is a summary of the controversial evidence from Antiquity about the location of the library , while the last one, as just mentioned, draws parallels between the modern projects of "universal libraries" in digital form, such as Europeana and Google Books, and their Alexandrian model from Antiquity.

In the first chapter, "Una giornata ad Alessandria", the authors aim therefore at assembling the pieces of evidence from Antiquity about the setting of the famous library. This allows them to discuss these testimonia in detail and with much discernment in order to specify what these texts say about the library and its setting, where the ambiguities arise and what kind of difficulties the texts still contain. Their focus is on three famous passages: the description of Alexandria in Strabo’s book 17 (17.1.6-10 C 791-795), a passage from Achilles Tatius’s Novel, Leucippe and Clitophon (Ach. Tat. V 1), as an example of the fascination this place has had not only for travellers but also for all kinds of intellectuals, and thirdly an extract from Ammianus Marcellinus’s History (XXII 16.7) written much later, in the 4th century CE. The discussion culminates however by emphasizing the peculiar situation that the Library of Alexandria left no physical traces even though its unmatchable reputation was already established in Antiquity and has influenced the shape and purpose of similar institutions ever since.

In the next three chapters the authors focus on the history of the library. In chapter 2, "Il progetto di fondazione : radunare tutti i libri del mondo", they analyse the visions and ideas which led to the creation of the institution and highlight the link to Aristotelian scholarship. The chapter starts with a discussion of the evidence still available on Aristotle’s library and its destiny. The authors’ method of investigation is again clearly visible as they list all the difficulties and ambiguities those texts leave about the transmission of Aristotle’s library. But in spite of the many unanswered questions, they still are able to highlight the more secure points, as for instance the influence of the Aristotelian method of classification on the Library of Alexandria at the time of its creation. Then, special emphasis is given to Demetrius of Phalerum and the leading part he took in those first important steps, while the role of the first two Ptolemies, without whom the whole undertaking would not have been possible, is also reaffirmed. The authors then come back once again to the question of the setting of the library and focus on the question whether there was only one building, in the so-called Museion, or if the hypothesis of two settings, with a further library located in the Serapeion, is defensible. The chapter ends with some considerations on the possible organisation of the collection.

In chapter 3, "Scienza e filologia nella Biblioteca di Alessandria," the achievements of the first great Alexandrian scholars are described. For their discussion the authors take into account very recent studies on this topic and give a refreshing presentation of these well-known scholars. Indeed, after having first focused on the much-discussed concepts of διόρθωσις and ἔκδοσις, the authors dedicate a section to each of the scholars, from Philitas of Cos, Zenodotus of Ephesus, and Callimachus to Eratosthenes, Aristophanes of Byzantium and Aristarchus, and their works. In this chapter, the authors also take the time to discuss at length the famous list of Alexandrian librarians preserved on a papyrus discovered in Oxyrhynchus (P.Oxy. X 1241). The fact that the last librarian mentioned is a rather unknown figure introduces the theme of the decline which first struck the Library of Alexandria after 144 BCE and which provides the authors with the perfect link to chapter 4, which is dedicated to the decline of the library.

A very detailed discussion of the decline is given in chapter 4, "La fine della grande biblioteca." The later scholars working in the library, such as Didymus, are still honoured by the authors, but the main focus of this chapter concerns the analysis of the supposed fire in 48 BCE which at least diminished, if it did not destroy, the collection of the library in such a way that, even if the exterior might have been restored quite rapidly, the collection itself was never the same again. The second part of this chapter deals with the institution in the period from the 3rd century AD to the destruction of the Serapeion under Theodosius I. Here again several versions of the events are juxtaposed and the authors bring together various sources from Late Antiquity, and include texts from the Arabic world dated to the 13th century. So the end of this chapter allows the authors to complete their history of the Library of Alexandria, which they narrate from the very first elements, described in chapter two, that made the idea of the library possible, up to the very last reminiscences of its story in some of the later Arabic sources.

In chapter 5, "Ritorno ad Alessandria," however, we jump to the 21st century and the authors compare the achievement of the Alexandrian Library with some of the modern digital projects, such as Europeana and Google Books. First they attempt to single out the processes which explain the mechanisms leading, in their opinion, to the decline and ultimately to the neglect of libraries in general. Then they draw parallels between these two kinds of libraries relying on their first hand experience, as both authors actively take part in the creation and fulfilment of digital projects. They especially focus on two elements. First, beyond the effort, common to both projects, of collecting material, they mention the collaborative aspects of the Library of Alexandria, which should also be emphasised in the modern projects. Secondly, they see in the task of cataloguing, which is a necessary consequence of the collection of material, a similarity between the old and the new libraries but also a challenge for the modern digitalisation projects. This discussion allows the authors to end their study by comparing the present situation to the period in which the Library of Alexandria was created.

In conclusion, the book’s aim is twofold. On the one hand, the authors’ concluding remarks on the modern heirs of Alexandrian scholarship and the role they might play in the 21st century give the study a collaborative touch, inviting each reader to formulate his own thoughts on the subject. On the other hand, the authors aim at giving an up-to-date presentation of the evidence from Antiquity about the Library of Alexandria and the memory it left behind. Therefore, by presenting the old shadows of the Library of Alexandria in a new light they seem to honor the principle of Hellenistic scholarship, an approach which is certainly not surprising for two scholars as familiar with this environment as the two authors of this study.


1.   V. Costa, Filocoro di Atene, 1: Testimonianze e frammenti dell’Atthis (“I frammenti degli storici greci”, 3), Tivoli (Roma) 2007; M. Berti, Istro il Callimacheo, 1: Testimonianze e frammenti su Atene e sull’ Attica (“I frammenti degli storici greci”, 5), Tivoli (Roma) 2009.
2. and

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