The Library of Alexandria & The Benefits of Hellenization

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  • 0:05 Universal Language
  • 2:52 Alexandria's Literary…
  • 5:01 Limits of Writing
  • 6:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lecture begins by examining the spread of the Greek language and alphabet during the Hellenistic period and noting the implications of a universal language. Next we look at four factors that combined to make Alexandria the heart of Hellenistic scholarship: common language, a convenient alphabet, papyrus and climate.

Universal Language

The empire of Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great Broken Empire

Have you ever wondered at the fact that people all over the world speak English? I do!

Throughout most of history, languages have tended to break off from one another. People who speak the same language get separated somehow and over the years, these groups' languages shift away from each other. First they become different accents, then different dialects, then entirely different languages.

Yet, there is a force that counteracts this natural tendency, and that is an empire. Empires span many different states, with many different languages. For obvious reasons, the language of the dominant empire ends up being adopted by its member states. Imperial administrators tend to impose their language on the states they govern, and member states, in turn, attempt to learn the imperial language. This helps them communicate with their overlords. It also allows them to share in the knowledge and information available in the empire. Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon was Alexander the Great's empire.

Alexander the Great's empire was not long lived. It broke into several smaller kingdoms almost as soon as it was formed. Yet there was one enduring aspect of Alexander's campaign of conquest, and that was Hellenization. Hellenization refers to Alexander the Great's practice of bringing Greeks with him on his conquest and installing them as administrators in his growing empire. The result was that Greek culture, philosophy, art and language were quickly spread across the ancient world. Though Alexander's empire soon crumbled, the Greek administrators stayed put, and Greek soon became the universal language of the ancient world.


The importance of a common language cannot be understated. So what if you've got a sweet written language, it doesn't help a lick if people don't understand it. What's the point of being able to read and write if you don't know the lingo? Thus, though writing had been invented and refined for almost a thousand years, knowledge was still restricted to people who shared a common language.

The Greek alphabet
Greek Alphabet

Though earlier empires made efforts at linguistic unification, none were equipped with a full alphabet like the Greeks had. This alphabet had very few characters, making it easier to learn, but it also included vowel sounds, allowing people unfamiliar with Greek to sound out the words. The Greeks even added little accent marks to their writing to make it even easier to read. The result was that Greek quickly became the universal language of the ancient world.

Alexandria's Literary Advantages

The combination of this common language and writing technology allowed the volume of knowledge to increase as scholars benefited from the scholarship of people all over the empire. Nowhere was this vastly expanding complex of information more visible than in the sheer massiveness of the Library of Alexandria, which boasted a collection of tens of thousands of works in a time when every letter was written by hand.

It is interesting to note that this gargantuan collection was created in Egypt. Though still fabulously wealthy, Egypt had long since peaked as a cultural agent. As a heavily Hellenized kingdom, however, Egypt was in a grand position to benefit from Alexander's spread of Greek through the ancient world. However, the same could be said of Greece, and though many splendid libraries arose there, none came near the scope of Alexandria.

So what did Alexandria have that Greece did not? Papyrus. Having a common language and an easy alphabet is great. But what do you write it on? Well, what can you write on? Cuneiform was written on wet clay and then allowed to dry. People also wrote on animal skins, and carved into stone. But dried clay tablets are heavy and fragile, animal skins are expensive (you have to kill an animal every time you want to write a page) and stone carving is tedious.

Location of the Library of Alexandria
Library of Alexandria Map

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