The significance of libraries and their relationship to power throughout the Hellenistic world

Author: Charlotte Allan

Sub-editor: Avalon Welch

Sparked by the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, the Hellenistic period sought to resonate with the “so-called Golden Age of ancient Athens,” purposefully aligning its many developments with the rich history of classical Greece and the global power it previously occupied. Aiming to project this same sense of power that once engulfed Greece, an “enormous [number of] libraries”  were established throughout the Hellenistic world. This characterised these institutions as places that centralised dominance and influence, thus contributing to notions of status and prestige within Hellenistic cities. Harking back to the long-standing legacy of ancient Greece and the international power that it possessed, Hellenistic libraries such as Ptolemy I’s Library of Alexandria (285-246 BC), and Eumenes II’s ancient Library of Pergamum, were designed to function as centres of Greek culture and status. This function highlighted that these libraries and their contents were “gifts to the city” and its people, actively attracting leading “men of learning” in fields such as literature, philosophy, and science from all areas of the Greek world,  conveying a sense of internal power and status. Libraries of the Hellenistic world also served as foundations of political power and propaganda, providing elite individuals with opportunities of euergetism and personal “benefaction,” thus symbolising a shifting of power towards the “creators” and supporters of these large organisations. This shift suggests that these centres “function[ed] as a two-way mode of prestige,” where “both king and book [were] honoured through it.” Furthermore, Hellenistic libraries also projected a strong sense of power through the legacy they left behind via the preservation of knowledge and education. Emphasised by many ancient Greek scholars as the “treasures”  of the ancient world, these libraries continue to be influential. As a result, it can be argued that libraries played a profound role throughout the Hellenistic world, allowing cities to reconsolidate and project a sentiment of power that was strongly aligned with ancient Greece. This relationship between the role of Hellenistic libraries and their power recognised the abilities of cities to assert global dominance throughout the Hellenistic world, paralleling its concurrent economic growth and prosperity.

Hellenistic libraries conveyed a strong sense of internal power and status, serving as the physical embodiments of large-scale Greek culture and status within cities. Representing stability and influence, these institutions promoted “cultural dominance” throughout the Hellenistic world, permitting the celebration of a shared Greek identity and character. Assuming the role of “the cultural centre of the Greek world” and described by Diodorus Siculus in the Library of History as the “healing-place of the Soul,” the Library of Alexandria, established by Ptolemy I between 285-246 BC, acted as a symbol of high-class Greek culture. This library was featured within Ptolemy’s Mouseion (House of Muses), an institution modelled upon the Platonic Academy and Aristotelian Lyceum, “the two great centres of learning in classical Athens.” These learning centres sought to “absorb the collected wisdom of the Western world,” expressing a rising level of literacy throughout Classical Greece, and eventually stimulating the development of these libraries throughout the Hellenistic world as an emulation of the “great” Greek past. Seeking a link to the legacy of this grand past and his individual legitimacy to the reign of Alexander the Great, Ptolemy aimed to make his library “a comprehensive repository of Greek writing as well as a tool for research,” collecting bountiful amounts of high-class Greek literature and poetry to feature within his library. Written in an ancient literary source by Galen:

“Ptolemy of Egypt was so eager to collect books, that he ordered the books of everyone who sailed there to be brought to him. The books were then copied into new manuscripts. He gave the new copy to the owners, whose books had been brought to him after they sailed there, but he put the original copy in the library with the inscription ‘a [book] from the ships.’”

Demonstrated through Ptolemy’s endless cycle of copying and transcribing the works of traditional and highly celebrated Greek literature, Galen highlights the emblematic role of the Library of Alexandria as a symbol of Greek culture, harking back to a nostalgic past that Ptolemy wished to pay homage to. This account established the library as a projection of internal power and status, aligning its contents with a shared notion of ‘Greekness’ that further promoted “its influence [that] is still felt strongly today.” Furthermore, while The Library of Alexandria featured works from highly acclaimed Greek poets such as Homer whose work was “looked upon [similarly] to the Bible,” Ptolemy also allowed for the commission of original works in his library, further emulating a sense of ‘Greekness’ and centralised power. Outlined by Professor Ian Morris and Barry B. Powell, written in Alexandria, “the Hymm to Zeus evoked a simpler world of Archaic Greece,” featuring poetry that was “filled with nostalgic images.” Additionally indicating this link that Ptolemy sought between ancient Greek culture and status, the composition of the Hymm to Zeus illustrated the role of the library in preserving the past and promoting a strong sense of internal power and prestige.

Figure 1: A historical interpretation of a cupboard and bust at the Library of Pergamum by Wolfgang Hoepfner.

Moreover, Eumenes II’s Library of Pergamum, established during the third-century BC within the Attalid Empire and “impelled by their delight in literature,”  also harked back to Greek memory and nostalgia, further reflecting internal power and status through the foundation of the library. As depicted in Figure 1, the interior of the library featured clear bust bases of notable Greek scholars and artists such as “Homer, the lyric poet Alcaeus of Mytilene (ca.620 BC) and the musician Timotheus of Miletus (ca.446-357 BC).” These busts were featured above cupboards in the main literary hall of the library, suggesting that “each cupboard must have represented a literary genre, and altogether, an entire universe of knowledge”. Thus, the positioning of these notable Greek figures showcased the power of this knowledge. This power is further supported by a statue of Athena present in the main hall, working to promote wisdom and strongly reflect a link to high-class Greek status and culture through the plethora of knowledge that is represented by the notable busts. As a result, these figures serve as agents of traditional Greek proficiency, associating the Library of Pergamum with a strong sense of internal power and stability.

Endorsing modes of “aristocratic display” and “royal euergetism,” Hellenistic libraries functioned as centres of political power and propaganda, equipping wealthy elites with opportunities of publicity and honour within Hellenistic cities. Demonstrated by a multitude of ancient inscriptions that outline the information of those that contributed and “lent money” towards the sponsorship of these grand libraries, the development of Hellenistic libraries as political institutions is often ignored by scholars, suggesting that these objectives need to be further explored by a contemporary audience. According to scholar S. Johnstone, libraries must be treated “not as repositories of knowledge but as fundamentally political institutions,” highlighted via a collection of inscriptions that suggest the opportunities for political power that these libraries expressed. For example, in the second and third-century BC, during the development of libraries such as the Library of Alexandriaand the Library of Pergamum, monarchs and significant aristocrats began to “found and fund libraries as part of the politics of elite benefaction,” thus aiming to achieve a noble status that relied upon the internal power and influence that these institutions reflected throughout the Hellenistic world. Intending to achieve a strong sense of political power that was manifested through the cultural importance of these libraries, inscriptions from the Greek Island of Kos from the early second-century BC feature many discussions surrounding libraries, an example being:

“These men made offerings for the library.

Diokles son of Apollodoros

and Apollodoros son of Diokles

the library and 100 books.

Hekataios son of Simias 200 drachmas.

—mos son of Epigeris 200 drachmas

and 100 books.

— son of Simos 200 drachmas and 100 books.

 —os son of Python 200 drachmas and 100 books.

 —antos son of Parmeniskos

 [and] Hagesias son of Hagesias son

 of Nikostratos 200 drachmas.

 Xenokles son of Xenokles 200 drachmas

and 100 books.

Leonidas son of Euteris —

Eunomos son of Pisikles —


This inscription implies that many aristocratic men and high-class figures heavily endorsed the Library at Kos, highlighting that they were honoured and awarded for their commitments. This documentation demonstrates that Hellenistic libraries established a fundamental contingency for euergetism, thus displaying libraries as essential foundations of political power. Moreover, this inscription further suggests that the value of books within Hellenistic libraries “depended not on their content but primarily on their form,”  contributing to a strong sense of political power and competition via the sheer amount of books that a library contained. Supporting this, in Plutarch’s Lives, Volume IX: Demetrius and Antony. Pyrrhus and Gaius Marius, he proposes through the claims of Calvisius that Antony “bestowed upon [Cleopatra] the libraries from Pergamum in which there were two hundred thousand volumes,”  clearly emphasising the number of books that the Library of Pergamum contained rather than the specific content. Correlating with the inscriptions found at Kos that stress the volume of books supplied by benefactors to the library, this ancient literary source further presents a sense of political power based upon competitive ideals, perhaps suggesting that the volume of books in a library emulated its power and status within the Hellenistic world.

Hellenistic libraries also performed as places of learning and education, projecting a strong sense of power via the legacy they left behind. Characterised as pioneering “many forms of textual criticism [that are] still employed by modern literary and historical scholarship,” the legacy of Hellenistic libraries is fundamental to a modern-day society, revealing the extent of power that they still express today and their importance for the future. While it has been widely acknowledged by scholars such as S. Johnstone that the number of books was important to the power of Hellenistic libraries due to their “function as standards or units of value,” I would also argue that the content of these works were important in facilitating the relationship between libraries and their power. This relationship is suggested via the long legacy that Hellenistic libraries and their literature possess, thus aligning themselves with Greek culture and knowledge and projecting power and influence. In reference to Ptolemy I’s Library of Alexandria, “virtually all ancient Greek texts that have survived to modern times passed through the library,” and many of the surviving Greek tragedies seem to derive from a “complete set compiled in Athens, which Ptolemy II borrowed from the Athenians and then kept!” This legacy of Greek texts and tragedies highlights the power and influence of the library, still benefitting scholars in a contemporary society through the power of knowledge and education. According to Athenaus, “the immense number of books [Ptolemy owned], and resources he brought back together in the Museum” was something that “everyone remember[ed],”  tracing the beginning of the library’s long legacy back to the Hellenistic period and underlining its encompassing power and influence as an imperative part of Hellenistic culture. This is further reflected in the Letter of Aristeas, one of the oldest ancient literary sources that acknowledge the library, emphasising that:

“Demestrius of Phalerium, the president of the king’s (Ptolemy’s) library, received vast sums of money, for the purpose of collecting together, as far as he possibly could, all the books in the world.”

Accentuating Ptolemy’s desire to collect “all the books in the world,” this ancient source reveals that it was essential for him to showcase a vast collection of ancient literature within his library, thus illustrating why these centres were crucial to the power and preservation of knowledge. Ultimately, Hellenistic libraries functioned as significant emblems of Greek power and influence, demonstrated by their abilities to actively project a sense of internal and political power throughout various Hellenistic cities. Centralised through an array of ancient literary sources, it also becomes clear that Hellenistic libraries celebrate the power of education and knowledge, highlighting a sense of monumental value through their long-lasting legacy and influence. Examining ancient libraries such as those belonging to Kos, Alexandria, and Pergamum, these institutions reflect and centralise Hellenistic power, containing “the foundations of Western civilisation, as we know it today,” and provoking future developments in the research of these libraries.

Image credit

Wolfgang Hoepfner, “a historical interpretation of a cupboard and bust at the Library of Pergamum” in K.S. Staiko, The History of the Library in the Western Civilization, Vol I, 2004, p. 66.



Figure 1: Wolfgang Hoepfner. “A historical interpretation of a cupboard and bust at the Library of Pergamum” in K.S. Staiko, The History of the Library in the Western Civilization, Vol I. 2004, p. 66.

Primary sources

Athenaeus. The Learned Banqueters, Volume II: Books 3.106e-5. Loeb Classical Library 208. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Diodorus Siculus. Library of History, Volume I: Books 1-2.34. Loeb Classical Library 279. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1933.

Galen, and Simon Swain. Commentary on Hippocrates’ Epidemics book II. Parts I-VI. Library of Congress. Berlin: Walter De Guyter, 2016.

Plutarch. Lives, Volume IX: Demetrius and Antony. Pyrrhus and Gaius Marius.  Loeb Classical Library 101. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920.

Strabo. Geography, Volume VIII: Book 17. General Index. Loeb Classical Library 267. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932.

The Letter of Aristeas. Oxford, UK: The Clarendon Press, 1913.

Vitruvius. On Architecture, Volume II: Books 6-10. Loeb Classical Library 280. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934.

Secondary sources

Bagnell, Roger S. “Alexandria: Library of Dreams.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 146, no. 4 (December 2002): 349–59.

Casson, Lionel. Libraries in the Ancient World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Crick, Nathan. “Aristotle on Rhetoric and Civilization.” In Rhetoric and Power: The Drama of Classical Greece, 199–201. Columbia, SC: The University of South Carolina Press, 2014.

Heller-Roazen, Daniel. “Tradition’s Destruction: On the Library of Alexandria.” Obsolescence 100 (Spring 2002): 134–42.

Johnstone, S. “A New History of Libraries and Books in the Hellenistic Period.” Classical Antiquity 33, no. 2 (October 2014): 348–59.

Kutter, Ann. “Republic Rome Looks at Pergamon.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 97 (1995): 164.

Morris, Ian, and Barry B. Powell. The Greeks: History, Culture and Society. 2nd ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2010.

Olsen-Bagneux, Ole. “Mnemonics in the Mouseion.” Journal of Documentation 71, no. 2 (2015): 279–89.

Seitkasimova, Zhulduz Amangelidyevna. “May Plato’s Academy Be Considered as the First Academic Institution?” Open Journal for Studies in History 2, no. 2 (2019): 35–42.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: