The foundation of the Library: the Letter to Aristeas version

The Letter to Aristeas, probably composed at Alexandria by a Jewish writer in the 1st century BC, calls Demetrius of Phalerum – one of Aristotle’s most important pupils – “president” of the King’s Library and says that it was conceived has a collection of “all the books in the world”.

Aristeae epistula 9-11

9. Demetrius of Phalerum, the president of the King’s library, received vast sums of money for the purpose of collecting together, as far as he possibly could, all the books in the world. By means of purchase and transcription he carried out, to the best of his ability, the purpose of the king.

10. On one occasion when I was present he was asked, «How many thousand books are there in the library?».

And he replied: «More than two hundred thousand, o king, and I shall make endeavour in the immediate future to gather together the remainder also, so that the total of five hundred thousand may be reached. I am told that the laws of the Jews are worth transcribing and deserve a place in your library».

11. «What is to prevent you from doing this?» replied the king.

«Everything that is necessary has been placed at your disposal».

«They need to be translated», answered Demetrius, «for in the country of the Jews they use a peculiar alphabet – just as the Egyptians, too, have a special form of letters – and speak a peculiar dialect. They are supposed to use the Syriac tongue, but this is not the case; their language is quite different».

And the king when he understood all the facts of the case ordered a letter to be written to the Jewish High Priest that his purpose might be accomplished.

[translation by R.H. Charles (revised)]