Where did the books in the Library of Alexandria come from?

The great Library of Alexandria was founded in the early 3rd century BC by Ptolemy I Soter. At its peak, it housed an impressive 900,000 manuscripts. It was not just a book store, but also a research and teaching center that brought together numerous scholars from different centers of classical culture.

These were dedicated to making copies and translations of the manuscripts that arrived in Alexandria, perhaps as Tito Livio points out, charging for each copied line. But also to write new studies and comments that were added to the collection, so that in addition to compiling external texts he had his own production.

How did the books get to the library of Alexandria? In different ways. We have already seen in the article dedicated to Aristotle’s personal library that many of the philosopher’s copies could have been acquired by Demetrius of Phalerus.

Some consider Demetrius, who was a disciple of Aristotle, as the first librarian of Alexandria, but others think that he was simply the promoter of the idea and that he died before the foundation of the library. In any case, the acquisition of his master’s manuscripts would have been intended to add them to the future Alexandrian collection.

According to Lionel Casson in his work Libraries of the ancient world the Ptolemies developed an aggressive book-buying program: they sent out agents with deep pockets and orders to buy any book they could, of any kind and on any subject, and the older the copy the better. The latter was due to the belief that the older a manuscript was, the fewer times it would have been copied, and therefore the more faithful to the original it should be.

This buying frenzy would result in the appearance of a new business to satisfy the demand for books: the falsification of manuscripts, that is, the aging of parchments and papyri to make them appear older than they were and thus command higher prices for them.

To the purchase of copies it is necessary to add another way of arrival of books. Since it was not possible to buy everything, the Ptolemies ordered that every ship entering the port of Alexandria must be inspected. If books were found on board they were confiscated and taken to the library where copies were made. The originals were stored there and the copies were returned to the ships. One of the great advantages of the Ptolemies is that in Egypt they had abundant papyrus to copy and copy, practically without limits.

Illustration of Alexandria | Photo Welcome Images in Wikimedia Commons

And where did they buy the books? On many occasions, as in the aforementioned case of Aristotle’s personal library, to individuals, whether they were their own or inherited collections. But more frequently in bookstores, where else? Says Tönnes Kleberg in Book trade and publishing activity in the ancient world that the production and sale of books began in Athens around the second half of the 5th century BC, which is more than a century and a half before the foundation of the library of Alexandria.

The earliest known mention of the term bibliopoles (bookseller, in Greek) we find it in comedy the tricksters by Aristomenes written at the end of the 5th century BC

From other authors such as Nicofrón and Eupolis it is known that booksellers set up their stalls in the market just like other merchants, such as flour or leather sellers, and even that book businesses were concentrated in a certain point of the city, the call orchestra, a semicircular terrace in the market at the foot of the Acropolis. there were also bibliokapelosthat is, itinerant booksellers.

Ptolemy II Philadelphus in the library, painting by Jean Baptiste de Champaigne (1672) / public domain photo on Wikimedia Commons

in comedy The birdspremiered in 414 BC, Aristophanes mocks the Athenians who in the mornings launch to bookstores to know what’s new:

As soon as dawn breaks they all jump out of the bed at once and fly, like us, to their usual pasture; then they go to the cartels and stuff themselves with decrees

Aristophanes, The birds

But not only in Athens there were bookshops, the island of Rhodes, on the trade route to Egypt, was also an important bookstore center. And in the fourth century BC Antioch was one of the main book-producing centers, with numerous copyists who, given the great demand, gave preference in their deliveries to the cities with the largest number of booksellers.

Alexander the Great himself, who was an avid reader, had his books bought in Athenian bookstores, as Plutarch attests:

Books were not abundant in Macedonia, so he ordered Harpalus to send them; and he sent him the books of Philistus, many copies of the tragedies of Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus, and the dithyrambs of Telestes and Philoxenus

Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Alejandro 8

As for the price of books, it was determined by demand. Many were modestly priced, barely a drachma, as Plato informs us:

But you accuse Anaxagoras, my dear Melito? You despise judges, because you believe them to be quite ignorant, since you imagine that they do not know that the books of Anaxagoras and Clazomenes are full of assertions of this kind. Otherwise, what need would young people have to learn things from me that they could go to hear every day at the Orchestra, for a drachma at the most?

Plato, Apology of Socrates

Others, surely the most careful and illustrated editions and rare books, would reach higher and even exorbitant prices:

Aristotle bought the works of Speusippus for three talents (about 18,000 drachmas)

Diogenes Laertius, Lives, opinions and sentences of the most illustrious philosophers, Speusippus

The Library of Alexandria had the funds and resources to purchase these rare and expensive books, and probably information on where to find them.

The name of any of the booksellers of that time has not come down to us. The first mentioned in the ancient sources come from the hand of Lucian of Samosata, who lived in the second century AD already in the middle of the Roman Empire. They were called Calino and Ático, and they were publishers (book producers) who later sold in their shops. Luciano, who usually speaks contemptuously of booksellers, instead praises Calino and Ático:

I am going to grant you that you have chosen those that Callino looking for beauty or the famous Attic with all care could have written, what benefit would you, strange man, get from their acquisition, if you do not know their true beauty (…)?

Lucian of Samosata, Against the ignorant who bought many books two

The Library of Alexandria, engraving by O. Von Corven / photo public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Publishers, who then distributed to booksellers, got their first-hand copies from authors, but those who couldn’t get their hands copied them in libraries like the one in Alexandria, where they went to stock up on novelties.

About what the authors earned and their relationship with publishers, copyists and booksellers, it is hardly known that the majority did not receive anything for the copy of their manuscripts, except the honor of fame. But there is some news about a topic as thorny as plagiarism. Incredibly, two authors, Aulus Gellius (2nd century AD) and Diogenes Laertius (3rd century AD) accuse Plato of having acquired the manuscripts of Philolaus (a disciple of Pythagoras) and of having composed his Timaeus.

Whether true or not, it does not seem that Plato or any other philosopher or writer benefited financially from his literary output.


Libraries in the Ancient World (Lionel Casson) / Las Aves (Aristophanes) / Obras, vol.6 (Luciano de Samosata, translation by Manuela García Valdés) / Books and booksellers in Antiquity (Alfonso Reyes) / Books, publishers and public in the Ancient World (Guglielmo Cavallo) / Wikipedia.

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