Alexander the Great Sharer

The Canadian edition of The Huffington Post has published an article on the value and possibilities offered by sharing. It begins badly, improves a little before descending back into error.

The headline claims that “Alexander the Great Would Probably Have Used Uber”. He would have done no such thing. Alexander was not interested in sharing. He declined to share power with Darius III (e.g. Diodorus XVII.39, Justin XI.12) and got angry when Hermolaus stole the chance of glory from him during a hunt (Arrian IV.13, Curtius VIII.6.7). Alexander could be a very generous man but he was the king and acted like it.

The second paragraph reads,

Enter the Library of Alexandria. As Alexander the Great consolidated his control of the ancient world, he tasked Ptolemny Lagides (one of his leading generals) with “collecting all the worlds’ knowledge” and then sharing it with scholars, royalty, and wealthy bibliophiles throughout the world. At its peak, the library of Alexandria contained over 400,000 manuscripts.

“Enter the Library of Alexandria”. As the first paragraph begins ‘In the third century BC…’ we are now under the impression that this is when Alexander lived and the Library was formed. In fact, both were products of the fourth century B.C.

I don’t know if Alexander himself ordered the Library to be built or if it was Ptolemy I’s (not Ptolemny) idea, but I do know that Alexander did not order (‘tasked’ in the ugly modern parlance) the son of Lagus to build up the Library’s collection of books and share it with others.

During his stay in Egypt, Alexander ‘designed the general layout of the new town’ (Arrian III.2) but there is no record of him assigning posts for particular institutions.

Having said that, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence so he may well have said to Ptolemy ‘When we return, you will be in charge of the Library…’ but I think this possibility can be rejected because in 331, when Alexandria was founded, Ptolemy was still a junior officer. It would be nearly two years (late 330 B.C.) before he would become one of Alexander’s ‘leading generals’, after replacing a soldier named Demetrius in the Royal Bodyguard. Before then, his greatest claim to fame was the fact that it was his lover, Thaïs, who incited Alexander to burn down the Royal Palace in Persepolis. This happened in early 330.

By-the-bye, I don’t think that the librarianship would have gone to a soldier, anyway. As the library was part of a greater institution which included a temple, I believe a priest was its ultimate head – I am open to being corrected on this, though.


So much for Alexander ordering Ptolemy to build the library and share its knowledge. But could the latter have decided to share its books ‘with scholars, royalty, and wealthy bibliophiles throughout the world’ anyway?


Once the Library became operational*, Ptolemy’s policy was either to buy books or seize those on ships arriving in Alexandria. They would then be copied, and it would be the copy that was given back to the owner. If scholars wanted to study the originals, they had to come to Alexandria. To the best of my knowledge, the books never travelled abroad.

Why did Ptolemy pursue this policy? In Dividing the Spoils Robin Waterfield says,

Ptolemy’s intention fell little short of an attempt to monopolize Greek literary and scientific culture.

This isn’t a surprise. Knowledge, as they say, is power, and Alexander’s successors were all about amassing as much power as they could and holding onto it with extreme tenacity. They were selfish, yes, but the years following Alexander’s death were also a fight for survival. Kill or be killed. And perhaps, just perhaps, Ptolemy genuinely believed that Alexandria was the best place for these books to be. Given how unstable Greece and the Near East was, but how little Egypt suffered in the Wars of the Successors, he was probably right.


Finally, the article claims that the at its peak the Library held ‘over 400,000 manuscripts.’. We don’t know how many books were kept there but it is possible that the Huffington Post writer has short-changed the Library slightly. In Dividing the Spoils, Robin Waterfield states that it ‘is possible that [the Library] came to hold well over half a million rolls’ (this doesn’t mean it had 500,000+ individual books in its possession. Waterfield notes that one book could take up multiple rolls).


It seems to me that the writer of The Huffington Post article has fictionalised Alexander for the purpose of his article. His by-line invites readers to ‘become a fan’. I am sure he is second to none when writing about his specialist subject of technology, but my support for him would be stronger if he leaves classical history alone until he has done more revision. His profession demands much more than he has given his readers.

* Presumably no later than 313 B.C. when ‘Alexandria became Ptolemy’s administrative capital… [on] the tenth anniversary of his regime’ (Ibid p.136)

Categories: Of The Moment | Tags: , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Alexander the Great Sharer

  1. Isn’t it amazing how these mistakes keep cropping up whenever some writer decides to mention Alexander in support of some cause. I mean, if you’re going to mention him at all why not do proper research first! On another note though, doesn’t mentioning Alexander and using his name in such a way attest to how much Alexander is still such a living and breathing force even after all these centuries? It certainly doesn’t justify the mistakes made about him and his history, but it’s an awe-inspiring thought, (well, at least to me!)


    • The sad thing is, almost all modern writings are full of factual mistakes when mentioning any historical figure, not just Alexander.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Delos13

        Although I wish it were otherwise a part of me does think ‘long may it continue’ as it gives me something to write about and an opportunity and excuse to dive into the sources.



      • Well, I am sure that if miracle would happen and all the journalists start to include the fact checking in their work, there still will be a lot to discuss about Alexander 🙂

        The thing is, we may notice those mistakes because we know more about Alexander than maybe an average person, but I, for example, don’t know as much about all the historical figures/events, so reading anything with historical subject in it, I always wonder how much truth is there and how much just an….unintentional misleading due to laziness. Lack of time is an excuse, but not a good one. I once bought “The Harper Encyclopedia of military biography”. It seemed like a serious and trustworthy edition. 830 pages, so a lot of entries, and…. a very disappointing amount of mistakes that I found, and those are just about the historical figures I have some knowledge of. For example, entry about Alexander states that Roxana was a daughter of Spitamenes….


    • Ganymede,

      I completely agree. It would be very good if journalists did their research first. I appreciate that they are under time constraints, but there is no excuse for the kind of inaccuracies such as appear here as they can be ironed out with just a basic check of the sources.

      My blog post ended more grumpily than I should have allowed but you are right that at least the very fact that Alexander is mentioned shows how relevant he is to us. I have to admit, despite the typo with Ptolemy’s name, I was impressed that the writer included his ‘surname’. He may have just got it off Wikipedia but at least he put it there.


      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I was actually surprised as well when he mentioned his surname; not many people are familiar with it at all!


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