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

Recreation of the Alexandria Library at the Museum / photo Crystalinks

The great Library of Alexandria was founded at the beginning of the 3rd century BC by Ptolemy I Soter. At its peak it housed an impressive 900,000 manuscripts. It was not only a storehouse of books, but also an entire 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 Titus Livius points out, charging for each line copied. But also to write new studies and commentaries that were added to the collection, so that besides compiling external texts it also had its own production.

Statue of Demetrius of Phallerus in the current Alexandrian Library / photo Pakeha in Wikimedia Commons

How did the books get to the library in Alexandria? In various ways. We already saw in the article dedicated to the personal library of Aristotle that many of the copies of the philosopher could have been acquired by Demetrius of Phallerus. Some consider Demetrius, who was a disciple of Aristotle, as the first librarian of Alexandria, but others think that he was simply the driving force behind the idea and that he died before the foundation of the library. In any case, the acquisition of his master’s manuscripts would have aimed to add them to the future Alexandrian collection.

According to Lionel Casson in his book Libraries in the Ancient World, the Ptolemys developed an aggressive program of book purchases: they sent agents with well-filled pockets and orders to buy any book they could, of any type 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 it should be to the original.

This buying furor would result in the emergence 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 look older than they were and thus ask for higher prices.

Hypothetical recreation of the interior of the Library of Alexandria in a video game / photo Brewminate

To the purchase of copies must be added another way of arrival of books. As it was not possible to buy everything, the Ptolemys ordered that every ship entering the port of Alexandria should 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 ptolemys is that in Egypt they had abundant papyrus to copy and copy, practically without limits.

And where did they buy the books? On many occasions, as in the case quoted from the personal library of Aristotle, to private individuals, whether they were their own or inherited collections. But more often in bookstores, where else? Tönnes Kleberg says in Book Trade and Publishing in the Ancient World that the production and sale of books began in Athens around the second half of the 5th century BC. What comes to be more than a century and a half before the founding of the Alexandria Library.

The first known mention of the term bibliopòles (bookseller, in Greek) can be found in the comedy The Tricksters of Aristomenes written at the end of the 5th century BC. By other authors such as Nicofron and Eupolis it is known that booksellers put their stands on the market in the same way as other merchants, such as flour or leather merchants, and even that the book trade was concentrated in a certain point in the city, the so-called orchestra, a semicircular terrace in the market at the feet of the Acropolis. There were also bibliokápelos, i.e. travelling book sellers.

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

In the comedy The Birds, premiered in 414 B.C., Aristophanes mocks the Athenians who in the mornings launch themselves into bookshops to find out what’s new:

as soon as ’tis dawn, they all spring out of bed together to go and seek their food, the same as you do; then they fly off towards the notices and finally devour the decrees

Aristophanes, The Birds

But not only in Athens there were bookstores, the island of Rhodes, on the trade route to Egypt, was also an important book trade center. And in the 4th century B.C. Antioch was one of the main centres of book production, with numerous copyists who, in view of the great demand, gave preference in their deliveries to the cities with the greatest number of booksellers.

Alexander the Great himself, who was an avid reader, ordered his books to be bought in Athenian bookstores, as Plutarch testifies:

When he was in the upper Asia, being destitute of other books, he ordered Harpalus to send him some; who furnished him with Philistus’s History, a great many of the plays of Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus, and some dithyrambic odes, composed by Telestes and Philoxenus

Plutarch, Life of Alexander 8

The price of books was determined by demand. Many had a modest price, just a drachma, as Plato informs us:

Friend Meletus, you think that you are accusing Anaxagoras: and you have but a bad opinion of the judges, if you fancy them illiterate to such a degree as not to know that these doctrines are found in the books of Anaxagoras the Clazomenian, which are full of them. And so, forsooth, the youth are said to be taught them by Socrates, when there are not unfrequently exhibitions of them at the theatre (price of admission one drachma at the most)

Plato, Apology

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

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

Diogenes Laërtius, Lives, opinions and sentences of the most illustrious philosophers, Espeusipus

The Alexandria library had the funds and resources to acquire these rare and expensive books and probably information on where to find them.

We didn’t get the names of any of the booksellers at the time. The first ones mentioned in the ancient sources come from the hand of Lucian of Samosata, who lived in the 2nd century A.D. already in the Roman Empire. They were called Calinus and Aticus, and were publishers (producers of books) who later sold them in their shops. Lucian, who usually speaks with contempt of booksellers, instead praises Calinus and Aticus:

I am going to grant you that you have chosen those whom Calinus looking for beauty or the famous Aticus could have carefully written, what would you profit, strange man, from its acquisition, if you do not know its true beauty (…)?

Lucian of Samosata, Against the ignorant who bought many books 2
The Library of Alexandria, engraved by O. Von Corven / photo public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

The publishers, who then distributed the books to the booksellers, obtained their first-hand copies from the authors, but those who could not obtain them copied them in libraries such as the one in Alexandria, where they went to stock up on novelties.

Regarding the authors’ earnings and their relationship with publishers, copyists and booksellers, it is hardly known that most of them did not receive anything for copying their manuscripts, except the honour of fame. But there is some news on such a thorny subject as plagiarism. Incredibly, two authors, Aulus Gellius (II century A.D.) and Diogenes Laërtius (III century A.D.) accuse Plato of having acquired the manuscripts of Philolaus (a disciple of Pythagoras) and having composed with them his Timaeus. Whether it is true or not, it does not seem that Plato or any other philosopher or writer benefited economically from his literary production.


Sources: Libraries in the Ancient World (Lionel Casson) / Las Aves (Aristófanes) / Obras, vol.6 (Luciano de Samosata, traducción de Manuela García Valdés) / Libros y libreros en la Antigüedad (Alfonso Reyes) / Libros, editores y público en el Mundo Antiguo (Guglielmo Cavallo) / Wikipedia.