BMCR 1991.02.04

The Vanished Library

, The Vanished Library: A Wonder of the Ancient World. Hellenistic Culture and Society; 7. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989. ix, 205 pages. ISBN 9780099775409.

The blurbs accompanying The Vanished Library describe it as solving mysteries, having “the texture of a novel,” and being “hard to put down.” They are right. Canfora’s book is a real page-turner—as readable and suggestive as a thriller by Len Deighton or John Le Carre, and as murky—leading the reader on a chase through the past, letting him overhear conversations, witness events, and get a whiff of the evidence. Meanwhile, only Canfora, like Smiley or Bernie Samson before him, sees the way things are going or understands the point of it all, and the reader is left to puzzle out the plot and its meaning for himself.

Canfora has divided his book into two parts. In Part I (which we might call the narrative), he proceeds in 16 short chapters (the longest is 8 pages) from the tomb of Rameses II in Thebes, to the Library at Alexandria, to Aristotle’s library, the library at Pergamum, the fire during Caesar’s Alexandrian war, back to Rameses’ tomb, and at last to the story of the destruction of the Alexandrian library by the Arabs in the 7th century A.D. Each chapter contains short references to primary sources. Part II, “The Sources,” evaluates and discusses the primary and secondary sources relevant to the narrative of Part I. Here C. has fifteen short chapters, arranged mostly hysteron-proteron with reference to Part I. Thus, we begin with Gibbon et al. on the Arabs, move back to Caesar’s fire, the Ramesseum, and Aristotle’s library. This elegant arrangement allows the author to present his work as a readable narrative, unburdened by exposition, argumentation, or distracting footnotes, but the result is less lucid than it appears. The reader begins under the impression that C.’s subject is the Alexandrian Library, but soon begins to have doubts—perhaps the vanished library of the title is Aristotle’s (discussed extensively in Chapters 6, 9, and 10) or the library at Pergamum, or even the library of Rameses II. In the end, of course, we realize that it is all of the above—in fact all the lost libraries of the ancient world, with Alexandria the focus and paradigm.

In trying to set out Canfora’s thesis one feels as guilty as if one were about to reveal the plot of a thriller (say The Name of the Rose, since we are speaking of library books). Divested of its mystery, the argument takes on a shape recognizable to readers of Pfeiffer and Fraser (both of whom receive surprisingly small notice). Thus we learn that the Alexandrian library was founded in the reign of Ptolemy Soter, on Aristotelian principles and under the guidance of the exiled Athenian Peripatetic Demetrius of Phaleron. There was never a separate library building, the books being housed in the Museum. Like Pfeiffer, C. believes that the great fire of 48 B.C. destroyed not the library itself, but only warehouses near the harbor. What is new is his speculative suggestion that the organization of palace, museum, and tomb in Alexandria might have been modeled on that of the Ramesseum. (“It is entirely plausible that the architects of the Ptolemaic royal palace may likewise have followed the model offered by a mausoleum such as the Ramesseum, which incorporated a wing closely resembling the Museum. This would moreover have been in line with the policy of adopting the ways of subject peoples—a policy especially favored by Alexander, who founded the palace…. What would have been more natural than to imitate the architecture of the pharaohs, and in particular to copy the way they joined together palace, library and soma?” p. 160.)

C. has mined the ancient sources for good stories (like the one from Diodorus about the poor Roman who foolishly killed a cat in the streets of Alexandria), and he makes intriguing and provocative suggestions (e.g., that royal libraries in the Hellenistic period were “instruments of Greek rule” and that “the sacred books of the subject peoples had a special place in this systematic project of collection and translation, because religion was, for those who wished to rule them, a kind of gateway to their souls.” p. 25). But he can also skip over evidence and previous scholarship too lightly, as when he passes on as unchallenged fact the quarrel of Callimachus and Apollonius Rhodius (p. 42).