Alexandrian Literature Essay

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Alexandrian literature was very rich due to its multicultural heritage, as Alexander the Great’s empire encompassed Europe, Asia, and Africa. Alexander’s conquests opened up trade and travel routes across his empire, and Alexandria developed as a center of commerce between the Middle East, Europe, and India. The city was also known as a center of learning. Greek was the lingua franca in Egypt for the people of different origins residing there. Due to the distinguished community of intellectuals living within the borders of Alexandria, Alexandrian literature is of high quality. The excellent libraries also attracted scholars of diverse origins to further enrich intellectual life in the vibrant city.

In 283 b.c.e. a synodos, formed by 30 to 50 scholars, set up a library with several wings, shelves, covered walkways, lecture theaters, and even a botanical garden. The library was built under the direction of a scholar-librarian who held the post of royal tutor appointed by the king. By the third century b.c.e. the library had an impressive collection of 400,000 mixed scrolls and 90,000 single scrolls. The earlier scrolls on which scholars wrote were made of papyrus, a product monopolized by Alexandria for a period of time. Later scholars switched to parchment when the king, in a bid to stifle competing rival libraries elsewhere, stopped exporting papyrus. These scrolls, which constitute books, were stored in linen or leather jackets.

In the library there were numerous translators, known as charakitai, or “scribblers.” The translators performed a vital function in transmitting the wisdom found in manuscripts that had been written in other languages in Greece, Babylon, India, and elsewhere. These manuscripts were meticulously copied and stored in the libraries of Alexandria, as the kings wished to amass all the knowledge that was available in the world of antiquity. This contributed greatly to Alexandria’s position as a center of knowledge in ancient civilization.

Among the eminent scholars based in Alexandria were Euclid (325–265 b.c.e.), the famous mathematician who composed his influential masterpiece Elements in the city in about 300 b.c.e. Euclid provided useful definitions of mathematical terms in Elements. Apollonius of Perga wrote an equally seminal work in mathematics known as Conics. In this work, Apollonius discussed a new approach in defining geometrical concepts. Another Apollonius—Apollonius of Rhodes, who was a mathematician and astronomer—wrote his epic Argonautica in about 270 b.c.e. The epic was dubbed as the first real romance and regarded as an enjoyable read as it was written for pleasure and not for any explicitly didactical purpose. Alexandrian prose was often criticized for being pedantic, ornamental, and pompous; though some perceived Alexandrian literature to be erudite and polished. The novel is said to be an invention of Alexandrian writers.

Archimedes of Syracuse (287–212 b.c.e.), the famous Hellenistic mathematician observed the rise and fall of the Nile, invented the screw, and initiated hydrostatics. The basis of calculus began in Alexandria, as it was where Archimedes started to explore the formula to calculate area and volume.

Another brilliant scholar of Alexandria was the librarian Eratosthenes who was a geographer and a mathematician. Eratosthenes correctly calculated the duration of a year, postulated that the Earth is round, and theorized that the oceans were all connected. There was also Claudius Ptolemy whose great work was Mathematical Syntaxis (System), usually known by its Arabic name Almagest. It is an important work of trigonometry and astronomy.

From the middle of the first century c.e., Christian hostility managed to push scholars away from Alexandria. As a result the city declined as a city of learning in the Mediterranean. The library in Alexandria was destroyed during a period of civil unrest in the third century c.e. In the fourth century not only were pagan temples destroyed, but libraries were also closed down under the orders of Theophilus, the bishop of Alexandria, further eroding Alexandria’s function as a bastion of literature.


  1. Battles, Matthew. Library, an Unquiet History. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003;
  2. El-Abbadi, Mostafa. The Life and Date of the Ancient Library of Alexandria. Paris, France: UNESCO, 1990;
  3. Keeley, Edmund. Cavafy’s Alexandria. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Unversity Press, 1996; Watson, Peter. Ideas: A History from Fire to Freud. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

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