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Researching ancient Alexandria

Discussion in 'Research' started by Incanus, Mar 22, 2017.

  1. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

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    I have a short story idea I’m developing that involves two or three librarians/scribes who work in the famous Great Library of Alexandria, around the first or second century A.D.

    From what I can tell about this place at this time, the city was pretty eclectic and multi-cultural. It was founded (more or less) by Alexander the Great, it’s located in Egypt, had a huge Jewish population, and (I’m not sure about this) may have been a part of the Roman Empire at this time.

    I’m guessing that most of the librarians would have been Greek, but could there have been librarians of these other cultures there as well? Could I, say, credibly have the librarians be Roman? Or is it possible all of these cultures were represented at the library?

    The gods are to play a role in this story and I’m trying to figure out which pantheon I should be using. Or could I use gods from multiple pantheons, because they’d all be pretty familiar in such a city?
     
  2. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    I don't know a ton about Alexandria specifically, but it absolutely was part of the Roman Empire. All of Egypt was made part of the Empire, but I believe Alexandria was given to the Romans before that happened. The city was a major center of Hellenic culture and other cultures were definitely discriminated against. At one point a war between the Greeks and Jews destroyed the city.

    Roman and Greeks deities were pretty much the same, but the strong Hellenic pride of the city probably means you should go with the Greek names. There's also Serapis, which was a god created as an amalgamation of Greek and Egyptian divine attributes in an attempt to unify the Greeks and Egyptians.
     
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  3. SumnerH

    SumnerH Scribe

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    The collection was mostly burned away in 48 BC when Julius Caesar sacked Alexandria. Seneca and Plutarch both wrote in the first century AD about the Great Library having been burnt by Caesar.

    Marc Antony transferred a ton of books and scrolls from the Library of Pergamum to help rebuild it, but many of them were returned to Pergamum by Augustus.

    So you're working in a time where the library is a shadow of its former self. Certainly Ptolemy, Heron, and like minds are still in the city, so it's still pretty vibrant. But it's not the absolute pinnacle of learning it was a couple hundred years earlier.

    The Library was in large part a pro-Hellenistic establishment; it even mostly excluded discussions of the Egyptian people, and there were laws in place to ensure Hellenistic primacy over the Egyptian and Jewish populations of the city. At the library, books had to be translated into Greek before being accepted. Roman rule may have relaxed that somewhat, but the Romans still looked up to the Greeks when it came to culture and learning.

    I'm not sure how much I'd let that constrain good characters, though; exceptional people are exceptional. I mean, despite being a time when in general men ruled the world, Zenobia and Cleopatra (among others) play huge roles in Alexandrian history.
     
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  4. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

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    Thanks. I felt pretty sure I'd be dealing with Greeks here. And so Greek gods it is (or at least not the Roman names for these deities). That works for me, I'm pretty familiar with them.

    I'll want the story set at about the time of the burning, so it'll probably have to be 48 B.C. I'm seeing that there was more than one burning at different times; it wasn't a single incident. However, for purposes of my story, it will need to be a single incident. I'm hoping no one will balk at that.

    This should be a lot of fun. I'll get to work in some relevant quotes from a number of classical writers--I'll just have to make sure I don't include anyone who was only active after this time.
     
  5. Russ

    Russ Istar

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    It is so odd you bring up this topic. A number of years ago I helped Nalo Hopkinson on her great fantasy novel "Salt Roads" and one of the areas I researched for her was the layout of Alexandria and the history of the library.

    When the library was really destroyed is still a matter of significant academic debate. It might have been as early as 25 or as late as 391 (it was likely toast before the muslims hammered it again). Around 270-275 is a strong contender. An introduction to these discussions can be found here:

    Destruction of the Library of Alexandria - Wikipedia

    There were several brings. Take your pick.

    If you are setting your tale in Alexandria in that period you really should try and get your hands on the book on Great Cities of the Ancient World by L Sprague DeCamp, a great fantasist, ski-fi guy and historian. It shows city lay-outs etc and has great information for an author setting a tale in that city.
     
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  6. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

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    Thanks Russ, great idea about the DeCamp book, I'll have to see if I can find that. I've enjoyed L. Sprague DeCamp's contributions to speculative fiction for decades, and I'll be tackling a couple more 'ancient cultures' stories.

    Since most of the story will take place inside the library, I'll want a good sense of what it looks like, what materials it was made of, how it was lit, etc.

    I'd like for the story to be accurate, but I may have some leeway, seeing how there will be magic and active deities involved. Can't wait to write this, probably in another few weeks, or after I return from the writer's conference next month.
     
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  7. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    From De Camps 'Ancient Engineers' (typed from a paper copy)

    ------

    A series of fires and depredations during the Roman period gradually destroyed the Library. As the books were stored in two or more buildings, no single fire destroyed them all. When Julius Caesar occupied Alexandria in -48, Cleopatra urged him to help himself to the books and he took away hundreds to be shipped to Rome.

    Then Alexandria revolted against Caesar and Cleopatra. In the fighting, either the books that Caesar had taken or those in one of the library buildings, or both, were burned. When Antonius formed his connection with Cleopatra, he stole and gave her the 200,000 roll library of Pergamon to replace the losses.

    The Library probably suffered further losses when Aurelianus suppressed a revolt in Alexandria in +272; when Diocletian putdown another revolt in +295; and again in +391 when Bishop Theophilus, another bloodthirsty fanatic of the Hitlerian type, led a Christian mob to the destruction of Serapis, where some of the books were kept. The remaining rolls were finished off by the Arabs of the Muxlim General 'Amir ibn-al-As when he captured the city in +646.

    ------

    De Camp goes on to explain how Christian and Moslem apologists sought to blame each other for the destruction. He also points out the precise numbers (or even rough numbers) of the books destroyed on each occasion are impossible to determine, and finishes off with an inventory of other book-burnings (Emperor Valens ordering non Christian books burned +373, Moslems destroying Zoroastrian Persian books in +637, Crusaders burning 100,000+ books when they sacked Tripoli in +1109, and so on.)

    That said, there were some notable first century AD characters that could be plausibly associated with the Library. Apollonius of Tyana was a major league miracle worker (and contemporary of Jesus). Another, biblically infamous character who could have been there was 'Simon of Gitta,' a magician noted for his ability to levitate (and the subject of an absurd magical duel with St Peter in Christian Apocrypha.) Pliny, a scholar of note, might have compiled his famous bestiary there. Hiero of Alexandria produced a series of mechanical marvels, including a automatic door opener and a simple steam engine (devices intended to be used in magic fakery.)
     
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  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I didn't know about the destruction of books in Tripoli. Thanks for that!
     
  9. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

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    So I ordered up the DeCamp book Russ mentioned. Found it for around $4, pretty cheap; it's in the mail now (another $4).

    So in the story, I won't say the ENTIRE library burned, but neither do I have to say it didn't.

    This is going to be fun. How many interests/hobbies/careers are there where it's your job to set flame to the Great Library of Alexandria? Not many, I'm guessing.
     
  10. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Hm. Does vellum burn? I could not get a straight answer. Searching on parchment is worse because all I get is hits on modern parchment paper (for baking).

    I did, however, find that vellum is simply a particular kind of parchment--both are animal skins extensively treated. So a lot would depend on the nature of the fire. Is the building made of stone? If so, you are burning wooden rafters and support beams, probably the roof. The shelves are likely wooden. But there would be room to have manuscripts survive in various stages of damage.

    Nor could I find out if papyrus burns. I would have thought it did, but cannot confirm.

    Anything, of course, can be incinerated if the heat is high enough. By "burn" here I mean burning the way paper does, with flames directly consuming the substance.
     
  11. Incanus

    Incanus Auror

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    Yeah, good questions.

    From what I can tell, the overwhelming majority of the scrolls in this library were papyrus. I'm not sure either, but I suspect papyrus would burn a little easier than vellum. Still, many, many scrolls were destroyed in these fires, were they not?

    I was just poking around to find out what papyrus smells like--would be a nice detail to include. Apparently it's something like pine, acacia gum, and/or bitumen. Not sure if I can use that last one; could be too modern.
     
  12. SumnerH

    SumnerH Scribe

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    Bitumen goes way back, and specifically in that region it fits your timeline. Asphalt - Wikipedia
     
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