The Magazine

Classical Metropolis

The Alexandria of antiquity.

May 7, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 32 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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The Rise and Fall of Alexandria

Birthplace of the Modern Mind

by Justin Pollard and

Howard Reid

Viking, 315 pp., $27.95

The grandest and most culturally rich city of the classical world was--not Athens. Athens had its political and artistic heyday during the fifth century B.C., when it produced Pericles, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Socrates, Herodotus, the Parthenon, and a lot of spectacular pottery. After that, Athens was essentially through. It became a pleasant backwater where you went to study philosophy for a few years under Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, or whoever else was in fashion. Even Rome had a surprisingly short-lived cultural heyday, around the time of Christ, and Rome began to fade as a political center of gravity during the third century A.D., as the "Roman" emperors who ruled it became less Roman and more Eastern.

The real action--the most sustained economic, intellectual, and literary brilliance for century after century after century until the very end of the antique world--lay in Alexandria, the Greek-speaking port city founded by Alexander the Great at the mouth of the Nile in about 334 B.C. Alexandria's run of glory was extraordinary: Nine hundred years, during which its population, swelled by the lucrative export trade in grain from the Nile valley that essentially fed the entire Mediterranean world, was second only to Rome's, and its architecture--miles of colonnaded streets laid out in grids, punctuated by marble temples and palaces--was fabled in its splendor, and that didn't even count the great marble-faced lighthouse on the island of Pharos, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, at least 400 feet high, the height of a modern 40-story skyscraper, and topped by a huge bonfire and reflecting mirror so that its light could be seen for miles out at sea, making Alexandria a magnet for traders.

There was also the library of Alexandria--founded during the early third century B.C. by the first of the city's rulers, the self-styled "Pharaoh" and onetime general of Alexander's, Ptolemy I Soter. His son, Ptolemy II, completed the lighthouse--which was said to house three-quarters of a million books (the actual number was probably substantially lower)--and the Museum, a kind of research institute for philosophers and scientists abutting the library.

This plethora of large-scale architectural and intellectual enterprises was typical of Alexandria, which as a "Hellenistic," or Greek-style, polity, in contrast to a "Hellenic," or authentically Greek one, made up in quantity for what it lacked in quality. No individual building in Alexandria (and almost nothing of them remains standing) displayed quite the perfection of the Parthenon, but the cumulative effect of all of them, elaborately carved and decorated beyond anything the Athenians could muster, must have been dazzling.

Alexandria never produced a poet on quite the sublime order of Homer, Pindar, or Sophocles, yet it did provide a home to Theocritus (circa 300-circa 260 B.C.), an immigrant from the Greek city of Syracuse on Sicily, whose yards of finely wrought pastoral, satirical, and love poetry addressed to both sexes influenced the poets of the West up to, and even through, the 20th century; Callimachus (circa 305-circa 240), inventor of the witty epigram; and Apollonius of Rhodes (died circa 246), an Alexandrian native (he lived only briefly on the Greek island) whose 6,000-line epic, the Argonautica, telling the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece, was a template for Virgil's Aeneid. And if Alexandria lacked a Plato or an Aristotle, it did produce Ammonius Saccas and Plotinus, two great neo-Platonists of the third century A.D.

It was in the realm of science and mathematics, however, that Alexandria uniquely excelled during its early centuries, and in which Justin Pollard and Howard Reid, authors of The Rise and Fall of Alexandria, are most interested. Science was then a branch of philosophy, an effort to describe and assign causes to the way in which the natural world worked, and Aristotle in particular was an empiricist as well as a metaphysician. The library of Alexandria and the political and intellectual ambitions of the first two Ptolemies drew scientists like magnets.