The Great Library of Alexandria was one of the wonders of ancient civilisation having collected many thousands of scrolls containing knowledge and literature from across the known world.

The 2009 movie Agora is partially about its destruction and tells this story (my emphasis):

When the Christians start defiling the statues of the pagan gods, the pagans, including Orestes and Hypatia's father, ambush the Christians to squash their rising influence. However, in the ensuing battle, the pagans unexpectedly find themselves outnumbered by a large Christian mob. Hypatia's father is gravely injured and Hypatia and the pagans take refuge in the Library of the Serapeum. The Christian siege of the library ends when an envoy of the Roman Emperor declares that the pagans are pardoned, however the Christians shall be allowed to enter the library and do with it what they please. Hypatia and the pagans flee, trying to save the most important scrolls, before the Christians overtake the library and destroy its contents

Carl Sagan told a similar story in his series Cosmos (see this clip from about 3:30 in).

This version of the story has been frequently repeated as an argument about the irrationality of religion, but it has been disputed. For example, David Bently Hart (commenting on the movie) says the following:

The story he repeats is one that has been bruited about for a few centuries now, often by seemingly respectable historians. Its premise is that the Christians of late antiquity were a brutish horde of superstitious louts, who despised science and philosophy, and frequently acted to suppress both, and who also had a particularly low opinion of women.

Thus, supposedly, one tragic day in a.d. 391, the Christians of Alexandria destroyed the city’s Great Library, burning its scrolls, annihilating the accumulated learning of centuries, and effectively inaugurating the “Dark Ages.” ...

This is almost all utter nonsense, but I have to suppose that Amenábar [the director of Agora] believes it to be true.


The tale of a Christian destruction of the Great Library ”so often told, so perniciously persistent”is a tale about something that never happened .

So were mobs of Christians responsible for the destruction or is that just a modern myth?

  • 6
    Who didn't burn the library in Alexandria?
    – choster
    Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 22:58
  • 2
    Considering how books from the classical period (eg those by Galen) delayed independent thinking in the middle ages, I suspect the burnings of the library were on the whole a net gain for humanity.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 23:59
  • @Andrew Grimm: That's an interesting theory, could you expound on that? Commented May 1, 2014 at 4:02

1 Answer 1


The Library of Alexandria was destroyed/heavily damaged at least four times.

  • 48 BC: Julius Caesar accidentally burns the library when he sets fire to his ships and the fire spreads from the docks. (Plutarch, Life of Caesar)
  • 272 AD (roughly): Several areas of Alexandria (including the Library) are damaged when Emperor Aurelian suppresses Queen Zenobia's revolt. (per Ammianus Marcellinus)
  • 391 AD: Emperor Theodosius I makes paganism illegal. Anti-Arian riots take place, and destroy many religious objects (Socrates of Constantinople, Historia Ecclesiastica), although I find it unclear whether the scrolls of knowledge in the Library were actually destroyed.
  • 642 AD: The Muslim army captures Alexandria. ~500 years later, several accounts of the invasion mention the destruction of the Library and/or some or all of its contents by the order of Caliph Omar (such as Al-Qifti, History of Learned Men)

Yes, there were religion-based riots in 391 AD, and yes, things in the Serapeum were destroyed. Whether the destroyed items included the scrolls of the Library or only the religious artifacts, however, I'm unclear.

  • Some references here etb-history-theology.blogspot.com.ar/2012/03/… Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 22:42
  • 8
    You've established a timeline, but not whether any Christians were responsible for the incident.
    – Oddthinking
    Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 22:47
  • 1
    @Oddthinking, I'm not certain whether the rioters in 391 were solely Christians, but the riots were against the primary pagan religion present in the area.
    – Brian S
    Commented May 1, 2014 at 3:27
  • 9
    Almost no theologian (now or of the period) would categorise Arianism as "pagan". Arianism was categorised then (by non-Arians) as a Christian heresy and of course by Arians as orthodoxy. The criticism of Arianism was not that it was not Christian (the Tertullian sense of the word "pagan", which I think was its normal meaning then) but that their views on the nature of Christ were incorrect. The Nicene Creed is directed particularly at them. Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 21:50
  • 3
    See Liber Theodosii XVI at 16.7 "de apostatis" (for Arians) v 16.10 "de paganis" (for pagans). Both proscribed, but different. Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 22:03

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