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The Fierce, Forgotten Library Wars of the Ancient World

One of the reasons we have ancient Greek literature at all was the competition between the kings of the Greek Empire. After Alexander the Great expanded the Greek Empire to its apex, regional rulers wanted to display their fitness to succeed him. A library full of classic texts was one way to signal the world that your city was the most educated and cultured. However, those charged with building the collections of their libraries, particularly those of Alexandria and Pergamon, weren’t above using force or shenanigans.

“The Ptolemies aimed to make the collection a comprehensive repository of Greek writings as well as a tool for research,” wrote former classics professor at New York University, Lionel Casson in Libraries of the Ancient World. To obtain this comprehensive collection, “the Ptolemies’ solution was money and royal highhandedness.”

During the Ptolemaic hunt for centuries-old books from Greece, it’s said that a new industry emerged of forging ancient books to look more antique, thereby increasing the rarity and value. While the evidence of such a forgery trade is difficult to determine, Coqueugniot finds it probable since the kings were so bent on having the most prestigious texts in their library.

To us, those books are all ancient, forgery or not. Libraries also competed for resident scholars, offering high salaries for those who would come and imprisoning those who might leave. Read about the Greek library wars at Atlas Obscura.


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