Bagnall, Roger S. (Professor of Classics and History Columbia University)
published on 04 June 2012
My title does not intend to suggest that the Alexandrian Library did not exist, but it does point to what I regard as the unreal character of much that has been said about it. The disparity between, on the one hand, the grandeur and importance of this library, both in its reality in antiquity and in its image both ancient and modern, and, on the other, our nearly total ignorance about it, has been unbearable. No one, least of all modern scholars, has been able to accept our lack of knowledge about a phenomenon that embodies so many human aspirations. In consequence, a whole literature of wishful thinking has grown up, in which scholars—even, I fear, the most rigorous—have cast aside the time-tested methods that normally constrain credulity, in order to be able to avoid confessing defeat. After sketching briefly the main lines of our ignorance of the Library’s history, I shall talk about three types of dreams that have beguiled commentators ancient and modern: dreams about the size of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina; dreams about placing the blame for its destruction; and dreams about the consequences of its loss. But there are some positive lessons as well, as I hope to show.
PROCEEDINGS OF THE AMERICAN PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETY, VOL. 146, NO. 4, DECEMBER (2002)