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1001 deeds, sayings, curiosities and anecdotes of the ancient world

The library of Alexandria (3): The Library of Alexandria acquired books in a curious way

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The claim of the Ptolemies was to collect "all books of all peoples of the earth" , perhaps following the advice of Demetrios of Falera . Certainly some of the stories that were told in antiquity reveal the passion of the Ptolemies to equip its library of Alexandria with the books which were in the known world. Sources also foreshadow the rivalry between the two great libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum.

The most common method of acquisition would certainly purchase originals or copies. In another article we have cited Athenaeus regarding the purchase of the library of Aristotle and Neleus. See http://en.antiquitatem.com/the-library-of-alexandria-prolomaeus

According to one version, Ptolemy II had purchased the library of Aristotle, which according to other sources ended up finally in Rome. Naturally it is impossible that the library of Aristotle was in two places at the same time: in Alexandria and Rome, but the discrepancy in the fate of the library of Aristotle indicates  the interest of the Romans to  witnessing their participation in the genesis of Western culture, of which the Aristotelian tradition is an essential part:  Alexandria remains the cultural center, but political power is now in Rome.

In addition to buying original, the most common method, as I said, would be copying texts.

Indeed, in its attempt to collect all the books in the world, they try also  to translate them into Greek, because they did not learn all other languages but the Ptolemies sought to know the people they conquered (Alexander conquered a huge empire) as a tool more for domain. So naturally they interested them the sacred books of other people (Jews, Zoroaster ..., Egyptian ...)

The physician Galen, who lived in the second century AD, gives us some curious information on purchasing books. Galen tells us how, in the rush to get the volumes, the works that were on ships arriving Alexandria  were  requisitioned, were copied and the copies were delivered to their owners, but not the requisitioned originals. 

He tells us in his "Hippocratis Epidemiorum et Galeni in illum Commentarius I (Book of Hippocrates on epidemics  and Galen comment on it, Volume XVII, Book II (239) (page 606) edition of the complete works  in Greek and Latin by C.G. Kühn, Lipsiae, 1828 I bring the English  version and the Latin text, which is more accessible to more readers than the Greek text:

Some people say that the king of Egypt Ptolemeus brought them from  Pamphylia (Pergamon) and such was his ambition for the books, as he  ordered that they sould be   carried the books of all names and they sould be copied into new papyri and the written books should give to their owners, that they should be brought to him the books of the ships which  arrived and they should be lied  on the shelves the transported books on ships and it should be put an title on them,  "books (from) boat."

Nonnuli vero et ipsum ex Pamphylia asportasse et regem Aegypti Ptolemaeum ita libroum ambitionem fuisse, ut appellantium ómnium libros ad se deferre iuberet et hos in novas chartas scriberet daretque scriptos dominis, a quibus appulsis libri ad ipsum asportati essent et naves advectos libros in bibliothecis reponeret, essentque ipsis inscriptiones  “Libri ex navibus”.

The most striking case of this abusive process was certainly how Athens lent official copies of the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides against collateral of 15 talents, the library gave the copies of the copies, ie, it stayed with the original and lost talents, equivalent to 90,000 drachmas or 540,000 obols  (a laborer was earning about two obols a day).

The same Galen tells us it in the same work  a page later, 607,  of Kühn edition:

How far the famous Ptolemy is interested in buying old books is no small test what they say he did with the Athenians. He received the works of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus to simply copy them and to send back intact them  immediately after against  bail of fifteen talents of silver. However, once he copied superbly them at best papyrus, he rested with which he had received from the Athenians, and he sent to them that he had copied, begging them to stay with the fifteen talents and might receive new books instead of old they had delivered. And so if he had not also sent to the Athenians the new books but had retained the old, nothing they could do, who in any case had received the money with the condition that they would stay with the money if he stayed with books , and well they received new books and kept the money.

Quod autem Ptolommaeus ille ad antiquorum librorum comparationem ita sollicitus esset non parvum esse testimonium aiunt quod cum Atheniensibus fecit. Dato namque ipsis pignore quindecim talentorum argenti accepit Sophoclis, Euripidis et Aeschyli libros, ut solum scriberet, deinde statim salvos redderet. Ubi autem magnifice in chartis optimis paravit,quos ab Atheniensibus acceperat, retinuit; quos vero ipse paraverat, ad ipsos misit, rogans ut quindecim talenta tenerent, acciperentque novos pro veteribus quos dedissent libris. Atheniensibus itaque si quoque non novos libros misisset, antiquos vero retinuisset, nihil aliud faciendum erat istis, qui utique argentums ex tali conditione acceperant, ut hoc ipsi detinerent, si ille quoque libros detineret; proptereaque novos libros acceperunt et argentum  detinuerunt.

The demand of many books sharpened wit of some people. Galen discusses how some unscrupulous men take advantage from  the interest of libraries of Alexandria and Pergamum and from prices paid to commit some abuses and forgeries, some with great skill in mixing the authentic and the spurious or mix several works in one self for make one longer work. He tells us it in his "Hioppocratis de natura hominis liber et Galeni in eum commentarius  (Commentary of Galen on book about   the Nature of Man of Hippocrates), Volume XV, Book II (128) (page 109) of the edition of the complete works in Greek and Latin by C.G.Kühn, Lipsiae, 1828. I bring the version in English and Latin text.

At the time in which  Attalus and Ptolemy kings vied with each other to buy books, it was started to forge titles and classification of books by those who obtained money of kings by writings of the most celebrated authors offered by them . As well as two books, one on the nature of man and the other on the condition of the healthy food, were little, thinking someone by their smallness either would be worth a lot, they  merged the two  into one.

Quo enim tempore Attalus et Ptolemaeus reges certatim inter se de comparandis sibi libris contendebant: ab his qui ex oblatis celebriorum virorum scriptis pecuniam a regibus reportabant, coepere inscriptiones et digestiones librorum vitiari. Quum itaque uterque liber tum de natura hominis tum de salubri victus ratione parvus extiterit, arbitratus aliquis ob parvitatem neutrum ipsorum multi ducendum ambos in unum et eundem simul contulit.

Especially striking is the acquisition by the library of Pergamum of a new Philippic of Demosthenes that Library of Alexandria was in charge of showing that it was here on the Alexandrian shelves but as part of the seventh book of Anaximenes of Lampsacus; nevertheless it was continued commenting pseudo-Filípica although warning that was not true. Didymus of Alexandria (Δίδυμος χαλκέντερος, Didymos chalkenteros, Didymus Chalcenterus Latin, meaning 'bronze casings  Didymus' and also as Bibliolathas, (Forget-books)  circa  63 BC-10 AD, even says looping the loop, according to it that  Cánfora indicates in his book "The missing library":

"Some contend that the discourse is not authentic because it is located as it is in the Philippics of Anaximenes."

Ptolemy II also wrote  to other colleagues kings  asking for works for their library. Even  Persians, Babylonians, Chaldeans, Egyptians, Jews works from other languages were translated into Greek.  The most prominent example was the translation of the Pentateuch in the version called the Septuagint, as the famous Letter of Aristeas has recounted; it is another issue them we devote a little article.

It is told  how Ptolemy wrote a letter to all his fellow kings and rulers of the earth with which he begged them to send him any work of any author. The following text of  Epiphanius of Salamis or Salamina (ca 310-20 - 403), bishop .... in his work De mensuris et ponderibus, 9 (On weights and measures) informs us also about the task huge of  translation into Greek:

Text of Epiphanius: περί μέτρων και σταθμών, De mensuribus et ponderibus, 9, (On weights and measures)

Note: This work "De mensuris et ponderibus (Περί μέτρων και σταθμών), On weights and measures, which was written in Constantinople in 392, is actually a kind of" Dictionary of the Bible "which is about the translation of the Old Testament, about  weights and measures contained in those books and about geography of Palestine. It has preserved whole in Syriac and  in fragments in Armenian and Greek.

After the first Ptolemy, the second who reigned over Alexandria, the Ptolemy called Philadelphus, as has already been said was a lover of the beautiful and a lover of learning. He established a library in the same city of Alexander, in the (part) called the Bruchion; this is a quarter of the city today lying waste. And he put in charge of the library a certain Demetrius, from Phaleron, commanding him to collect the books that were in every part of the world. And he wrote letters and made request of every king and prince on earth to take the trouble to send  those that were in his kingdom or principality I mean, those by poets and prose writers and orators and philosophers and physicians and professors of medicine and historians and books by any others. And after the work had progressed {52c} and books had been collected from everywhere, one day the king asked the man who had been placed in charge of the library how many books had already been collected in the library. And he answered the king, saying: "There are already fifty-four thousand eight hundred books, more or less; but we have heard that there is a great multitude in the world, among the Cushites, the Indians, the Persians, the Elamites, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, and the Chaldeans, and among the Romans, the Phoenicians, the Syrians, and the Romans in Greece"----at that time called not Romans but Latins. "But there are also with those in Jerusalem and Judah the divine Scriptures of the prophets, which tell about God and the creation of the world and every other doctrine of general value. If, therefore, it seem good to your majesty, O king, that we send (and) secure them also, write to the teachers in Jerusalem and they will send them to you, that you may place these books also in this library, your grace."  Thereupon {52d} the king wrote the letter, in these words: (Epiphanius of Salamis, Weights and Measures (1935) pp.11-83. English translation BY THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO)

It is clear that collectors, moved frequently by a craving, do not repair  nor expenses or in media, especially if they have the necessary resources. But anyway, this hobby of collecting books is not the worst.

Moreover, the Ptolemaic claim to collect all the books in the world seemed impossible undertaking for its time. Is it even today, in the era of digital globalization? Is not this mythical claim that today pursue projects like "google books" or electronic encyclopedias as "Wikipedia"?


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