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The Ancient Library of Alexandria.

The Musaeum or Mouseion at Alexandria (Ancient Greek: Μουσεῖον τῆς Ἀλεξανδρείας), which included the famous Library of Alexandria,[1] was an institution said to have been founded by Ptolemy I Soter and his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus.[2] Originally, the word mouseion meant any place that was dedicated to the Muses, often related to the study of music or poetry, but later associated with sites of learning such as Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum.[3][4]

The Ptolemies reputedly established their Mouseion and Library with the intention of bringing together some of the best scholars of the Hellenistic world and collect all the books known at the time.[5][6] Although it did not imply a collection of works of art, the original mouseion was the source for the modern usage of the word museum.


The Mouseion was an institution founded, according to Johannes Tzetzes, by Ptolemy I Soter (c. 367 BC–c. 283 BC) at Alexandria, Egypt, though it is more likely that Ptolemy II Philadelphus (309–246 BC) saw to its completion.[7] The Mouseion, connoting a community gathered together under the protection of the Muses, remained supported over the centuries by the patronage of the royal family of the Ptolemies, and later by that of the Roman emperors.[3]

Unlike the modern museum in the sense that has developed since the Renaissance, the Mouseion did not have a collection of sculpture and painting presented as works of art, as was assembled by the Ptolemies' rival Attalus at the Library of Pergamum.[8] Instead, it was an institution of learning that attracted some of the best scholars of the Hellenistic world, as Germain Bazin compared it, "analogous to the modern Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton or to the Collège de France in Paris."[9]

It is uncertain how many scholars lived in the Mouseion at any given time, as surviving reports are few and rather brief.[7][10] Nonetheless, it appears that scholars and staff members were salaried by the State and paid no taxes. According to Strabo, they also received free meals, free room and board, and free servants.[2] The Mouseion was administered by a priest appointed by the King of Egypt.[11]

Based on extant works of scholars associated with the Mouseion, it seems likely that literary criticism, scientific research, and other similar activities took place there.[2][12] In addition to Greek works, some foreign texts were translated from Egyptian, Assyrian, Persian, Jewish, and other languages.[11][13] Many of the edited versions of the Greek canon that we know today, from Homer and Hesiod forward, exist in editions that were collated and corrected by the scholars assembled in the Mouseion and the Library of Alexandria.[5][12]


A map of Alexandria at the time of the Ptolemies.

In the first century AD, the Greek geographer Strabo described the Mouseion as part of a bigger, richly decorated campus of buildings and gardens:[12]

The Mouseion is also part of the Brucheion (palace complex), possessing a peripatos (lobby), an exedra (columned hall), and large oikos (dining hall), in which the common table of the philologoi, men who are members of the Mouseion, is located. This synodos (assembly) has property in common and a priest in charge of the Mouseion, formerly appointed by the kings, but now by Caesar.[14]

According to this description, the Mouseion featured a roofed walkway, an arcade of seats, and a communal dining room where scholars routinely ate and shared ideas.[11] The building may have also hosted private study rooms, residential quarters, and lecture halls, based on similar structures found in Alexandria,[15] though it is unclear if the premises provided accommodations for anatomical research or astronomical observations.[13][16] In addition to the Great Library, another smaller library was housed in the nearby Serapeum (Temple of Serapis), which may have been open to people other than Mouseion scholars.[5][10]


During the reign of Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II, at a time of territorial loses and political turmoil in Egypt, most intellectuals were either killed or expelled from the city, including the last recorded director of the Great Library, Aristarchus of Samothrace, who supposedly was forced to resign his position in 145 BC and died in exile a few years later.[12][13] Johannes Tzetzes and other Byzantine sources do not mention any further directors after him,[17] albeit an inscription from the 80s BC speaks of a certain Onesander of Paphos being appointed to the Great Library.[18] Despite the fact that the Mouseion continued as an institution under Roman rule, when Strabo gave his description of it, it never regained its former glory.[10]

According to Suetonius,[19] the emperor Claudius added an additional building.[20] Under the emperors, membership of the Mouseion was not limited to prominent scholars but included politicians, athletes, and other people rewarded for their support of the emperor.[21] Emperor Caracalla temporarily suspended membership in the Mouseion in 216 AD,[22][20] and it appears that by this time the center of learning in Alexandria had moved to the Serapeum.[22]


The last known references to the old Mouseion still functioning occur in the 260s AD.[23] The Brucheion, the complex of palaces and gardens that included the Mouseion, was probably destroyed by fire on the orders of Emperor Aurelian in 272 AD, although we do not know for sure how much of the original buildings still existed at the time.[15] Scattered references in later sources suggest that another mouseion was established in the 4th century at a different location, but little is known about its organisation and it is unlikely to have had the resources of its predecessor.[23] The mathematician Theon of Alexandria (ca. 335– ca. 405), father of the philosopher Hypatia, is described in the tenth century Suda as "the man from the Mouseion," but it is not clear what connection he actually had with it. Zacharias Rhetor and Aeneas of Gaza both speak of a physical space known as the "Mouseion" in the late 5th century.[23]


Painting depicting Ptolemy II Philadelphus visiting the Great Library by Vincenzo Camuccini (1813).

The Ptolemies founded their Mouseion at a time of transition in Greek history, during the passage from an oral to a literary culture. The scholars gathered there included:[5]

The members of the Mouseion ensured the preservation and production of historical, literary, and scientific works, which would remain part of the Western heritage, and thanks to their efforts today one can still read Homer and the tragedians.[2][5]

As an institution dedicated to the Muses, the name mouseion became the source for the modern word museum.[3] In early modern France, it denoted as much a community of scholars brought together under one roof as it did the collections themselves. French and English writers often referred to these collections originally as a "cabinet of curiosities." A catalogue of the 17th century collection of John Tradescant the Elder and his son John Tradescant the Younger was the founding core of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. It was published as Musaeum Tradescantianum: or, a Collection of Rarities. Preserved at South-Lambeth near London by John Tradescant (1656).


  1. ^ The relation of the institutions is still a matter of debate. The Musaeum is discussed by P.M. Fraser, Ptolemaic Alexandria (1972: vol. I:213-19 etc), and Mostafa el-Addabi, The Life and Fate of the Ancient Library of Alexandria (Paris 1990:84-90).
  2. ^ a b c d Russo, L. (2004). The Forgotten Revolution: How Science Was Born in 300 BC and Why It Had to Be Reborn. Springer. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-18904-3. ISBN 978-3-540-20068-0.
  3. ^ a b c Entry Μουσείον at Liddell & Scott
  4. ^ Natali, C. (2013). Aristotle: His Life and School. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-1-4008-4600-9.
  5. ^ a b c d e Berti, M.; Costa, V. (2009), The Ancient Library of Alexandria. A Model for Classical Scholarship in the Age of Million Book Libraries 1, CiteSeerX
  6. ^ Lynch, J. P. (1972). Aristotle's school; a study of a Greek educational institution. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-02194-5. OCLC 548489.
  7. ^ a b There is no ancient source for the founding either of the Library or the Musaeum, Roger S. Bagnall notes, in "Alexandria: Library of Dreams", Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 146.4 (December 2002:348-362) p. 348. We rely instead on the self-confident but unreliable Byzantine scholar Johannes Tzetzes' remarks in an introduction to Aristotle.
  8. ^ The Ptolemaic dynasty displayed these in their palace nearby.
  9. ^ Bazin, The Museum Age 1967:16.
  10. ^ a b c Berti, M. (2016). "Greek and Roman Libraries in the Hellenistic Age". The Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran and the Concept of a Library: 31–54. doi:10.1163/9789004305069_005. ISBN 9789004305069.
  11. ^ a b c "Mouseion". Archived from the original on 2011-07-21. Retrieved 2018-03-18.
  12. ^ a b c d Jochum, U. (1999). "The Alexandrian Library and its Aftermath". Library History. 15 (1): 5–12. doi:10.1179/lib.1999.15.1.5. ISSN 0024-2306.
  13. ^ a b c Chapman, P. H. (2001). "The Alexandrian Library: crucible of a renaissance". Neurosurgery. 49 (1): 1–14. doi:10.1097/00006123-200107000-00001. ISSN 0148-396X. PMID 11440429.
  14. ^ Strabo, Geography 17.1.8, noted by Bagnall 2002:57 note 39.
  15. ^ a b Bagnall, R. S.; Davoli, P. (2011). "Archaeological Work on Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, 2000–2009". American Journal of Archaeology. 115 (1): 103–157. doi:10.3764/aja.115.1.0103. ISSN 0002-9114. JSTOR 10.3764/aja.115.1.0103. S2CID 194126728.
  16. ^ von Staden, H. (1989). Herophilus: The Art of Medicine in Early Alexandria: Edition, Translation and Essays. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-23646-1.
  17. ^ Daniel Heller-Roazen, "Tradition's Destruction: On the Library of Alexandria" October, 100, Obsolescence (Spring 2002:133-1530 esp. p. 140.
  18. ^ Hatzimichali, M. (2013). König, J.; Oikonomopoulou, A.; Oikonomopoulou, K.; Woolf, G. (eds.). Ancient Libraries. Cambridge University Press. p. 173. ISBN 978-1-107-01256-1.
  19. ^ Suetonius, Claudius, 42
  20. ^ a b Edward Jay Watts, (2008), City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria, page 147. University of California Press
  21. ^ Edward Jay Watts, (2008), City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria, page 148. University of California Press
  22. ^ a b Butler, Alfred, The Arab Conquest of Egypt – And the Last Thirty Years of the Roman Dominion, p. 411.
  23. ^ a b c Edward Jay Watts, (2008), City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria, page 150. University of California Press

Further reading

  • M MacLeod, Roy, The Library of Alexandria: Centre of learning in the ancient world, 2000.
  • El-Abbadi, Mostafa, The life and fate of the ancient library of Alexandria, 1990.
  • Canfora, Luciano, The Vanished Library: A Wonder of the Ancient World, 1987.
  • Young Lee, Paula, "The Musaeum of Alexandria and the formation of the 'Museum' in eighteenth-century France," in The Art Bulletin, September 1997.