The Magazine

Classical Metropolis

The Alexandria of antiquity.

May 7, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 32 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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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.