H.G. Wells > A Short History of the World > 27. The Museum and Library at Alexandria

H.G. Wells (1866–1946).  A Short History of the World.  1922.

XXVII.  The Museum and Library at Alexandria

BEFORE the time of Alexander Greeks had already been spreading as merchants, artists, officials, mercenary soldiers, over most of the Persian dominions. In the dynastic disputes that followed the death of Xerxes, a band of ten thousand Greek mercenaries played a part under the leadership of Xenophon. Their return to Asiatic Greece from Babylon is described in his Retreat of the Ten Thousand, one of the first war stories that was ever written by a general in command. But the conquests of Alexander and the division of his brief empire among his subordinate generals, greatly stimulated this permeation of the ancient world by the Greeks and their language and fashions and culture. Traces of this Greek dissemination are to be found far away in central Asia and in north-west India. Their influence upon the development of Indian art was profound.   1
  For many centuries Athens retained her prestige as a centre of art and culture; her schools went on indeed to 529 A.D., that is to say for nearly a thousand years; but the leadership in the intellectual activity of the world passed presently across the Mediterranean to Alexandria, the new trading city that Alexander had founded. Here the Macedonian general Ptolemy had become Pharaoh, with a court that spoke Greek. He had become an intimate of Alexander before he became king, and he was deeply saturated with the ideas of Aristotle. He set himself, with great energy and capacity, to organize knowledge and investigation. He also wrote a history of Alexander’s campaigns which, unhappily, is lost to the world.   2
  Alexander had already devoted considerable sums to finance the enquiries of Aristotle, but Ptolemy I was the first person to make a permanent endowment of science. He set up a foundation in Alexandria which was formerly dedicated to the Muses, the Museum of Alexandria. For two or three generations the scientific work done at Alexandria was extraordinarily good. Euclid, Eratosthenes who measured the size of the earth and came within fifty miles of its true diameter, Apollonius who wrote on conic sections, Hipparchus who made the first star map and catalogue, and Hero who devised the first steam engine are among the greater stars of an extraordinary constellation of scientific pioneers. Archimedes came from Syracuse to Alexandria to study, and was a frequent correspondent of the Museum. Herophilus was one of the greatest of Greek anatomists, and is said to have practised vivisection.   3
  For a generation or so during the reigns of Ptolemy I and Ptolemy II there was such a blaze of knowledge and discovery at Alexandria as the world was not to see again until the sixteenth century A.D. But it did not continue. There may have been several causes of this decline. Chief among them, the late Professor Mahaffy suggested, was the fact that the Museum was a “royal” college and all its professors and fellows were appointed and paid by Pharaoh. This was all very well when Pharaoh was Ptolemy I, the pupil and friend of Aristotle. But as the dynasty of the Ptolemies went on they became Egyptianized, they fell under the sway of Egyptian priests and Egyptian religious developments, they ceased to follow the work that was done, and their control stifled the spirit of enquiry altogether. The Museum produced little good work after its first century of activity.   4
  Ptolemy I not only sought in the most modern spirit to organize the finding of fresh knowledge. He tried also to set up an encyclopædic storehouse of wisdom in the Library of Alexandria. It was not simply a storehouse, it was also a book-copying and book-selling organization. A great army of copyists was set to work perpetually multiplying copies of books.   5
  Here then we have the definite first opening up of the intellectual process in which we live to-day; here we have the systematic gathering and distribution of knowledge. The foundation of this Museum and Library marks one of the great epochs in the history of mankind. It is the true beginning of Modern History.   6
  BOTH the work of research and the work of dissemination went on under serious handicaps. One of these was the great social gap that separated the philosopher, who was a gentleman, from the trader and the artisan. There were glass workers and metal workers in abundance in those days, but they were not in mental contact with the thinkers. The glass worker was making the most beautifully coloured beads and phials and so forth, but he never made a Florentine flask or a lens. Clear glass does not seem to have interested him. The metal worker made weapons and jewellery but he never made a chemical balance. The philosopher speculated loftily about atoms and the nature of things, but he had no practical experience of enamels and pigments and philters and so forth. He was not interested in substances. So Alexandria in its brief day of opportunity produced no microscopes and no chemistry. And though Hero invented a steam engine it was never set either to pump or drive a boat or do any useful thing. There were few practical applications of science except in the realm of medicine, and the progress of science was not stimulated and sustained by the interest and excitement of practical applications. There was nothing to keep the work going therefore when the intellectual curiosity of Ptolemy I and Ptolemy II was withdrawn. The discoveries of the Museum went on record in obscure manuscripts and never, until the revival of scientific curiosity at the Renascence, reached out to the mass of mankind.   7
  Nor did the Library produce any improvements in book making. That ancient world had no paper made in definite sizes from rag pulp. Paper was a Chinese invention and it did not reach the western world until the ninth century A.D. The only book materials were parchment and strips of the papyrus reed joined edge to edge. These strips were kept on rolls which were very unwieldy to wind to and fro and read, and very inconvenient for reference. It was these things that prevented the development of paged and printed books. Printing itself was known in the world it would seem as early as the Old Stone Age; there were seals in ancient Sumeria; but without abundant paper there was little advantage in printing books, an improvement that may further have been resisted by trades unionism on the part of the copyists employed. Alexandria produced abundant books but not cheap books, and it never spread knowledge into the population of the ancient world below the level of a wealthy and influential class.   8
  So it was that this blaze of intellectual enterprise never reached beyond a small circle of people in touch with the group of philosophers collected by the first two Ptolemies. It was like the light in a dark lantern which is shut off from the world at large. Within the blaze may be blindingly bright, but nevertheless it is unseen. The rest of the world went on its old ways unaware that the seed of scientific knowledge that was one day to revolutionize it altogether had been sown. Presently a darkness of bigotry fell even upon Alexandria. Thereafter for a thousand years of darkness the seed that Aristotle had sown lay hidden. Then it stirred and began to germinate. In a few centuries it had become that widespread growth of knowledge and clear ideas that is now changing the whole of human life.   9
  Alexandria was not the only centre of Greek intellectual activity in the third century B.C. There were many other cities that displayed a brilliant intellectual life amidst the disintegrating fragments of the brief empire of Alexander. There was, for example, the Greek city of Syracuse in Sicily, where thought and science flourished for two centuries; there was Pergamum in Asia Minor, which also had a great library. But this brilliant Hellenic world was now stricken by invasion from the north. New Nordic barbarians, the Gauls, were striking down along the tracks that had once been followed by the ancestors of the Greeks and Phrygians and Macedonians. They raided, shattered and destroyed. And in the wake of the Gauls came a new conquering people out of Italy, the Romans, who gradually subjugated all the western half of the vast realm of Darius and Alexander. They were an able but unimaginative people, preferring law and profit to either science of art. New invaders were also coming down out of central Asia to shatter and subdue the Seleucid empire and to cut off the western world again from India. These were the Parthians, hosts of mounted bowmen, who treated the Græco-Persian empire of Persepolis and Susa in the third century B.C. in much the same fashion that the Medes and Persians had treated it in the seventh and sixth. And there were now other nomadic peoples also coming out of the north-east, peoples who were not fair and Nordic and Aryan-speaking but yellow-skinned and black-haired and with a Mongolian speech. But of these latter people we shall tell more in a subsequent chapter.  10

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