Library Programming in Alexandria

agora1Something happens to your brain when you immerse yourself deeply enough in a subject to produce a thesis-length paper. At least, it did to me. When I emerged, with freshly-minted degree in hand, I quickly became homesick. I missed Hypatia of Alexandria. I wanted to be back in fourth century Alexandria, ruminating on whether the Roman Empire was declining, as Gibbon would have it, or just evolving, as some more modern academics argue.

When I began the Library and Information Technician program at college a year later, I was still homesick. Symptoms, as my teachers will tell you, appeared in odd places. Like the Library Programming assignment for Introduction to Libraries. Basically, we had to come up with a library program and plan its advertising and budget.  I’m still quite proud of it.

Here’s mine:

In the reign of Imp. Fl. Arcadius Augustus V, in the consulship of Imp. Fl. Arcadius Augustus V and Imp. Fl. Honorius Augustus V [402 AD]:

Memo from the Director of the Museion and Great Library at Alexandria to Cleomedes, hypobibliothekophylax [library technician]:

The Director of the Museion and Great Library has noticed that there is very little communication between the disciplines which are represented here at the Museion and which use the Great Library to further their studies. In the interests of collegiality and in fostering perhaps some cross-pollination between the different disciplines, the Director would like to institute a series of interdisciplinary lectures. Each month, one discipline will host an evening of lectures, demonstrations and discussions to explain their studies and showcase their current research. The different departments, mathematics, philosophy, poetry and literature, medicine, will be given 10 drachmae to organize their evening. Proposals and budgets must be presented to the Director’s office no later than five days before the Kalends of December [Nov. 25]. (To the scholars of medicine: no vivisections, please). It should be open to the public, with special invitations sent to the Prefect and members of the council. Please post to the heads of each department.


The mathematicians of the Great Library, under Theon of Alexandria, propose an evening of lectures and discussions to take place on the Nones of December [Dec. 5] to which all the scholars of the Library and members of the general public are invited. Current scholarship in mathematics, geometry and astronomy will be highlighted (with apologies to the department of philosophy, with whom there will inevitably be some overlap). Scholars with no background in mathematics are more than welcome. Given the relatively small size of the lecture halls in the Library itself, the evening’s lectures will be held in the Roman Amphitheatre [Kom el-Dikka] on Canopic Street, next to the Temple of Saturn. Lectures will be given in Greek. Registration is not required.

Schedule of Lectures

Charting the stars – building your own astrolabe (30 min.), given by Synesius of Cyrene, assisted by Hypatia of Alexandria.
Number Theory – modern exegesis of Euclid’s Elements (30 min.), given by Theon of Alexandria.

Intermission 15 min.
Refreshments provided.

Mapping the world – Eratosthenes’ legacy (30 min.), given by Sophroniseus of Athens
Let no one ignorant of geometry enter – the primacy of mathematics among the Neoplatonist school (30 min.), given by Ariston of Alexandria.

About the Lecturers

Synesius – Hailing from Cyrene, Synesius came to Alexandria to study philosophy. Recently serving as an envoy to the court in Constantinople on behalf of Cyrene, we are fortunate that he is able to pass through Alexandria on his return home. While away, he has kept up his studies through a correspondence with members of the Library. Tonight he demonstrates the astrolabe, a tool for mapping the stars. He is in the process of developing, with the aid of Hypatia, daughter of Theon, a pocket-sized astrolabe for travellers.

Theon – One of the most esteemed mathematicians of his generation and head of mathematics at the Museion, Theon has written commentaries on Euclid and Ptolemy, which are now viewed as definitive works. He is currently working on a commentary of Diophantes, due out this spring. Tonight he reads an excerpt from his commentary on Euclid and explains number theory, including the Euclidean algorithm for discovering the greatest common divisor of two numbers.

Sophroniseus – A visiting lecturer from Athens, tonight Sophroniseus will be explaining Eratosthenes’ calculations revealing the circumference of the earth. Eratosthenes’ influence on other astronomers, especially Posidonius of Apamea, will also be discussed.

Ariston – Claiming descent from the great philosopher Iamblichus, Ariston will be discussing the role of mathematics in a Neoplatonist cosmology. He looks at geometry as a propaideutic tool, which can prepare the mind for a study of philosophy by accustoming it to contemplation of abstract ideas.

Each talk will end with a short question and answer period.

Library copies of the works of Eratosthenes, Euclid, Iamblichus, Plato, Theon, and Ptolemy will be available for consultation only. The Great Library of Alexandria does not lend out materials. Copies can be made upon request and for a specified fee.

Attendees are asked to provide their own note-taking supplies.


The lecturers will be donating their time for the noble aim of increasing the prestige of the Library and educating the public in the distinguished subjects pursued therein. Free.

Cleomedes, hypobibliothekophylax [library technician, lit. sub-librarian], will write up notices advertising the event both within the library, outside the auditorium and outside the major baths. He will also be present to make sure the evening runs smoothly. 6 silver drachmae [3 hrs].

Invitations delivered personally to the Prefect and members of council by slaves. Free.

Refreshments served and lamps lit by slaves. Free.

Extra olive oil for the lamps and refreshments – wine, dates, figs, nuts. 1 silver drachma.

Rental of the Auditorium – The space in the auditorium has been graciously donated by the prefect of Alexandria, however a copy of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria has been suggested by the Prefect’s assistant as a suitable honorarium. 1 silver drachma.

Total: 8 drachmae.

All costs based on Diocletian’s Edict for Maximum Prices, adjusted for inflation.


Chalk advertisement in locations outside the library:

The Geometers and Mathematicians of the Great Library of Alexandria present:

An Arithmetical Evening

Come join the scholars of mathematics and geometry for an evening of stimulating talks.
Have your questions on Euclid answered.
Make your own astrolabe and map the stars.
Discover how long it would take to circumnavigate the earth.
Tune your mind to God and the music of the spheres using simple geometry.
Everyone welcome.
No registration or prior knowledge necessary.
Lectures will be given in Greek.
Contact Cleomedes for more details.

Held at the Roman Amphitheatre, Canopic Street, next to the Temple of Saturn
The Nones of December, the twelfth hour

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