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.

The first scientist of note to arrive in Alexandria was Aristarchus of Samos (circa 310-circa 230 B.C.), who had studied at the school of Pythagoras and also with Ptolemy II's tutor, Strato of Lampsacus, who had in turn studied at Aristotle's school, the Lyceum, in Athens. Strato, whose epithet was "the Physicist," held that the universe was a mechanism that could be explained without recourse to divine forces, a peculiarly modern notion that became a hallmark of Alexandrian science. At least as Pollard and Reid would have it, Aristarchus proved an apt pupil of his master: In an effort to calculate (erroneously but not too erroneously) the relative sizes of the earth, sun, and moon, Aristarchus realized that the sun was vastly larger than the earth and concluded that the conventional model proposed by Plato and Aristotle, in which the sun revolved around a spherical earth, made no sense given the relative size of the two bodies. Aristarchus therefore hypothesized a heliocentric universe, anticipating Copernicus by some 1,800 years. His contemporaries considered him either impious or daft.

The latter opinion came from Archimedes (circa 287-212 B.C.), the mathematician and engineer who (so Pollard and Reid argue on the basis of his friendships with prominent Alexandrian scientists) sojourned in Alexandria between stints in his native Syracuse inventing advanced catapults and ships' pulleys and crying, "Eureka!" on discovering that he displaced his volume in water in the bathtub. Aristarchus' heliocentric theories were eventually all but forgotten, supplanted during the second century A.D. by the precepts of another Alexandrian, the astronomer Claudius Ptolemy (no relation to the Egyptian rulers by that name), whose Almagest laid out the elaborate geocentric system of sun, moon, and other heavenly bodies that held sway in the West until the dawn of the modern era.

Other famous Alexandrian mathematicians, scientists, and inventors included Euclid (circa 325-circa 265 B.C.), the father of geometry; the geographer Eratosthenes of Cyrene (circa 275-195 B.C.), who calculated with amazing accuracy the circumference of the earth; the barber (by day) Ctesibus (circa 200 B.C.), inventor of the water clock that allowed the ancients to tell time indoors for the first time; and Hero (circa 100 A.D.), an engineer-geometrician who devised elaborate hydraulics-driven machines that anticipated the Industrial Revolution. Hero, unfortunately, failed to discover the other component of the Industrial Revolution, cheap coal-fired power, so it remained more economical to buy slaves to do the work that could be performed by Hero's steam-and-water contraptions, which were relegated to providing flashy special effects at theaters and temples.

The second-century physician Galen, whose most famous patient was the emperor Marcus Aurelius, researched the circulatory system while in Alexandria, and in the third century A.D., the mathematician Diophantus invented a rudimentary form of algebra. Modern chemistry, via medieval alchemy, may have its origins in the hermetic writings of Alexandrian late antiquity.

Pollard and Reid are makers of historical documentaries for television (PBS, BBC, National Geographic), not academic historians, and they freely mix the yarns that the ancient biographers of scientists spun about their subjects with more verifiable facts. Nonetheless--or perhaps because of their amateur status--they tell the story of ancient Alexandrian science with relish and brio that few university scholars can muster these days. Their lively and lucid description of Eratosthenes' methodology for calculating the earth's circumference at 25,000 miles--which involved simultaneously measuring the angle of the sun on the day of the summer solstice at Alexandria and the city of Syene some 600 miles up the Nile--is the book's high point, not only because Eratosthenes' calculations were so accurate but because he also figured out, with equal near-accuracy, that the earth's axis is tilted toward the sun on solstice day.

"His proof provided the first scientific explanation of a phenomenon that every Greek and Egyptian experienced: the seasons," write Pollard and Reid.

The two write with equal brio, again mixing gossipy anecdotes from Plutarch and elsewhere with verifiable history, about the Ptolemy family that ruled Alexandria and the entire land of Egypt until the suicide of the last Ptolemy, Cleopatra, turned Egypt into a Roman province in 30 B.C.

The creation of Alexandria was both a stroke of genius and an egomaniacal whim of Alexander the Great. The Egyptians had historically had no interest in seafaring and no Mediterranean port. All there was on the marshes of the Nile mouth when Alexander arrived was a tiny fishing village and the offshore island of Pharos, mentioned by Homer. Alexander had just finished conquering Egypt, then under the dominion of Persia, as part of his great sweep eastward. He conceived the idea of connecting Pharos to the mainland by a great causeway (thus creating a double harbor), hired a planner named Dinocrates of Rhodes to execute his idea, and then left, never to return to the city that was to bear his name.

After Alexander died in 323 at the age of 32, and while his heirs were still squabbling over his vast empire, Ptolemy I, a childhood friend from Macedonia, quietly seized control of Egypt. Ptolemy decided that his safest bet for staying in control was to insinuate his family into the local culture, not repeating the mistakes of the Persians, whom the native Egyptians had loathed as foreigners. With the help of Egyptian priests, Ptolemy invented a new Egyptian god, Serapis, a fusion of the traditional Egyptian gods Osiris and the bull-god Apis, and built a huge temple to him in Alexandria, which was to be the headquarters of his cult.

Ptolemy also announced to the Egyptians that he was their new pharaoh. To shore up the legitimacy of the family, his son Ptolemy II, who took over the Egyptian throne in 285 B.C., adopted the pharaonic custom of marrying his sister. The Greeks considered brother-sister incest repulsive, but the Ptolemies gamely continued the practice right down to their dynastic demise. Cleopatra was married to two of her brothers, Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV, and she was also the only Ptolemy to speak Egyptian, which the rest of her Graecophone relatives never bothered to learn.

The first two Ptolemies and their successor, Ptolemy III (who ruled from 246 to 222 B.C.), were ambitious men with powerful personalities under whom Egypt not only flourished but expanded its territory well into the Middle East with a series of wars against the rulers of Syria, who were descendants of another of Alexander's generals, Antiochus. All three early Ptolemies were aggressive sponsors of intellectual and literary culture. Ptolemy III deemed that the library of Alexandria should acquire a copy of every book known to the Greek world, and his father, Ptolemy II, was said to have directed the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into the Greek Septuagint version for the benefit of Alexandria's numerous Jewish immigrants, who came to comprise about a fifth of the city's population.

After Ptolemy III's death and the accession of his son, Ptolemy IV, dynastic decadence set in, with the usual corruption, weak leadership, sexual escapades, murderous palace intrigues, and overindulgence in luxury. There was a general downhill slide, as the Antiochenes won back their Mideast lands, and the Romans moved inexorably eastward, making the Ptolemies their puppets.

Unfortunately, Pollard and Reid take a downward slide at about this point, too, and one senses that they become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of historical material (made more complicated by the fact that all the Ptolemies seemed to have been named either Ptolemy or, if female, Cleopatra). The authors simply skip several generations of Ptolemies--including the intriguing Ptolemy X, whose rule alternated with that of his older brother Ptolemy IX depending on who managed to seize power at any given time. Ptolemy IX was also Ptolemy X's father-in-law, since the latter married the former's daughter, Cleopatra Berenice. The brothers' mother, Cleopatra III, co-ruled with both of them (and also with their father, Ptolemy VIII, who in Ptolemaic tradition was also her uncle) until Ptolemy X either murdered her or she died of natural causes. Finally, in 88 B.C., Ptolemy IX shoved his younger brother off the throne for the last time, and Ptolemy X died in a naval battle trying to win back his kingdom. A few years later, when Ptolemy IX expired, the Romans moved in and turned the Ptolemaic dynasty into their puppets.

The most famous of the later Ptolemies was Cleopatra VII, or, as we know her, "Cleopatra" (a granddaughter of Ptolemy IX via a mistress), who makes a superb yarn: Learned and linguistically brilliant (she was fluent not only in Greek and Egyptian, but also in Latin, Aramaic, Hebrew, and Ethiopic); clever enough to wrest the rule of Egypt for herself by either surviving or conniving her way past the claims of her two teenage brother-husbands, as well as the Roman generals Pompey and Julius Caesar; and infinitely sexy, although, as her coins indicate, not exactly beautiful. Cleopatra was the mistress of both Caesar, whose short-lived son she bore (he was supposedly Ptolemy XV) and whose companion she was in Rome when he was assassinated in 44 B.C., and, most famously, his friend Mark Antony, whose reversals of fortune led to her decision to take her life rather than be paraded through Rome as the trophy of Antony's rival, the future emperor Augustus.

Alexandria's prosperity and prestige continued unabated during the political turmoil, and during the Christian era, under Roman rule, it became as great a Christian city as it had been a pagan one. Although Pollard and Reid nicely narrate the various Roman emperors' sometimes bloody contacts with Alexandria, as well as the career of Philo of Alexandria (circa 20 B.C.-50 A.D.), the Jewish exegete whose works combined Platonic philosophy with an allegorical reading of the Scriptures, they do not understand Christianity very well, starting with Jesus, whom they characterize as a famous revolutionary who "directly challenged the established social order." They allot seven pages to Clement of Alexandria--an early-third-century theologian whom they describe as an advocate of some sort of pan-religious amalgam of Christianity, Judaism, and paganism (an assessment that would have surprised Clement)--but only a few paragraphs to Origen, the greatest Christian intellect that the city produced.

The pivotal role that other Alexandrian theologians, chiefly the bishops Athanasius and Cyril, played in the formation of Christological doctrine is mostly passed over by Pollard and Reid. They even give short shrift to the famous Christian heresies, gnosticism and Arianism, that Alexandria spawned. Egypt was the nursery of Christian monasticism in forms that prevail to this day; but in the view of Pollard and Reid, monasticism equals "religious extremism," and the monks are chiefly notable in this book for firing up an Alexandrian mob in 415 to murder the pagan philosopher Hypatia--who was, in fact, posthumously admired by many Christians. At least Pollard and Reid don't blame the Christians for destroying the library, noting that it was ravaged and depleted by several major fires over many centuries.

Starting in the fifth century, Alexandria went into decline, although for reasons more complex than the simple Christian expunging of pagan Greek culture that Pollard and Reid give. Theological differences between Egyptian Christianity and that of the rest of the Roman world isolated Alexandria religiously and politically while, at the same time, the eastern Roman empire headquartered in Constantinople (an economic rival of Alexandria) could not protect its mideastern and African provinces against an array of new enemies. The Persians captured Alexandria in 616, and then came the newly Islamicized Arabs in 640. Wherever the Arabs went, the classical world ended abruptly. In Alexandria's case, the end came by way of one last (although perhaps legendary) conflagration of the books at its famous library, which the Arab general Amr ibn al-As ordered parceled out to the ravaged city's bathhouses and used as fuel for their boilers.

So died the glory of, perhaps, the most wonderful city that the classical world produced.

Charlotte Allen is the author, most recently, of The Human Christ.