Alexandria the Great

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.

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