World History

The Most Devastating Book Burnings of the Ancient World

In the year 612 BC, the coalition army of Medes, Scythians, Cimmerians, Chaldeans and Babylonians stormed the great Assyrian capital of Nineveh. Decades before, Ashurbanipal had built a massive personal library which contained more than 30,000 written texts. During the violent siege of the city, fires consumed the royal palace, and the library. Making it one of the first major book burning event in historical record. Interestingly, because the books were written on clay, the flames served as a method of preservation by hardening the tablets. In fact, they were so well protected against the elements, that archeologists were able to decipher the cuneiform more than two millennia after the fall of the Assyrian Empire. However, the ancient world transitioned to the use of ink and scrolls made from papyrus or parchment. So, the libraries which were built afterward fell victim to burnings, and their words were lost to history. There are multiple incidents of ancient book burnings aimed at the removal of singular controversial texts, such as the Athenian philosopher Protagoras. But there are three particularly destructive events that account for the loss of thousands of documents that were well known by ancient scholars and historians.

Persepolis – Persia

The first of these events was the burning of Persepolis by Alexander the Great and his army. When Alexander’s troops reached the famed city, Darius had already fled into the wilderness and the King of Macedonia declared himself ruler of the vast Persian Empire. According to Diodorus Siculus, the Greeks celebrated their victory in the streets of Persepolis and got very drunk. Thais, the lover of Ptolemy Soter of Egypt, declared that they should burn the city to the ground in retaliation for Xerxes II’s destruction of the Athenian Acropolis more than a century earlier. She led the intoxicated soldiers in a parade with torches in hand and is said to have been the first to start the blaze. While the mob didn’t specifically target the Royal Archives, the scrolls became a casualty of war nonetheless. The palaces which housed the largest library of Zoroastrian texts were made from cedar wood and were quickly consumed by the fire. There were many sacred copies of the Avesta that were written with gold ink, and countless more irreplaceable historical records. However, there were still many clay tablets used for the Achaemenid administration that were well preserved, like those of Ashurbanipal.

The Burning of Books and Burying of Scholars – China

The Warring States period and Eastern Zhou period of ancient China was a dangerous and volatile time for its citizens. Those who had served as scholars under various administrations of previous regimes fled to the four corners of the empires and established private schools of study. From these groups came a flourishing of philosophies from which sprang Confucianism, Taoism, Legalism and a myriad of other influential ideologies. When Emperor Qin became ruler, he sought to actively suppress these schools and their adherents by burning the texts. In his day, these philosophers had become extremely popular, and there were many copies of their works in circulation. According to the Records of the Grand Historian, Qin had all the books of the Hundred Schools of Philosophy which could be found burned, along with copies of the Shi Jin and Sujing, books of poetry and history. It was said that those who harbored the books would be executed and individuals who failed to report violators of the law would be punished with tattoos and enslaved to build the Great Wall. Some spoke of a legend that the Emperor was really after the elixir of life and had employed alchemists who failed to deliver the drink of immortality. In anger, he had 460 scholars buried alive and destroyed all manuscripts that he felt had false, contradictory or unreliable information. Today, many historians believe the author of the Records of the Grand Historian exaggerated the actions of Emperor Qin for political purposes. Either way, it has been very difficult to procure original copies of some texts before his time, indicating that there may be some truth to the story after all.

Alexandria – Egypt

The great Library of Alexandria is probably the most notorious book burning event in the history of mankind. It was commissioned by Ptolemy Soter and completed by his son, Ptolemy Philadelphus in the third century BC. Early rulers of the Ptolemaic dynasty sought to establish the city of Alexandria as the greatest in the world and created the elaborate library and museum to attract the world’s best artists, philosophers, historians and scientists. Ptolemy’s ultimate goal was to make copies of every book in existence and he went through great lengths to do so. Every ship that docked in the capital city was required by law to submit all scrolls to the library to be copied and were returned afterward. In its golden age, the library was home to dozens of the world’s most learned men who were well funded by the Ptolemaic dynasty so they could dedicate all their time to studying and teaching. Some of these scholars were able to make great discoveries as a result, including establishing the circumference of the Earth, Archimedes’ screw, the world’s first steam engine and many famous writings such as the Argonautica. The decline of the library began well before it was destroyed by flames. Subsequent Ptolemaic rulers began to appoint their friends and family as head of the library, for political and personal purposes. Most of these men didn’t care about the success of the library and most of its best scholars left Alexandria and established their own schools throughout the Mediterranean. In 48 BC, a civil war was raging between Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy XIV. Julius Caesar had entered the war as an ally of Cleopatra and was forced to set his own ships on fire in the harbor to block the enemy fleet. The flames spread to the city, where it destroyed some of the most important scrolls in the library’s inventory. The historian Livy claimed there were 40,000 scrolls accidentally destroyed during the event.

However, by this time the library complex had expanded greatly, and many of the manuscripts were housed in locations throughout the city, including the Serapeum. The surviving scrolls continued to be used for several centuries. Unfortunately, most of these texts were eventually destroyed in subsequent tragedies. It’s likely that the rest of the main library was destroyed during various rebellions that broke out in the 3rd century AD. The Serapeum, which likely contained the remnants of the old collection, was vandalized and demolished in the year 391 under the direction of Theophilus, the leader of the Coptic Christians in retaliation against the Neoplatonic philosophers which taught there. Some of the scrolls may have remained in the possession of Theon and his daughter Hypatia, who established a well respected Neoplatonist school in Alexandria. It’s likely that the remainder of the collection was taken or destroyed after her execution in 415.

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