The Fate of Aristotle’s Library

Luciano Canfora

Let me begin this short investigation with a famous passage from the 1st-century BC geographer Strabo on the fate of ‘Aristotle’s books’. It reads as follows:

From Scepsis [on the northwest coast of what is now Turkey] came the Socratic philosophers Erastus and Coriscus and Neleus the son of Coriscus, this last a man who not only was a pupil of Aristotle and Theophrastus, but also inherited the library of Theophrastus, which included that of Aristotle. At any rate, Aristotle bequeathed his own library to Theophrastus, to whom he also left his school; and he is the first man, so far as I know, to have collected books and to have taught the kings in Egypt [that is, the Ptolemies] how to arrange a library.

The present-day ruins of the Serapeum in Alexandria, Egypt, built by Ptolemy III Euergetes (reigned 246–222 BC). Part of the collection of the Library of Alexandria was moved here for reasons of space.

There follows the story, often wrongly excised as doubtful, about how Neleus’ heirs hid Aristotle’s books and how these books were captured by Sulla many years later, when, in 86 BC, he took Athens after a siege, the city having formed an alliance with Mithridates (ruler of the Kingdom of Pontus 120–63 BC):

Theophrastus bequeathed it to Neleus; and Neleus took it to Scepsis and bequeathed it to his heirs, ordinary people, who kept the books locked up and not even carefully stored. But when they heard how zealously the Attalic kings to whom the city was subject were searching for books to build up the library in Pergamum [about 100km south of Scepsis], they hid their books underground in a kind of trench. But much later, when the books had been damaged by moisture and moths, their descendants sold them to Apellicon of Teos for a large sum of money, both the books of Aristotle and those of Theophrastus. But Apellicon was a bibliophile rather than a philosopher; and therefore, seeking a restoration of the parts that had been eaten through, he made new copies of the text, filling up the gaps incorrectly, and published the books full of errors. The result was that the earlier school of Peripatetics who came after Theophrastus had no books at all, with the exception of only a few, mostly exoteric works… [Then,] immediately after the death of Apellicon, Sulla, who had captured Athens, carried off Apellicon’s library to Rome, where Tyrannion the grammarian, who was fond of Aristotle, got it in his hands by paying court to the librarian.[1]

This passage raises a whole host of questions. Why does Strabo connect Theophrastus’ leaving of Aristotle’s books to Neleus with the report (one that’s impossible to accept, at least in the form we have it) that Aristotle taught the Ptolemies how to arrange a library? Does this imply that the books that were given to Neleus in Theophrastus’ will (Diog. Laert. 5.52) were from the library of the Lyceum? If so, why does Strabo spend much of the rest of this section talking about Aristotle’s own works, and not about the library he built up at the Lyceum? And what do we do with the strange notice in the epitome of Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae (1.3A) according to which Ptolemy II Philadelphus acquired ‘Aristotle’s library’ directly from Neleus?

Bust of Aristotle, Roman copy after a Greek bronze original by Lysippus of 330 BC (National Roman Museum, Palazzo Altemps, Rome, Italy).

Strabo would seem to be conflating two separate traditions here. According to the first tradition, Aristotle’s own works passed from Theophrastus to Neleus, disappeared for a long time, re-emerged two centuries later in Athens, and finally, thanks to Sulla, ended up in Rome. (This is the tradition that Athenaeus endorses, citing Posidonius in support of it.) According to the other tradition, Neleus acquired from Theophrastus the whole of Aristotle’s library as well – that is, the library of the Lyceum.

So which was it? Did Theophrastus leave all of Aristotle’s books (including the library of the Lyceum) to Neleus, or just Aristotle’s own works? And how did the Lyceum library come into the possession of the Ptolemies?

Section of Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens, written in the late 4th century BC (papyrus copy of c. AD 100, now preserved in the British Library, London).

For that first question, a phrase in Diogenes Laertius might seem to help. Diogenes tells us that Theophrastus’ will left τὰ βιβλία πάντα Νηλεῖ, that is, ‘all the books to Neleus’ (Diog. Laer. 5.52). In fact, though, this phrase only forces us to ask the question once again. What does πάντα refer to here – all of Aristotle’s works, or all of his books, including the library he had founded at his school?

Let’s change tack, then, and ask a different question: why did Theophrastus leave “all the books to Neleus”? Perhaps Theophrastus’ assumption was that Neleus would stay in Athens and run the library, but then Neleus moved at some point (early on, it would seem) to Scepsis, bringing the books with him – both Aristotle’s library and Aristotle’s own works. This is one possibility.

Another is that Theophrastus was aware, as he was writing that clause into his will, that Neleus was preparing to return to his hometown of Scepsis; and that it was Theophrastus’ intention to move the precious library out of the Lyceum.

The present-day site of Aristotle’s Lyceum in Athens, Greece.

Was the Lyceum in danger? What was going on in Athens in that period that could have led Theophrastus to such extreme measures? Was it really his plan to preserve the library from impending catastrophe and reproduce a school that was no longer seen as safe in Athens in the Scepsis area instead? Well, perhaps this was his intention: we might recall that Aristotle himself, after ruffling feathers by leaving the Academy after Plato’s death, had set up shop in nearby Assus.

In fact, the Athenian political scene at the time would make a decision to shift the library out of Athens seem entirely natural. After the regime of Demetrius of Phaleron (317-307), the situation had become quite delicate for the Lyceum. It was viewed with hostility by democrats, and its founder was seen by disciples of Demosthenes (384–322) as something approaching a Macedonian collaborator.

Modern statue of Demetrius of Phaleron in the entrance to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the library that opened in Alexandria, Egypt, in 2002.

It was in this context, right after the end of Demetrius’ regime in 307/6, that one Sophocles of Sounion passed a decree mandating the closure of the philosophical schools and the expulsion of the philosophers (Athenaeus 13.610F, 11.508F). This was immediately overturned by Philo, who had studied with Aristotle, who lodged a writ against it as an illegal proposal (a graphē paranomōn) – a writ which succeeded, despite the opposition of Demochares (Demosthenes’ nephew and a champion of his democratic legacy), who spoke in defence of Sophocles and his proposal to cast out the philosophers. Sophocles was made to pay a large fine (Diog. Laert. 5.38), and the philosophers were recalled.

The democrats had lost. To make matter worse for them, Demochares soon clashed with Demetrius the Besieger (Poliorcetes) – who had just driven out Demetrius of Phaleron – and was forced to leave Athens as a result. But the short-lived tyranny of Lachares (296–294 BC, when it was ended by Demetrius the Besieger) re-energized the democratic faction. This group returned to power in the city in 288, only a year before the death of Theophrastus, who, in this turbulent context, left ‘all the books’ to Neleus – with the idea, if what I’ve suggested above is right, that Neleus would take all of Aristotle’s books to Scepsis.

The entrance to the Library of Celsus in Ephesus, Anatolia., built under the reign of the Emperor Hadrian (AD 117–38).

We’re now in a position finally to resolve the apparent contradiction between the very solid tradition (in Posidonius, Strabo, and Plutarch’s Life of Sulla 26) about how Aristotle’s works disappeared because of Neleus and then, years later, reappeared; and, on the other hand, the no less respectable report of Athenaeus (Epitome I.3A–B) that Neleus sold to Ptolemy II (reigned 284–246 BC) ‘Aristotle’s library’.

Theophrastus left Neleus all of Aristotle’s books in his will. That ‘all’ included both Aristotle’s own works and the library he had built up at the Lyceum. Neleus then made a fateful decision. He decided to keep Aristotle’s own works for himself – as well as the works of Theophrastus and a few other volumes from the Lyceum’s library. These books were passed down to Neleus’ less philosophically inclined descendants, and were later sold to Apellicon of Teos, who was head of the Lyceum when Sulla sacked Athens. The book that Lucian mentions in Ignorant Book Collector (Πρὸς τὸν ἀπαίδευτον καὶ πολλὰ βιβλία ὠνούμενον, §4) as an example of a valuable volume – “the Thucydides that Sulla brought to Rome” – was presumably one of the few books from the Lyceum library that Neleus decided to keep.

Woodcut diagram illustrating Prior Analytics 1.28 from the first printed edition of Aristotle, edited in five volumes by Aldus Manutius (Venice, 1495–8; vol. 1, I1r).

But what did Neleus do with the great bulk of Aristotle’s library, the library of the famous Lyceum? He – or perhaps one of his descendants – sold it to the Ptolemies. The Ptolemies had already decided to build a great library of their own – they had been ‘taught’ to, in a sense, by hearing about Aristotle’s library at the Lyceum, perhaps through Demetrius of Phaleron, who spent a period of exile in Alexandria and had studied with Theophrastus. And so, with their vast resources, it was an easy decision for the Ptolemies to take Neleus – or one of his descendants – up on his offer. Thus the fate of Aristotle’s library was sealed. It would form the core of the greatest library of the ancient world: the library of Alexandria.

Luciano Canfora is Professor of Greek and Latin Philology at the University of Bari, Italy. His historically-inspired novel The Vanished Library: A Wonder of the Ancient World (first published as La biblioteca scomparsa in 1986) has been translated into 15 languages.

This essay was translated from the Italian by James Kierstead.


1 The translation is that of Hamilton and Falconer (1903).