Sunday, July 08, 2007

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthem Battles (06)

The scholars of the Mouseion ate together in a dining hall and held their property in common, much as medieval scholar did in the early universities of Europe. By all account, the scholars enjoyed an extraordinary degree of academic freedom; the Ptolemies seem to have understood that they would produce the most useful work only if given free rein. This privilege apparently extended even to dealing with the royal house; when Ptolemy I Soter, impatient with his own slow progress in mathematics, asked Euclid for a shortcut, the geometer had the temerity to reply, “there is no royal road to Geometry.” The perks of a posting at Alexandria didn’t fail to raise the ire of excluded scholars; one Timon of Philius wrote derisively of the “cloistered bookworms” fed and cared for in Alexandria’s “chicken coop of the muses” (I like to think it was Timon’s mixed metaphors that tool him our of the running for an Alexandrian tenure). By bringing scholars to Alexandria and inviting them to live and work, at royal expense, among an enormous store of books, the Ptolemies made the library into a think tank under the control of the royal house. The strategic implications of a monopoly on knowledge – especially in medicine, engineering, and theology, all among Alexandria’s strengths – were not lost on the Ptolemies. They ordered the confiscation of the books of visitors to the city, which were copied for the libraries (though sometimes the originals were kept, too), adorned with a tad that read “from the ships.” In an effort to stop the growth of the libraries at Rhodes and Pergamum, both of which threatened Alexandria’s preeminence, the city’s rulers banned the export of papyrus. The move backfired, however, spurring the Pergamenes to invent parchment (charta pergamenum), which for its strength and reusability would prove to be the preferred writing medium in Europe for more than a thousand years.

Page 28-29

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