Perhaps none of the Ptolemies illustrates how tangled things had gotten after generations of incest than Ptolemy XI Alexander II, who ruled the kingdom for a few days in 80 BC. His uncle Ptolemy IX Lathryos had died in 80 BC, leaving the throne to his daughter Cleopatra Bernice, who briefly reigned alone as Bernice III. The Roman dictator Sulla however wanted a more pliant ruler, so he sent a young Ptolemy XI to Egypt. There, the new arrival married Bernice III, and ruled jointly with her.
Bernice, aside from being Ptolemy’s XI’s cousin as the daughter of his uncle Ptolemy IX, was also his half sister, step mother by dint of having been married to Ptolemy XI’s father, Ptolemy, and might even have been his actual mother – sources are confused on this point. Despite the close family ties – or perhaps precisely because of those ties – Ptolemy XI did not like his new wife, and 19 days into the marriage, he murdered her. That proved to be a mistake, because he was little known to the locals, while Bernice had been a popular ruler. Soon thereafter, Ptolemy XI was seized by an enraged Alexandrian mob, and publicly lynched.
4. The Ptolemies Founded the Ancient World’s Greatest Learning Center
It wasn’t all seediness, incest, and murder. The Ptolemies also did some good, like establish the Great Library of Alexandria. Founded by Ptolemy I Soter and maintained thereafter by his successors, it was the ancient world’s greatest library. It was more than just a “library”, as the word is understood today. It did contain the ancient world’s largest collection of books and tracts, to be sure – up to 400,000 scrolls by some estimates. However, as part of a larger research institution known as the Mouseion of Alexandria, the Great Library was also the ancient world’s greatest educational and research center.
The great thinkers of the age, philosophers, mathematicians, scientists, poets, and other academics, all flocked to Alexandria to study and exchange ideas. The Great Library’s lecture halls, meeting rooms, and gardens, teemed with an educational and intellectual fervor and ferment that would not be seen again for centuries. Then, at some point, the Great Library of Alexandria was lost to history, along with its vast store of ancient knowledge. That loss, and its disappearance as a research and higher education institute, is one of the greatest tragedies in the history of science, the arts, and knowledge in general.
3. For Centuries, The Great Library’s Demise Was a Mystery
It is commonly thought that the Great Library was burned down or destroyed in a cataclysmic event. Plutarch (46 – 120 AD), holds that the library was accidentally destroyed by Julius Caesar during the siege of Alexandria in 48 BC. However, the geographer Strabo, writing 30 years after the siege of Alexandria about the Mouseion, to which the Great Library was attached, mentions no such destruction. Christian zealots have also been blamed. Supposedly, when Emperor Theodosius banned pagan practices in 391, Christian gangs celebrated with anti pagan riots, during which they torched the building. However, the accounts of the rioting actually refer to the Christians destroying the Serapium, or temple of Serapis, which is not the Great Library, or even a library at all.
Another culprit is the Muslim Caliph Omar. Supposedly, after Egypt fell to the Muslims in the 7th century, somebody asked the conquering general Amr for the books in the royal library. Amr wrote the Caliph for instructions, and Omar reportedly replied “If the books are in agreement with the Quran, we have no need of them, and if they are opposed to the Quran, destroy them“. However, there is nothing to support this story other than a single account by a Syrian Christian writer, who probably wanted to tarnish the Caliph’s image.
2. Turned Out the Great Library Disappeared Due to Budget Cuts
There is no archaeological evidence to support any account of a cataclysmic destruction of the Great Library. The likeliest culprit is something more prosaic and petty: budget cuts. The Ptolemaic Dynasty generously supported the Great Library, both out of belief in its mission, and because its presence lent their capital city of Alexandria significant prestige as the ancient world’s greatest educational center. That changed after the Romans conquered Egypt in 30 BC: the new rulers had no attachment to the Great Library, so they did not support it like the Ptolemaic rulers had.
Additionally, Alexandria in the Roman era was given to frequent rioting between its Greek, Jewish, and native Egyptian populations – not the most inviting environment for scholars. More significantly, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius suspended the Mouseion’s revenue, eliminated its members’ stipends, and expelled all foreign scholars from Alexandria. The Great Library’s significance in the ancient world was based not on its being a repository of scrolls, but on its scholarship. When Marcus Aurelius essentially fired the scholars and forbade new students from coming in, he effectively shut down the Great Library’s operations. It would be akin to the fate of MIT or Harvard, if all their professors were fired, and out of state students were prohibited from setting foot in Boston.
1. The Dramatic Ptolemies Went Out in Dramatic Fashion
All of the Ptolemies’ vices, intrigues, betrayals, and perversions, were present in the reign of Cleopatra VII, the Ptolemaic Dynasty’s most famous ruler, and the last one who wielded actual power. Carrying on the family’s tradition of incest, she married her younger brother, Ptolemy XIII, before falling out with him and plunging the country into a civil war that ended with the death of her brother/ husband, after Julius Caesar intervened and took her side in the conflict. She then married another brother, Ptolemy XIV, while carrying on an affair with Caesar. She bore the Roman dictator a son, Caesarion, the future Ptolemy XV – the dynasty’s last nominal ruler.
After Caesar’s assassination, Cleopatra took up with his chief lieutenant, Mark Antony, with whom she had one of history’s most famous love affairs. The couple were eventually defeated by Antony’s rival, Gaius Octavius, the future emperor Augustus. Antony fell on his sword, and Cleopatra famously committed suicide via snakebite in 30 BC. She was nominally succeeded by Ptolemy XV Caesarion, but Augustus had him killed when he was captured a few weeks later. The deaths of Cleopatra and Caesarion brought the Ptolemaic Dynasty to an end, and Egypt was made into a Roman province.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading