Your worship is your furnaces,
Which, like old idols, lost obscenes,
Have molten bowels; your vision is
Machines for making more machines.

Gordon Bottomley, “To Ironfounders and Others”

The Alexandria that awoke the day after Cleopatra’s death was changed but not destroyed. Having been defeated in war, the city might have expected to be erased entirely from the face of the ancient world, as Carthage was in 146 BC, as an example to others who might dare to defy Rome.

But this was not to be Alexandria’s fate. Octavian limited his revenge to stripping the city of its governing body or senate and founding his own city of Nicopolis (named after a city in Epirus opposite the site of the battle of Actium) in what was then the suburb of Ar Rama. Further humiliation would be unnecessary and, far more important, entirely counterproductive. Egypt was potentially too wealthy, Alexandria was too much of a prize, and what was more, Rome itself was also changing. The Roman province of Egypt—as it now was—had been conquered by a republic, but the general at its head had no intention of maintaining the political traditions of Cicero. He was the first of a new breed of Roman ruler, one who professed republicanism in the name of Octavian, but practiced power as the first emperor—Augustus. Egypt had been where his stepfather, Julius Caesar, and his erstwhile friend, Mark Antony, had looked for the money to conquer the world, and it would be where he would consolidate his rule, taking the Ptolemies’ inheritance as his personal fiefdom.

Alexandria fascinated the new emperors of Rome in two ways. Economically, it was the port through which 20 million bushels of wheat were annually exported from the Nile Valley—enough to feed the unemployed and restive city mob back in Rome. More important, it was the center of the intellectual world, an Egyptian city founded on Greek thinking and now ruled by Rome. In its library lay the practical works by men such as Archimedes that had helped Rome build an empire, as well as many others, perhaps yet unread and untapped. And whereas the republic may have had less time for the higher arts, emperors, like pharaohs, could be seduced by their association with the great literary names from history and legend whose works filled the colonnades of the library. That was indeed a prize.

Alexandria was the most extraordinary city on earth, as Julius Caesar and Mark Antony had learned, and as Augustus was now finding out. Around the roads and gates laid out so long ago by Dinocrates, extraordinary buildings now stood. From just south of the Canopic Way the Paneium gave a stunning view across the city. This was itself an astonishing structure, a man-made hill in the shape of a fir cone around which a path spiraled up to a temple dedicated to Pan on the summit. From here the city lay spread out before a visitor. Across the wide granite-paved street lay the Soma, the tomb of Alexander, where the embalmed Conqueror of the World still lay in a crystal coffin (though not the original gold casket, which had been melted down) surrounded by the tombs of the Ptolemies. Through the hazy sides of the sarcophagus one might just have made out the scar where the great man’s nose had been recently reattached after Augustus had accidentally broken it off when he demanded to touch this sacred relic. Away to the west, beyond the porticoes of the gymnasium, stood the great temple of the Serapeum, with its own library and stadium where annual games celebrated the power of Ptolemy’s invented god.

Off in the distance to the north lay some of the city’s most famous buildings, laid out in stately fashion around the harbor. Most impressive of all, after the palaces themselves, were the enormous grounds and buildings of the Sebasteum (or Caesarium), begun by Cleopatra in honor of Mark Antony but finished by Augustus as a celebration of his victory.

Here stood “Cleopatra’s Needles”—the three ancient obelisks Augustus had brought there from Heliopolis, which now stand one on London’s Embankment, one in New York’s Central Park, and one in Paris’s Place de la Concorde. Their setting in the Sebasteum is described by Philo, a Jewish scholar living in the city in the first century AD, as

huge and conspicuous, fitted on a scale not found elsewhere with dedicated offerings, around it a girdle of pictures and statues in silver and gold, forming a precinct of vast breadth, embellished with porticoes, libraries, chambers, groves, gateways and wide open courts and everything which lavish expenditure could produce to beautify it.

Philo of Alexandria, The Embassy to Gaius, 15

Beyond stood a more sober and sadder sight. By the temple of Poseidon, where arriving sailors gave thanks for their safe passage across the sea, Mark Antony had built a small promontory out into the harbor. At the end of this stood the Timonium. This temple, built after Antony’s defeat at Actium, was named after the misanthropic Timon of Athens, who had been an Athenian lord, wronged and mistreated by his friends, who henceforth hated and mistrusted all mankind. He had withdrawn from Athens and lived alone in the wilderness, and Antony, abandoned by his Roman friends, had wished to imitate him. The depths of such despair might be gauged from the epitaph on Timon’s tomb, which Callimachus, quoted in Plutarch, says read:

Timon, hater of men, dwells here; so pass along;

Heap many curses on me, if thou wilt, only pass along.

Plutarch, Life of Antony, in Parallel Lives, 70

Older and happier buildings also crowded around the harbor and foremost among these was the museum in whose portico Eratosthenes had placed his astrolabe. This remained a lively and extensive institution, with its dining halls, colonnades, and gardens, in part of which roamed the exotic animals of the scholars’ private zoo. In the first century AD there would be a sea change here, inspired not by the pure philosophy of Greek thought but by practical problems of engineering, which would make this the only modern city in the ancient world.

The fascination with engineering that so failed to impress Archimedes now began to absorb the scholars of the museum. Rome was a physical empire, not an empire of the mind, and it wanted scholars to find practical solutions to their most pressing problems: conquering and ruling the world. The result would be advances in architecture and engineering that would remain unparalleled until the Renaissance: the first use of concrete; concrete that set underwater; aqueducts; metropolitan sewage systems; high-rise buildings; and, in Alexandria, very nearly a revolution.

Among the new breed of inventors who now walked the corridors and gardens of the museum and library, one stood out—Hero—and the revolution he nearly started eighteen hundred years too early was an industrial one. Hero was at one level exactly the type of scholar who had worked at the museum and library for centuries. He was a great geometer; his work Metrica (which was lost until 1896) dealt with theoretical problems of geometry, finding the areas and volumes of two- and three-dimensional geometric shapes and reiterating an ancient Babylonian method for estimating square roots which is still used in computing today. But at another level Hero was something new. His purpose in studying at the museum and library was practical. Hero professed none of Archimedes’ distaste for engineering but set out to collect the greatest examples from antiquity and add his own to them. For him theory was just a preliminary to practice. Pappus, an Alexandrian mathematician working around AD 320, considered Hero a “mechanician.” His school, he tells us, divided mechanics into theory and practice. The theory included the study of geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and physics, while the practice included metalwork, architecture, carpentry, painting, and any other manual skill. It seems Hero had these skills in perfect balance, and in Pappus’s view, that put him among another group—the wonder-workers.

The ancients also describe as mechanicians the wonder-workers, of whom some work by means of pneumatics, as Hero in his Pneumatica, some by using strings and ropes, thinking to imitate the movements of living things, as Hero in his Automata and Balancings, . . . or by using water to tell the time, as Hero in his Hydria, which appears to have affinities with the science of sundials.

Pappus, La collection mathématique, book 8

In fact, in Alexandria in the first century AD, Hero was the greatest of the wonder-workers. He was a designer and builder of automatons—automatically operated machines—with which he delighted and bemused the people of the city. The machines he built used gravity, pressure, heat, and water to power devices that appeared to operate without human intervention. They would have surprised and bewildered an eighteenth-century European as much as they did Romans and Alexandrians. In his great book the Pneumatica he explained the purpose of his lifework:

By the union of air, earth, fire and water, and the concurrence of three, or four elementary principles, various combinations are effected, some of which supply the most pressing wants of human life, while others produce amazement and alarm.

Hero of Alexandria, Pneumatica, introduction

Simple machines had been a part of Alexandrian life for centuries before, usually seen in the clanking automatons of the great Ptolemaic parades of the early kings. The museum had been collecting peculiar machines, tricks, and unusual natural objects since its very inception. Ever since Alexander ordered his people to send any strange novelty to Aristotle that he might use it in his teaching, the collection of books had gone hand in hand with the collection of “things” in the museum. But before now these were perhaps considered little more than novelties or, at best, talking teaching aids. But in Roman Alexandria, the construction of such novelties now blossomed and expanded. For a moment it looked as though Aristotle’s own dream of a mechanized world was about to come true:

For if every tool were able to complete its own task when ordered—or even anticipate the need—just as the statues of Daedalus supposedly did, or the tripods of Hephaistus which Homer says “entered of their own accord the assembly of the gods”—or shuttles could pass through the loom by themselves, or plectra play the harp, master craftsmen would have no need of assistants, and masters no need of slaves.

Aristotle, Politics, book 1, chapter 4

If there was a man to take Aristotle at his word, it was Hero. As with so many of the great Alexandrians, we know very little about his private life, but thankfully some of his works survive, either as original texts or as comments and discussions in the works of later engineers and mathematicians. In these books he describes the machines he built and the practical skills he learned in the process, and we also gain a sense of his delight at producing devices which filled their audience with wonder.

The machines that Hero built were the wonders of their age—indeed, they would have been the wonder of many ages since—and their deployment about the city made it appear to visitors to be literally a place of miracles. Some were for the home, simply there as entertainments for dinner parties. Others whirred and clanked away in theaters, producing amazing special effects. But the most likely place to find one of Hero’s machines was where magic and miracles were only to be expected—in the temples.

Religion in Egypt was a booming business in the early Roman Empire. The Roman view of religion was surprisingly relaxed. Provided that the imperial cult was acknowledged—more a matter of allegiance than belief—most Roman citizens and subjects were free to worship whatever deity they wished. This liberal approach made cities like Alexandria the home to hundreds of cults, from the traditional Roman and Greek pantheons and the worship of the Ptolemaic Serapis, to the uniquely Egyptian mystery cults of Isis and Osiris, to the Mithraism so beloved by the army officer corps, and even the ecstatic Eastern castration cult of Cybele. Within the city, the temples of Isis and Osiris vied with those of the deified Ptolemies, Zeus, and Jupiter for the devotion (and the money) of adherents. Attracting enough worshippers to any one, when there were literally hundreds to choose from, required a miracle, and that’s exactly what Hero could provide.

Hero could build devices which appeared to perform tasks either without human assistance or through divine intervention. It was the stage magic of its day, utilizing hidden machinery to make an audience stop in the street and look in awe at the show being put on by whichever god was worshipped in the temple where Hero had installed his device.

The illusion might begin even before worshippers entered the building, in the form of a machine he describes in Pneumatica:

Temple Doors opened by Fire on an Altar.

The construction of a small temple such that, on lighting a fire, the doors shall open spontaneously, and shut again when the fire is extinguished. Let the proposed temple stand on a pedestal, ABCD.

Hero of Alexandria, Pneumatica, machine 37

As the priest and congregation approached they would be faced with the huge, closed doors of the temple. Stepping forward, a priest would light a fire on an altar and, as though the god were pleased with the offering, the doors would swing open of their own accord, accompanied by a fanfare of trumpets. Behind the scenes, where only Hero and the priests ever went, a complex series of air- and water-filled tubes connected the altar to large bucket counterweights attached to the temple doors by pulleys. As the fire heated the air it expanded, forcing water in another tube into the buckets, which would then open the doors when there was enough water to weigh them down and set the pulley train in motion. When the fire was extinguished, the air in the pipes cooled and sucked the water back out of the buckets. As the weight in the buckets lessened, so the doors slowly closed under their own weight. It was all just advanced hydraulics, a subject first studied by another Alexandrian, Ctesibius, whose works Hero must have pored over in the library.

But the mechanical wonders had only begun. Inside temples it was very important for worshippers to purify themselves with holy water before any ritual. Selling this could of course be a useful additional income stream for a temple struggling against the competition, but collecting the money and dispensing the water was a time-consuming and frankly boring job, taking one of the priests away from his other duties. To ease this problem Hero invented a

Sacrificial Vessel which flows only when Money is introduced.

If into certain sacrificial vessels a coin of four drachms be thrown, water shall flow out and surround them. Let ABCD be a sacrificial vessel or treasure chest, having an opening in its mouth. . . .

Hero of Alexandria, Pneumatica, machine 21

Hero had invented the slot machine. On putting a silver four-drachma coin in the slot, a measured amount of holy water was dispensed—another little miracle for devotees. With ablutions complete, the acolyte could then proceed into the main sanctuary, where Hero could really allow his imagination to run riot with a series of miracle machines:

On an Apple being lifted, Hercules shoots a Dragon which then hisses . . .

The World represented in the Centre of the Universe . . .

A Fountain which trickles by the Action of the Sun’s Rays . . .

A Trumpet, in the hands of an Automaton, sounded by compressed Air . . .

Hero of Alexandria, Pneumatica, machines 40, 46, 47, 49

In one temple a steam boiler was used to create a jet of invisible steam on which a ball floated, apparently defying gravity. Hero also talks of a machine which allowed a group of mechanical songbirds to sing in a tree until a mechanical owl turned around to stare at them, at which point they fell silent in terror. And to complete the effect, in the temple gloom behind the miraculous machines, Hero’s moving statues blinked and waved like exotic extras in a Ray Harryhausen movie.

But these devices could also have a more practical use—and raise more money for the temple. Here was a chance for the great engineer to make the gods speak directly to their followers, and like any good show-man, he gave them what they wanted. Fortune-telling was a central part of many ancient classical religions, knowledge of the future, or a least a belief in having knowledge of the future, providing some bulwark against the fragility of life. Whole cities and states officially consulted the great oracles such as the Pythia at Delphi. The fabulously wealthy King Croesus of Lydia had many centuries before, according to Herodotus, asked the Pythia whether he should attack Persia. He had received a typically ambiguous response: “If you do, you will destroy a great empire” (Herodotus, The Histories, book 1). Heartened by this, he immediately attacked, only to discover that the empire the Pythia was referring to was his own.

Even Alexander had sought the oracle at Siwa to discover if his campaigns would be successful. This may seem like a piece of stage magic today, but the word of the Siwa oracle not only helped Alexander to resolve his course of action, but likely paved the way for his conquests. In the same way, not long after the Chaldean oracles of Babylon began predicting his doom, he did indeed die, and the same doleful prophesying had probably helped to oust Darius before that. Prophecies could be self-fulfilling. Enemies would attack a man marked out for bad luck. A man apparently blessed would be left alone. Oracles, to put it simply, worked, and many of all types and importance vied with each other. At the greatest, such as at Delphi and Siwa, kings themselves might send for answers, receiving back those cryptic messages from the god via a human intermediary, usually a priest or priestess absorbed in an ecstatic trance or under the influence of psychotropic drugs. Romans would seek answers in the entrails of sacrificed animals, as interpreted by their augurs.

Hero was interested in a somewhat more modest scale of fortune-telling, however, and one that could answer a large number of questions quickly and cheaply. So for all those worshippers who wished to know how a love affair might proceed or whether a business transaction would be profitable, he invented an omen machine. The omen machine had to fulfill several requirements. It had to give apparently clear answers, it had to make money for the temple, and, most important of all, it had to give the people the answers they wanted.

A temple equipped with one of these devices would not, of course, expose its mechanism. As a suppliant walked into the gloom of the temple’s interior he would see just a mechanical bird and a large wheel. After paying a suitable fee he could ask the god a simple yes-or-no question and turn the wheel, and the bird would either sing or not—the god had spoken.

Singing gave one answer, not singing another, and the priests could choose which was the more appropriate. Inside the mechanism an air pump forced air through a pipe to make the birdsong effect when the wheel was turned. A simple cog attached to the inside of the mechanism could then be disengaged, perhaps by a priest, to silence the bird if the other answer was required.

Hero’s machines could also be found in the theaters Alexandrians attended for recreation. Theater was a very big part of life in Alexandria and throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. It was not only where you got to see the latest plays but also a place to be seen. It was the place where politics happened, where great speeches were made, where factions were formed and broken. It had even been the site of Julius Caesar’s assassination. In the first century AD all the world really was a stage.

For the wealthy survivors from the old Ptolemaic regime and the new Roman administrators, putting on a big production was a good way to get noticed and hence a good way to make a name for yourself. But standards were high and the Alexandrian audience expected a lot. Just as in our modern city theaters, people wanted more than just brilliant dialogue and acting—they wanted spectacle, effects, something to transport them into the world of the play. Hero himself describes various forms of rotating backdrop for scene changes, flying galleries where gods and heroes could be winched into the air, and even thunder and lightning machines. But Hero wanted to take his audience a step further.

To achieve this he invented a piece of stage machinery with a unique ability to wheel itself on- and offstage of its own accord at a preset time. Even older sources mention such self-propelling devices, although in an entirely mythical context, such as the god Hephaestus’s magical tripods, mentioned in Homer’s Iliad:

Thetis of the Silver Feet made her way to the palace of Hephaestus, which the god of the Crooked Feet had built, with his own hands, of imperishable bronze. It shines like a star and stands out among the houses of the gods. She found Hephaestus hard at work and sweating as he bustled about at the bellow in his forge. He was making a set of twenty tripods to stand round the walls of his well-built hall. He had fitted golden wheels to all their legs so that they could run by themselves to a meeting of the gods and amaze the company by running home again.

Homer, Iliad, book 18

Hero determined to make the myth a reality. The inside of Hero’s automatic scenery was, in effect, a giant egg timer. As a huge hopper of sand emptied onto a platform, the weight pulled a cord wound around the axle, pushing the scenery forward. When the cord was fully unwound the scenery stopped—hopefully on the right part of the stage. Sand now continued to pour from one container to the other, marking out a set period of time, and at its conclusion, a lever switched and the scenery trundled back offstage again. Today modern theaters use similar computer-controlled “trucks” to move scenery, but unlike modern versions, Hero’s had a problem. Once the machine was put into action there was no way to control it. If the actors spoke too slowly or fast, or if there was some interruption of the play, then the scenery might arrive or leave at the wrong time. A great speech might be rudely interrupted by the untimely departure of the street scene or leafy grove in which it was set. So Hero came up with a solution to this as well—automate the entire play, doing away with human actors altogether.

Attempts at creating robotic theaters had also, perhaps surprisingly, been tried before, notably in the late third century BC by Philo of Byzantium, who was himself an imitator of the Alexandrian Ctesibius. Although Philo’s book on automatons is lost, Hero tells us that he proposed mechanical theaters powered by a simple weight on a rope. Unfortunately, this required that the theater be perched on the edge of a cliff for the duration of the action. During these long drops the weights tended to speed up too much, making the final scene more dramatic than intended as wooden actors, scenery, and theater all suddenly hurtled over the cliff edge.

Hero now proposed a much more complex system, and to demonstrate it he chose a play so complicated that it was almost impossible for human theatrical companies to put on. Nauplius is a classic Greek tale of tragedy and bloody revenge set just after the Trojan War and centers on King Nauplius, whose son has been stoned to death by Ajax after being falsely accused of treason. Nauplius wants revenge and calls on the goddess Athena to help.

Hero takes up the story:

At the beginning the curtains open, then in the picture there appear twelve figures . . . who are repairing the ship and moving it forward to be launched into the sea. These figures move themselves busily: one is sawing, the others are hammering, while yet others work with drills. And there is a great noise, as of the sound of actual working.

Hero of Alexandria, On Automata

The curtains then close and open again on another ship being launched. The scene then changes again and now there is a seascape with the one ship following the next. For some extra color Hero adds, “Often dolphins swim along with them, which quickly dive into the sea, then become visible, just as they really do. Then the sea becomes stormy” (Hero of Alexandria, On Automata).

When the curtains open again the ships have gone and we see old King Nauplius, standing next to Athena, who is holding a burning torch. The curtains then close again and open one final time, where Hero tells us

there appears the shipwreck of Ajax’s boat, and Ajax swimming. A machine raises Athena above the stage out of view; thunder crashes, and a bolt of lightning falls directly from above the stage onto Ajax, who is made to disappear. And in this way the story comes to its conclusion.

Hero of Alexandria, On Automata

To automate this entire play was a task of breathtaking ambition, but Hero went on to describe exactly how it could be done. The central power for all movements came as before from a hopper into which sand poured, the weight of sand pulling on a rope tied around a drum. As the rope was pulled down, the drum turned, providing the power. But rather than just having the drum slowly unwind in one direction, Hero “programmed” it by placing pegs on the drum’s surface; thus the rope could be wound around in one direction until it reached a peg, then looped around the peg to run in the other, making the drum reverse. With the pegs placed correctly, the drum could be made to perform a complex series of turns and reverses, each one timed to provide the power for one of the scenes. So when his automatic theater opened its curtains, its audience witnessed the closest thing to a modern movie anyone would see before the invention of the magic lantern in the seventeenth century.

Nor were Hero’s devices restricted to the temple and theater. For the novelty-loving Roman with enough money to spare, Hero also devised mechanical toys for the home. Parties were just as important a part of ancient life as they are today, and then, just as now, it was customary to bring with you something to drink to help break the ice. In Hero’s world, that something would probably be wine, and it presented a problem that has remained unchanged for centuries: As host, how do you make sure your guest doesn’t bring cheap wine and then just drink your expensive stuff? Or from the guest’s point of view, how do you make sure that other people don’t drink all the good stuff you were kind enough to bring, leaving you with the dregs? For any party thrower, these were real questions, and Hero had a mechanical answer for them in his Pneumatica:

A Vessel containing different Wines, any one of which may be liberated by placing a certain Weight in a Cup.

If several kinds of wine be poured into a vessel by its mouth, any one of them may be drawn out through the same pipe: so that, if several persons have poured in the several wines, each one may receive his own according to the proportion poured in by him.

Hero of Alexandria, Pneumatica, machine 32

This was in effect a more elaborate version of the holy water dispenser. Inside the wine jar were three compartments into which each of three guests poured his or her wine. These were all connected to a single outlet which was controlled by a valve. The valve had three open positions, one for each wine, and each weight would set it to one of these. When your guest poured his wine into the top, you handed him the weight that corresponded to the compartment he had filled. When he wanted a drink, he just placed his weight on the dispenser; that action set the valve to his position, and his own wine was then dispensed.

But while Hero’s inventions were mechanically ahead of their time, they represent something of a conundrum. Although his work undoubtedly was of practical use to temple priests and he also describes civic projects such as the construction of a fire engine, the vast majority of his work was simply of novelty value. For the Alexandrians of his day, Hero was not a mechanical genius but just another in a long line of toy makers, a gadgeteer. It was this attitude that would lead people to overlook perhaps his greatest invention, one that would eventually change the world forever.

Tucked away in his surviving notes lie his plans for an aeliopile. He describes this novelty toy as two copper tubes soldered to the top of a sealed metal container. These passed through two metal sleeves leading into each side of a copper sphere that could rotate between them. From the sphere emerged two outlets facing opposite each other. When water was boiled in the lower sealed compartment, steam would shoot out of the outlets, making the ball spin around, to the delight of the audience. And they should have been delighted and amazed. Spinning at around 1,500 rpm, this was the fastest man-made rotating object in the ancient world.

But it was much more than that. It was the first use of jet power. And more amazing still, it was, of course, a prototype steam engine. Had Hero combined this toy with the piston—something his fellow Alexandrian Ctesibius had invented some three hundred years before—he could have created a working steam engine; but tellingly, he didn’t.

To Hero, all these technologies, so similar to those which take pride of place in our modern society, were simply curiosities—the descendants of the first items collected by the museum to help lecturers explain natural philosophy. Of course, even if Hero couldn’t see the value of his toys, others could read about them. His extraordinary books continued to fill the shelves of the library: the Metrica on measurement of surfaces, the Stereometrica on measuring in 3-D, the Mechanica on how to move weights with the least effort, the Automata on how to build robots, the Pneumatica on devices worked by compressed air, the Dioptra on taking measurements at a distance, the Catoptrica on curved mirrors. Some of them made their way to Greece and Rome, but even there no one realized the potential of these ingenious devices.

There were fundamental problems with his aeliopile design that certainly didn’t help. The main problem with it was its efficiency, or lack thereof. To allow the ball to spin freely the joints had to be made quite loose, but if the joints were loose then a lot of the steam escaped through them. Then there was the problem of fuel. In the Roman world the boiler would have to be powered by wood, and that would have to be collected by someone—probably a slave. So if the useful energy gained from burning the wood to make the steam to turn the ball was less than the energy used by the slave to collect the wood, then the efficacy of the device would be lost and the slave might as well be told to do the work himself.

But it’s not just efficiency that worked against Hero’s steam engine. Those very slaves who would be needed to collect the fuel were themselves an obstacle to there ever being a Roman industrial revolution. The main use of steam engines during our industrial revolution was for producing cheap and readily available power. Hiring people to do jobs by hand was expensive, and it was sometimes difficult to get skilled people when you needed them. Steam engines could work day and night without rest, they were always available, and they were very strong.

The Romans already had a source of cheap and plentiful labor in the form of slaves, and the Ptolemaic administration was particularly well suited to their use. If machines had replaced slaves, where would the slaves have gone? What would they do? No one wanted another Spartacus. For an elite whose wealth was based on land, such a device simply wasn’t in their interests.

And so Hero’s greatest invention was condemned to be no more than a party novelty, just another description of a marvelous mechanical engine in a book in the vast Alexandrian library. The Romans had no real need for his work, so their interest in the contents of the world’s greatest library lay not in the abstractions of Plato and Aristotle or in Hero’s experimental physics. They were interested in the construction of siege engines and artillery, in the laying out of roads and cities, in harvesting the vast resources of their new conquests. The mechanical delights of wine dispensers and Antikythera mechanisms had their place, but a machine that undermined the whole base of their society—slavery—certainly did not.

Therefore, the complexion of the library and museum was changing. What had been very much a “Royal Society” of selected scholars paid for by the Ptolemaic state was becoming a teaching institution where young nobles might finish their education. More and more it became obsessed with gathering, collating, and revising information rather than speculating and creating new ideas. So the Roman era ushered in a period of decline in the study of pure philosophy and literature. Alexandria would never see another Archimedes or Apollonius; but something new was flowing into the spiritual void left by the seeming prosaism of Roman world domination.

What people on the streets of the city were now talking about was religion, emerging from the museum and combining in the streets with the more personal and powerfully held beliefs of those who now flocked here for education and enlightenment. A new age was dawning in which old religions would undergo radical reinterpretations and new cults would emerge which, in the crucible of Alexandria, would bring the ancient world to an end and set history on a new path.

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