Alexandria the Great
On the Mediterranean at the western edge of the Nile delta stands the most important and enduring of all the many cities founded by Alexander. Though much of its material past has been destroyed or lies underwater, Alexandria’s reputation as the intellectual powerhouse of the Classical world, fusing Greek, Egyptian and Roman culture, lives on, writes Paul Cartledge.
For historians of ancient Greece agora is the term for a place of gathering, a market perhaps or political assembly, one of the most basic distinguishing markers of ancient Greek culture and civilisation. In Athens, for example, hard by the Acropolis you can visit the Greek Agora, still being excavated by the American School, and its nearby successor, the Roman Agora, an eloquent jumble of ruins. But, for cinemagoers, Agora may come to mean something else, as it is the title of a new film starring Rachel Weisz set not in ancient, pagan Athens but in early Christian Alexandria around AD 400.
Alexandria numbers among the greatest of the city-states founded by the Greeks, though it was far from the crucible of Greek culture. Strictly, there was no such thing as ‘ancient Greece’. The term ‘Greece’ comes to us from the Romans. The Greeks themselves spoke not of Graecia but of Hellas, ‘the Hellenic world’, a cultural rather than a political or geographical concept. And there were at any one time around 1,000 very different cities making up Hellas, stretching from near the Pillars of Heracles (Gibraltar) in the west to Phasis in Colchis (modern Georgia) in the far north-east. This distribution was the outcome of a series of waves of Greek emigration and settlement, starting in the late Bronze Age (14th-12th centuries bc). This Hellenic diaspora was an essential ingredient of the latter epoch-making process during which Alexandria was founded.
Alexander III, posthumously labelled ‘the Great’, was born in 356 bc, aged just 20, in highly dubious circumstances. A shadow of suspicion hangs over him to this day for his possible role in his father’s assassination. This can never be proved and there is at least as much reason to suspect the hand of the estranged Olympias. But Philip himself was a pretty hale 46 years of age and there arose a severe danger that Alexander would be passed over for the succession due to Philip’s marriage to Cleopatra Eurydice and the chance that she might bear him a son and heir: hence, arguably, Alexander’s role in the assassination, carried out by one of Philip’s bodyguards in full public view as he was celebrating the wedding of his daughter to her uncle, Olympias’s own royal brother, at the Macedonian ceremonial capital of Aegae.
Whoever was behind the murder, Alexander profited the most from it. Winning the support, crucially, of the formidable Macedonian army, he was quick to assume his father’s role as champion of Hellenism against the Persian empire. Philip’s campaign had been dressed up as a long-delayed act of revenge on the Persians for their sacrilegious destruction of sacred sites and property in Greece in 480-‘barbarian slavery’.
The revolts in Greece that followed Philip’s assassination delayed Alexander assuming the command of the advance force sent across the Hellespont (Dardanelles) to north-west Asia Minor in 336 bc) had lived in, since he was seen as an emblematic spokesman for the sort of cultural Panhellenism Alexander was claiming to promote. All the same, destroying the city of one of his most important Greek allies was hardly an auspicious omen for the coming Asiatic campaign.
Controversy attended the campaign throughout. Alexander showed preternatural gifts for leadership and command in the most demanding of conditions over more than a decade (334-323 bc). But he found it ever more difficult to convince his courtiers and Macedonian troops to follow him to the ends of the earth. Nevertheless, he extended Macedon’s dominion as far east as ‘India’ (modern Pakistan and Kashmir), not only destroying the old Persian empire in the process but also laying the foundations for a new kind of personal territorial monarchy, a kingdom of all ‘Asia’, with himself as the new-style, part-Greek, part-orientalised monarch, worshipped spontaneously as a living god by many of his new as well as his Greek subjects. Some Greeks, however, found the idea of divine worship of their leader harder to get used to and the expedition’s official historian, Callisthenes (a relative of Alexander’s old tutor Aristotle), openly refused to bow down before his king in ceremonial obeisance as he thought it ‘too Persian’. Alexander had him executed for high treason.
To stabilise his conquests strategically as he proceeded and to unify his new kingdom culturally for the future, Alexander founded a number of Greek-speaking Alexandrias as far east as what is today Afghanistan. There is much dispute both in the ancient sources and among modern historians over exactly how many cities were actually founded by Alexander: perhaps only a dozen, rather than the 70-plus attributed to him in antiquity. Of those named after him, the majority are located in the further eastern reaches of his empire and were surely established in the first instance for strategic reasons, although some had the potential, circumstances permitting, to grow into more settled, peaceful and civilised Greek cities. But the first brand-new Alexandria (that is, after the Alexandroupolis in northern Greece, which he renamed rather than founded in 340 bc) was established not in Europe, nor in Asia, but in Africa, in the Nile delta, at that vast river’s Canopic outlet into the Mediterranean.
Not only the first, the Egyptian Alexandria was also by far the most important. In the late winter of 332-31 bc (April 7th, 331 was the official date) Alexander personally traced out the new city's limits. He consulted, as was his superstitious wont, the best soothsayers and seers at his disposal, headed by his favourite, Aristander of Telmessus (nowFethiye in south-west Turkey). Alexander was careful not to locate the city right on top of an existing Egyptian site, for fear of alienating powerful native opinion, which he urgently needed on his side; it was, after all, only six months or so before the final, decisive battle with the Persian Great King Darius III at Gaugamela in northern Iraq in October 331 bc. Instead, he located it next to a local settlement known in Greek as Rhacotis.
Alexandria was regularly referred to in official ancient sources as ‘by’ Egypt rather than ‘in’ Egypt, so much was it seen as an exceptional, alien implant, with its own separate identity from the start. Access to residence and political membership of the city was strictly controlled by the original Macedonian and Greek settlers, some of whom were retired veterans, others traders, yet others ‘wide boys’ on the make. Below them was the required underclass of slaves of many ethnicities, but there was also a lower order of free but unenfranchised Egyptians and other incomers such as diaspora Jews. It was for the latter group that the Hebrew bible was first translated into Greek, as the Septuagint, some time in the third century bc.
At first, during Alexander’s lifetime and a little beyond, Alexandria was the new capital of an imperial province, in succession to the ‘satrapy’ of Egypt that the Persians had ruled from 525 to 404 bc, whose capital had been the old Egyptian city of Memphis. The powerful Egyptian priesthood and other members of the old native ruling class had never settled comfortably under the Achaemenid yoke (as they saw it) and they generally welcomed Alexander as their enemies’ enemy; but it did not take long for the old grievances against a foreign, imperial power to re-emerge. Alexander did not deal with these new subjects tactfully. Rather he sought to exploit his Egyptian connections mainly for personal and propaganda purposes, having himself declared pharaoh at Memphis and even hailed, in Greek, as the son of a god by the chief priest of the oracle of Ammon (Amun) in the Siwah oasis many hundreds of miles to the west, on the borders with Libya.
Alexander died in Babylon aged 32 in 323 BC. In about 305 BC one of his most successful Macedonian generals, a companion since childhood called Ptolemy, whom Alexander had appointed governor of the province of Egypt, declared himself 'king' of the same territory, with Alexandria as his capital. Impressively, Ptolemy I, as he became, managed to found a lasting, if often troubled, dynasty. For almost three centuries (305-30 bc), Alexandria was the capital of this 'Hellenistic' successor kingdom, culturally and administratively Greek, but significantly influenced by native ideas to the extent of there being some sort of fusion between the two, for example in the new dynastic cult of Serapis. a combination of the cult of Osiris (representing the spirit of the dead pharaoh) and that of the Apis bull of Memphis.
In the third century BC, thanks to its new Museum and Library (incorporating, for example, Aristotle's presumably substantial manuscript possessions), which Ptolemy I had planned before he died in 285 bc, Alexandria became the cultural capital of the entire Greek world. It attracted intellects of the calibre of Euclid (active c. 300 bc), the mathematical genius; Eratosthenes (c. 2761 94 bc), who measured the Earth's circumference to within an acceptable margin of error; Archimedes (c. 287-212 bc:), another remarkable mathematician and military inventor; Callimachus (c. 310-240 bc), chief librarian and, like Eratosthenes, originally from Gyrene in modern Libya; and Theocritus (c. 300-260 bc), a pastoral poet from Syracuse, who composed at the Alexandrian court in the 270s BC under Ptolemy II. Many other luminaries graced the city's precincts.
The coexistence of practitioners of ‘science’ and ‘arts’ is noteworthy in itself, but harmony did not always reign supreme. A contemporary wit, Timon of Phlius, referred to the Museum as the ‘birdcage of the Muses’, implying that all sorts of highly competitive birds were kept cooped up there, without an agreed pecking order but with lots of mutual pecking going on. Even Ptolemy I had turned his hand to literature in old age, writing an apologetic account of ‘my part in’ Alexander’s campaigns. This has not survived as such but it formed one of the bases of a good historical account written by Arrian, a Greek from Nicomedea in Bithynia, in the second century ad. (The ‘lost memoirs’ trope has inspired at least one contemporary historical novelist, Valerio Massimo Manfredi, who has written a trilogy of books about Alexander the Great; and one filmmaker, Oliver Stone, who cast Anthony Hopkins as Ptolemy I in the 2004 film, Alexander).
Alexandria was thus the first Hellenistic polis, or city-state, just as Alexander may fairly be designated as the first Hellenistic king. Would that archaeology could do anything like as much justice to the city’s architectural wonders as the survival of literature has done for its intellectual achievements. But subsequent historical vicissitudes – hostile occupations, regime and indeed cultural changes, as well as burnings both deliberate and accidental – coupled with mighty forces of nature (earthquakes above all) have seen to it that much of Hellenistic Alexandria is today either obliterated on land or under water. To take the most contentious example, where is Alexander’s fabled tomb to be located, the one that was built by Ptolemy I after he had hijacked Alexander’s body (en route from Babylon for reburial in Macedon) and which was visited three centuries later in reverent homage by the first Roman emperor, Augustus? Are his remains really now entombed in Venice, under St Mark’s Basilica, as has recently been speculated (the claim being that what were removed as being supposedly the mortal remains of St Mark, a native Alexandrian, were actually those of Alexander himself)? Or is that just the sort of wild surmise to which the absence of a sound archaeological record can drive even the sanest of historical investigators?
Credit must be given to underwater archaeologists such as Jean-Yves Empereur who have recovered and are still recovering remarkable objects off Alexandria’s shore and in areas up to 12 miles further east (possibly the site of ancient Heracleum) which are now housed in the new National Museum of Alexandria. Yet even the most skilled of them will never be able to recover enough of the Pharos lighthouse (328 feet tall, allegedly) – designed for Ptolemy I or II by Sostratus of Cnidus and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – to reconstruct it persuasively, either on paper or in computer-generated image. The new Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a cultural centre and library in the heart of Alexandria, is another matter, a miracle of virtual resurrection.
Being a royal capital, in a brave new world of territorial monarchies, Alexandria could not function as just another Greek polis. Laws passed here by the Ptolemies would have applied throughout Egypt, to natives as well as Greeks, as did their most impressive silver and gold imperial coinages, being the first Greek issues to depict a living ruler’s image. But elsewhere in the post-Alexander Hellenistic world, from about 300 to 30 bc, recent research has shown just how vigorous the polis remained as both a political and a cultural institution. For example, Greeks and Macedonians in the time or wake of Alexander took the polis to central Asia, to Bactria and Sogdia in what is now Afghanistan. The prime case is Ai Khanum (‘Moon Woman’ in the local Tadjik language), which is possibly ancient Alexandria in Sogdia. Doubts have been expressed about the extent of the Hellenisation process here: were these not really just supersize forts from whose cultural delights the local ‘barbarians’ were rigorously debarred? Is not the architecture more local or Persian than Greek? Though that might be argued, it would be hard to test it and there are some staggeringly powerful and unanswerable pieces of evidence of Hellenisation, all the more powerful for coming from that most sensitive of cultural spheres, religion.
Had the Alexandrian poet C.P. Cavafy (1863-1933) still been alive to see this newly excavated evidence, not available before the 1960s, he for one would not have been at all perturbed. Writing as if in (or from) the year 200 bc, he imagines a Hellenistic Greek ancestor proudly declaring:
We: the Alexandrians, the Antiochenes,
the Seleucians, and the numerous
other Hellenes of Egypt and Syria,
and those in Media, and those in Persia, and so many others.
With their extended dominions,
and their diverse endeavours towards judicious adaptations.
And the Greek koine language -
all the way to Bactria we carried it, to the Indians.
Conveniently for us as well, Cavafy gives a brief summary of almost the entire post-Alexander Hellenistic world. The mention of ancient Greeks in Media and Persia (northern and southern Iran respectively) is especially salutary, since they are often forgotten even by scholars. Indeed, in Susa, the old administrative capital of the Persian empire, we hear of performances or at least staged recitations of Euripides, something that would have been a commonplace in Alexandria, with its many theatres. The koinê language Cavafy refers to is the simplified form of Classical Greek, based chiefly on the Athenian dialect, that spread throughout the Middle East and even into part of what is today Pakistan. This was the form of Greek language into which the Jewish Septuagint was translated and the Greek version of the Christian New Testament.
However, the international equilibrium that emerged by the middle of the third century bc was hard won, after two major internecine wars, and easily disturbed or lost. Much of Hellenistic Greek public political history is but a wearisome catalogue of inter-dynastic wars. In old Greece the Antigonid dynasty of Macedon periodically came down like a wolf to demonstrate who was really in charge. But all such would-be bosses were eventually trumped and triumphed over by the boss of all bosses, the capo di capi, Rome. Around 200 bc Rome began its inexorable rise to supreme power and glory in the ancient Mediterranean world. Eventually, by 30 bc it included almost the entire Hellenistic world within its orbit as the eastern, Greekspeaking half of its empire, though its hold on what are now Iran and Iraq was brief and tenuous and it never absorbed any part of modernday Afghanistan or Pakistan.
The Greek historian Polybius of Megalopolis (c.200-120 bc, by which time Carthage had been destroyed and in mainland Greece ‘Macedonia’ and ‘Achaea’ had been established as a province and a protectorate respectively within Rome’s official imperial ambit. Eighty years further on, Pompey the Great (emulating Alexander in his title as in much else) brought into the empire in effect the old Seleucid kingdom based on Syria and most of the rest of Anatolia.
That left unconquered only Ptolemaic Egypt. Its acquisition by Rome was the outcome of an even more titanic struggle for personal mastery of the entire Roman world: between, in the ‘Western’ corner, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, Octavian for short (Emperor Augustus, 63 bc-), the adopted son and heir of Julius Caesar, the man who would surely have been Rome’’s fleet decisively defeated that of Cleopatra and Antony, who committed suicide back in Alexandria rather than fall into their enemy’s vengeful grasp.
In 30 BC Octavian turned Egypt into the equivalent of a Roman imperial province, though it was governed by his direct appointees and members of the Senate were banned from entering it without his express permission. With this transformation of Egypt into a Roman dependency, the Romans had completed the absorption of almost the entire post-Alexander Hellenistic world into their massive empire.
But, if ancient Alexandria was finished as an independent political entity, it remained a cultural powerhouse. The rollcall of intellectuals who graced Roman Alexandria is by no means inferior to that of the city’s illustrious Hellenistic Greek incarnation. Pride of place should be accorded to another Ptolemy, Claudius Ptolemaeus, the astronomer and geographer (c.-178),ad 170. The medium onto which these thinkers transcribed their thoughts was a specially prepared product of the native Egyptian papyrus plant. Always expensive, it had to compete in the earlier Greek world with the cheaper writing media of bark, pottery, skin and wax. But under the Roman dispensation papyrus comes into its own as our major source of evidence on social and cultural life in the ancient Greek world as a whole. Alexandria’s soil and climate being too wet, the recovered papyri have come chiefly from further south in the Nile valley, from the Fayum region and notably from the small and otherwise undistinguished town of Oxyrhynchus (literally translated as ‘Sharp-nosed Fishville’).
Alexandria’s contribution to Western and world culture also included one of those few ancient Greek women who are on record as having an impact on what was a fundamentally male-orientated and male-dominated universe. Her name is Hypatia (c.- 415) and she was the daughter of a mathematician called Theon. She was not the first distinguished female Alexandrian mathematician – that accolade goes to Pandrosion (c.), who is thought to have invented a geometric construction to produce cube roots. Hypatia for her part wielded the astrolabe and the hydroscope with aplomb. But it is not her scientific brains or alleged superior good looks to which she owes her commemoration, but chiefly to the fact that she was murdered – or rather martyred – as a pagan by a Christian mob possibly acting under orders of Bishop Cyril of Alexandria,. Sic transit gloria classica – though Hollywood’s dream factory has doubtless done its best to ensure that the fame of Hypatia, in the guise of Rachel Weisz, will live on for some time yet.
Paul Cartledge is A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge. He is author of Ancient Greece: A History in Eleven Oties (Oxford University Press).
- Paul Cartledge, Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past (Pan Macmillan, 2004)
- J-Y Empereur, Alexandria: Jewel of Egypt (Harry N. Abrams, 2002)
- EM. Forster, Alexandria: A History and a Guide (1922, repr. M. Hagg, 1974)
- M. Haag, Alexandria: City of Memory (Yale University Press, 2004)
- R.M. MacLeod (ed.), The Library of Alexandria: Centre of Learning in the Ancient World (LB.Tauris, 2000)
- J. Pollard and H. Reid, The Rise and Fall of Alexandria (Penguin, 2007).
- For further articles on this subject, visit: www.historytoday.com/andentegypt
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