The illicit origin of the Library of Alexandria’s books

The largest library in antiquity did not amass its collection through innocuous means alone. While some of the over half a million manuscripts housed in the library were purchased, many were taken or embezzled.

The Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt until the death of Queen Cleopatra in 30 B.C.E., quenched their thirst for knowledge by promulgating a confiscatory customs regime in the capital city. Egyptian officials searched every ship that docked in Alexandria — once the world’s largest trading port — and seized any books that were found. If deemed valuable enough by library scholars, the impounded manuscripts were transcribed with the copy returned to the book’s owner and the original retained by the library.

On another occasion, Ptolemy III went even further. To acquire the original writings of Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus, the Pharaoh paid over half a ton of silver to the Athenian government as collateral to release the texts for duplication. The Pharaoh, however, never returned his loaned library materials.

Despite the zealous acquisition tactics, Ptolemaic Egypt’s collective wisdom was ultimately lost. After intervening in an Egyptian civil war in 48 B.C.E., Julius Caesar found his forces besieged in Alexandria by enemy ships. Roman troops set fire to the dockyard, and the flames quickly spread, destroying the main library facility. A satellite library, however, survived at least until the 4th century C.E.