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Here are the facts,-- the legend at least; for at such a distance, and in such a twilight, history is legendary:--
There was a king of Egypt, named Ptolemy Euergetes, brother-in-law to Antiochus the god.
Let us mention in en passant, all these people were gods:-- gods Soters, gods Euergetes, gods Epiphanes, gods Philometors, gods Philadelphi, gods Philopators. Translation: Gods saviours, gods beneficent, gods illustrious, gods loving their mother, gods loving their brothers, gods loving their father. Cleopatra was goddess Soter. The priests and priestesses of Ptolemy Soter were at Ptolemais. Ptolemy VI was called "God-Love-Mother" (Philometor), because he hated his mother, Cleopatra. Ptolemy IV was "God-love-Father" (Philopator), because he had poisoned his father. Ptolemy II was "God-love-Brothers" (Philadellphus), because he had killed his two brothers.
Let us return to Ptolemy Euergetes.
He was the son of Philadelphus who gave golden crowns to the Roman ambassadors,-- the same to whom the pseudo-Aristeus attributes by mistake the version of the Septuagint. This Philadelphus had much increased the library of Alexandria, which, during his lifetime, counted two hundred thousand volumes, and which, in the sixth century, attained, it is said, the incredible number of seven hundred thousand manuscripts.
This stock of human knowledge, formed under the eyes of Euclid, and by the care of Callimachus, Diodorus Cronos, Theodorus the Atheist, Philetas, Apollonius, Aratus, the Egyptian priest Manetho, Lycophron, and Theocritus, had for its first librarian, according to some, Zenodotus of Ephesus, according to others, Demetrius of Phalerum, to whom the Athenians had raised three hundred and sixty statues, which they took one year to put up and one day to destroy. Now, this library had no copy of Aeschylus. One day the Greek Demetrius said to Euergetes, "Pharoah has not Aeschylus," -- exactly as, later on, Leidrade, archbishop of Lyons and librarian of Charlemagne, said to Charlemagne, "The Emperor has not Scaeva Memor."
Ptolemy Euergetes, wishing to complete the work of Philadelphus his father, resolved to give Aeschylus to the Alexandrian library. He declared that he would cause a copy to be made. He sent an embassy to borrow from the Athenians the unique and sacred copy under the care of the recorder of the republic. Athens, not over-prone to lend, hesitated and demanded a security. The king of Egypt offered fifteen silver talents. Now, those who wish to realize the value of fifteen talents, have but to know that it was three-fourths of the annual tribute of ransom payed by Judea to Egypt, which was twenty talents, and weighed so heavily on the Jewish people that the high priest Onias II, founder of the Onion temple, decided to refuse this tribute at the risk of a war. Athens accepted the security. The fifteen talents were deposited. The complete copy of Aeschylus was delivered to the king of Egypt. The king gave up the fifteen talents and kept the book.
Athens, indignant, had some thought of declaring war against Egypt. To reconquer Aeschylus was as good as reconquering Helen. To recommence Troy, but this time to get back Homer, it was a fine thing. Yet, time was taken for consideration. Ptolemy was powerful. He had forcibly taken back from Asia two thousand five hundred Egyptian gods formerly carried there by Cambyses, because they were in gold and silver. He had, besides, conquered Cilicia and Syria, and all the country from the Euphrates to the Tigris. With Athens it was no longer the day when she improvised a fleet of two hundred vessels against Artaxerxes. She left Aeschylus a prisoner in Egypt.
A prisoner-god. This time the word god is in its right place. They paid Aeschylus unheard-of honours. The king refused, it is said, to let a copy be made of it, stupidly bent on possessing a unique copy.
Particular care was taken of this manuscript when the library of Alexandria, enlarged by the library of Pergamus, which Anthony gave to Cleopatra, was transferred to the temple of Jupiter Serapis. There it was that Saint Jerome came to read, in the Athenian text, the famous passage in "Prometheus" prophesying Christ: "Go and tell Jupiter that nothing shall make me name the one who is to dethrone him."
Other doctors of the Church made, from the same copy, the same verification. For, at all times, the orthodox asseverations have been combined with what have been called the testimonies of polytheism, and great efforts have been resorted to in order to make the Pagans say Christian things,--teste David cum Sibylla. People came to the Alexandrian library, as on a pilgrimage, to examine 'Prometheus," -- constant visits which deceived the Emperor Adrian, and made him write to the consul Servianus: "Those who adore Serapis are Christians: those who profess to be bishops of Christ are at the same time devotees of Serapis."
Under the Roman dominion of the library of Alexandria belonged to the emperor. Egypt was Caesar's property. "Augustus," says Tacitus, "seposuit Aegyptum." It was not every one who could travel there. Egypt was closed. The Roman knights, and even the senators, could not easily obtain admission.
It was during this period that the complete copy of Aeschylus could be consulted and perused by Timocharis, Aristarchus, Athenaeus, Stobaeus, Diodorus of Sicily, Macrobius, Plotinus, Jamblichus, Sopater, Clement of Alexandria, Nepotian of Africa, Valerius Maximus, Justin the Martyr, and even by Aelian, although Aelian left Italy but seldom.
In the seventh century a man entered Alexandria. He was mounted on a camel and seated between two sacks,-- one full of figs, the other full of corn. These two sacks were, with a wooden platter, all that he possessed. This man never seated himself except on the ground. He drank nothing but water and ate nothing but bread. He had conquered half of Asia and of Africa, taken or burned thirty-six thousand towns, villages, fortresses, and castles, destroyed four thousand Pagan or Christian temples, built fourteen hundred mosques, conquered Izdeger, King of Persia, and Heraclius, Emperor of the East, and he called himself Omar. He burned the library of Alexandria.
Omar is for that reason celebrated. Louis, called the Great, has not the same celebrity, which is unjust, for he burned the Rupertine library at Heidelberg.
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