Who cares about the burning of the library at Alexandria?

“At least half of what Sagan says about history is outright false, but his authority is still seemingly unimpeachable today, forty-two years after the programme first aired.” So says the distinguished “Kiwi Hellenist”, Peter Gainsford, who is a classicist from New Zealand, as you have already guessed from his nom.

What, you ask, does Carl Sagan have to do with the burning of the library at Alexandria?

A lot, it turns out.

Why do so many of us think that that particular burning was so horrendous, so important? Gainsford observes:

Some tragedies really are catastrophically destructive. The fire at the National Museum of Brazil in 2018 destroyed mountains of unique recordings of indigenous languages, irreplaceable archives of extinct languages, and physical artefacts. When a copy of a book gets burned, it can always be replaced if people care. But much of what was lost that day was lost for good. The fire of Rio de Janeiro was far more destructive than the incidents at Baghdad or Alexandria.

So why does the fire in Alexandria have such a vastly overinflated reputation? Why is it such a well known symbol?

Read the entire fascinating article to get the rest of the story. (Tip o’ the hat to Paul Harvey.) I won’t give any more away here except to add one more short quote from the article:

In modern times, the Hollywood blockbuster Cleopatra (1963) has the queen’s advisor Sosigenes lamenting the loss of

Aristotle’s manuscripts! The Platonic commentaries, the plays, the histories! The testament of the Hebrew god! The book of books!

(It shouldn’t need pointing out, but maybe it does, that Aristotle, Plato, and the Hebrew Bible do in fact survive. The script writers evidently switched off their brains when they wrote this line.)

Categories: Books, Teaching & Learning