APPENDIX TO CHAPTER XIV
As we are interested in the fire resulting from the burning of the ships,
I have attempted to review all the ancient, and the most important
of the modern authorities.
Our first authority should be Caesar in The Civil Wars. Achillas, the
military commander of the Alexandrian forces, with 20,000 men, not
counting the rabble of Alexandria, and 2000 horses, was attempting to
secure the larger part of the city. Although he had failed to penetrate the
Palace which Caesar had made his citadel, his forces were fighting in the
streets and, more important, a serious battle was being fought at the port,
where "the enemy was attempting in great numbers to seize the
warships", some 72 in number, most of them splendid vessels fully
equipped for Pompey's service and all celebrated craft of the
Alexandrian navy which Seneca seemed so delighted to praise (Ad
If these ships were secured by Achillas, the harbor and seaboard
would be lost, and Caesar's ships cut off from supplies and
reinforcements. Caesar felt his safety depended upon the event, and
"Caesar gained his purpose":
He burnt all those ships and the rest that were in the docks, because he
could not protect so wide an extent with his small force, and at once
he embarked his men and landed them on Pharos.
(Civil Wars, III-iii.)
In the street fighting in the town "neither side was beaten".
It is to be noted Caesar says nothing about a great conflagration,
merely reporting the burning and destruction of the ships. There is not a
word about the destruction of the Museum, the Library, or the Books.
After reciting the above events, Caesar concludes the last book (III) of
The Civil Wars with the sentence: "This was the beginning of the
Now The Alexandrian War, written probably by Hirtius, a friend of
Caesar, evidences a desire to continue the narrative where Caesar ends.
The author of "The Alexandrian War" goes into much detail as to
methods of defense, and in treating of the necessity of having an open
space or clearing between the Palace and the small part of the city held by
him from the greater part of the city held by the enemy, Caesar was
compelled to actually batter down houses by inserting holes in the walls
and using his battering-rams to demolish the buildings in order to have
open ground before his defensive positions. Why did he go to such
trouble? Why did he not burn these impeding structures? How complete
is the answer:
He could not effect this purpose by burning the town, for Alexandria
was nearly safe against fire, because the houses were built without
wooden floorings and timber, and were formed of masonry with
vaulted arches, and roofs were made of rubble or paved 1.
Almost the whole city of Alexandria was excavated and contained
cellars which were connected with the Nile. By these means, water
was brought into private houses, and gradually in a certain time the
water became clear and the mud subsided 2.
When we consider the foundations of the great city, from its beginning
built of marble or stone, with wide streets and broad thoroughfares, the
most magnificent in antiquity; its buildings built with ample space
between them, interspersed with gardens, and often connected, it is true,
by colonnades of stone and marble; when we know that the permanent
character of its structures had been maintained until Caesar's day and that
its houses, built of stone, had stone or paved floors and roofs with an
entire absence of wood or timber, with Nile water lapping every house,
we have indeed a picture of the most indestructible or at least most
fireproof city in all the ancient worlds.
The author of "The Alexandrian War" makes no mention of the
destruction of the Museum, the Library, or the Books.
1. George Long: The Decline of the Roman Republic, London, 1874,
Vol. V, p. 251, The Alexandrian War.
2. Long: op. cit. Vol. V, p. 253, note: Auct. B. Alex. 4.
3. The point herein stressed did not fail to impress the author
of the Alexandrian Library (Dziatzko) in Real E"Iopadie of
Pauly-Wissowa, Vol. III, pp. 409-414.
Cicero (106-43 B.C.), the most distinguished man of letters of
his age, contemporary opponent of Caesar, whom he survived,
could hardly have failed to recount, somewhere, somehow, the
appalling disaster to scholarship through the destruction of the
Alexandriana, victim of the heady ambition of Caesar in his mad
career for pleasure and power - had it occurred. It is just inconceivable
that Cicero would have remained silent on such a subject.
Strabo (c. 64 B.C. to 19 A.D.), the Greek geographer, was in Egypt from
25 to 20 B.C., only 22 years after Caesar's visit. He wrote an
extensive description of Alexandria (Book XVII). As an eye-witness, he
most carefully described the harbor front of the city, building by
building, yet he does not place the Museum (or Library) near the harbor.
He could not have omitted such a situation had it existed. Yet he seems
eager to tell, when speaking of the island of Pharos that:
Divus Caesar devastated the island, in his war against the people of
Alexandria, when they espoused the party of the kings.
He speaks of the Museum as a part of the palace pile, of its having a
public walk, a place with seats, a Hall for the men of learning, etc.
He does not mention that but twenty-two years before, the Museum
or its Library was destroyed by fire under "Divus Caesa?'.
In the probably latest edition of Strabo (L.C.L., edited and translated
by Sterrett and Jones), London, 1917, we read:
In 25 and 24 B.C. he (Strabo) is in Egypt, and accompanies Aelius
Gallus up the Nile, proceeding as far as Syene and the frontiers of
Etheopia (2.5.12). At that time he was 39 years old. He was still in Egypt
when Augustus was in Samos in 20 B.C. (14.1.14). He was then 44 years
old. Accordingly he lived for more than five years in Alexandria, and
we may infer that it was in the Alexandrian Library
that he made from the works of his predecessors those numerous
excerpts with which his book is filled. (Vol. I, p. XX-XXL)
Using the Library, as it is only reasonable to assume he did, it is
unthinkable that he would not have complained of the absence of some
valuable authority, due to the recent "fire".
Strabo, a Greek, keenly aware of the significance of the Museum in
the intellectual life of the Hellenic-Roman world, could hardly have
failed to record the recent destruction of the Museum or Library.
Strabo makes no mention of the destruction of the Museum, the
Library, or the Books.
Titus Livius (59 B.C. to 17 A.D.) of Padua, whose History of Rome in
142 books (of which 107 are lost) was the monumental narrative of
Rome's stupendous records from the foundation of the city to the
principate of Augustus, or the death of Drusus (9 B.C.), fails here to
Unfortunately Book CXII of Livy, which treated of the flight of
Pompey to Egypt and the entire sojourn of Caesar in Alexandria, is lost.
This is particularly a major loss to the history of our inquiry, as Livy
lived in the perfect period to acquire the facts. He was 15 years old when
Caesar was murdered (44 B.C.) and outlived Augustus by three years
(17 A.D.). We do not know what, if anything, Livy might have reported
about the Museum, the Library, or Books, or of their partial or complete
destruction. The epitomes are silent.
However, Seneca says (De Animi Tranquillitate, IX-5) that Livy
referred to the Alexandrian Library as elegantiae regum Curaeque
A famous scion of the Cordovan family of Seneca seems to be the
earliest extant authority referring to the destruction of the books.
In 49 A.D. Seneca (4 B.C. to 65 A.D.), the philosopher, returned
from his Claudian banishment and was made tutor to
the vicious youth Domitius, who was to become the infamous emperor
Nero. He had been selected for the dubious post by the more infamous
Agrippina, mother of Nero, wife and poisoner of Claudius, a woman
whose incredible wickedness had plumbed the depths of incest and
Seneca at this time of his eventful career was juggling with
conscience, common ambition, and the desires of the intellectual life. It
was the psychological moment for him to write De Animi Tranquillitate. It
was his intellectual "out", an examination of the ways of
attaining that which he so much desired, the tranquility of mind.
In this work (IX-5) written 96 years after the alleged event, we read:
Quadraginta milia librorum Alexandriae arserunt; pulcherrimum
regiae, opulentiae monimentum alius laudaverit, sicut T. Livius qui
elegantiae regum curacque egregium id opus ait fuisse.
It was Seneca's reference to Livy's praise of the Alexandriana that
provoked Gibbon's retort: "a liberal encomium, for which he (Livy) is
pertly criticized by a narrow stoicism of Seneca (De Animi Tranq., c. g),
whose wisdom on this occasion deviates into nonsense"1.
The chain of comment is continued by Mr. Merivale 2 who would
gently twit Gibbon, whom he calls "a modern devourer of large
libraries", for his severe rebuke of Seneca. We are on the side
A careful study of the statement of Seneca, which is, as far as we
know, the first time the destruction is mentioned by anyone, and
certainly the earliest extant account, since there is no evidence of a lost
description, should lead to a reasonable solution of the inquiry.
Forty thousand books were burned at Alexandria; let someone else
praise this library as the most noble monument to the wealth of kings,
as did Titus Livius, who says that it was the most distinguished achievement
of the good taste and solicitude of kingss.
1. Gibbon: op. cit. Ch. LI.
2. Charles Merivale: History of the Romans under the Empire,
4th ed., New York, 1896 (Vol. II, p. 259, note).
3. Seneca: On the Tranquility of Mind (IX-5), L.C.L. (tr. John W. Basore), London, 1932.
The italics are ours.
What is it that Seneca clearly sets forth in this narrative? Certainly
it contains two statements:
1. He asserts that the 40,000 books were burned at Alexandria.
2. That Livy considered the Alexandrian Library the most noble
monument to the wealth and wisdom of kings.
Now the first statement is very definite as to the thing, the quantity
and the place. Books to the number Of 40,000 are burned at Alexandria. There
is nothing said as to time and no mention of Caesar.
Then let us assume that Seneca meant to say that 40,000 books were
burned at Alexandria at the time of Caesar's visit (48-47 B.C.). And let us
further assume that he drew his information nearly 100 years after the
occurrence from contemporary Livy (from Book CXII, now lost).
Any further assumptions would be more than uncritical. To attempt to
assert that Seneca meant to say (which he did not) that not only 40,000
manuscripts were burned at Alexandria during Caesar's time, but that also
the great Library of Alexandria, containing at least 700,000 MSS., or
probably a million books, was destroyed, is to violate the canons of true
criticism, as well as the dictates of common judgment.
It is well that we carefully note how definite Seneca is about the
quantity of books destroyed, 40,000. Now if we assume that he followed
Livy (which assumption gives his statement its only authority), Livy's
lost Book CXII must have stated that 40,000 manuscripts burned. In
subsequent writers, common exaggeration or carelessness must be
responsible for other amounts 1.
1. Even Dr. Basore, the last editor of Seneca's Moral Essays (L.C.L., Vol. II, P. 246), London,
1932, writes: "The extent of the loss is variously given, but in no authority is the estimate
placed so low." What "estimate"? We trust Seneca followed Livy. If not, his statement has
less value than we are willing to accord to it.
Lucan (39-65 A.D.), grandson of Seneca, the rhetorician, and nephew of
Seneca, the philosopher, was also a man of letters and a scion of this
distinguished intellectual family of Spain. Like his family, his life (in his
case, too young a life) was early
consumed in the vortex of Roman imperialism. In intellect he was
precocious, in character his fundamental weakness sunk to dishonor. He
wrote an epic poem, Pharsalia, in ten books. He was for the republic,
pro-Pompeian, and Caesar was Satan in his "Republic Lost". In the last
(Xth) Book of his best and sole surviving work, which probably was
called De Bello Civili, the young poet describes Caesar's sojourn in
Egypt. Apparently he never lived to finish this tenth book, but he did
complete his description of the burning of the ships and the spread of
He (Caesar) ordered brands steeped in resin to be hurled at the sails of
the crowded ships; and the fire coursed swiftly along the ropes of tow
and the decks running in the wax, till the rowers' benches and the
towering yards blazed up together. Soon, the ships, almost half-
consumed, sank beneath the surface, and soon the assailants and their
weapons were swamped. Nor did the fire fall upon the vessels only: the
houses near the sea caught fire from the spreading heat, and the winds
fanned the conflagration, till the flames, smitten by the eddying gale,
rushed over the roofs as fast as meteors that often trace a furrow
through the sky, though they have nothing solid to feed on and burn by
means of air alone. The' calamity for a time called off the crowd. (X-
49 1 -505.)
Now, of course, this is a poetic description, the usual poetical license of
the rush of fire as fast as meteors, yet not one word of the burning of
books or libraries.
Lucan hated Caesar more than anyone (except Alexander the Great in
a general way and, I assume, Nero personally at the end, for his own dear
life); so furious and unfair were his headlong attacks upon Caesar, that
Macaulay, an admirer of Lucan, is provoked to write: "Caesar, the finest
gentleman, the most humane conqueror, and the most popular politician
that Rome ever produced," is by Lucan represented as "a bloodthirsty
1. Lucan, in L.C.L. ed., tr. byj. D. Duff (London, x928, p. XIII).
Now everyone will admit that Lucan would have joyously sung of
anything to the discredit of Caesar, and would never have omitted so
wonderful an opportunity for wide sympathetic condemnation as the
story that Caesar in setting fire to the ships recklessly destroyed the
world-famous Library of Alexandria and the Museum! Why did he not
use this glowing artistic
spectacle which in his fervid, poetic hands could have shown the satanic
Caesar, in ruthless ambition, burning the veritable heirlooms of the
intellectual world, the awful pall of the disaster obscuring the eternal
light from the Mediterranean lands, as Caesar rushed madly on his
career for fame?
He could have had two reasons for the omission: either he did not
know of it, if it happened, which is incredible; or he did know of it and
considered the accidental burning of some books too insignificant.
Under no view, could he have known that the great Alexandrian Library
was destroyed under Caesar, and have omitted to tell it to all posterity'.
We must remember that in his poem, Lucan had finished the
description of the burning of the ships, and had turned to other quite
insignificant incidents, before he had his veins opened in the warm bath
Bidden 2 while singing of battles and with lofty utterance solacing the
mighty dead to plunge in Lethe's rushing stream.
So Lucan, also, makes no mention of the destruction of the Museum,
the Library, or of Books.
If Plutarch (c. 46-120 A.D.) wrote his famous Lives after his return to
his native Chaeronea and after Trajan's death (117 A.D.), he therefore
wrote the Lives of Pompey, of Caesar, and of Antony, over 150 years after
the events in which we are chiefly interested.
We always think of Plutarch as having made good use of the
Bibliotheca Ulpia, which Trajan founded at Rome and named after the
illustrious Tyrian Ulpian, whose labors as a Roman jurist were to form
so large a part of the "Digest of Justinian".
He must have derived much information from the collection of Latin
and Greek rolls in the imperial foundation, and as he says that it was late
in his life that he devoted himself to Latin
1. The thought that he was silent due to a kind of patriotic shame
is quite exploded by Bouch-Leclercq: op. cit. II-199 (note).
2. By "the impious, frenzied tyrant" (Nero):
Statius: Silvae, II-VII-mo (Statius tr. by. H. Mozley (L.C.L.), London, 1928).
However, we must remember that Ammianus does not say that the
Alexandrian Libray was burned, but the 70,000 volumes were destroyed.
Orosius (c. 38o-some date in 5th cent. A.D.), the Christian historian of
Braga, friend of St. Augustine and St. jerome, who journeyed to the East
about 415 A.D., wrote a history of the world (from the Creation to 417
A.D.), Historiarum adversus paganos libri septem - the first universal
history written from a Christian standpoint.
According to the historian Orosius (c. 415 A.D.) the flames (from
Caesar's fire) spread to the shore, where 40,000 volumes happened to
be stored up in the adjacent buildings'.
It was these books, probably stored for shipment to Rome for account
of Caesar, that burned, if any were destroyed.
It is most curious to reflect that all this business of the burning of
books started with Seneca, the philosopher (49 A.D.), who definitely
states that 40,000 books were burned; and that the record ends with
Orosius (415 A.D.), who likewise speaks of 40,000 volumes, and gives
further details. By neither Seneca or Orosius is the destruction of the
Museum or the Alexandrian Library mentioned.
In following the legend or fact of the burning of the books from the
fatal burning of the ships by Caesar (47 B.C.) to the writing of
Ammianus of his history (39o A.D.) and Orosius (5th century), we have
attempted to examine the extant ancient writings of the times, and have
particularly analyzed the 16 writers who might have had some
knowledge of the incident.
A final summary is interesting: of the 16 writers, io, Caesar himself,
the author of the Alexandrian War, Cicero, Strabo, Livy (as far as we
know), Lucan, Florus, Suctonius, Appian, and even Athenaeus apparently
knew nothing of the burning of the Museum, of the Library, or of Books
during Caesar's visit to Egypt; and 6 tell of the incident as follows:
i. Seneca (49 A.D.), the first writer to mention it (and that
i. Sandys: op. cit. p. 112.
0 APPENDIX 307
nearly ioo years after the alleged event), definitely says that 40,ooo
books were burned.
2. Plutarch (c. 1 17 A.D.) says that the fire destroyed the great Library.
3. Aulus Gellius (123-169 A.D.) says that during the "sack" of
Alexandria 700,000 volumes were all burned.
4. Dion Cassius (155-235 A.D.) says that storehouses containing
grain and books were burned, and that these books were of great number
5. Ammianus (39o A.D.) says that in the "sack" of the city 70,000
volumes were burned.
6. Orosius (c. 415 A.D.), the last writer, singularly confirms Seneca
as to number and the thing destroyed: 40,ooo books.
From these authorities, modern scholars, treating the matter in the
same limited, casual, and incidental fashion as had the ancient writers,
permitted their extensive histories to carry a few lines on this, to us,
1 shall not recapitulate th * e disasters of the Alexandrian library, the
involuntary flame that was kindled by Caesar in his own defense,
or the mischievous bigotry of the Christians who studied to destroy
the monuments of idolatry'.
And in a note:
The Old library of the Ptolemies was totally consumed in Caesar's
Who most picturesquely compares Caesar's situation in Alexandria
with that of Cortez in Mexico, and says:
The insurrection became at last general; the palace was set on fire,
and the library, which had been founded under Ptolemy
Philadelphus, was burned to ashess.
i. Gibbon, ed. Bury: op. cit. (Ch. U-Vol. IX-184). 2. Idern
(Note: Ch. XXVIII-Vol. V-85).
3. B. G. Niebuhr: The History ofRome, Vol. V., P. 74.