AFTER Aeschylus' death, an official copy of his ninety-seven dramas was made at the expense of the Republic and placed under the special care of the recorder of Athens. The disappearance of these poems is indeed a drama, and an extraordinary drama. A king has stupidly plundered the human mind.
Let us tell the story of this larceny.
Here are the facts--the legend, at least; for at such a distance, and in such a twilight, history is legendary.
There was a king of Egypt named Ptolemy Evergetes, brother-in-law to Antiochus the god.
Let us mention, by the way, that all these people were gods--gods Soters, gods Evergetes, gods Epiphanes, gods Philometors, gods Philadelphi, gods Philopators. Translation: Gods saviors, gods beneficient, gods illustrious, gods loving their mother, gods loving their brothers, gods loving their father. Cleopatra was a goddess Soter. The priests and priestesses of Ptolemy Soter were at Ptolemais. Ptolemy VI was called "God-love-Mother" (Philometor), because he hated his mother Cleopatra; Ptolemy IV was "God-love-Father" (Philopator), because he had poisoned his father; Ptolemy II was "God-love-Brothers" (Philadelphus), because he had killed his two brothers.
Let us return to Ptolemy Evergetes.
He was the son of the Philadelphus who gave golden crowns to the Roman ambassadors, the same to whom the pseudo-Aristeus wrongly attributes the version of the Septuagint. This Philadelphus had much increased the library of Alexandria, which during his lifetime counted two hundred thousand volumes, and which in the sixth century attained, it is said, the incredible number of seven thousand manuscripts.
This stock of human knowledge, formed under the eye of Euclid and by the efforts of Callimachus, Diodorus Cronos, Theodorus the Atheist, Philetas, Apollonius, Aratus, the Egyptian priest Manetho, Lycophron, and Theocritus, had for its first librarian, according to some Zenodotus of Ephesus, according to others Demetrius of Phalerum, to whom the Athenians had raised two hundred and sixty statues, which they took one year to construct, and one day to destroy. Now this library had no copy of Aeschylus. One day the Greek Demetrius said to Evergetes, "Pharaoh has not Aeschylus,"--exactly as, at a later time, Leidrade, archbishop of Lyons and librarian of Charlemagne, said to Charlemagne, "The Emperor has not Scaeva Memor."
Ptolemy Evergetes, wishing to complete the work of Philadelphus his father, resolved to give Aeschylus to the Alexandrine library. He declared that he would cause a copy to be made. He sent an embassy to borrow from the Athenians the unique and sacred copy, under the care of the recorder of the Republic. Athens, not over-prone to lend, hesitated, and demanded a security. The King of Egypt offered fifteen silver talents. Now, those who wish to comprehend the value of fifteen talents, have but to know that it was three fourths of the annual tribute of ransom paid by Judæa to Egypt, which was twenty talents, and weighed so heavily on the Jewish people that the high priest Onias II, founder of the Onian Temple, decided to refuse this tribute at the risk of war. Athens accepted the security. The fifteen talents were deposited. The complete copy of Aeschylus was delivered to the King of Egypt. The King gave up the fifteen talents and kept the book.
Athens, indignant, had some thoughts of declaring war against Egypt. To reconquer Aeschylus would be as good as reconquering Helen. To repeat the Trojan War, but this time to recover Homer, seemed a fine thing. Yet time was taken for consideration. Ptolemy was powerful. He had forcibly taken back from Asia the two thousand five hundred Egyptian gods formerly carried there by Cambyses because they were in gold and silver. He had, besides, conquered Cilicia and Syria and all the country from the Euphrates to the Tigris. With Athens it was not longer the day when she had improvised a fleet of two hundred ships against Artaxerxes. She left Aeschylus a prisoner in Egypt.
A prisoner-god. This time the word "god" is in its right place. They paid Aeschylus unheard-of honors. The King refused, it is said, to allow the works to be transcribed, stupidly bent on possessing a unique copy.
Particular care was taken of this manuscript when the library of Alexandria, augmented by the library of Pergamus, which Antony gave to Cleopatra, was transferred to the temple of Jupiter Serapis. There it was that Saint Jerome came to read, in the Athenian text, the famous passage in the PROMETHEUS prophesying Christ: "Go and tell Jupiter that nothing shall make me name the one who is to dethrone him."
Other doctors of the Church made, from the same copy, the same verification. For in all times orthodox asseverations have been combined with what have been called testimonies of polytheism, and great pains have been taken to make pagans say Christian things. "Teste David cum Sibylla." People came to the Alexandrian library, as on a pilgrimage, to examine the PROMETHEUS--constant visits which perhaps deceived the Emperor Hadrian, making him write to the Consul Servianus: "Those who worship Serapis are Christians; those who profess to be bishops of Christ are at the same time devotees of Serapis."
Under the Roman dominion, the library of Alexandria belonged to the Emperor. Egypt was Caesar's property. "Augustus," says Tacitus, "seposuit Ægyptum." It was not every one who could travel there. Egypt was closed. The Roman knights, and even the senators, would not easily obtain admittance.
It was during this period that the complete copy of Aeschylus was exposed to the perusal of Timocharis, Aristarchus, Athenæus, Stobæus, Diodorus of Sicily, Macrobius, Plotinus, Jamblichus, Sopater, Clement of Alexandria, Nepotian of Africa, Valerius Maximus, Justin the Martyr, and even of Ælian, although Ælian left Italy but seldom.
In the seventh century a man entered Alexandria. He was mounted on a camel and seated between two sacks, one full of figs, the other full of corn. These two sacks were, with a wooden platter, all that he possessed. This man never seated himself except on the ground. He drank nothing but water, and ate nothing but bread. He had conquered half Asia and Africa, taken or burned thirty-six thousand towns, villages, fortresses, and castles, destroyed four thousand pagan or Christian temples, built fourteen hundred mosques, conquered Izdeger, King of Persia, and Heraclius, Emperor of the East; and he called himself Omar.
He burned the library of Alexandria--and with it, the only copy of the complete works of Aeschylus.
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