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Library of Alexandria

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Lisa Wolfe
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« on: September 21, 2010, 01:16:25 pm »

Decree of Theodosius, destruction of the Serapeum in 391

Paganism was made illegal by an edict of the Emperor Theodosius I in 391. The temples of Alexandria were closed by Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria [22]

Socrates provides the following account of the destruction of the temples in Alexandria, in the fifth book of his Historia Ecclesiastica, written around 440:

“ At the solicitation of Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria, the emperor issued an order at this time for the demolition of the heathen temples in that city; commanding also that it should be put in execution under the direction of Theophilus. Seizing this opportunity, Theophilus exerted himself to the utmost to expose the pagan mysteries to contempt. And to begin with, he caused the Mithreum to be cleaned out, and exhibited to public view the tokens of its bloody mysteries. Then he destroyed the Serapeum, and the bloody rites of the Mithreum he publicly caricatured; the Serapeum also he showed full of extravagant superstitions, and he had the phalli of Priapus carried through the midst of the forum. ... Thus this disturbance having been terminated, the governor of Alexandria, and the commander-in-chief of the troops in Egypt, assisted Theophilus in demolishing the heathen temples.[23] ”

The Serapeum once may have housed part of the Great Library, but it is not known how many, if any, books were contained in it at the time of destruction. Notably, the passage by Socrates makes no clear reference to a library or its contents, only to religious objects. An earlier text by the historian Ammianus Marcellinus indicates that, whatever books might earlier have been housed at the Serapeum, none were there in the last decade of the fourth century. The pagan author Eunapius of Sardis witnessed the demolition, and though he detested Christians, and was a scholar, his account of the Serapeum's destruction makes no mention of any library. Orosius admitted in the sixth book of his History against the Pagans:

“ Today there exist in temples book chests which we ourselves have seen, and, when these temples were plundered, these, we are told, were emptied by our own men in our time, which, indeed, is a true statement.[24] ”

However, Orosius is not here discussing the Serapeum, nor is it clear who "our own men" are (the phrase may mean no more than "men of our time," since pagans also occasionally plundered temples).

As for the Museum, Mostafa El-Abbadi writes in Life and Fate of the Ancient Library of Alexandria (1990):

“ The Mouseion, [sic] being at the same time a 'shrine of the Muses', enjoyed a degree of sanctity as long as other pagan temples remained unmolested. Synesius of Cyrene, who studied under Hypatia at the end of the fourth century, saw the Mouseion and described the images of the philosophers in it. We have no later reference to its existence in the fifth century. As Theon, the distinguished mathematician and father of Hypatia, herself a renowned scholar, was the last recorded scholar-member (c. 380), it is likely that the Mouseion did not long survive the promulgation of Theodosius' decree in 391 to destroy all pagan temples in the city.[25] ”

John Julius Norwich, in his work Byzantium: The Early Centuries, places the destruction of the library's collection during the anti-Arian riots in Alexandria that transpired after the imperial decree of 391 (p. 314). No ancient sources confirm—or even suggest—such an event.

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