East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The case of the missing library


One year ago, in two evenings, I wrote the first 3000 words of a planned 4000 words of the Contunbernium, in Italian. I was not very convinced by the proposal I had received about publishing a story of mine, and the way in which the story was going left me cold, and in the end I dropped it.

I don’t throw away anything.
Writing is my job, no matter if I like it or not (it’s complicated), and I don’t throw away what I write. So The Cursed Hieroglyph languished in a lonely directory on my PC until I was asked for a story with specific characteristics. Bingo.

So I’m rewriting and finally finishing my story, and as I usually do, I am doing a bit of research on the fly to tighten up the background.
It’s one of those cases in which I wrote first, and checked the facts later.
And, well… damn!

The Cursed Hieroglyph takes place in the Great Library of Alexandria: a dead body turns up, Nennius and the boys need to solve what looks like a murder mystery. Nice and smooth.

The problem is, there is no Great Library of Alexandria.
When I wrote the first draft of this story, it looked like a no-brainer: Nennius Britannicus’ squad operates in Alexandria, after all, and the two main attractions in town at the time were the Pharos and the Library.
Or were they?

Because as I checked my facts, turns out that…

The Library dwindled during the Roman Period, due to lack of funding and support. Its membership appears to have ceased by the 260s AD. Between 270 and 275 AD, the city of Alexandria saw a rebellion and an imperial counterattack that probably destroyed whatever remained of the Library, if it still existed at that time.


The Contubernium stories take place in 276/277 AD.
Oh, damn.

I was playing it cool, because I remembered the case of Hypatia, that was killed in 415 AD after some Christians raided the Library, and then the burning of the library in 642 AD.
But apparently it was not that library – it was the Museion, something altogether different.

So, what now?
Well, after a long moment of disorientation – because discovering that what we knew is false always does that – I think this might actually help.

Firstly, because when Emperor Aurelian’s forces laid waste the quarter in which the Library was, in 272 AD, at least two men of the Contubernium – Hostus Aquillius Valgus, the current Primum Pilum, and perpetually bloomy Titus Visellius Asina – were there during the riots.

“The great Library?” Aquilius said, scratching his chin. “Thought we did burn that?”

Secondly, the action of the story has to relocate to the current Library, that is, the Serapeum that would go on and become Hypatia’s Museion.
And this allows me to change the story, making it better, because as books and papyri are recovered from the burnt remains of the old Library and a new one is established, old secrets come to life, and intrigue is rife.
I’ve been in academia, I know how poisonous the environment can be.

So, all in all, it was strange but useful.
Also, if they tell you the Muslims burned the Library of Alexandria, tell them Emperor Aurelian did it first, followed by Christian fanatics one hundred and fifty years later.
And before him, it was Julius Caesar – because burning the Great Library of Alexandria was quite a common practice, apparently, back in the day.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

2 thoughts on “The case of the missing library

  1. Interesting stuff. I got quite the history lesson on the Alexandrian library!


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