For Alexandria lies, as it were, at the conjunction of the whole world.
Dio Chrysostom, Orations, 32
Most of us take it for granted that two cities, Athens and Rome, completely dominated the classical world. We are well aware that their achievements had a profound effect on Western civilization. Their legacy is still apparent, from the architecture of our public buildings to the phrasing of our laws. Even democracy itself was, we are told, their gift. But this is, in fact, a distorted view of history, fueled by generations awed by the might of Rome and the ingenuity of Athens, and perhaps a little too keen to take native historians of both cities at their word.
In fact there was a third city that, at its height, dwarfed both of these in wealth and population as well as in scientific and artistic achievement. Largely overlooked by history, this city had a unique soul. While Greece and Rome spread their influence through trade and war, this city set out on another adventure, not at the point of a sword but on the tip of a pen. Its triumph was to be a conquest of the mind—led not by legions of soldiers but by dynasties of scholars navigating on a sea of books.
This city was Alexandria. Within a few generations of its foundation the city was the marvel of its age, but not just for its size and beauty, its vast palaces, safe harbors, and fabled lighthouse, or even for being the world’s greatest emporium, its central market. Alexandria was built on knowledge, and at its heart was not a treasury but the greatest library and museum of antiquity. Encouraged by the ruling Ptolemaic dynasty, this institution became the meeting place and crucible of all the great cultures and minds of the ancient world. It proved an intellectual magnet attracting generation upon generation of the finest scholars, philosophers, poets, and inventors. Egyptians, Greeks, Jews, Babylonians, Persians, Gauls, Phoenicians, and Romans flocked here, stimulating huge advances in mathematics, astronomy and astrology, alchemy, optics, medicine and anatomy, grammar, geography, philosophy, and theology—in short, the sum total of the wisdom of the ancient world. In these halls the true foundations of the modern world were laid—not in stone but in ideas.
There was never anything like the great library and museum before, nor has there been since: the single place on earth where all the knowledge in the entire world was gathered together—every great play and poem, every book of physics and philosophy, the key to understanding . . . simply everything. That institution aimed to accumulate every book written, even from as far afield as India, and at its zenith it was said to contain three-quarters of a million scrolls. Here were not only the works of the brilliant scholars of their own time but also those of their illustrious predecessors—of Homer, Pythagoras, and Herodotus, of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—names that might otherwise be unknown to us. Other libraries since have held more books; indeed, today the Library of Congress in Washington and the British Library in London hold between them nearly every book printed in the last two hundred years and many more besides. But they are not complete, not least because most of the knowledge of the first thousand years of Western civilization is missing. These were the books that formed the library of Alexandria, and only a handful have been seen since that library’s tragic destruction. All that remains is perhaps 1 percent of the works that were once lodged there, the chance survivors of that shipwreck of human achievement.
The romance of Athens and the might of Rome have overshadowed the Hellenistic civilization spawned by the vast conquests of Alexander. Somehow the people of this place and their extraordinarily modern ideas have fallen down the gap between where classical Greece ended and imperial Rome began.
So our first aim in this book is to look again at Alexandria, to reconstruct the life of the institutions that made it unique—the library and the museum—and to breathe life back into a city that was once the center of the world. Physically there is almost nothing left of ancient Alexandria, but among the drowned ruins in her harbor, in the fragments of the books that survive from her great library, and hidden among the works of later authors lie the keys to this city of wonders.
It was a city of mechanical marvels, of an anatomy school where the circulation of the blood was understood two thousand years before it was previously thought possible, of geographers who knew the earth was spherical and traveled around the sun, of philosophers who even conjectured that everything was made of microscopically small particles called “atoms” (from the Greek atomos—“indivisible”). This was the home of Euclid, the father of geometry, whose books are still in print two thousand years after his death, and of Archimedes, of “Eureka” fame. Here too was the young Galen, the greatest doctor and physiologist of the age; and Claudius Ptolemy, the father of both astronomy and geography; and Apollonius, the author of Jason and the Argonauts. Stranger names, but no less influential, include Eratosthenes, the first man to measure the circumference of the earth; Aristarchus, the first to envisage a heliocentric solar system; Plotinus, a founder of Neoplatonism; Clement of Alexandria, a father of Christian theology; Arius, perhaps the first great Christian heretic; and Philo, the radical Jewish theologian. These are just a few of the host of geniuses who walked and talked, debated and denounced, read copiously, and finally set pen to paper in the great library and museum attached to the royal palaces of Alexandria. And while some of these legions of scholars are still household names, remembered for their mastery of one or two fields of study, it was the declared aim of all to achieve mastery in all fields of study, all branches of knowledge. And some actually achieved this, turning themselves truly into philosophers—“lovers of wisdom”—and reaching intellectual heights never achieved before or since.
The story of each of these characters tells a part of the history of Alexandria, a history peopled by the political giants of the ancient world: Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Cleopatra. Our aim in this book is to explore, within the framework of this turbulent political history, the ways in which human knowledge and understanding developed and evolved in this extraordinary city, to trace the evolution of the “Alexandrian Way,” which stimulated a dramatic acceleration in our appreciation, not just of science and the material world, but also of literature, metaphysics, philosophy, and religion.
To do this we have had to follow the Alexandrian Way ourselves to some extent, by first reading everything we could find on all the people, subjects, and events in Alexandria’s long history—the flotsam and jetsam from the shipwreck of time. We have then laid out those pieces and tried to discover the patterns lying behind them, to fill in the lacunae, the gaps, so that we might explore both the physical and mental worlds of the city and its people.
Wherever possible we have returned to firsthand testimonies and let the people of Alexandria speak for themselves, not merely to restore voices so often drowned out by Rome and Athens, but to try to convey a sense of what it must have been like to actually be there and experience the journey of discovery that was life “at the conjunction of the whole world.” In their words we can walk again in the corridors of the world’s first and only true “university” and reach out for the long-lost scrolls of the library itself. We can gaze upon the golden mausoleum of Alexander, and discover the cold body of Cleopatra in her quayside palace. We can see the world they knew around them and explore the yet stranger worlds of their minds, in a story that begins with the rise of the Ptolemies—the heirs of Alexander and the last, tragic dynasty in three millennia of pharaohs. We will then pass through the conquest by Octavian into the shadow of the Roman Empire, and end with the triumph of Christianity, the death of the last librarian, and the destruction of the library and the city itself.
In this book we will not only return to the lost wonders of Alexandria, we will also try to enter the “mind” of the city, to discover why it produced such an extraordinary flowering of creativity, knowledge, and understanding. And we will discover that at the core of this dazzling whirlpool of ideas lies the thing you are reading now: the written word. Words encoded in grammars, bound as books, and held in libraries allow the transmission of ideas from one mind to the next over the generations, and the transformation of those ideas into new, fresh thoughts as they travel. While the early Greek scholars and philosophers mostly preferred to establish private schools where their thoughts would be transmitted face-to-face, master to pupil, it was in the great libraries of Alexandria that the real power of the written word burst forth upon generation after generation of scholars who could read—and so hold in their own minds— the voices of the world’s great thinkers, speaking to them across the distant expanses of space and time.
Alexandria was the greatest mental crucible the world has ever known, the place where ideas originating in obscure antiquity were forged into intellectual constructs that far outlasted the city itself. If the Renaissance was the “rebirth” of learning that led to our modern world, then Alexandria was its original birthplace. Our politics may be modeled on Greek prototypes, our public architecture on Roman antecedents, but in our minds we are all the children of Alexandria.