For most of the time that we storytelling animals have existed, we have had no way to publish and copyright the stories we have created. Even after the printing press was invented, many people still failed to have their works published; people like Shakespeare, for instance.
Early works including The Iliad and The Odyssey were composed centuries before the Greeks learned how to write from the Phoenicians, so you can imagine how much these two epics must have changed through the centuries as they were sung or simply spoken (we don’t know which was the case) before they were finally written down. But even after these and other works such as the Greek tragedies, and the Bible became written documents, there was still a problem. The scribes who copied them made inadvertent mistakes as they copied, and, as we have discovered, sometimes consciously added or omitted words and passages for some unknown reason.
When Alexander the Great died his generals split up his empire. One named Ptolemy became the ruler of Egypt. He was an intellectual, so he set up a library in Alexandria – the city founded by Alexander himself – and it became the most important library in the world. It was not simply a library, it was also a research center that attracted some of the greatest minds in the Mediterranean world.
Ptolemy I and his successors accumulated hundreds of thousands of scrolls consisting of all sorts of documents. Realizing that copied documents often contained errors, he and his successors took steps to get the oldest, and therefore the most accurate, copies they could find. They bought what they could and used underhanded means to get the rest. Ships in the ports were searched, and any scrolls found were copied. Now, here’s the important part: The originals went into the Library, and the owners of the scrolls were given the copies. At one point Ptolemy III, who very badly wanted the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, convinced the Athenians to loan them to him. The Athenians, being wary of him, demanded that he post a bond of 15 talents (millions of dollars in today’s currency) before they would hand them over. He paid the bond, received the plays, and had copies made of them. However, he kept the originals and gave the Athenians the copies. He forfeited the 15 talents, but seems to have thought that he came out the winner.
Imagine all the priceless documents that the Library at Alexandria contained. Imagine that some of the documents were originals, and others were the best copies of originals that existed anywhere in the world. And finally, imagine the loss when the Library was destroyed. There are various stories about when and how it was destroyed, but we don’t know which of the stories is accurate. We believe that the Library and a smaller annex burned, but we don’t even know if it happened accidentally or if the structures were purposely set on fire.
Various surviving documents mention the plays of the great Greek tragedians, and fragments of some of their plays exist, so we have an idea of how many plays they actually wrote. Aeschylus wrote at least 70 plays, but only seven exist today. Only seven of Sophocles’ 120 or so plays exist, and fewer than 20 of the 90 or more plays of Euripides survive. How many of those plays did Ptolemy III have in the Library? How many more Greek plays, and other great works would we have today if the Library of Alexandria had survived? We will never know, of course, but we can say without a doubt that the destruction of the Library of Alexander is one of the greatest intellectual losses ever suffered by mankind.
Carl Sagan, the well-known astronomer and astrophysicist, talked about the library in the first episode of his famous 13-part PBS TV series Cosmos in 1980. You will notice that Sagan had a very distinctive, somewhat distracting (to some) manner of speaking, but listen to what he said, not how he said it.