The Idea of the Library as a Classical Model for European Culture

This essay treats the ancient library not so much as a place or institution but as an idea or concept—a Classical model, conveyed primarily by metaphors of comprehensiveness, completeness, and universality. [1] The focus is primarily on the Library of Alexandria in Egypt and secondarily on the Library of Pergamon in Asia Minor. I will argue that the model represented by these libraries is a historical reality in its own right, pertinent to some of the major questions of European cultural history. Before we consider the metaphors associated with these libraries, I offer a brief introduction to the historical background. [2]
In using the expression “Classical model,” I have in mind a model for actually creating the Classics. By “Classics” here I refer not to any current general definition but to ideas that took shape in the specific historical contexts of centers of learning that flourished in the Greek-speaking world around the fourth through the second centuries BCE.
The primary points of reference are

A) the Lyceum or Peripatos in Athens, as shaped in the fourth century by Aristotle and by his successor, Theophrastus
B) the Library at the Mouseion or Museum, “the sacred precinct of the Muses,” in Alexandria, as sponsored by the dynasty of the Lagidai (that is, the Ptolemies) in the third and the second centuries
C) the Library in Pergamon, as sponsored by the dynasty of the Attalidai (Attalids), especially during the reign of Eumenes II from 197 to 158 BCE.

For the history of the concept of the “Classics” around the fourth through the second centuries BCE, I rely mainly on Rudolf Pfeiffer’s History of Classical Scholarship. [3] He takes note of a key word for this concept, krisis (the source of our word “crisis”), in the sense of “separating,” “discriminating,” “judging” (verb krinein) those works and those authors that were deemed worthy of special recognition and those that were not. [4] Those that were “selected” in this process were the enkrithentes, a term that corresponds to the later Roman concept of the Classics, the classici, who were authors of the ‘first class’, primae classis. [5] This classical principle of selectivity, where some things have to be excluded in order for other things to be included, is the basis for the modern usage of the word canon. [6] The Greek word for those who were engaged in the process of making these critical selections was kritikoi ‘critics’.

Although the Alexandrian scholars eventually abandoned the term kritikos in favor of grammatikos, they preserved and in fact perfected the principles that shaped the concept of kritikos in the first place. It is from their work that we can see most clearly the combination of selective and holistic perspectives:

The canon as conceived by the Alexandrian scholars is not to be confused with the actual collection of works housed in the great library of the Museum at Alexandria. The Pinakes or ‘Tables’ of Callimachus, in 120 books, was intended not as a selection but as a complete catalogue of the holdings of the Museum, generally organized along the lines of formal criteria, including meter. [7]

The Alexandrian Classical model, as formalized in the very concept of the Pinakes of Callimachus, makes it explicit that a holistic perspective is a prerequisite for the application of the principle of selection. [8]

Earlier, I had spoken of the prestige of the Classics, which now leads me to my central thesis: it is this prestige that primarily motivates the overall scholarship of the Library of Alexandria—as also of its rival, the Library of Pergamon. It is the prestige of the Classics that drives the continuum from, say, the Lyceum to the Museum.
In speaking of prestige we cannot separate it from power and wealth. From a sociological vantage point, we may think of social status in terms of this triad of power, wealth, and prestige, viewing all three factors as contiguous and interconnected. [9] Throughout the history of ancient Greece, these factors had shaped the very concept of aristocracy as it evolved from a wide variety of sociopolitical realities into a single unified cultural ideal. [10] And the medium that conveyed such a seemingly monolithic concept or ideal was the Classics. [11] To restate the central thesis, then, in more precise terms: the Classical model of the Library was interconnected with the power, wealth, and prestige of its founders.
In the Library of Alexandria, as founded by the dynasty of the Ptolemies, that is, the Lagidai, we can see interconnections between the idea of a library and the political realities of its foundation. Let us examine closely the following description of the physical setting of the Library, which was the sacred precinct of the Muses, the Museum or Mouseion:

ἃπαντα μέντοι συναφῆ καὶ ἀλλήλοις καὶ τῷ λιμένι καὶ ὅσα ἔξω αὐτοῦ. τῶν δὲ βασιλείων μέρος ἐστὶ καὶ τὸ Μουσεῖον, ἔχον περίπατον καὶ ἐξέδραν καὶ οἶκον μέγαν ἐν ᾧ τὸ συσσίτιον τῶν μετεχόντων τοῦ Μουσείου φιλολόγων ἀνδρῶν. ἔστι δὲ τῇ συνόδῳ ταύτῃ καὶ χρήματα κοινὰ καὶ ἱερεὺς ὁ ἐπὶ τῷ Μουσείῳ τεταγμένος τότε μὲν ὑπὸ τῶν βασιλέων νῦν δ’ ὑπὸ Καίσαρος. μέρος δὲ τῶν βασιλείων ἐστὶ καὶ τὸ καλούμενον Σῶμα, [12] ὃ περίβολος ἦν ἐν ᾧ αἱ τῶν βασιλέων ταφαὶ καὶ ἡ Ἀλεξάνδρου.
All [the buildings] are connected to each other and to the harbor and what lies outside the harbor. The Museum is also part of the royal complex. It has a walkway [Peripatos] and an Exedra and a great building that houses the place where the philologoi who take part in the Museum dine in common. Property, too, is held in common by this assembled group, and at their head is the priest who is put in charge of the Museum, who used to be appointed by the kings, but now by Caesar [Augustus]. Another part of the royal complex is the so-called Sōma. This is an enclosure where the tombs of the kings and of Alexander are located.
Strabo 17.1.8 C 793–4

This whole description of the Museum or Mouseion, the sacred space that contains the Library, abounds in traditional metonyms that reveal the connections of power, wealth, and prestige. These metonyms help explain the metaphors of comprehensiveness, completeness, and universality associated with the idea of the library as a Classical model: [13]

(1) Metonymy of part-for-the-whole. The first and most obvious metonymy to notice in Strabo’s description is the implicit idea that the Library is “part” of the Museum or Mouseion, that is, of the sacred precinct of the Muses. Here we see the specialized metonymy of synecdoche, in that the Library is viewed as a part of the whole, an aspect of the totality that is the Museum. [14] Strabo’s statement of this contiguity is placed in the larger context of his overall statement that all buildings are contiguous in Alexandria.
(2) Metonymy of contiguity between the Museum and the royal precinct, between the sacred and the political. Within this contiguity is the body of men who are an assembled group (sunodos) that eat together and share their wealth as if they were one. The synecdoche of the body in the context of a Library recalls the narrative, in the Letter of Aristeas, about the assembled group who act as one in simultaneously “translating” into Greek the sacred books of the Jews. [15]
(3) Metonymy of contiguity between the Museum and the royal Ptolemaic tombs, especially the tomb of Alexander the Great. By extension (where “extension” itself becomes a metonym), there is the contiguity between “tomb” / sēma and “body” / sōma—a contiguity that is embodied in the synecdoche of naming the sēma ‘tomb’ of Alexander as the Sōma ‘Body’ par excellence. [16] The Library is envisioned as contiguous with the body of the king, as if it were one overall corpus. The notional and even physical contiguity of the library with the sōma of the king is I suggest a traditional concept inherent in the very idea of the Library. The corpus of books is coextensive with the corpus of the king. [17] Further, the preservation of the king’s body is coextensive with the preservation of the books. Even the aetiological narrative, recorded by Strabo, concerning the “bringing home” of Alexander’s body to the Museum, is driven by a metonym: the verb komizein in that narrative (17.1.8 C 794), which can be translated in the specialized sense of ‘bring home’, conveys the preservation of either a hero’s body [18] or a body of literature. [19]
(4) Metonymy inherent in the concept of the Museum as the ‘sacred precinct of the Muses’. This concept links the preservative phase of the canon, as embodied by the Library, with the creative or productive phase of what we know as the Classical era of Greek literature, especially around the fifth century. From a Classical point of view, the Muses preside primarily over the production of belles lettres, only secondarily over their preservation. [20] Between production and preservation, of course, is the concept of continuation: for the scholar-poets of Alexandria, continuity is the preservation of the old canonical literature and the production of new non-canonical (or, better, meta-canonical) literature. [21] I should add that such a concept of continuation is perhaps the most ambitious metonym of them all.
Strabo’s description of the Library of Alexandria reinforces my central thesis: the Classical model of the Library is tied to the power, wealth, and prestige of its patrons. For the model to be Classical, moreover, it must establish a continuity with the most prestigious earlier models. For the Library of Alexandria, that earlier model was the Lyceum. Here it is relevant to emphasize that Strabo’s description of the Museum of Alexandria includes, as we have just seen, the term Peripatos, referring to one of the salient physical features of the Library at Alexandria. Metonymically, this physical feature is also a notional feature linking the Museum to the Lyceum. [22]
As we can see from the description of Strabo, the Library was contiguous with the sacred precinct of the Muses, the goddesses of the performing arts. [23] In this case, the very idea of the Library can be connected with the political impetus to control the application of the spoken word by controlling the text and keeping it in a secured place. [24]
It is the Library of Alexandria that makes it possible to visualize as “virtual libraries” all previous collections of texts recording the spoken word, including the archaic models of Polycrates and Peisistratos. [25] The physical reality of the Library of Alexandria, that is, a comprehensive and holistic collection of the Classics as contained in scrolls stored on the shelves of its bibliothēkē ‘book-repository’ [26] and catalogued in the 120 Pinakes or “Tablets” of Callimachus, [27] becomes the virtual reality of the Library as a concept that can now subsume all earlier patterns of canonization or classicism. [28]
The comprehensiveness and holism of the Library at Pergamon, in general terms as well as in specifics, is based on principles similar to those of the Library of Alexandria. [29] Whereas the operative metaphor in the case of Alexandria is “corpus,” it is “cosmos” in the case of the Library of Pergamon. [30] Either way, the central idea is that of totality, wholeness.
The Alexandrian idea of “corpus” depends, at least in part, on distinctly Egyptian religious visualizations of the pharaonic king’s body as a prototypical re-enactment, as it were, of the god Osiris, whose divine body is dismembered or disassembled in order to become ultimately reassembled as a model of eternal preservation. [31] But it depends also on distinctly Hellenic religious visualizations of the cult-hero’s body as a sacred talisman of fertility, prosperity, and eternally recycled life for the community that worships it. [32] The conventional setting of hero-cults in gardens is a visible sign: the cultivation of gardens is coextensive with the cult of heroes. [33]
Moreover, the overall idea of the Library of Alexandria depends on the overall idea of the Museum, the sacred precinct of the Muses. Again, the visualization of this Museum, a garden with porticos filled with scrolls that preserve and perpetuate the belles lettres of the Classics writ large, is quintessentially Hellenic.
These visualizations of the Library of Alexandria, partly Egyptian and partly Hellenic, are pertinent to some of the major questions of European cultural history and even to the ultimate question of European cultural identity. Most important of all, they show that the idea of “Hellenic” is not at all incompatible with the cultural realities of ancient Egypt.
Just as important, the idea of “Hellenic” is equally compatible with the cultural realities of, say, “Asia.” A prime witness is one of the most prestigious cities of Asia Minor, Pergamon, with its Library proclaiming the cosmopolitan idea of Hellenism as “cosmos” itself. This macrocosmic cultural model of Hellenism pertains directly to the idea of Europe, since Hellenism defines itself as bridging Europe and Asia: the Hellespont, which physically separates the two continents from each other, is also the mythical and ideological “bridge” (etymologically, Hellēspontos means “the crossing of Helle”) which culturally joins them together. [34]
If Europe is to define itself as the cultural heir to Hellenism, then the hope is that Europe will perpetuate such models of cultural inclusion. In this light, let us look back at the symbolism of the statue of Gulbenkian in the garden of the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon: we see here the founder of the foundation, who was born in Istanbul, the city that straddles Europe and Asia. The statue is sitting under the overarching presence of the Egyptian god Horus, the living heir and avenger of the dead Osiris. The setting of the statue—and, by metonymy, of the whole foundation—is a garden, which fills out the symbolism: it evokes the ultimate garden of the Muses, the Museum of Alexandria. To cultivate such a garden is to perpetuate the culture of the inclusive idea that is Europe.
The hope for a perpetuation of such a culture is relevant to the topic of this colloquium, European culture in the twenty-first century. My own hope is that this culture will save the Europe of the twenty-first century from becoming a mere ideology, which has been the fate of the very idea of the twentieth century.
My hope is that the triumphalism of the twentieth century as a concept and, yes, as a self-congratulating ideology will give way to a new spirit of historicism in the twenty-first century—a spirit that refuses to fetishize itself as the be-all and end-all of human inquiry, as if the only thing worthy of study were the present—an artificial present frozen within a block of time that lasts, arbitrarily, for a hundred years. The sad legacy of the twentieth century has been a relentless elimination of previous blocks of time, as if nothing else mattered except the present and the recent past, as if students needed to study nothing that happened before the twentieth and, at best, the nineteenth century.
My hope is that the twenty-first century will not become a false periodization that finishes off the job that the twentieth has started—the grim process of eliminating from memory, or trying to eliminate, everything that happened before itself. The idea of the library as a Classical model reveals an alternative.
My hope is that Europe can play a special role. With its depth of history, with its depth of humanism contained within that history, my hope is that Europe can revitalize its own humanism by reestablishing its historical depth in time—and its historical breadth in space.
The space of Europe, it is my hope, will be cultural, not territorial, embracing all the cultures to which it has been contrasted throughout its history—and which, all of them, have contributed to the depth and the breadth of that history.
The concept of Europe is hollow if Europe remembers only the so-called twenty-first and twentieth centuries. My hope is that Europe remembers all of its past.
The concept of Europe is hollow if it remembers only what is contained within its fluctuating geographical boundaries. My hope is that it keeps in mind all of its cultural contacts in the present and the past.
Europe is not Europe without the diachrony of ancient Egypt, the ancient Near East, and all the other contiguities. The idea of the library as a Classical model shows the way. I think back of the gardens of the Museum of Alexandria, evoked by the gardens of the Gulbenkian Foundation. Revenons à cultiver notre jardin!


[ back ] 1. This essay was first published in Europa e Cultura: Seminário Internacional, Maio de 1998, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian (ed. Mário Soares) 275–281. Lisbon 2001. In the online version here, updated 2020.06.03, I have made two addenda, as indicated in footnotes 30 and 31.
[ back ] 2. The introduction to this essay is an abridged version of my introduction to a more detailed essay, “The Library of Pergamon as a Classical Model,” in Helmut Koester, ed., Pergamon: Citadel of the Gods (Harrisburg PA: Trinity Press International, 1998) 185-232. For an online version of that other essay, I cite
For a newer online version, which is meant to be a work-in-progress, I cite
[ back ] 3. Rudolf Pfeiffer, History of Classical Scholarship: From the Beginnings to the End of the Hellenistic Age (Oxford: Clarendon, 1968).
[ back ] 4. Pfeiffer pp. 117, 204, 206-7, 242, 269. Followed by Nagy, “Ancient Greek Views of Poets and Poetry,” in George Kennedy, ed., The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism. Vol. 1, Classical Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989) 1-77, especially p. 1. For a more detailed discussion, see Nagy, Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990) 61-2, 85, and 402-3 (with special reference to the wording of Plato).
[ back ] 5. Pfeiffer pp. 206-7.
[ back ] 6. See Pfeiffer p. 207 for a brief history of the modern usage.
[ back ] 7. Nagy, Pindar’s Homer p. 61n52 (cf. also p. 83n3), following James E. G. Zetzel, “Re-creating the Canon: Augustan Poetry and the Alexandrian Past,” Critical Inquiry 10 (1983) 83-105, reprinted in Robert von Halbert, ed., Canons (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984) 107-129.
[ back ] 8. For the basic information on the Pinakes of Callimachus, see Pfeiffer, pp. 127-134. Pfeiffer does not stress, however, the working distinction between the concept of a canon and the concept (not just the reality) of a complete collection. This distinction is the point of Zetzel’s argument, cited above. See also Nagy, Pindar’s Homer p. 83n3: “For the Alexandrian scholars, exclusion of an author from the canon does not preclude an active interest in that author, even as a model for imitation.”
[ back ] 9. Here I am following the general outlines of Max Weber’s sociological models: see especially Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Tübingen [1922]; 4th ed.: Mohr-Siebeck, 1956). On wealth and prestige in terms of an “economy of prestige,” see in general Pierre Bourdieu, Esquisse d’une théorie de la pratique (Geneva: Droz, 1972). See also Richard Leppert and Bruce Lincoln, “Introduction” to the special issue “Discursive Strategies and the Economy of Prestige” of Cultural Critique 12 (1989) 5-23, especially pp. 6-8. On power and prestige, cf. Maurice Bloch, “The Disconnection Between Power and Rank as a Process,” Archives européennes de sociologie 18 (1977) 107-148.
[ back ] 10. On aristocratic ideologies of power, wealth, and prestige in ancient Greek culture, see Nagy, “Aristocrazia: caratteri e stili di vita,” in Salvatore Settis, ed., I Greci: Storia Cultura Arte Società II (Torino: Einaudi, 1996) 577-598.
[ back ] 11. Nagy, “The ‘Professional Muse’ and Models of Prestige in Ancient Greece,” in Cultural Critique 12 (1989) 133-143 (in the same special issue, see Leppert and Lincoln on the “economy of prestige,” cited above).
[ back ] 12. The manuscript tradition of Strabo has Σῶμα, but modern editors conventionally emend to Σῆμα. My arguments against the emendation are developed below.
[ back ] 13. By “metonym” here I mean, as a working definition, the expression of meaning by way of  connection—as opposed to “metaphor,” by which I mean the expression of meaning by way of substitution.
[ back ] 14. Cf. P. M. Fraser, Ptolemaic Alexandria I (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972) 325. Fraser’s own usage in his book often blurs the distinction between Library and Museum. On the synecdoche of “canon” as a “model,” see Nagy, “Ancient Greek Views” p. 1.
[ back ] 15. Nagy, Poetry as Performance pp. 196-197; cf. Luciano Canfora, Il viaggio di Aristea (Bari: Laterza, 1996) 7-8.
[ back ] 16. As I have already noted, the manuscript tradition of Strabo has Σῶμα, literally meaning ‘body’, but modern editors conventionally emend to Σῆμα, meaning ‘tomb’. I submit that Σῶμα is the lectio difficilior. (I now retract my reading Σῆμα in Nagy, Pindar’s Homer p. 272n110.) In the Alexander Romance 3.34.5, it is made explicit that the taphos ‘tomb’ of Alexander was named the σῶμα Ἀλεξάνδρου ‘the Sōma of Alexander’. The traditional name of Alexander’s tomb works as a metonymy (specifically, a synecdoche), whereby the body (sōma) par excellence is the tomb (sēma). The phonetic parallelism of sōma / sēma serves to reinforce the metonymic device. On the Orphic identification of sōma and sēma, see Plato, Cratylus 400c. Cf. pp. 174-175 of Martha Payne, “Alexander the Great: Myth, the Polis, and Afterward,” in Dora C. Pozzi and John M. Wickersham, eds., Myth and the Polis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991) 164-181.
[ back ] 17. Cicero borrows the Greek word sōma in referring to a “corpus” of books: Letters to Atticus 2.1.4, Letter to Luceius. Note too the expression τὸ σῶμα τῶν γραφῶν ‘the corpus of scriptures’ (drawn into a parallel with τὸ σῶμα τὸ Μωυσέως ‘the body of Moses’) in Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis6.132.2-3. For these and related earlier examples (Philo, On the Contemplative Life 78 and The Assumption of Moses 93), see Annewies van den Hoek, “The Concept of σῶμα τῶν γραφῶν in Alexandrian Theology,” Studia Patristica 19 (1989) 250-254.
[ back ] 18. Compare Iliad XIII 196, telling how the Achaeans κόμισαν ‘brought’ (komizein) the corpse of Amphimakhos. Subjectively, they ‘brought it back to their side’—which is here by necessity the substitute for ‘brought it home’. Further argumentation in Nagy, “The Library of Pergamon.”
[ back ] 19. In “Plato” Hipparkhos 228b-c, we read that one of the Peisistratids of Athens, Hipparkhos, ἐκόμισεν ‘brought home’ (komizein) the epē ‘[poetic] words’ of Homer to Athens.
[ back ] 20. Nagy, Pindar’s Homer pp. 58-61, 77n21, 188-189. When I say “production” I include composition-in-performance as well as composition-for-performance.
[ back ] 21. Nagy, pp. 82-84. Performance, not just writing, can be an aspect of preservation.
[ back ] 22. See Fraser, Ptolemaic Alexandria I 320, 316, and especially 325 on the Lyceum as a model for the Museum.
[ back ] 23. On the traditional role of the Muses as the divinities who preside over the politics of performance, see Nagy, “Professional Muse.”
[ back ] 24. Cf. Fraser, Ptolemaic Alexandria I 334-335, II 479-80, 493-494.
[ back ] 25. For comparative perspectives on the term “virtual library,” see p. 62 of Christian Jacob, “Lire pour écrire: navigations alexandrines,” in Marc Baratin and Christian Jacob, eds., Le pouvoir des bibliothèques (Paris: Albin Michel, 1996) 47-83.
[ back ] 26. Cf. Canfora, Vanished Library p. 141: the bibliothēkē should be understood as comprised of “all the bookshelves located in the Museum precincts.”
[ back ] 27. Cf. Jacob, “Lire pour écrire” pp. 56-69.
[ back ] 28. Cf. Nagy, “Ancient Greek Views” pp. 1-2.
[ back ] 29. Full argumentation in Nagy, “The Library of Pergamon.”
[ back ] 30. See Nagy, “The Library of Pergamon.” [Addendum 2020.06.04: I can now cite] I highlight the philosophical and  philological models of “cosmos” as developed by Crates of Mallos for his edition of Homer, which I argue was a centerpiece for the academic prestige of the Library of Pergamon. As I argue further, the metaphor of “cosmos” is apt for conveying the expansiveness of the edition of Homer produced by Crates in Pergamon, to be contrasted with the compression of the text of Homer as edited by Aristarchus in Alexandria. The idea of a compressed edition of Homer fits the metaphor of “corpus,” inherent in the usage of the term sōma as a metonymic reference to the whole collection of the Library of Alexandria. To restate the metonymy of the Sōma at the Museum of Alexandria: the body of the king becomes, by extension, the corpus of the library.
[ back ] 31. In another work, I undertake an extensive study of this model with special reference to Plutarch’s essay On Isis and Osiris. [Addendum 2020.06.04: I can now cite] My study takes into account the evolution of the myths and rituals connected with Osiris and Sarapis in the Ptolemaic and Roman eras of Alexandria.
[ back ] 32. Nagy, Pindar’s Homer pp. 270-272.
[ back ] 33. For an overview of garden settings for hero-cults, see Nagy, The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979; 2nd ed. 1999) 174-210, especially pp. 207-208.
[ back ] 34. For the mythological and ideological background on the Hellespont as the cultural “bridge” between Europe and Asia, as articulated primarily by the “father of history,” Herodotus, see Nagy, Pindar’s Homer pp. 268-273, in conjunction with the discussion of the meaning of Hellēspontos at p. 330. On the myth of “the crossing of Helle” by way of the Hellespont, see Nagy, The Best of the Achaeans pp. 339-344.