Cleopatra’s Books

Mary Beard

  • The Vanished Library: A Wonder of the Ancient World by Luciano Canfora, translated by Martin Ryle
    Radius, 205 pp, £14.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 09 174049 5
  • Herodotus by John Gould
    Weidenfeld, 164 pp, £14.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 297 79339 X

‘The Aristotle ... was already burning. Meanwhile, some sparks had flown towards the walls, and already the volumes of another bookcase were crumpling in the fury of the fire.’ So, in the final pages of The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco destroys ‘the greatest library in Christendom’, hidden away in the impenetrable labyrinth of his macabre abbey. The reader cannot help but feel some satisfaction at this apparent disaster. For the maze of the abbey’s library and its unpleasant secrets serve as a metaphor for the closure of medieval thought and the dominance of oppressive monasticism, soon to be breached by the new sophistication represented by Eco’s hero, William of Baskerville. Paradoxically, the terrible fire brings light to the Dark Ages – and if its only major literary casualty is a ‘lost’ work of Aristotle, then not too many tears are to be shed.

Libraries are not simply the storehouses of books. They are the means of organising knowledge and, as Eco shows, of controlling that knowledge and restricting access to it. They are the symbols of intellectual and political power, and the far from innocent focus of conflict and opposition. It is hardly for reasons of simple security that so many of our great libraries are built on the model of fortresses. Nor presumably is it mere chance that the recent violence in Romania should, as reported, include the dramatic burning of the Bucharest University Library.

Luciano Canfora’s Vanished Library raises just these themes in relation to the greatest library of the Classical world, the library of Alexandria. His narrative is deceptively simple. In a series of short chapters, some little more than a single vignette, he charts the history of the library from its foundation at the beginning of the third century BC through to its final burning in AD 640 at the hands of Islamic Arabs – rejecting en route the common view that it did not survive the fires in the city when Julius Caesar was besieged there in 48 BC. But underlying this apparently straightforward story is a much more complex set of problems: the connection of the library with despotic power; the role of the library in preserving (or failing to preserve) a ‘Classical tradition’; the nature of that tradition itself.

Canfora never actually mentions Eco’s library from The Name of the Rose, but his book is full of allusions to it and implied contrasts. The central role of the works of Aristotle for both Eco and Canfora is perhaps the most striking aspect of this interconnection. William of Baskerville in The Name of the Rose found the key to the mystery of the abbey in Aristotle’s treatise On Comedy, lost for ever in the final, devastating conflagration. In The Vanished Library, Canfora takes up the Aristotelian story at an earlier point, dealing at some length with the fate of Aristotle’s books after his death, with the failure of the Alexandrian library to acquire many of the most important treatises, and with the series of sordid dealings that ended up with many of the books appearing in Rome (albeit in a pretty corrupt state). It is as if the reader is being reminded that there was a history to the fateful treatise before we meet it in the medieval abbey. And that reminder is underscored by the final sentence in Canfora’s description of the Arab destruction of the Alexandrian library: ‘Aristotle’s books were the only ones spared.’ They were not to be so lucky next time. Aristotle’s Comedy was not allowed to escape Eco’s flames.

This dialogue with Eco also finds expression in the physical layout of the different libraries. Eco’s medieval library is a complex structure, the secret centre of a building dedicated to books – described at length as William and his young companion manage finally to find their way in. For Canfora, the Alexandrian library was not a building in any structural sense. It was just sets of shelves opportunistically arranged in the covered walkways of the Museum (literally ‘shrine of the Muses’), part of the royal palace of Alexandria. And, quite unlike William, the Greek writer Strabo, who described the Museum in some detail in the first century BC, did not even seem to realise that he had visited a library at all – ‘for the simple reason that it did not constitute a separate room.’ More is at stake here than different fashions in library design. Eco uses the labyrinthine layout of the abbey library as a physical image of the intellectual world of the Middle Ages. By denying the Alexandrian library an independent structure, by defining it as simply the shelves spread around the Museum, Canfora forces us to reflect on the contrast between his library and Eco’s. The key question is – of what kind of intellectual world is the Alexandrian library a metaphor?

There is, needless to say, a sinister side to that world. Canfora constantly emphasises the connection of the ancient library (not just the Alexandrian one) with monarchy, despotism and centralised state power. This is vividly symbolised in Egypt by the physical link between the library and the (dead) body of the king. So, for example, long before the foundation of the Hellenistic library of Alexandria the tomb of the pharaoh Rameses II had contained a renowned ‘sacred library’; and just next to the Alexandrian Museum itself was the Soma (literally ‘the body’), the circular enclosure that contained the tomb of Alexander the Great himself and those of various later Ptolemaic kings. Paradoxically, however, it is this link with centralised, official, state power which, for Canfora, makes the ancient library such an inadequate institution for safeguarding the literary heritage of the Classical world. It was partly because of their connections with state authority that ‘the history of the libraries of antiquity often ends in flames.’ The implications for our understanding of the Classical tradition are clear. In Canfora’s view, that tradition is determined, not by the great centralising powers of the Classical world, but by private, often marginal individuals who safely preserved their own copies of books – sometimes even refusing to cede them to the all-devouring maw of the great and powerful ‘universal libraries’. Our Classical tradition is, in a sense, the tradition of the outsider.

The Vanished Library is an extraordinarily innovative work of ancient history. It is not just that the book engages with cultural debates outside the field of Classics. Canfora is also experimenting with new ways of writing the history of the Classical world. The book is divided into two parts. The first is an almost-fictionalised account of the history of the Alexandrian library and its collections, with chapter after chapter freely dramatising its key moments and final destruction. We read, for example, of the Alexandrians’ pursuit of the library of Aristotle which had been bequeathed to the insignificant Neleus of Scepsis – who manages in the end to dupe the messengers of the Egyptian king and hang onto the most important books himself; we read of the struggles to acquire a Greek version of the Old Testament for the library, and of the translation finally completed by 72 translators in 72 days; we read, at the end, of John Philoponus and his nearly successful attempts to win over the Arab conquerors in order to reprieve the library; and there is much, much more. In all this Canfora is not just telling a story: in the second part of the book he offers a series of detailed studies on the ‘sources’ that lie behind his account of the library’s history. But it is the freedom of his fictionalising form, his construction of imaginary dialogue, his strategic blurring of the history of the library and its significant mythology, which enables him more easily to develop the wider cultural allusions that make the book so memorable. This is history writing freed of many of its modern, conventional constraints.

There are, of course, costs in this way of working. Despite the end-notes, despite the emphasis on source criticism in the second half of the book, even the not-so-conventional historian may well remain uneasy about which parts of Canfora’s story of the library are drawn from ancient accounts and which are appropriate but still imaginary reconstructions. And there are still some hidden prejudices at work. Why, for example, does he so firmly reject the story of Antony’s gift of two hundred thousand scrolls to Cleopatra (on the coals-to-Newcastle principle – ‘imagine giving books ... to the woman who owned the world’s greatest and most famous library!’), when elsewhere he lovingly incorporates a whole range of considerably more unlikely anecdotes? There are problems, too, with his wider view of the Classical tradition. What has happened, for example, to schools and the school curriculum in this story? Does not the preservation of Classical learning within the educational tradition of Antiquity and the Middle Ages make Canfora’s view of the marginal status of the Classical tradition impossible, in any simple sense, to sustain?

To quibble, however, is to miss the point. Canfora’s game is to challenge the traditional certainties of history-writing (particularly, the writing of Classical history): to challenge those divisions – between ‘myth’ and ‘reality’, ‘fiction’ and ‘history’, ‘imagination’ and ‘scholarship’ – which we have come to take for granted. In these terms, The Vanished Library is a contribution to a debate about how ancient history should be written; and it is staking a claim for the reintegration of ancient history into the contemporary cultural agenda. Perhaps in Canfora’s native Italy the study of the ancient world has never become so extremely marginalised as it is here. But in the Anglo-American context such reintegration is definitely overdue.

Canfora is not the only one to be raising these issues. He is simply an unusually eloquent voice in a debate about the very nature of the subject that is spreading widely within ancient history (see, for example, the various contributions in Averil Cameron’s recent collection History as Text). And it is as part of this debate that historians are increasingly turning to re-examine the history writers of the ancient world themselves. John Gould’s Herodotus is just one example of this current interest. It is, of course, a hard job to take on the ‘Father of History’. But Gould does extraordinarily well in avoiding all the old stereotypes which have surrounded Herodotus since antiquity itself: the gullible old duffer who wrote down every far-fetched tale he ever heard; the proto-ethnographer with a cultural vision far wider than the average barbarian-hating Greek; the epic poet manqué, the author of a prose tragedy of human suffering. Sadly, Gould still feels the need to explain Herodotus’s historical method and understanding to an audience which he assumes knows better than (or, at least, different from) Herodotus. In fact, it is precisely in Herodotus’s most problematic traits – his blurring of history and myth, his incorporation of the imaginary into the historical narrative, his use of fiction to make a point – that he seems so close to Canfora.