For good ye are and bad, and like to coins,
Some true, some light, but every one of you
Stamped with the image of the King.
Alfred Lord Tennyson, “The Holy Grail,” Idylls of the King
By 285 BC Ptolemy I felt that his work building his kingdom was coming to an end. To ensure a smooth dynastic transition, in that year he appointed his son Ptolemy II as joint ruler, charged with taking over the day-to-day affairs of state. It was time to concentrate on the project that had begun it all, his own firsthand account of the life and campaigns of Alexander the Great.
It’s a clear indicator of the intellectual tide of the times that Ptolemy I, one of the most powerful individuals in the world, chose to crown his achievements not by basking in luxury, but by writing a book. Sensing the enormous power which the foundation of the museum and library was engendering, Ptolemy formulated his swan song in writing his own version of the momentous events he had lived through. His book survived for centuries, and its eventual loss is one of the greatest literary tragedies of all time. Yet the very fact that he, a divine king, should dedicate his last years not to statecraft but to literature was a near-perfect sign of the times.
The nation he left in his son’s care was the strongest of any of those seized by the successors of Alexander. His attempts to stabilize the regional situation had involved not just fighting but subtle and effective diplomatic campaigns which saw many of his children married to neighboring, often rival heads of state. It was an extraordinary achievement and one which might have received more recognition both in his time and today if it had not been a life lived in the very long shadow of his old master. And yet it was a life that in many ways was far more successful. Alexander had no heirs, his empire was fragmented, his generals were alienated, his family was dead. Ptolemy had created a new state, a new dynasty, a new religion, a new form of government, and a miraculous new city. The terrible irony of his reign is that his own great work, in which he told the story of the conquest of the world through his own eyes, has not survived. In that we might have seen a more personal side to Ptolemy, and hence history might well have weighed the two men’s contributions differently.
Three years after appointing his son co-regent Ptolemy I died, aged eighty-four, and the fledgling dynasty faced its first crucial test. Following his father’s lead, Ptolemy II acted swiftly and decisively. He was crowned pharaoh of Egypt in the ancient capital of Memphis on January 7, 282 BC, without any real challenge; yet with the cold calculation that his family would become famous for, he promptly had two of his half brothers murdered, probably with the connivance of his sister and future wife, Arsinoe. In this way the prospect of sibling rivalry was nipped in the bud.
But if Ptolemy II was ruthless he was certainly not uncultured. His father had been keen to ensure that his son enjoyed an education as privileged as his own. So, like Alexander, he could claim to have had two fathers, one for his body—Ptolemy I—and one for his mind—Strato of Lampsacus. Just as Ptolemy I had seen the flaws in his old master’s reign, so his more educated son began to see the flaws in his father’s. Ptolemy I had enjoyed the wealth of Egypt and used it both to shore up his position militarily and to fund a revival in Greek learning, but the actual administration of Egypt had remained largely a mystery to him. The details of how Egypt operated economically were of little interest, provided that it operated smoothly. It had been left to others, mainly the Egyptian temples, actually to administer the collection and sale of the grain upon which his wealth was founded. So it was to the great good fortune of Alexandria and the forthcoming Ptolemaic dynasty that the second Ptolemy would turn out to be one of the greatest and most able administrators in the ancient world.
The young Ptolemy threw himself into the development of the Egyptian economy with gusto and in the process created the most sophisticated planned economy until the formation of the Soviet Union more than two thousand years later. The first step in this process, repeated several times in his reign, was to understand just what it was that he had inherited. To do this he ordered a comprehensive census of all his domains. Typically, a survey would cover all water sources, the position and irrigation potential of all land, the present state of cultivation, crops grown, and the extent of priestly and royal landholdings. Armed with what was, in effect, an ancient Domesday Book, Ptolemy and his ministers set to work.
Their first problem was trade. For centuries in Egypt there had been no true currency with which to buy and sell goods. Most markets operated on a barter-and-exchange system. For very large-scale transactions it was possible to pay in gold or other precious metals, but the idea of coinage was still relatively new. True monetary economies had emerged in the city-states of the Mediterranean beginning around 650 BC, probably first in Lydia, whose later king Croesus had made himself a byword for fabulous wealth. Ptolemy I had made some attempts to follow suit, issuing coins called staters just as Alexander had, but outside Alexandria these were as much demonstrations of royal power as they were useful coins. His son, however, now massively extended this scheme with the creation of a state-run banking system with local branches throughout the towns and villages of the country, all reporting back to the central bank in Alexandria. From these banks a coin-based currency was introduced, backed up by a system of written “bills of exchange”—promissory letters which could be exchanged for real money, or, as we would call them, banknotes. The entire rural economy was to be centered on these local branches, which provided the capital—seed grain and tools—that the farmers needed. They also provided massive state-aided infrastructural schemes such as the creation of a reservoir in the Southern Fayyum oasis which held 360 million cubic yards of water and irrigated 60 square miles of arable land. This was not pure largesse, however. Nearly all the grain produced by farmers was taken into the royal treasury in the form of tax. More land under cultivation meant more grain, and more grain meant more money in the Alexandrian coffers.
The driving force behind this economy was, of course, the immense quantity of grain produced in the Nile Valley. The annual flooding of the Nile, which ran through an almost rainless desert, made this the most productive agricultural land in the known world, where the sun always shone on the crops, but never dried their roots. Such valuable land was largely owned by the crown or the temples and leased to farmers, who were free men and women who often used slave labor to maintain their estates. Such estates produced a vast surplus, much of which the state took. Yet Ptolemy’s system also allowed for a degree of individual enterprise, as banks could handle private financial transactions, provide loans, and broker deals.
Whatever capital was left could be spent in the thriving open markets. Traditionally Egyptians had acquired the necessities of life they couldn’t produce for themselves by direct barter—effectively swapping a loaf for a pint of milk. The Greek immigrants, however, greatly encouraged the development of markets throughout the whole country. These were often held in the precincts of temples, and records exist of the temple taxes levied on the traders. In the town of Oxyrhynchus, for example, had you taken a stroll into the courtyard of the temple of Serapis on market day, a chaotic vista would have opened up as you passed through the first pylon. That day the peace of the temple would have been shattered by the cries of stallholders, all hoping to relieve you of some of the coins in your pocket. Here the local farmers and traders sold local vegetables, wood, olives, rushes, bread, fruit, wool yarn, and plaited garlands from wooden stands, each of which had been licensed (for a fee) by the temple. Among the crowd you might pick out the priests of Serapis, moving between the stalls, checking their goods and imposing the appropriate import duty on everything from olives, dates, cucumbers, squashes, beans, spices, and rock salt to pottery, green fodder, wood, and dung. The throng would also have attracted other traders offering more sophisticated wares, from the bulk grain dealers looking to turn a profit back in Alexandria, to the tailors, leather embroiderers, tinsmiths, butchers, and brothel keepers who always gravitated toward a crowd.
Even in this controlled economy there would be signs of real wealth. Though all land was nominally owned by either the state or the temples, Ptolemy reserved the right to present land to individuals, from which they could collect substantial revenues. These favors were usually accorded to courtiers like Apollonius, Ptolemy II’s finance minister, who was granted 10,000 arourae (about 6,800 acres) of highly productive land in the Fayyum, giving him a huge income. Here then, dressed in his finery, was a man who could never walk through a market without attracting the attentions of merchants offering the finer things in life, from perfumes to precious stones.
Egypt’s agricultural surpluses were the driving force behind her international trade, whose volume rose enormously under Ptolemy II. But the state also maintained tight control of all of Egypt’s manufacturing industries, either through direct ownership or through highly regulated private enterprise—the nation had a world monopoly on the manufacture of papyrus paper, for example, and was not above manipulating the market. When rivalry between the great libraries in Alexandria and Pergamum reached a peak, Ptolemy II reportedly stopped the export of Egyptian paper in an attempt to stifle the academic work at Pergamum and attract its best scholars to Egypt. Legend has it that the scheme failed, as the ever resourceful scholars of Pergamum began experimenting with writing on fine animal skins, and in the process invented something even better than papyrus—parchment, which gets its name from the Latin word for the city, Pergaminus. It is a fitting though probably apocryphal story, as parchment scrolls from elsewhere are known to have existed before this time.
The center for this thriving economy was Alexandria, where all the grain surpluses and all the money from all the markets across Egypt eventually returned. The city was becoming famous as a home for far more than the necessities of life. Besides papyrus, oil, and linen production, Alexandria itself was becoming renowned for the production of books for export and for works of art. Her glassware, perfumes, and jewelry were especially sought after, as were her superb (Hellenistic) sculptures and mosaics. Even beyond the Necropic Gate in the City of the Dead, art was flourishing in a unique fusion of Greek and Egyptian traditions. Here the wealthy were choosing to be buried in that most Egyptian of ways, mummified, wrapped in elaborate bandages, and placed in a series of brilliantly painted sarcophagi. But there was a difference. Not for these Greco-Egyptian merchants the old formal mummy masks with their stiff features. These are faces full of life and character, individuals who wanted to be remembered as themselves and who now, over two millennia later, still smile out at us with wry amusement from the museum cases that have become their homes.
Nor did Ptolemy II have to depend solely on locally produced materials to fuel his economy. Alexandria was already a major shipbuilding center, and the pharaoh maintained fleets for commerce as well as defense in both the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, linking the two with a canal that ran via the Nile to Alexandria itself. Down that canal came exotic perfumes from Arabia and spices from India. Across the Mediterranean came timber, olive oil, and wine. From the upper Nile came gold, ivory, slaves, ebony, and a steady flow of exotic wildlife from the African interior. From caravan routes that stretched across the Western Desert came Saharan commodities, including valuable salt from the legendary mines of Mali. In Alexandria all these goods could be bought and sold. It was the entrepôt of the world, where leopard skins and the perfumes of Punt could be exchanged for Afghan lapis lazuli and Indian cinnamon, and where warehouses stood piled to their roofs with the fragrant cedarwood of Lebanon, and locked ebony boxes held fortunes in frankincense and myrrh.
Many of these riches were reserved exclusively for royal use. What then did Ptolemy II spend his massive wealth on? Naturally the humdrum expenses of the court, the museum and its state-sponsored scholars, the books and the ever-growing library, all ate into the royal purse. The maintenance of an enormous civil service was essential to administer and regulate the planned economy, but this still left the pharaoh with substantial surpluses, and these he spent on incredibly ostentatious displays and festivals.
For Ptolemy such festivals were more than simply an opportunity to spend money, however. Although he was an Egyptian ruler—a pharaoh—he was also a Greek king—a basileus—and from a Greek perspective a basileus must demonstrate his power and success through lavish displays which often bordered on megalomania. And in Egypt there were the appetite and the money to take this to new extremes.
When Ptolemy II became king he celebrated his accession with an enormous festival in Alexandria. In instituting the “Ptolemaieia,” in honor of his family and in particular his father, Ptolemy II devised an enormously elaborate pageant, deliberately designed to rival the other great four-yearly event in the Mediterranean world, the Olympic Games. An observer named Callixeinus of Rhodes made a detailed account of the procession.
Some 485 years later, the writer Athenaeus of Naucratis produced a book called The Learned Banquet, probably for his patron, a Roman called Larensis. The book describes a party lasting several days, during which the guests discussed law, medicine, literature, and philosophy with Larensis. During this time the guests remembered other famous celebrations from the past, quoting from some 1,250 authors. This is the real value of the work, a gold mine of quotations from plays and books most of which are now lost, and among them is the description of Ptolemy’s procession.
The parade was a celebration of the Greek god Dionysus, whom the Ptolemies had elegantly associated with their new Egyptian deity, Serapis. At its center came “a four-wheeled wagon fourteen cubits [twenty-one feet] high and eight cubits [twelve feet] wide[;] it was drawn by one hundred and eighty men. On it was the image of Dionysus—ten cubits [fifteen feet] high” (Athenaeus of Naucratis, Deipnosophists, or The Learned Banquet, book 5).
If the sheer scale of this statue were not impressive enough, it also appeared to the crowd to be magical, moving of its own accord:
He was pouring libations from a golden goblet and had a purple tunic reaching to his feet. . . . In front of him lay a Lacedaemonian goblet of gold holding fifteen measures of wine, and a golden tripod, in which was a golden incense burner, and two golden bowls full of cassia and saffron, and a shade covered it round adorned with ivy and vine leaves and all other kinds of greenery.
Athenaeus of Naucratis, Deipnosophists,
or The Learned Banquet, book 5
More wagons laden with gilded bowls and tripods followed, along with a display from the royal menagerie consisting of twenty-four chariots drawn by four elephants each, twelve chariots drawn by antelopes, fifteen by buffaloes, eight by pairs of ostriches, eight by zebras, and twenty-four by lions. There was also one final scene of conspicuous consumption. A wagon forty feet long and fifteen feet wide trundled down the granite road drawn by six hundred men:
On this wagon was a sack, holding three thousand measures of wine and consisting of leopards’ skins sewn together. This sack allowed its liquor to escape, and it gradually flowed over the whole road. . . . The cost of this great occasion was 2,239 talents and 50 minae.
Athenaeus of Naucratis, Deipnosophists,
or The Learned Banquet, book 5
At the time of the above translation in 1998 that quantity of gold would have cost the modern equivalent of roughly $35 million—a sizable amount to spend on a single parade.
These parades also carried political messages—in this case Ptolemaic solidarity with the Grecian city-states of the Corinthian League—and were deliberately designed to impress the local diplomatic corps as well as visiting delegations with the raw wealth and power of the new rulers of Egypt. In all this they were highly successful, and Ptolemy II, with his immaculately harnessed economic machine, could well afford them. He seems not to have recognized, however, that such ostentatious displays have a certain addictive quality—once you’ve done a few, everybody expects the delightful new tradition to continue indefinitely, with disastrous consequences for later, less financially adroit Ptolemies and their decadent, pleasure-addicted courts.
A further pull on the royal purse strings came from the priests and temples of the Egyptian state religion. The Egyptians in Ptolemy’s kingdom did not require him simply to put on impressive shows, however much they may have enjoyed them. For them their ruler had a far more spiritual role, mediating between the gods and men. A pharaoh had to perform the vital religious rituals which ensured that maat—harmony or stability—remained in Egypt, so one of his greatest financial obligations was toward the temples.
But maintaining buildings was never enough for true Egyptian pharaohs. Egypt was a country defined by its monumental buildings, where kings had turned whole cliff faces into statues, where the Great Pyramid still remained far and away the largest and to many the most mysterious structure on earth. If the Ptolemies wanted to rule this country in a way that inspired Egyptians and overawed Greeks, they would have to build temples.
Building temples was also about building bridges. The introduction of the Serapis cult had ushered in a small reformation in Egyptian religion, which must have left many temple priests on edge. The government’s shift from Memphis to Alexandria must also have rankled. But like Alexander before them, both Ptolemy I and his son knew that their positions ultimately depended on retaining harmonious relations with the Egyptian priesthood, as the priests influenced the will of the people. Temple building eased this pressure by investing state funds in the priestly caste and by reminding the guardians of Egyptian religion that their new Greek masters respected and needed them.
Little wonder then that all the Ptolemies were powerful supporters of religious institutions, right through to the great Cleopatra VII, whose image, along with that of her son by Julius Caesar, appears carved in bas-relief on one of the pylons of the temple of Hathor at Dendera. In fact, their programs of temple building and restoration were so extensive throughout Egypt that most of the buildings which tourists visit today and assume to be of “ancient” Egypt were either built or restored under the Ptolemies. When walking through the almost perfectly preserved first pylon of the temple of Horus at Edfu, we are not walking into the world of Rameses and Tutankhamen, but into a creation of Ptolemy II’s son. The temple of Isis at Philae, so spectacularly saved by UNESCO from the rising waters of Lake Nasser, stands on remains from more ancient times but is itself a work of the later Ptolemies and was decorated in the time of Roman rule. The temples at Esna and Kom Ombo likewise were not even thought of when Ptolemy II paraded through the streets of Alexandria. Although these buildings have become our image of ancient Egypt, they are themselves just a dream—imaginings by Greek rulers of what were already the long-lost days of the pyramid builders.
But if the new temples springing up across Egypt in Ptolemy II’s reign were simply harking back to older times, they were certainly not without value to their native audience. In preserving and developing their religious patronage, these places also kept indigenous art traditions and scholarship alive. All over Egypt today you can see pharaohs and their queens, carved in traditional stances, wearing traditional Egyptian clothing and jewelry, brandishing traditional weapons and adornments and “smiting the enemy” in entirely traditional manners. They might in fact be images of Greek-speaking Macedonians, but to the ultraconservative Egyptians they were good enough, reminding them of their illustrious past and offering the tantalizing possibility that those days had now returned.
This extensive investment in Egyptian culture had other benefits beyond simply keeping the priesthood and peasantry happy. Under Ptolemaic patronage Egyptian intellectual life flourished. Not just the spoken word but both hieroglyphic and demotic writing blossomed, while the need for translation gave rise to perhaps the most important surviving object from ancient Egypt, the Rosetta stone, whose parallel texts in hieroglyphics, demotic (another, more cursive, Egyptian script), and Greek provided the key to the decoding of the hieroglyphs. And with new styles of writing came new subject matters, including a new Egyptian literary style of romantic tales told in story cycles and featuring the gods, royalty, magic, romance, and the mighty deeds of their warrior heroes.
Even in this halcyon period there was a much darker undercurrent flowing through the Ptolemaic family arteries. The rule of the Ptolemies, like those in the other successor states to Alexander’s empire, was a family affair, and within that tortuously intermarried and interbred family deadly rivalries were already brewing.
Around 300 BC Ptolemy I had arranged for his sixteen-year-old daughter Arsinoe to marry King Lysimachos of Thrace, who had also been in the entourage of Alexander the Great; a clever tactical move, as, after 285 BC, Lysimachos also became king of Macedonia. Now the Ptolemies could hold out the prospect of inheriting Alexander’s original patrimony, for if Lysimachos and Arsinoe had a son, then Ptolemaic blood would run through the veins of the next ruler of Macedon. There was a problem, however. The king already had an heir, Agathocles, by a previous wife. So Arsinoe, with characteristic Ptolemaic ruthlessness, quickly set about arranging his death. But in the highly interrelated families of the Mediterranean, things were never so simple, and after his murder Agathocles’ widow fled the country and managed to raise a war against Lysimachos in which the king was eventually killed (281 BC).
It was a disaster for Arsinoe, and in the ensuing confusion, Lysimachos’s Thracian throne was seized by Arsinoe’s half brother, who demanded that she marry him. If on the surface this looked like another triumph for the Ptolemies, however, the truth was very different. The marriage to Arsinoe had nothing to do with family beyond gaining access to her children, who the usurper knew were the rightful heirs to Macedon and Thrace. But escaping the marriage proved impossible, and not long after the ceremony, her sons by Lysimachos were duly murdered. With no further need for her, she was expelled from the kingdom. Her half brother had only wanted her hand in marriage so he could kill her children.
This then was the brutalized and vengeful woman who a few months later arrived back at her brother Ptolemy II’s court in Alexandria, around 279 BC. Here she continued to intrigue, this time aiming her venom at the king’s wife, also confusingly called Arsinoe (I). Arsinoe I was, incidentally, the daughter of Lysimachos and thus theoretically Arsinoe II’s stepdaughter-in-law. She had soon arranged for the queen to be accused of plotting to kill the king, and Arsinoe I was sent into exile at Coptos in Upper Egypt. Here a memorial built by an Egyptian called Sennukhrud who was once her steward calls the fallen queen “the king’s wife, the grand, filling the palace with her beauties, giving repose to the heart of King Ptolemy.” But such titles were now just memories for her. Even her loyal steward couldn’t help but give away her true position in society when it came to writing her name, which he wrote without the royal cartouche surrounding it. She might still have called herself queen in far-off Coptos, but in Alexandria she was nothing.
This clinical excision cleared the way for Arsinoe II to take a step that would outrage Greek society but which, to the Greeks’ great surprise no doubt, ingratiated her with the native Egyptian population. Seeking a throne for the third time, she proposed marriage to Ptolemy, her full brother. Ptolemy now had to choose. Stay true to his Greek roots and shy away from what any Macedonian would certainly have considered incest, or take the opportunity to consolidate his power, free from the influence of alien wives or suitors, and make Ptolemaic rule an entirely family affair. Fortunately for both of them, they lived in a country with a two-thousand-year precedent for this. Egyptians not only approved of incestuous royal marriages, they preferred them. Royal incest fitted into their religious cosmology and had been widely practiced by pharaohs at the height of Egypt’s power. Though her motives were Greek, Arsinoe could not have made a more Egyptian move, so she took a throne for the third time as wife and queen to her brother, the couple taking the epithet “Philadelphus” (brother-loving).
On her death at the age of fifty-four, in July 270 BC, she was deified by her husband, but she bore him no children during their marriage, so Ptolemy had his children by Arsinoe I declared as children of his second, divine wife and heirs to the throne.
Reaction in the museum to the announcement of the two Ptolemies’ incestuous marriage must have been mixed. It was an idea that sat very uneasily in Greek minds, as did many aspects of this Greco-Egyptian rule. Yet clearly ruling in a manner that to Egyptians at least seemed correct was working, and most Greeks could be practical enough to turn a blind eye to something they might consider unsavory but could see was profitable. As such the museum trod carefully, its members rarely explicitly commenting on this alien custom.
Indeed, the interest of the museum’s scholars was by now, perhaps deliberately, drifting away from the bloody cut and thrust of politics toward the more uplifting arena of poetry. The leading intellectual figure at the time was Theocritus (c. 300-c. 260 BC), an extremely important and influential poet who was the originator of a new form of poetry known as the “pastoral idyll.” Greek poets preceding him were mostly interested in storytelling, in character and action, not in the intrinsic beauty of nature. Theocritus totally altered that by creating little pictures of rustic life cast in dramatic form. These could be very naïve:
Sweeter, shepherd, and more subtle is your song Than the tuneful splashing of that waterfall Among the rocks. If the Muses pick the ewe As their reward, you’ll win the hand-raised lamb; If they prefer the lamb, the ewe is yours.
Theocritus, Idylls 7
Theocritus’s idylls and bucolics were immensely influential, right through to the eighteenth century AD and beyond, forming the basis for works like Milton’s Lycidas, Shelley’s Adonais, and Matthew Arnold’s Thyrsis. He also wrote extensively about love, often taking up the quintessentially Greek theme of the love of an older man for a youth:
Art come, dear youth? Two nights and days away!
(Who burn with love, grow aged in a day.)
As much as apples sweet the damson crude Excel; the blooming spring, the winter rude;
In fleece the sheep her lamb, the maiden in sweetness
The thrice-wed dame; the fawn the calf in fleetness;
The nightingale in song all feathered kind—
So much thy longed-for presence cheers my mind.
To thee I hasten, as to shady beech,
The traveller, when from heaven’s reach The sun fierce blazes. May our love be strong,
To all hereafter times the theme of song!
Two men each other loved to that degree, That either friend did in the other see A dearer than himself. They loved of old Both golden natures in an age of gold.
Theocritus, Idylls 12
Whether Theocritus’s brief mention of the “thrice-wed dame” could possibly be an aspersion on Arsinoe II is unclear, but we do know that Theocritus was shrewd enough to write openly only in fulsome praise of the incestuous royal marriage, and cast it as the act of divine siblings like Isis and Osiris, which won him much praise and doubtless handsome rewards from his royal patrons.
Another court poet was not so prudent, however. Sotades was also in Alexandria at the time, but his was a very different reputation. Known as “Sotades the Obscene,” he is remembered for having invented his own meter for the obscene subject matter of his poetry. Sotades is sometimes credited with inventing the palindrome, where a phrase reads the same both forward and backward, and a Sotadic verse has the opposite meaning when read backward. Almost none of the work of this colorful character has survived, though both Plutarch and Athenaeus noted one line from the satirical poem he wrote about the royal marriage. They said it read: “You are pushing the peg into an unholy hole.” It did not amuse his royal patron. According to Plutarch, Ptolemy had Sotades the Obscene thrown into jail. According to Athenaeus, however, Sotades escaped from prison and fled, but he was eventually caught by Ptolemy’s admiral Patroclus on the island of Caunus. Patroclus did not bother returning him to his master for punishment but simply had him sealed up in a lead coffin and tossed into the sea.
A third scholar at the museum at the time was Lycophron. He was a tragedian and the only member whose name has survived from a group of seven (sometimes eight) tragic poets of the time known as the Pleiades. However, Ptolemy chose to give him the task of arranging and cataloging all the comedies in the library. This he dutifully did, and he subsequently produced a tract on the subject, On Comedy, which is now lost. In fact, only one of his works has survived, a poem in 1,474 iambic lines entitled Alexandra or Cassandra, which deals with the fortunes of Troy and the Trojan and Greek heroes after the war, ending, appropriately enough for his audience, with a reference to Alexander the Great. It is so riddled with bizarre, little-used words and words invented by Lycophron himself that even in his own lifetime he became known as “Lycophron the Obscure.” Being hard to understand can be a blessing in a violent and highly charged court, however, and Lycophron the Obscure lived to tell more of his enigmatic tales, which became immensely popular in court during the Byzantine period.
But even as his obsequious court poets sought to immortalize their sovereign in verse, Ptolemy II set his sights on more concrete edifices to his glorious reign. His three greatest Alexandrian commissions began with the rebuilding of the museum, which had expanded piecemeal under his father’s rule but had long since outgrown its original premises. In place of the old dormitories and assembly halls, he commissioned a magnificent range of buildings right alongside the royal palace on the waterfront, with expansive lecture theaters, the library and great assembly halls, observatories, and plant and animal collections. Finished in white marble and designed to harmonize with the royal palace, it must have been the envy of all the other princes of the time. At this complex’s heart stood the museum itself, where the greatest minds in the world could meet and talk and think and write, the first integrated scientific research complex in the world.
To provide fuel for their thoughts, there was the great library—a place where all the works of the ancient world could be stored and ordered, available to any of the scholars to consult, provided of course they had royal permission. Constructed on the waterfront in the royal district known as the Brucheum, it quite early on became known as the “mother library” whose “daughter” was to be found in the Serapeum. Linked to the museum by a white marble colonnade, the mother library contained at least ten large interconnecting rooms or halls, each dedicated to a specific area of learning, such as rhetoric, theater, poetry, astronomy, and mathematics. The walls of each hall were broken up by series of alcoves where the papyrus scrolls were stored. Off the main rooms were smaller ones where scholars could read, write, or discuss their work, and participate in special studies. It was to be a sanctuary for thought in a violent age, and carved over its entrance was a simple inscription: “A Sanatorium for the Mind.”
Ptolemy’s third great building project may also have been conceived in his father’s time but only came to fruition now. If the museum and library stand as testament to the father, it is perhaps this most practical of buildings that should stand as a tribute to the son—the great lighthouse on the island of Pharos. Ptolemy II would no doubt have also been delighted to find that it was this, rather than his father’s library or museum, that would go down in history as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and become Alexandria’s most illustrious icon.
The man credited with building the lighthouse (although we are not sure if he was the donor or the architect) was Sostratus the Cnidian, a famed architect and builder who is also credited with having constructed a “hanging garden” in his hometown of Cnidus in Caria and a clubhouse in Delphi where his fellow citizens could meet. The task Ptolemy now set him was to solve one of Alexandria’s most persistent problems. Built on an almost totally flat coastline, the harbor at Alexandria was hard to locate from vessels several miles out to sea. And there was a further danger. Those ships unwise enough to stray too close to the shore searching for the anchorage would find themselves in dangerous shoal waters, studded with reefs and sandbanks where all but the most skillful captain might founder. Even with the harbor in sight, the most dangerous reef lay hidden across the entrance itself. Those ships might find themselves wrecked on the shores of Pharos, where the notorious inhabitants of the Port of Pirates could easily pick them off.
There was thus a pressing need to construct some sort of navigational mark that sailors approaching the city could use as a guide, preferably both day and night. In short—a lighthouse. It seems likely that this solution had already been agreed to when Sostratus was summoned by Ptolemy, but aided by the mathematicians of the museum and works from the library, Sostratus was able to propose a structure on a scale that even a Ptolemy could not have expected.
The great lighthouse was to be constructed in granite and limestone blocks faced with white marble. Its total height would be at least 400 feet—that is, about the height of a modern forty-floor skyscraper. Erected on a solid base, it would have three levels. The first level would be square and would house all the workers needed to fuel and operate the great light. The second floor would be octagonal in shape, decorated with exquisite statuary, which stared out across sea and city and where the people of Alexandria might come to enjoy the breathtaking views. The third level would be circular and crowned with an enormous reflector, quite probably of parabolic shape (another first in scientific design) and made of polished brass. Finally atop this would stand a huge bronze statue of Poseidon, god of the sea, leaning on his trident.
The light was designed to operate both day and night. During the day it was simple enough to just reflect the rays of the sun out to sea, but at night something more was required. For this a circular shaft ran up the center of the entire building, which enclosed the spiral staircase that gave access to the higher floors. Up the middle of this could be winched the piles of resinous acacia and tamarisk wood that provided the fuel for a great bonfire whose light was reflected far out to sea each evening by the great mirror.
Though wildly exaggerated claims have been made for both the height of the lighthouse (1,500 feet!) and the visibility of the light (500 miles!) the consensus is that it was visible from about thirty miles out to sea. The location for the lighthouse was obvious, on the island whose name would come to stand for lighthouses everywhere—Pharos. Here it would be most conspicuous, not least to the wreckers and pirates who called the island home. Strabo, who saw the lighthouse in the late first century BC, gives us its location:
Pharos is an oblong island, very close to the mainland. The [eastern] extremity of the isle is a rock, which is washed all round by the sea and has upon it a tower constructed of white marble with many stories and bears the same name as the island. This was an offering by Sostratus of Cnidus, a friend of the king’s, for the safety of mariners, as the inscription says: for since the coast was harbourless and low on either side and also had reefs and shallows, those who were sailing from the open sea thither needed some lofty and conspicuous sign to enable them to direct their course aright to the entrance of the harbour.
Strabo, Geography, book 17, chapter 1
The building project took twelve years to complete and was said to have cost Ptolemy about eight hundred talents, approximately $3 million at today’s gold rates. A story, which may be apocryphal, attaches to its dedication. It’s said that when it came to placing a dedicatory inscription at its entrance, Sostratus knew he would have to dedicate it to Ptolemy and his wife, but was determined that he would not be forgotten himself. So he had his inscription engraved in the stone, then had it plastered over and the dedication to the Ptolemies etched into the plaster. In time, and hopefully long after Ptolemy’s death, the plaster would then eventually decay and fall away, revealing his words: “Sostratus, son of Dexiphanes the Cnidian, dedicated this to the Saviour Gods, on behalf of all those who sail the seas” (recorded in Lucian of Samosata, How to Write History).
Certainly this is the inscription that Strabo and other classical authors record as being carved into the lighthouse. Whether or not it was what Ptolemy saw at its dedication will forever remain unknown.
And Sostratus certainly built the lighthouse to last. Surviving several tsunamis and a devastating succession of earthquake swarms, it was still working when the Arabs took the city in AD 642, though about fifty years later the reflector was damaged by an earthquake. Around AD 1165 the Moorish traveler Yusuf Ibn al-Shaikh saw that the building was still in use and confirmed its construction in three levels, adding that the base was constructed of massive red granite blocks, joined with molten lead rather than mortar to strengthen it against the pounding waves. He also gives us a rare glimpse inside the building, describing how at that time the first section housed government offices and a military barracks together with stabling for at least three hundred horses. Above this in the octagonal section, refreshment stalls sold fruit and roasted meats to tourists who had climbed the tower to marvel at the statues that decorated the balconies. Above these a higher balcony gave visitors a panoramic view over the city and the sea beyond.
The third section had changed its use by al-Shaikh’s day. The cylindrical tower no longer contained the cresset for the beacon fire, but a small mosque now took its place. Perhaps above this, and crowning the whole structure, the colossal statue of Poseidon, god of the sea, leaning on his trident, still looked down on the tourists crowding around his feet.
However, by the time the fourteenth-century Arab voyager Ibn Battuta, on his way to China, reached Alexandria, the Pharos was in its death throes:
At length we reached Alexandria [on April 5, 1326]. . . . I went to see the lighthouse on this occasion and found one of its faces in ruins. It is a very high square building. . . . It is situated on a mound and lies three miles from the city on a long tongue of land which juts out into the sea from close by the city wall, so that the lighthouse cannot be reached by land except from the city. On my return to the city in 1349 I visited the lighthouse again and found that it had fallen into so ruinous a condition that it was not possible to enter it.
Ibn Battuta, Travels in Asia and Africa, p. 47
A sad end for such an extraordinary monument, yet for a building of forty stories’ height to survive for more than fifteen hundred years in an active seismic zone was little short of miraculous. And way back in those heady days when Ptolemy and Sostratus saw their colossal dream rising on the tiny barren island, they must surely have realized that now Alexandria truly was “the Light of the World.”