During its thousand-year history, the ancient library at Alexandria saw its share of troubles.

In 47 B.C.E., Julius Caesar accidentally set fire to warehouses containing a cache of rare and ancient volumes given to him by Cleopatra and ready to be shipped to Rome. Caesar’s army had been blockaded within Alexandria’s harbor by Pompey’s military commander Archillas. Caesar sought to break the blockade by ramming unmanned, burning ships into the enemy fleet. Once they were ignited, the ships, abandoned by their crews, were blown into Alexandria’s harbor—setting the port’s facilities afire and reducing the books stored there to ashes.1

What was the damage caused by this conflagration? By this time, the library’s holdings had grown to a million volumes. Estimates from Livy and Seneca, among others, suggest that 40,000 or 50,000 volumes were lost.

Since ancient times, the claim has been made that after Caesar’s death Mark Antony replaced many of the volumes in the library. But even if the reports are true that Antony presented Cleopatra with 200,000 volumes from the library at Pergamum,2 in Anatolia, this gift could not repair the loss: Tens of thousands of books were gone forever. Some scholars speculate that some of Aristotle’s personal library—acquired for the Alexandria Library by Callimachus (see the sidebar to this article) and possibly presented to Caesar by Cleopatra—may have perished in the flames.

Additional serious damage was done in the fourth century C.E. Theophilus (c. 350–435 C.E.), archbishop of Alexandria, was distressed that pagan Hellenistic religions were tolerated. He thus obtained authorization from the emperor to convert a temple of Dionysus into a Christian church, arguing that the pagan temple had been the site of orgiastic debauchery. In 391, Theophilus organized a spectacle of public defilement, in which sacred objects from the Dionysian temple were paraded through Alexandria’s streets.

The highly respected Neoplatonist philosopher Olympius took up the challenge, leading a mob to prevent the Christians from pillaging pagan temples. Olympius and his men were driven by Christian rioters into the Serapeion, the shrine of the god Serapis, which also served as the public lending library of the Alexandria Library. At this point fanatical monks from a monastery at Wadi Natrun, located between Cairo and Alexandria, entered the fray. At the instigation of Theophilus, the monks attacked the shrine and burned it to the ground. The slaughter on both sides is reported to have been enormous, and 50,000 volumes of the Serapeion lending library were reported destroyed.