Ancient accumulation: The autograph manuscript collections of the Library of Alexandria


2015-06-26 12:21:13


Ancient accumulation: The autograph manuscript collections of the Library of Alexandria

Including handwritten texts from Plato, Euclid and Sophocles, it shows how old the tradition is

When people think of autograph collectors, many imagine it as a fairly modern idea - one associated with music and sport celebrities made famous by television and perhaps not dating back much earlier than the Beatles.

But of course it dates back much, much further than that. Pliny the Elder (and following him, his nephew Pliny the Younger), was an avid collector of them who noted that the autographs of Augustus, Virgil and Cicero were not of great rarity but Julius Caesar's was already scarce.

Cicero in turn was supposed to have been an autograph collector - and he died in 43BC.

But a great collection of autograph manuscripts dates back further still. The Ancient Library of Alexandria in Egypt was created in the 4th century BC by Alexander himself. But it began to flourish under Ptolemy I and the Ptolemaic dynasty.

Ptolemy I (Ptolemy Soter) intended the library as a means of educating his people and bringing together knowledge in general. The library was a part of the 'Musaeum' (House of the Muses) of Alexandria which also included rooms for experiment as well as study, and even a collection of exotic animals.

By some accounts 700,000 papyrus scrolls had be accumulated at the library's peak with Ptolemy working on a principle of seeking great works from those currently living and recently dead.

Some of those whose works were drawn in included Plato, Aristotle, Thucydidies, Sophocles, Euripedes, Hippocrates and Euclid. Some, such as Euclid, actually studied within the library itself.

Ancient library of AlexandriaA depiction of the Ancient Library of Alexandria

This was obviously a great library in terms of content, but it's clear that having the original, handwritten text of the scholars was important too. Two stories from the reign of Ptolemy III illustrate this:

Visitors to Alexandria were required to yield all texts in any language for the duration of their stay. Scribes were tasked with taking exact copies of the documents for the library - and if possible retaining the originals by giving the owners a copy so exact that they did not notice it was not the original.

In a more brazen move, Ptolemy III is said to have borrowed the original scripts of the playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides from Athens, which they only passed over on delivery of 15 talents (450kg) of silver as collateral.

Ptolemy simply let them keep the silver, and sent back copies of the texts.

Sadly, much of the library was destroyed (though account of the date and time vary wildly, involving Julius Caesar's burning ships in 48 BC or the Muslim conquest 642 AD amongst other claims). But the principle of saving handwritten manuscripts was set, and managed on a scale and quality unlikely to be beaten.

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