CHAPTER FIVE

CITY OF THE MIND

The great pagan world of which Egypt and Greece were the last living terms . . . once had a vast and perhaps perfect science of its own, a science in terms of life. In our era this science crumbled into magic and charlatanry. But even wisdom crumbles.

D. H. Lawrence, Fantasia of the Unconscious

 
 
There had been nothing in the way Ptolemy came to power to suggest that he intended to behave differently from any of the kings of the ancient Mediterranean. He had gained his kingdom through battles, grave robbing, and murder, yet by the time of Aristotle’s death on March 7, 322 BC, word was already circulating that the great work starting in Egypt was not, unlike her neighbors’, simply directed at building armies and war machines. Instead, the focus was on creating something far more unusual: a vast body of knowledge. In an age when most of the great philosophers and poets frequently moved between cities and countries, looking for new patrons and avoiding the endless wars, here was a place of continuous protection and patronage, a place where the armories were being filled not just with weapons but with the tools of pure reason. And so the greatest minds of the day—indeed some of the greatest minds of all time—began to answer the call.

One of the first to send Ptolemy word of his support for the project was, perhaps not surprisingly, Theophrastus, Aristotle’s successor at the Lyceum. Theophrastus had been Aristotle’s close friend, both in Macedonia and later in Athens. Indeed, Aristotle had given him that name, meaning “divine speaker,” because of his graceful conversation; when he had first come to study philosophy he was simply Tyrtanius from Lesbos.

Theophrastus had also been a close friend of Aristotle’s nephew, the historian Callisthenes, and must have shared his master’s discomfort at his arbitrary and ultimately fatal treatment at the hands of Alexander. The depth of the friendship between the two scholars of the Lyceum can be seen from Aristotle’s will, in which he appointed Theophrastus as guardian to his children as well as confirmed him as his successor. And Theophrastus did not disappoint his old friend. At the Lyceum he became renowned as a brilliant polymath, and in a lifetime of scholarship he surveyed nearly every branch of knowledge, producing works which were still consulted well into the Middle Ages. Hailed as a “Father of Botany,” Theophrastus developed Aristotle’s empirical approach to the study of nature by means of observation, collection, and classification, making him perhaps history’s first true scientific researcher.

An example of his practical approach to problem solving comes in the story that he invented the “message in a bottle.” He had been considering the problem of where the water in the Mediterranean Sea came from and believed that it must flow into the basin from the Atlantic Ocean. To test this he sealed a message in a bottle, asking its discoverer to send news of where he or she had found it, and threw it into the sea to see where the currents would take it. We do not know if he ever received a reply, if his bottle was lost, or if it is still lying on some forgotten Mediterranean beach awaiting discovery.

At the Lyceum, Theophrastus had become a star, an international scientific celebrity, attracting students from all over the ancient world. At one time he is said to have had two thousand pupils. During his thirty-five-year tenure there he became so popular with the Athenians that when the old charge of impiety was brought against him he, unlike Socrates and Aristotle before him, simply brushed it off and continued teaching. Besides his great works on botany, Theophrastus also wrote treatises with titles like On Fire, On Sweat, On Swooning, On the Difference of the Voices of Similar Animals, and On Signs of Weather. His book On Stones is the oldest known work on geology. When he died he was granted a public funeral, and Diogenes Laertius tells us that “the whole population of Athens, honouring him greatly, followed him to the grave” (Diogenes Laertius, Life of Theophrastus, chapter 11, in The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers).

No doubt remembering the privilege of his own education from Aristotle, Ptolemy was quick to invite Theophrastus to become tutor to his own son (also called Ptolemy)—not that that was the only attraction to having the philosopher in the city. For Theophrastus was not simply the inheritor of Aristotle’s philosophical legacy. In his will Aristotle left all his personal library—his collection of books by other authors, his own published works, and, critically, his unpublished lecture notes—to his friend.

But Ptolemy’s hopes of securing both Theophrastus and the collections of Aristotle were to be disappointed. Athens was still the home of the Lyceum, still the great hope of Greek philosophy, despite the terrible treatment many of her finest sons had received at the citizens’ own hands. So the news came back that the great philosopher and the library of Aristotle would not be moving to Alexandria. In his place Theophrastus sent the seeds of a new academy in the form of his most brilliant pupil, Strato of Lampsacus. If anyone could infuse the future Ptolemy II with a love of learning, it would be Strato. Another polymath whose interests spread to all areas of life, he wrote three books on

 
Kingly Power; three on Justice; three on the Gods; three on Beginnings; and one on each of the subjects of Happiness, Philosophy, Manly Courage, the Vacuum, Heaven, Spirit, Human Nature, the Generation of Animals, Mixtures, Sleep, Dreams, Sight, Perception, Pleasure, Colours, Diseases, Judgements, Powers, Metallic Works, Hunger, and Dimness of Sight, Lightness and Heaviness, Enthusiasm, Pain, Nourishment and Growth, Animals whose Existence is Doubted, Fabulous Animals, Causes, a Solution of Doubts, a preface to Topics; there are, also, treatises on Contingencies, on the Definition, on the More and Less, on Injustice, on Former and Later, on the Prior Genus, on Property, on the Future.

Diogenes Laertius, Life of Strato, chapter 4, in
The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers

 
Strato would be to Ptolemy II what Aristotle had been to Alexander, or at least that was his father’s hope. But just as Strato was stepping ashore in the Great Harbor to take up his position at court, another Athenian, albeit a refugee, and another friend of Theophrastus was also making his way toward Alexandria, and he would begin to formalize Ptolemy’s grand plan to make Alexandria the intellectual center of the world. Demetrius of Phalerum understood philosophy from both sides, having walked with Aristotle through the stoas of the Lyceum but also having ruled Athens and attempted to put those theories into practice. His arrival in Alexandria had been fortuitous for Ptolemy, giving him the opportunity to ally a well-known statesman and philosopher to his new cult of Serapis. We do not know if he came from Athens bearing copies of the books of Aristotle and the Peripatetic school. We do not know if he brought some of the strange objects from the museum that Alexander had ordered sent to his old tutor. But what he certainly brought with him was an idea. Demetrius knew that the fame of Athens was not its democracy, but its philosophers. He knew the center of a city, the center of a state, should be more than a palace, a parliament, or an armory. It should be a museum—literally the “place of the Muses,” goddesses of poetry, music, dance, and the liberal arts and sciences, where these subjects should be both taught and extended by observation and experiment, and all manner of knowledge contemplated. Here the greatest minds could come to have their great thoughts, where strange and wonderful things could be studied and considered, and where all the ideas of every thinker who had come before could be consulted in a single collection of books. This was the true key to being master of the world, and if Ptolemy sought greatness then he would have to create the greatest museum.

Ptolemy was inspired. He had probably already been collecting the books he required to write the great history of Alexander he was planning. He still possessed Alexander’s own campaign diary as well as the works of his other historians, including the unfortunate Callisthenes. Now Demetrius challenged him to supplement these with other works, any works, for everything might add some detail or throw light into some dark corner of the tale. Demetrius recommended that the king gather about him all the books about kingship he could muster, along with books on the geography of the lands they had crossed, on their ancient and recent history, and on the customs of the various peoples the Macedonians had encountered in their Asian campaigns.

Soon the shelves of the palace were filling with books (the term bibliotheka literally means “bookshelf ”), and by 300 BC they were overflowing.

So the area around the recently completed royal residence had become a building site again, this time for dormitories and assembly halls, laboratories, observatories, and zoological gardens. The city of the mind, like the dream of Alexander, was being turned from an idea into a physical reality. The huge wealth of Egypt, Ptolemy’s wealth, was being focused in a new direction. The museum and library of Alexandria, two of the greatest institutions the world would ever know, were under construction.

 
 
It was into this inspired chaos that one of the most famous names from all antiquity was about to step, a man whose personal life is all but lost to us but whose name is still known in just about every school and college across the world. We have little idea when Euclid of Alexandria was born, or when he died (the most educated guesses suggest he was born around 325 BC and died sometime about 265 BC); Alexandria was where he chose to work, and his impact on mathematics catapulted the city into the scientific stratosphere. For at least 750 years after his death, if you wanted to be anything in mathematics, you simply had to study the subject in Alexandria. His book the Elements remained a standard text on geometry well into the twentieth century, even providing the basis of some of the calculations that NASA needed to put a man on the moon. Even now the knotty problems Euclid set his Alexandrian students remain the bane of schoolchildren and the delight of mathematicians. It is also now reckoned that his Elements is the most translated, most published, and most studied book in existence after the Bible. Since its reintroduction into Europe in AD 1482, having been lost in the West for nearly the whole medieval period, at least a thousand different editions of the work have been published.

Our only glimpse of this extraordinary man comes from the writings of Proclus, a Greek philosopher and head of the Athenian Academy, writing around AD 450, some seven hundred years after his subject’s death. Therefore, even this scrap cannot be relied on for its accuracy; but in its recollection of one personal story it may perhaps hold an echo of the man himself. “They say that Ptolemy once asked him if there was a shorter way to study geometry than the Elements, to which he replied that there was no royal road to geometry” (Proclus, A Commentary on the First Book of Euclid’s “Elements”).

Given the near-complete absence of information on Euclid’s life, Proclus had to do some detective work to discover even this. He tells us that parts of the Elements are based on the work of his predecessors Eudoxus and Theaetatus and that Euclid was younger than Plato’s circle, but older than Eratosthenes, while the mention of Euclid’s name by Archimedes, who Proclus knew was writing during the reign of Ptolemy II, helped him to narrow down the date. Even this is debatable, however, as some scholars believe the mention by Archimedes was inserted into his works after his death. Indeed, other scholars have gone on to doubt the very existence of the man at all, arguing that his name was a cover for a team of mathematicians working in Alexandria who took the name from the philosopher Euclid of Megara, who had lived a century earlier.

However, the only evidence for this assertion is that there is some stylistic variation in different sections of his book. Given that correct academic procedure in those days consisted of gathering up your predecessors’ findings and working on from there, this provides a perfectly adequate explanation for the stylistic variation in the Elements. So, regardless of whether he was one man or many, the simple fact is that from the earliest days of Alexandria there emerged one of the most important books of all time produced by one (or more) of the first great minds of the city and who, under the name “Euclid,” would go down in history as perhaps the greatest mathematician of all time.

What, then, was this great work about? The obvious answer to the question is of course geometry, but that is far from a summary. The thirteen books of the Elements open with a series of definitions and five propositions. Some seem deceptively simple: The first is merely that it’s possible to draw a straight line between any two points. To the points and lines are added circles, and then the existence of other geometrical objects is deduced from these. Proposition 4 states that all right angles are equal. This may seem obvious, but underlying this bland statement is the assumption that space is homogeneous—a figure is independent of its position in space. In short, Euclid was defining space—the whole canvas of the mathematical universe on which geometry could then be inscribed.

The famous fifth proposition is concerned with parallel lines and states that only one line can be drawn through a point parallel to a given line. It was only when this postulate was dropped in the nineteenth century that non-Euclidean geometry could emerge.

Books 1 through 6 of the Elements explore planar geometry—triangles, parallels, circles, and the like. Books 7 through 9 deal with number theory; book 10 deals with “irrational numbers”; and finally books 11 through 13 deal with three-dimensional geometry, the last being concerned with the five regular polyhedra (multisided 3-D figures). This book was used extensively by Johannes Kepler as he struggled to unravel the workings of the solar system in the seventeenth century AD.

Like so many of his contemporaries, Euclid didn’t stop at mathematics. Other surviving books include the Elements of Music and his Optics, which is the first extant work on perspective. The intriguing Book of Fallacies has sadly not survived, but Proclus describes it:

 
Since many things seem to conform with the truth and to follow from scientific principles, but lead astray from the principles and deceive the more superficial, [ Euclid ] has handed down methods for the clear-sighted understanding of these matters also. . . . The treatise in which he gave this machinery to us is entitled Fallacies, enumerating in order the various kinds, exercising our intelligence in each case by theorems of all sorts, setting the true side by side with the false, and combining the refutation of the error with practical illustration.

Proclus, A Commentary on the First Book of Euclid’s “Elements”

 
Euclid was, according to Proclus, a Platonist, and it was this philosophy, the philosophy that would come most to represent Alexandrian thought, that drove the “Father of Mathematics” to devote his entire life to the exploration of those forms and ideas which Plato saw as underlying the untidy jumble of the observed world. Plato had himself said that “the knowledge of which geometry aims is the knowledge of the eternal” (Plato, Republic, book 12, chapter 52).

For Euclid, mathematics was not simply an abstract idea but a method for seeking out the harmonies of shape which revealed the sublime, even divine, forms of creation. In his Elements Euclid began to set down a method by which Plato’s world could be explored and in doing so set Alexandria on a journey of discovery far beyond anything taken by the ships which came and went each day through the Great Harbor.

Years before, it is said, Plato had a motto written above the door to the Academy: “Let no one ignorant of mathematics enter here.” Now Euclid was showing the reason why.

Euclid’s work remained pivotal to the development of the European intellectual tradition for at least two thousand years, and one of the reasons for its longevity was that it was coherent and substantially accurate. For the story of Alexandria this is of critical importance. Here, in the reign of the first Ptolemaic pharaoh, his protolibrary and museum were invested with a completely trustworthy compilation of a major science which generations of succeeding scholars could call upon, not just for academic study but as a means of enhancing their own work. Then as now scholars returned again and again to the shelves holding Euclid’s works to compute, test, and verify their own research, in fields ranging from physics to geography and astronomy. The Elements is, even today, an anchor of mathematics, first dropped over two millennia ago into a sea of ignorance from the ship of Alexandria.

 
 
Mathematics was not the only early love of Alexandrians, however. Another great area of exploration in these early days of the museum was medicine.

It was Alexandria’s geographical and cultural position that would make it so pivotal in the development of medicine. Here in Egypt, Greek scholars could draw upon a complex body of Egyptian traditions and practices regarding the preservation of the human body after death by mummification. Whereas in the classical world Greece, Rome, and the states of the Near East maintained strong taboos on the study of the dead, for thousands of years the Egyptians had done their best to preserve corpses through mummification, which, of course, required an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the human body and a high level of skill in dissection.

Mummification entailed the removal of the brain and all the soft organs of the body cavity except the heart (which was considered the center of intelligence and feeling) and was standard practice at the time of the Macedonian conquest. Now in Alexandria two young scientists, Herophilus of Chalcedon and Erasistratus of Ceos, seized upon this breach of normal mortuary taboo and began to explore the human body in minute detail, thus founding the great Alexandrian tradition of anatomy and physiology.

Though human dissection was still anathema to Greeks, here in Alexandria such things were hugely more open. Not only were the two physicians allowed to carry out their work (some say they were master and pupil, others that they headed rival schools), they were actively encouraged and even given live condemned prisoners to vivisect. The scene must have been disturbing and bloody, but it was taking them into another world, one that was secret and unknown. Guided by the mortuary technicians with their centuries of experience in mummifying the dead, these Greeks were now opening up the world of the living body, seeing for the first time into the machine that housed the soul, discovering by experiment its form and function.

Their progress was amazing. Casting aside the magical and mystical beliefs and superstitions of their predecessors, Herophilus first described the linked functions of the brain, spinal cord, and nervous system, rightly relocating the center of thought from the heart to the brain. He went on to distinguish correctly between motor and sensory neurons and to establish the link between the eye and the brain in the optic nerve. As well as making detailed observations of the physiology of the eye, he explored and described all the internal organs—heart, liver, pancreas, intestines, and reproductive organs. He was also the first to distinguish between veins and arteries, to show that blood rather than air flowed through these vessels, and to examine the valves of the heart in detail. This in turn led him to link the heart to the pulse and to use the latter diagnostically. Through his extensive (and public) dissections he established the heart as not the center of feeling but the center of the circulatory system, thereby anticipating William Harvey’s “discovery” of the circulation of the blood by nineteen hundred years.

Erasistratus refined Herophilus’s work, making minute observations of the bicuspid and tricuspid valves of the heart and establishing their one-way flow system. He then went on to consider the digestive, respiratory, and vascular systems and made a bold attempt to show how substances vital to our functioning were channeled around the body.

Perhaps more basic and important than the specific details of their work (all of Herophilus’s work is lost, but he is quoted at length by followers of his school) was that they were the first to establish a new concept of the causes of disease and illness. At a time when it was commonly held that sickness and ill fortune descended on mortals from the gods, as divine punishment, these Alexandrians insisted that illnesses had natural causes and should therefore be addressed by secular, scientific means. For them good health was the key to human happiness, and understanding the operation of the human machine was the key to achieving this.

Their methods are summed up by Celsus, a Roman physician and poet of the first century AD:

 
Moreover, as pains, and also various kinds of diseases, arise in the more internal parts, they hold that no one can apply remedies for these who is ignorant about the parts themselves; hence it becomes necessary to lay open the bodies of the dead and to scrutinize their viscera and intestines. They hold that Herophilus did this in the best way by far, when they laid open men whilst alive—criminals received out of prison from the king—and while these were still breathing, observed parts which beforehand nature had concealed, their position, colour, shape, size, arrangement, hardness, softness, smoothness, relation, processes and depressions of each, and whether any part is inserted into or is received into another.

A. Cornelius Celsus, Of Medicine

 
Already the scope of the museum and library of Alexandria were extending far beyond Demetrius’s exhortation to gather the materials for Ptolemy’s own book, but by now the desire to know more—to try to know everything—seems to have gripped them both. How these two men worked together in these early days, and what persuaded Ptolemy to extend the scope of his project from simply collecting personal research materials to making his city the center of the academic world, is something of a mystery. But there is one clue.

For once we appear, at least at first glance, to have remarkably detailed information on this dramatic and decisive period in the formation of the city and its schools, though as we shall see, not all is as it seems. To appreciate the context of the work we need to backtrack a little into Jewish history.

Persian rule in Egypt before the arrival of Alexander had been profoundly unpopular, but not every aspect of it had disappeared entirely under the rule of the Ptolemies. The Persians had relied heavily, and successfully, on large numbers of Jewish administrators to run Egypt on their behalf. Ptolemy I had continued this program during his early wars, bringing as many as one hundred thousand Jewish prisoners from Israel to Egypt (and Alexandria in particular). Many of these he treated very well, and they became an important element in his army and in the administration. Living and working in a Greek-speaking world (indeed, many may have come from the Greek-speaking world), some of these Jews had become very Hellenized, although no pressure seems to have been put upon them to change their religious customs and practices. Contact with the Jewish population only increased Ptolemy’s interest in further expanding his book collection, as Demetrius was encouraging him to look beyond the confines of Greek literature to the other great books of Egypt and the Near East, and large sums of money had been set aside for their acquisition. The problem of course was that most of these texts were not in Greek, but Syriac, Persian, Egyptian, and Hebrew, and this didn’t suit either the Greek masters of Alexandria or the increasingly Hellenized immigrants whose native tongue was slipping away, leaving them unable to read the literature and holy books of their native land. How Ptolemy I, Demetrius, and the immigrant population of Alexandria went about solving this problem survives in a document that claims to be by a Jewish scholar named Aristeas living during the reign of Ptolemy’s son. There is no trace of the supposed original of this account, but it is apparently faithfully reproduced in full by the early Greek church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (c. AD 260-339) in his Praeparatio Evangelica (Preparation for the Gospel), dating to approximately AD 314-318.

In it he tells the remarkable, indeed largely fabulous story of how one of the most important books in history came to be translated into Greek and from there spread across the world. Aristeas, the author, tells us that Demetrius was called before Ptolemy to give an account of the progress with collecting books for the library. Demetrius told the king that twenty thousand books had been collected so far and that he had set a target of increasing this to fifty thousand as quickly as possible. He then added, almost as an aside: “It has also been notified to me that the customs of the Jews are worthy of transcription and of a place in your library” (Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica, book 8, chapter 2).

The king was intrigued, as Demetrius no doubt knew he would be, and demanded to know more. Demetrius obliged and told him that the Hebrew books of law would be a valuable addition to the library, as the law they contained was divine and hence “very full of wisdom and sincerity.” There was, however, a problem, Demetrius told him:

 
An interpretation also is required; for in Judaea they use characters peculiar to themselves, just as the Egyptians use their own position of the letters, inasmuch as they have also a language of their own. And they are supposed to employ Syriac, but this is not so, for it is a different kind of language.

Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica, book 8, chapter 2

 
The king was certainly not going let a little problem like translation get in the way of his obtaining a copy of such a vital text, so Demetrius was given the job of not just finding but arranging for the translation of the Jewish holy books. In a memorandum to the king, also recorded by Aristeas, he then tells us how he intended to go about this:

 
TO THE GREAT KING FROM DEMETRIUS

In accordance with thy command, O king, that the books which were wanting to the completion of the library might be collected, and that the parts which had been damaged might be properly restored, I have very carefully given my attention to these matters and now present my report to thee. . . . If therefore it seems good, O king, there shall be a letter written to the High Priest in Jerusalem, to send elderly men who have lived the most honourable lives, and experienced in matters of their own Law, six from each tribe, in order that we may test the agreement by a large number, and after receiving the exact interpretation, we may give it a distinguished place, in a manner worthy both of the circumstances and of thy purpose. Good fortune be ever thine.

Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica, book 8, chapter 3

 
In short, Demetrius was suggesting gathering a group of the finest Hebrew scholars from Jerusalem to come to Alexandria, where each would produce his own translation, all of which could then be compared to produce one synthesized and corrected Greek version. Ptolemy duly wrote the letter to the high priest Eleazar in Jerusalem:

 
I have determined that your law shall be translated from the Hebrew tongue which is in use amongst you into the Greek language, that these books may be added to the other royal books in my library. It will be a kindness on your part and a regard for my zeal if you will select six elders from each of your tribes, men of noble life and skilled in your law and able to interpret it, that in questions of dispute we may be able to discover the verdict in which the majority agree, for the investigation is of the highest possible importance. I hope to win great renown by the accomplishment of this work.

Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica, book 8, chapter 4

 
So far this seems like a plausible, if extraordinary, hint at how Ptolemy and Demetrius worked together, but now the tale begins to take on a more mythical tone. Aristeas tells us that these seventy-two wise men did come to the city, and the king wept with joy at their arrival. For a week he put philosophical questions to them before ordering them taken to the island of Pharos. Here they were placed in seventy-two separate cells, and each was told to make his own translation of this great work—the first five books of the Bible (known as the Pentateuch). Being kept apart would ensure that no one scholar copied or consulted another, and so the work each produced would be entirely his own.

After exactly seventy-two days all of these scholars then emerged simultaneously with their Greek translations. Each one was identical. And so the legend of the creation of the awesomely authentic Septuagint, as it is still known, was born.

It seems almost incredible that we have the actual correspondence which would lead to translation of the first five books of the Bible into Greek, and alas, it is too good to be true. It is a wonderful story, but in it credibility is stretched to breaking point as we are asked to believe a literary miracle as hard fact. And this is not the only problem with the text—there is a problem with the mention of Demetrius in the first place.

Other reliable sources state clearly that Demetrius had indeed dedicated himself to establishing the library and museum for Ptolemy I, but he also recommended that a different son should succeed his father to the Egyptian throne. When Ptolemy II succeeded, he had Demetrius sent into exile in Upper Egypt—some claim he was even imprisoned there—where he died just a year later, possibly from the bite of an asp. Yet this correspondence purports to be between Demetrius and Ptolemy II. In his letter to the high priest Eleazar of Jerusalem, the king states quite clearly: “Whereas it happens that many Jews who were carried away from Jerusalem by the Persians in the time of their power, have been settled in our country, and many more have come with my father into Egypt as prisoners of war” (Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica, book 8, chapter 4).

Aristeas claims that Ptolemy I was writing to the high priest, but the letter was clearly from Ptolemy II. The authenticity of this correspondence must hence be seriously challenged by the apparent conflation of two Ptolemies into one. In fact the veracity of the “Letter of Aristeas” was questioned as early as the seventeenth century, where it was pretty conclusively shown to be the work of a much later Hellenistic Jew from Alexandria who wished to stress the authenticity of the Septuagint version of the Old Testament and its miraculous translation as described by Aristeas.

However, it does seem that the letter dates from between 200 and 90 BC and, despite its errors, may contain, at least in its less mythical passages, a memory of the zeal of those early years of collecting books in Alexandria. Certainly the version we have today has been wildly embroidered by later Christian writers such as Saint Augustine, Eusebius, and Irenaeus. But in summing up the putative dialogues of Demetrius and Ptolemy, Aristeas, whoever he was, was making a point that both men would have understood: that the mysteries of the world lie not, as Alexander thought, over the horizon in yet unconquered territories, but in the minds of his own subjects.

Ptolemy II, if not his father, did oversee the first translation of the first sections of the single most important book in the history of the world—the Bible—during the first half of the third century BC in Alexandria. In truth, what is far more extraordinary than Aristeas’s miraculous translation story is the fact that the religious books of the Jews were translated in the first place. However inaccurate Aristeas’s words are and whatever his real purpose in writing, the sentiment is entirely of the period. The Ptolemies wanted to know everything, not just their own history or their own religious texts, and in wanting to know what lay outside their world they were stepping into the unknown.

So in its first seventy years or so, Alexandria acted as host to the greatest mathematician in the world and published his finest work, a book destined to become the second most successful book of all time. It also saw the establishment of the ancient world’s most successful school of anatomy, physiology, and medicine, along with the finest library and museum to be found anywhere in the ancient world. And there its scholars began to undertake the enormous task of copying, editing, translating, and cataloging the entire compendium of written knowledge as it existed at that time, including the first translations of what would become the most published book the world has ever known: the Bible.

With the spirit of scientific inquiry firmly enshrined here, Alexandria’s scholars were set to push the boundaries of knowledge way beyond the limits recorded in all those ancient scrolls. And this was barely the beginning.

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