Top Five Most Tantalizing Losses from the Library of Alexandria
If you invent a time machine, The Library of Alexandria is the first place you should visit (you can see the dinosaurs after, ok?). The most monumental of all ancient learning institutions, the Library was a beacon to the great thinkers of antiquity for over 7 centuries. At its peak, the Library contained nearly one million scrolls: plays by the great Athenian dramatists, annals of Homeric poetry, the schematics of Egyptian mechanics.
And all of it was burned to the ground by zealots.
In honor of this epic shrine to ancient geekery, here are the top five most heartrending and alarmingly forward-thinking losses from the Library, as well as an appeal to all you lovely geniuses reading this to back up your work!
5. Berossus' Babylonaica (written circa 281 BCE): Berossus was an incredibly bright historian whose masterpiece Babylonaica covered the history of the world in three volumes. The first volume describes everything between the creation of the world and the Great Flood, a period Berossus astonishingly estimated as being about 432,000 years! That's over 100 times more than the Old Testament's estimate! Can you imagine the marvelous sights and fantastic events Berossus depicted in this volume? Sadly, as only fragments of the history survived, imagining is in fact all one can do.
4. The works of Sappho (written circa 612-570 BCE): Hardly a scrap of the 9 volumes of Sappho's poetry kept at the Library survived its destruction. But that tiny sliver of her immense genius was still enough to earn her the artistic immortality about which she often wrote (for example, this dagger-in-the-heart of a verse: "Although they are/ Only breath, words/ which I command/ are immortal"). More than a poet, Sappho was perhaps the finest musician of antiquity: her talent was frequently considered proof she was either a tenth muse or a goddess. In one of the most provocative flourishes in history, Stobaeus's Florilegium describes Solon of Athens hearing one of Sappho's songs and asking that it be taught to him. When asked why, he said, "so that I may learn it, then die." That's pretty much the highest praise possible, don't you think?
3. The works of Hero of Alexandria (written circa 10-70 CE): Hero was the greatest experimenter of Greek antiquity. Endowed with mind-boggling mechanical genius, he invented steam engines, wind turbines and hydrostatic fountains millennia before these systems became commonly used. He even created automated machinery, which scholars today see as the groundwork for cybernetics! As if that weren't enough to rest his toga on, he discovered imaginary numbers and probably knew the laws of refraction. Reminder: this is just the stuff we know about Hero. While thankfully, Arab scholars saved a portion of his works, we do not know the bulk of wonders discovered by this brilliant man.
2. The works and life of Hypatia (circa 370-415 CE): In March 415 CE, when the mob led by the ironically named Peter the Reader burned the Library of Alexandria, they also brutally assassinated its last chief librarian, Hypatia. Many scholars view her murder as representing the symbolic death of classical antiquity. And for good reason: Hypatia was a world-renowned mathematician, a fiery lecturer beloved by her thousands of pupils and a woman completely unashamed of outshining her male contemporaries. Literally all of Hypatia's writing was lost with her library, but we know she built hydrometers and astrolabes as well as improving upon the theories of such luminaries of Apollonius, Diophantus and Ptolemy, amongst others.
1. The works of Aristarchus of Samos (circa 310 BCE-230 BCE): This one is the biggest heartbreaker of them all. Sometime in the 3rd Century BCE, Aristarchus of Samos figured out that the Earth orbits the Sun, and not the other way around. He also correctly deduced the order of the planets, and he knew that the solar system was many, many times bigger than his contemporaries' estimates.
WHAT?! Basically, the survival of this book could have saved our species 18 centuries of looking like total idiots for assuming that we are the center of the universe. Think where we would be if, instead of Copernicus taking up the great mantle of heliocentrism in the 15th Century, it was the scientific community of Aristarchus's own time, or Hero's time, or Hypatia's time! We could be taking space-cars to visit our lunar friends, before heading over to Mars for lunch!
What ancient revelations do you think we missed out on from the Library of Alexandria?