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H - 76 : How Knowledge spread in Antiquity

In two of my previous blogs I talked about the role of scribes in antiquity and that books were scrolls not pages bound at the back. The two blogs made me wonder how knowledge actually spread in antiquity, how it was assembled and maintained. The invention of libraries was certainly a milestone. Why were they invented in the first place? And once they existed, how was knowledge transferred? Alexandria is famous for its library which had 500’000 to 700’000 scripts and was a major center of Greek learning. Fewer people know that Rome the imperial capital had 28 libraries and that Augustus was a relentless promoter of libraries.

Burnt Papyrus Scroll from Herculaneum which was recently made readable with AI scanning

So why did Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s generals, decide to establish a library in Alexandria? I believe it was all about power. Knowledge is power. This was as true in antiquity as it is today. In Egypt, Kings were Gods. They had to have an answer to everything. They needed to be able to predict when the Nile was rising, when it was the best time to seed the fields, be able to anticipate solar and lunar eclipses, know about geography to plan their military campaigns, be able to navigate on the open sea with the help of stars, being properly informed about their neighbours (potential future foes) and have a rudimentary idea of healthcare, medicine and state affairs.

Ptolemy I Soter, General, Pharaoh and Library Founder

There was only one way to do that – by gathering all the available texts in one single location and appoint a senior magistrate, the royal librarian, to make this knowledge accessible to the king. The Library of Alexandria served the Ptolemy Dynasty well. Despite being Greek and foreign, the Ptolemy hanged on to power for 300 years until Egypt was integrated into the Roman Empire when Cleopatra died. The power of a royal library must have impressed Augustus who conquered Egypt. He brought the tradition to Rome. By his time, the Roman Empire had gathered more information about the world than Alexandria ever could. It was time to put it at the disposal of current and future Roman Emperors.

The Myth of the burning Library of Alexandria was probably just that - it simply decayed

We do not exactly know how knowledge spread 2’000 years ago. Next to Alexandria and Rome there were other important libraries. Also, some wealthy people could afford private libraries as the House of Papyri in Herculaneum shows. When it was excavated from the ashes burnt scrolls were found which can be read now thanks to modern scanning and AI. The most famous libraries were in Pergamon, Ephesus, Antioch, Rhodes and Athens. And when Constantine the Great moved his capital from Rome, Constantinople started a great library too. Many of its books were shipped to Venice just before the Ottomans conquered the town in 1453. These books are still accessible today at the Biblioteca Marciana. The building is just opposite the Doge Palace – the location again is no coincidence.

Marc Anthony, Roman General, stole all scrolls of the Library in Pergamon we visited in 2022

Knowhow must have travelled like any other physical good. We know that Rome’s Imperial mail, the correspondence between Emperors, the Senate and the governors in faraway provinces used commercial shipping. Am sure these ships also carried scrolls from one destination to the next. There were even proper book markets in Rhodes and Athens. If a text was not available there, it could be ordered from Alexandria or any other library. The same way merchants ordered silk, pearls or pepper. Such orders were transmitted to  scribes who would then copy the desired text on a new scroll. Most texts were about 10’000 words long, which results in 25 to 30 pages. Given that a scribe can copy 12 – 18 pages a day, it takes only 2 days to copy a scroll. The new copy was then paid for and shipped to Rome or wherever ordered from. Knowledge spread along the sea lanes on which we travel during our journeys since 2017.

Venice's Biblioteca Marciana, the first modern public Library, on a papyrus unfriendly day

Disseminating knowledge was not the only challenge. Papyrus is not the most stable material. Within a few decades, let’s say 30 years, it gets moldy, black and decays. The texts are lost unless recopied. There are only a few papyri fragments from antiquity which survived. Excavated in the Egyptian desert they lasted thanks to the extraordinarily dry weather. The climate in Alexandria was anything than dry – hot and humid is more accurate. And anybody who ever spent time in Rome during the winter will attest how wet it can get. Humidity and papyri are not the best friends. Scrolls thus had to be frequently recopied to keep the texts in usable conditions.

The Magdalena Fragments from 200 AD are probably the oldest parts of the New Testament

It is said that the Great library of Alexandria owned 700’000 scrolls. If 3% of them had to be recopied every year, there were 21’000 scrolls to re-write. This translates in 42’000-man-days p.a. Assuming a scribe works 6 days a week = 300 days a year, the library of Alexandria would need a staff of 140 scribes just to maintain and preserve existing texts. There are a lot of assumptions in my calculation but it makes a point. Having a library was expensive and only powerful and rich rulers or states could afford it. The moment funding withered, a library’s existence was jeopardised. Within two generations it could be lost.

Trajan's Library at the Forum Trajanum had special

wooden shelves to protect the papyri scrolls from moister

History is full of stories of libraries being looted or destroyed. The ancient writer Plutarch mentioned that Caesar burnt the Alexandria’s library by accident when defending the city against Ptolemaic rebels. There is probably some truth to the story as well as to the one of Marc Anthony stealing all of Pergamon’s scrolls to give them to Cleopatra as a wedding present.  The bigger enemy for library was probably natural decay. Not spectacular but real. No empire lasts forever – thus no library lasted forever. But there were always new rulers who were interested in knowledge. After Rome came Byzantium, then the Arabs and eventually the Christian monasteries. Without them, all old texts would be lost.

The Printing Press was invented in Germany in 1440 by

Gutenberg - the Chinese had it a few centuries earlier ...


The problem was eventually solved by replacing papyrus with parchment and paper – another  Chinese invention. Properly stored, paper survive for hundreds of years.  The invention of the printing press in 1440 was another important step. Now thousands of copies could be produced. The survival rate of texts skyrocket. The last innovation was the digitalization and the internet. Now texts last forever and spread at the speed of light – provided your government allows it. Knowledge is power – something the Chinese Communist Party knows as well as the Ptolemaic Kings of Egypt. Some things never change.

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