Alexandria: Library of Dreams


Jan van der Crabben
by Bagnall, Roger S. (Professor of Classics and History Columbia University)
published on 04 June 2012

My title does not intend to suggest that the Alexandrian Library did not exist, but it does point to what I regard as the unreal character of much that has been said about it. The disparity between, on the one hand, the grandeur and importance of this library, both in its reality in antiquity and in its image both ancient and modern, and, on the other, our nearly total ignorance about it, has been unbearable. No one, least of all modern scholars, has been able to accept our lack of knowledge about a phenomenon that embodies so many human aspirations. In consequence, a whole literature of wishful thinking has grown up, in which scholars—even, I fear, the most rigorous—have cast aside the time-tested methods that normally constrain credulity, in order to be able to avoid confessing defeat. After sketching briefly the main lines of our ignorance of the Library’s history, I shall talk about three types of dreams that have beguiled commentators ancient and modern: dreams about the size of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina; dreams about placing the blame for its destruction; and dreams about the consequences of its loss. But there are some positive lessons as well, as I hope to show.


Editorial Review This Article has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards prior to publication.

Written by Bagnall, Roger S. (Professor of Classics and History Columbia University), linked by Jan van der Crabben, published 04 June 2012. Source URL:

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APA Style

University), B. R. S. (. O. C. A. H. C. (2012, June 04). Alexandria: Library of Dreams. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Chicago Style

University), Bagnall, R. S. (. O. C. A. H. C. "Alexandria: Library of Dreams." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified June 04, 2012.

MLA Style

University), Bagnall, R. S. (. O. C. A. H. C. "Alexandria: Library of Dreams." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 04 Jun 2012. Web. 18 Feb 2019.

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