Ancient Greece and Rome had a lot of literature, but virtually none of it survives today. Exactly what happened to almost everything written in Western Antiquity is the subject of the above video by the ancient history Youtube channel Told in Stone, who previously appeared here on Open Culture to explore everything from the Colosseum and the Pantheon to Roman nightlife and the eruption of Vesuvius. But none of his past videos are as relevant to this particular story as the one about the burning of the Library of Alexandria.
Described by narrator Garret Ryan as “the greatest of all ancient libraries”, the Library of Alexandria may have contained between 532,800 and 700,000 volumes in scroll form, all lost when Julius Caesar burned it in 48 BC.
Yet “the loss of all but a tiny fraction of ancient literature was not due to the disappearance of a single library. It was rather a consequence of the basic fragility of texts before the advent of printing. Papyrus, a pre-paper writing material first developed in ancient Egypt, certainly could not stand the test of time: in relatively humid Western Europe, “most papyri had to be copied every century or so.”
Plus change: even, and perhaps especially, in our digital era, long-term archiving of data has proven to require regular transfer from one storage medium to another. But perhaps our civilization will be more fortunate in this process than the Roman Empire, whose collapse meant that “the elites who traditionally ordered new copies almost disappeared. There were far fewer manuscripts and those that tended to serve the specific purposes of religion, education, and technical fields. For these and other reasons, very few classics made it into the Middle Ages, and thus into the Renaissance. But even if you don’t have much to study, as season two famously demonstrated, you can more than make up for it by studying hard.
What was actually lost when the Library of Alexandria burned?
How Egyptian papyrus is made: Watch artisans keep the 5,000-year-old art alive
The Rise and Fall of the Great Library of Alexandria: An Animated Introduction
Turin Erotic Papyrus: Earliest known depiction of human sexuality (ca. 1150 BC)
How ancient scrolls charred by the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius are now being read by particle accelerators, 3D modeling and artificial intelligence
based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcastson cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books about cities, book The Stateless City: A Walking Tour of 21st Century Los Angeles and video series City in cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.