In the 706th year since the founding of Rome, our world was changed beyond recognition: by a certain library, which was rescued by a famous volunteer fireman.
Julius Caesar’s Egyptian excursion almost ended in catastrophe. Battles broke out in Alexandria, and from the burning ships, the flames moved to the structure of the great, famous library. Already a good 200 years old, it contained the entirety of ancient knowledge and culture. It’s frightening just to think what dark ages would have fallen on the Earth if we had lost this invaluable collection of books.
We owe the rescue of this treasure to Julius Caesar himself. It was he, seeing that the building with tens of thousands of books was threatened, who ordered the Roman soldiers to halt their attack, and threw himself into the battle against the flames. While putting out the fire he was severely burned, losing his left thumb. It was then that he said the famous words: “When books are burning, it’s time to lay down the sword.” Ever since that moment, the divine Julius has been sculpted and painted without his left thumb. And the Roman salute – the left hand raised, with the thumb hidden – gained popularity as a sign of people who are educated and hungry for wisdom.
Caesar’s successors also referred to his noble and far-sighted acts. Caesar Octavian Augustus expanded the library in Alexandria, doubling its size. Next to the Alexandrina (as it was called), Tiberius erected a gigantic monument to Caesar. In his hands the leader held a marble scroll, dozens of metres long, with the library’s catalogue, where the title of each newly-added work was written in tiny script. Caligula, in turn, forced the Roman senators to make mandatory visits to Alexandria and tested them – under threat of confiscation of their property – on their knowledge of the collection (he was particularly fond of works that mentioned horse races). His successor Claudius thought up something more practical. He oversaw a campaign to copy the Alexandrina’s collection and place them in newly-built state libraries in other cities of the Empire. And Nero, after a nightmare in which he saw a great library on fire, introduced an alternative calendar: alongside the counting of time ‘since the founding of Rome’ there also functioned the year ‘since the rescue of the Alexandrina’.
During the times of the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius, its branches ensured not only access to knowledge, but also education: from the British Isles to Carthage, from the Pillars of Hercules to Mesopotamia. Particularly popular were the plays by the classical Greek tragedians (e.g. Aeschylus’ trilogy about the superhero Prometheus) and comedians, as well as the works on the art of war and on medicine. Libraries implanted in the residents of the Empire an interest in other worlds. Not just India, which Alexander the Great had reached earlier, but also those that lay even further to the east. Roman travellers rode and sailed as far as China. Of course, literary works brought back from there reached the Alexandrinas. Because the practical Romans took care to bring Chinese inventions to the Mediterranean – from the seismograph to paper. It was on the latter that the wisdom of the medical men from the Middle Kingdom was spread, in translations into Latin and Greek. The advice of the Greek hetairai lost popularity with the appearance of the Far Eastern sex guides.
In the fourth century, during a time of political crisis for the Empire, the writings of Confucius enjoyed great popularity among the Empire’s elites. But even earlier, many educated Romans had turned away from politics, and their taste in books also changed – in the direction of the hard sciences. They started to explore the Greek works devoted to mathematics, physics, engineering, astronomy. Euclid, Apollonius, Archytas, Democritus, Ctesibius and Posidonius all returned to favour. With the money of Roman sponsors, the mechanical planetaria and calendars created earlier by the genius Hipparchus (and the slightly less talented Archimedes) were perfected. From here it was barely a step to the first clock and arithmometer – a mechanical calculator.
The Romans also continued the Greeks’ research into devices using steam power. This coincided with the arrival from China of a design for a huge furnace, which delivered a revolution in metallurgy. High-pressure steam engines were produced. At the sight of the vehicles they powered, whole Barbarian armies would flee the field of battle! The historians tell us that Attila the Hun lost his mind in just one afternoon when he saw the steam-powered chariots.
Those engines grew bigger and more powerful. There was a need for them, because in the Roman Empire they dusted off the plans in ancient treatises for building giant ships, hundreds of feet long. Suddenly it turned out that the power of the steam machines was greater than that of galley oarsmen. Slaves were also useful – to work at the engines of these giant vessels, which in 5 AD already dared to sail out into the Atlantic. That’s how the Romans reached the new, unknown continents in the West.
But not everything went so smoothly. The philosophers’ deliberations sparked discussions about the pros and cons of one-man rule and democracy, sometimes leading to social unrest. Women also protested at the libraries, demanding better access to education, and parity on the library shelves. The places were swarming with successors to Sappho, Corinna, Hypatia, Sulpicia. In Egypt alone the devotees of new religions – first the Christians, then the Muslims – attempted several times to destroy the original library, often seeing its contents as blasphemous. But people could always be found who, united under the sign of the Roman salute, rescued the precious collections. It happened more than once that they saw off the religious fundamentalists with arguments from the second part of Aristotle’s Poetics, devoted to comedy and the sense of humour. In fact, there were already branches of the Alexandrina in other parts of the world, and Greek and Latin were being studied as far away as the Antipodes in the 11th century. This knowledge could never be lost!
Today the musty, fusty scientific works from thousands of years ago have been replaced by books from modern researchers. But when, 1492 years after the rescue of the Alexandrina, the first man, Vinci of Italy, stepped onto the moon, he had with him a computerized version of the book collection from Caesar’s times. He quoted Julius humorously, saying: “Veni, Vidi, Vici, Vinci”, after which he laid down a disk with a miniature copy of the building of the ancient library, which he left in the place where he landed on the Silver Globe. That was the first Alexandrina outside Earth.
Unfortunately, the original Alexandrian Library didn’t last that long. It was flooded, along with half of the city, by the waves of the Mediterranean. That happened after the climate catastrophe caused by the sudden and completely uncontrolled development of industry. The steam revolution, uncontrolled burning of wood from the forests of the New World, and coal from Britain, Germany and the countries of the East must have caused the global crisis. At that time, people started to say: “When the Earth is burning, it’s time to lay down both the sword and the book.” Cynics pointed out that unfortunately, in the original Alexandrina there wasn’t a single book about ecology. And that it was people’s pursuit of science and knowledge that sealed the Earth’s fate.
Some even believed that the world would have been more beautiful if Caesar had allowed the Great Library of Alexandria to burn. Others cried out: “Don’t burn libraries, build your own.” But for that it was too late. Flights to the moon and Mars were humanity’s last success. The great dying out of the exhausted planet began. The Dark Ages lasted on the Earth for another 500 years. Centuries of chaos, which even the Council of Wise Men vegetating in the colony on Mars couldn’t overcome.
One of the handful of those who survived on Earth until 2019 wrote this history for you. Soon he’ll put it in the ruins of the Alexandrina in his hometown, overgrown with poison ivy.
Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino