Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Strategic Rise and Fall of the Great Library of Alexandria

Readers of The Vesuvius Isotope are constantly asking me how much of the book is fiction and how much is fact. The answer I like to give is this: The novel threads together a number of historical and scientific facts within a fictional story. It also presents a few hypotheses that have yet to be proven or disproven. Here, I highlight some of the facts as they relate to the Great Library of Alexandria, as well as some of the hypotheses I have spun from them.

The Great Library of Alexandria was considered the "world's first research center." It was part of a grand vision of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian conquerer who founded the city of Alexandria, Egypt.

Alexander selected this spot for his city specifically for its location and topology. At the tip of the crescent-shaped Alexandria harbor was the island of Pharos, the perfect location for a magnificent lighthouse that could beckon ships into the harbor. In Alexander's vision, once they entered the harbor, ships would be docked in close proximity to the world's largest center of thought. And so it was that Alexander and his descendants could draw ships toward the library, like spiders casting a net across the sea. Once entrapped, the ships were forced to surrender ... what? Not riches. Not gold. Neither incense nor myrrh. Books.

Within the library were a fully functional medical school and the greatest scientific accomplishments in history, including Aristotle's establishment of scientific method.

But neither the library nor its adjacent museum were open to the public. The wealth of information inside was accessible on an "invite only" basis, as dictated by the Ptolemaic leaders who built the library. Indeed, the truth is that the Ptolemies pirated the information. By law, any visitor to Alexandria was required to "donate" any and all books that the library did not already contain. The library quickly became so overloaded with content that a daughter library was built elsewhere in Alexandria to house the overflow.

By Cleopatra's time, the library was legendary, containing hundreds of thousands of papyrus scrolls. As she murdered each of her siblings in sequence, Cleopatra managed to secure the monarchy for herself repeatedly, and thus maintained her title as the sole proprietor of the library at Alexandria. She was rumored to have written dozens of books, she was famous among her peers for her knowledge of pharmacology and of the sciences so prominent at the research center, and it is known that she was fluent in as many as nine languages. Indeed, Cleopatra was the only Ptolemaic leader to speak Egyptian, the language of her subjects. For more about these aspects of Cleopatra's life, click here.

Then Julius Caesar invaded. At first enemies, Cleopatra and Caesar were soon bedmates and allies against her brother and co-regent, Ptolemy XIII. Then they killed him. And then Caesar burned the library down. It is commonly believed that Caesar burned the library down by setting fire to enemy ships. But as documented by Plutarch below, it was a traitor from within his own army Caesar with whom Caesar was fighting that night, and it was his own ships Caesar burned. The fire quickly spread to the library, and Caesar was seen swimming away with papyrus scrolls in his hand:
Then, as everybody was feasting to celebrate the reconciliation, a slave of Caesar's, his barber, who left nothing unscrutinized, owing to a timidity in which he had no equal, but kept his ears open and was here, there, and everywhere, perceived that Achillas the general and Potheinus the eunuch were hatching a plot against Caesar. After Caesar had found them out, he set a guard about the banqueting-hall, and put Potheinus to death; Achillas, however, escaped to his camp, and raised about Caesar a war grievous and difficult for one who was defending himself with so few followers against so large a city and army. In this war, to begin with, Caesar encountered the peril of being shut off from water, since the canals were dammed up by the enemy; in the second place, when the enemy tried to cut off his fleet, he was forced to repel the danger by using fire, and this spread from the dockyards and destroyed the great library; and thirdly, when a battle arose at Pharos, he sprang from the mole into a small boat and tried to go to the aid of his men in their struggle, but the Egyptians sailed up against him from every side, so that he threw himself into the sea and with great difficulty escaped by swimming. At this time, too, it is said that he was holding many papers in his hand and would not let them go, though missiles were flying at him and he was immersed in the sea, but held them above water with one hand and swam with the other; his little boat had been sunk at the outset. But finally, after the king had gone away to the enemy, he marched against him and conquered him in a battle where many fell and the king himself disappeared. Then, leaving Cleopatra on the throne of Egypt (a little later she had a son by him whom the Alexandrians called Caesarion), he set out for Syria.
-Plutarch, The Life of Julius Caesar, The Parallel Lives
Cleopatra followed Caesar to Rome several times within the next few years and gave birth to his son. She did not seem bothered by the fact that the Roman had burned down hundreds of years of accumulated knowledge within her center of learning. But years later, the importance of the library to Cleopatra was re-established in the form of Mark Anthony's wedding gift to her - 200,000 new scrolls to re-populate the decimated library.

In The Vesuvius Isotope, I hypothesize that Cleopatra and Caesar set fire to the Alexandria library intentionally. I hypothesize that they had already removed important works from the library and stored them in other locations. I reference the specific locations in which documents from Cleopatra's reign have since been found.

I stumbled across the above History Channel video on YouTube. I have a hunch that the narrator is Morgan Freeman, although I haven't managed to confirm this. The video offers a great introduction to the rise and fall of The Alexandria Library, and it details many of the historical facts cited above. Here is a timeline of specific references:

1:45: the library is referred to as the "world's first research center."
1:50: it is stated that the leaders "invited" dignitaries from around the world.
2:00: reference to visitors "who brought important new information to Alexandria."
2:08: modern ruins of the Alexandria daughter library, built to hold overflow from the original
3:40: the founding of Alexandria by Alexander the Great
5:35: the foundations of science
11:25: the death of Alexander initiates the Ptolemaic Dynasty with the ascension of the Ptolemy I
15:15, Ptolemy begins collecting books for his library
15:46: law that any visitor to Alexandria was required to "donate" their books
18:38: the medical school that existed within the library
21:25: first mention of Cleopatra
22:19: Ptolemy II builds the lighthouse
22:27: Fort Qaitbey and what the lighthouse actually looked like.
23:17: "Sailors guided by the lighthouse were drawn into the library."
34:26: Julius Caesar invades
35:50: of all the Ptolemies, Cleopatra was the only one who could speak Egyptian
36:00: Cleopatra's interest in the library and her own writings.
37:00: Caesar sets fire that consumes Alexandria library
38:21: Mark Anthony gives thousands of new scrolls to Cleopatra
39:10: Cleopatra's mysterious death
39:44: The rise of Augustus

This blog post explores a non-fictional theme or locale that is incorporated in The Vesuvius Isotope, the first Katrina Stone novel. Buy The Vesuvius Isotope in print or ebook.

From the ancient ruins beneath Mount Vesuvius, a two-thousand-year-old document has emerged. It is the only text ever attributed to the ambitious, inquisitive, and cryptic last pharaoh of Egypt...

When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that has increasingly pervaded his recent behavior. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague into the twenty-first century.

Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope and The Death Row Complex. She lives in San Diego, California, with her husband, stepson, and three canine children. 


  1. Fascinating. Simply fascinating. If it were in fact true that Cleopatra had secreted books in a separate, hidden location, what an archaeological find that would be! It would be remarkable if scrolls had in fact been hidden in Pompeii and lie beneath...

  2. Jeanine, I imagine all sorts... :)

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