Alexandria, City of Reason

The Great Confluence

The soul takes nothing with
    her into the other world

but her education and culture.


ALEXANDRIA WAS THE MOST Greek of cities. Situated in the alluvial delta where the life-giving Nile meets the dolphin-torn Mediterranean, it had been commissioned by Alexander the Great as his very own civic apotheosis. And though the young world-beater did not live long enough to see even one of its buildings rise from the mud of the delta, his corpse was transported here—shunned by the obscurantist priests of Egyptian Memphis, who feared his restless spirit would bring them bad luck—and here did the body, at least, of Alexander find rest in the late fourth century B.C. within the massive mausoleum called to sōma, Greek for “the Body.”

The city that materialized around the tomb was almost impossibly grand. It had not grown like most cities as an unplanned thicket of huddled quartiers, dense with fetid air and insalubrious shadows. Rather, it was laid out in a reasonable pattern, not unlike such later cities as Paris and Washington, and it seemed to classical eyes to embody the principle of rationality. “The first thing one noticed on entering Alexandria by the Gate of the Sun,” exclaimed one tourist of late antiquity, “was the beauty of the city. A line of columns processed from one end of it to the other. Advancing along them, I came to the place that bears the name of Alexander, and there I could see the other half of the town [divided from the first half by the broad Canopic Way], which was equally beautiful. For just as the colonnades stretched out ahead of me, so did other colonnades now appear at right angles to them.” Grids, right angles, generously proportioned boulevards radiating from dignified monuments, punctuating colonnades at regular intervals—expansive, mathematical, open to the bright sun, and all assuring the ancient visitor that here at last he had reached the harbor of balance and tranquility, the architectural and social expression of Logos, of Thought Itself.

For the ancients, Alexandria, cultural successor to war-devastated Athens, became in the third century B.C. the great City of the Mind; and for all the untroubled urbanity of its polished surfaces, it buzzed noon and night with theory, disputation, and intellectual engagement. Its first ruler, Alexander’s companion-in-arms Ptolemy—Soter (or Savior), as he styled himself—had not particularly meant to create such a cerebral center. He meant only to consolidate and extend the power of his realm of Greek Africa, the rough third of Alexander’s empire that had fallen to him (just as Greek Asia and Greek Europe had fallen to others among Alexander’s generals). Ptolemy was of course hardly unaware of the status that accrued to him on account of his ownership of Alexander’s body, as sainted a relic as the ancient world possessed. (He had in fact kidnapped it during its funeral procession.) And he knew perfectly well how much his power would be enhanced by the creation of a great urban stage set.

Ptolemy Soter founded the Mouseion, parent of all subsequent museums, nerve center of philosophy, mathematics, literature, and a dozen other scholarly pursuits. Within its vast domain was the multilingual Library containing, it was said, all the books that had ever been written.a Among the varied enterprises housed in the Mouseion was a faculty of engineering that made possible the Pharos, the Lighthouse, which stood in the harbor on a limestone island and was one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It rose more than four hundred feet into the sky, and its ground floor alone was divided into three hundred separate workrooms and offices. “To the imagination of contemporaries,” wrote E. M. Forster, “the Pharos became Alexandria and Alexandria became the Pharos. Never, in the history of architecture, has a secular building been thus worshipped and taken on a spiritual life of its own. It beaconed to the imagination, not only to ships at sea, and long after its light was extinguished memories of it glowed in the minds of men.”

There is even tantalizing, if fragmentary, evidence that the Pharos may have been topped by a telescope. (If so, lenses were a Greek invention, lost well before the Pharos fell to ruin under the Arabs and rediscovered in the thirteenth century of our era.) The Ptolemys would rule safely and ruthlessly till Cleopatra VII, unable to secure the throne for Ptolemy XV, her son by Julius Caesar, died with an asp at her breast, her only way of avoiding the humiliation of submitting to Caesar’s conquering successor, Octavian, who would style himself Caesar Augustus and take the title Imperator, Rome’s first emperor.

Would that we could spend a little time with Cleopatra, a woman as unafraid to play power politics as the boldest of men. She was an exemplary Alexandrian, devoted to the pleasures of Eros, the Greek god of Love, whose lissome image stood in every verdant courtyard and was reflected in every glistening pool. (“Who sculpted Love and set him by the pool, / thinking with water such fire to cool?” went a popular song that had been penned in his spare moments by the head librarian.) Nor was this last queen of Greco-Egyptian Africa ever less than realistic about the things she must do to retain her throne. But she knew that in Octavian she was up against an opponent who, unlike the avuncular Julius Caesar or the besotted Mark Antony, would accord her no mercy, for he was, in Forster’s words, “one of the most odious of the world’s successful men.” Knowing exactly when all was lost, she departed as gracefully as she had reigned; and Egypt was absorbed into the Roman Empire.

Fascinating Cleopatra has little to do, however, with our story, a story of cultural evolution that will take us from one age to another. Indeed, the political dramas of the high and mighty made scant impact on Alexandria’s intellectual life, which proceeded uninterrupted under each of the many Ptolemys, then under each of the many Caesars. Scholars and sages were drawn to the city from all over the civilized world: first Greeks; then Greek-educated Romans; then provincial philosophers and mystagogues of several varieties—Persians, Indians, Jews, and last of all Christians. The imperial safety, the effortless wealth, the stately pace, the clarity of light, the geometric symmetry, the characteristic Greek ambience of inquiry all acted as correlative inspiration to their own enterprises: the labeling of reality and the calm, dispassionate ascent to truth.

About 300 B.C. a man named Euclid landed in the harbor, as if from nowhere, and became the founding father of Alexandrian (and world) geometry, without which the city could never have been built in the monumental manner for which it became famous. Euclid’s thirteen books of Elements would serve as the basis for all ancient building programs; and even though the books were lost to non-Arabic Europe till the twelfth century, thereafter Euclid’s proofs would sustain European geometry right through the nineteenth century. At the end of each neat proof, superlogical Euclid carefully added the Greek “hoper edei deixai” (which was to be proven). This tag, especially in its Latin abbreviation—Q.E.D., for quod erat demonstrandum—has ever after been the conventional conclusion to demonstrations of logical reasoning.

Euclid in his fussy orderliness, however, was the exact opposite of a celebrity personality, and because of this only a single anecdote has survived him. When one frustrated reader, Ptolemy Soter himself, high-handedly demanded a shortcut to understanding the difficult Elements, Euclid replied tersely that there is “no royal road to geometry.” And so the life of Alexandria continued on its parallel tracks, the one royal, the other intellectual.

Other Alexandrian scholars of the third century B.C. were hardly less enterprising than Euclid. The physician Erasistratus practiced vivisection certainly on animals, possibly on human criminals, and came close to discovering the circulation of the blood. Long before Freud, he recognized that nervous breakdowns usually had a sexual component. The geographer Eratosthenes, a younger contemporary of Euclid, was certain that the earth was round; and by measuring shadows at midsummer in various locations, he was able to calculate the circumference of the globe, coming within fifty miles of the actual figure. His Map of the World, though inexact, shows three continents and names everything from Ireland to Sri Lanka. His successor, Claudius Ptolemy (perhaps a relative of the royal family), is responsible for the “Ptolemaic theory” that the sun revolves around the earth, the theory that would be held as dogma by the medieval church and against which the great Galileo would come to grief. Another scientist, Aristarchus of Samos, who collaborated with Claudius Ptolemy at Alexandria, suggested that, just possibly, the earth might revolve around the sun. Unfortunately and accidentally, Aristarchus’s works perished, while Ptolemy’s survived and so came, in time, to be awarded quasi-scriptural authority, an honor attained in the Middle Ages by a fair number of surviving Greek treatises.

But however important scientists were to the look and pleasure of the city, general philosophers were the quintessential Alexandrian intellectuals. They were all of them children of Plato, the great philosopher who had taught at Athens in the early fourth centuryB.C., a lifelong bachelor who never engendered a child of his body but had philosophical children everywhere. Plato has made chapter-length appearances twice before in this seriesb because his influence on the Western world is unequaled. Here we must at least acknowledge his principal disciple, Plotinus of Alexandria, who lived in the third century A.D. and whose philosophy, dubbed “Neoplatonism,” was a guiding light to an immense variety of thinkers, both pagan and Christian.

Though Plotinus studied at Alexandria and moved to Rome in midlife, he was born in neither place. He would never tell anyone where he was born, and no one could ever discover it. He said that his birth, that is, the occasion of the descent of his immortal soul into his embarrassingly corruptible body, had been—like all human births—a moment of ineffable catastrophe and would not bear discussion.

Despite the high esteem in which Plotinus was held in the ancient world, much of what he had to say is hard to sit still for today. Like Plato and most of the later Greek philosophical tradition, Plotinus believed that all the Greek stories about the multiplicity of gods were no better than nursery tales. If the universe was to make sense, God must be (somehow) One. And Plotinus believed, along with Plato and many others, that we would all be better off without our bodies, which are made of matter, which is the principle of unintelligibility. The immortal soul, however, that spark of divinity imprisoned in the foul mud of materiality, yearns to shuffle off this mortal coil and fly back to the One.

Though many things may be posited of Plotinus, nittygrittyness is not one of them. He is more lofty, more abstract than Plato, just about as sublime as sublime can be—and his prose, unlike Plato’s, can be virtually impenetrable. Still, he’s clearly in the Platonic tradition. When we read in Plato those gorgeously sensuous passages that scorn the material world—“beauty tainted by human flesh and coloring and all that mortal rubbish”—we can easily identify the magisterial source of Plotinus’s antimaterial loftiness. Even though Plato’s belittling of the flesh is in tension with his love (and perhaps even craving) for fleshly realities, and even though such tension is bleakly absent from the writings of Plotinus, there can be no question that Plato is Plotinus’s intellectual father.

The Greek-sponsored philosophy of scorn for the flesh, articulated by Plato and further aerated by Plotinian sublimities, will leave indelible marks first on Jewish, then on Christian, attitudes. For both Jews and, later, Christians will come to live within the prevailing Greco-Roman cultural context; and it is virtually impossible for minority cultures to avoid absorbing and internalizing the principal values of the majority culture in which they move and breathe, whose language they speak and whose vocabulary becomes the currency of daily life. At the same time, it should be noted that the Greeks and the Romans (who took over the Greek philosophical inheritance more or less intact), though dismissive of the philosophical value of human flesh, reveled in the full panoply of its fleeting pleasures in ways that would remain markedly alien to the Judeo-Christian tradition. The statues of nude Eros that stood up everywhere in Alexandria and the lubricious lyrics about him were testimony to a god whose presence everyone took for granted. Sex, sex of all kinds, was everywhere. Give in. What, for heaven’s sake, would be the point of battling a god? You can’t win, so go where your desire takes you. Just bear in mind that—at the philosophical level—such rencontres have no Ultimate Significance.

The Jewish moral tradition, like its younger sibling, the Christian, could not easily embrace this strange dichotomy that gave centrality to Eros in art and song while trivializing its importance philosophically. For Jews and Christians, all human actions were consequential, brimming with moral implications. At the same time, many Jews of the last centuries B.C. found themselves exceedingly attracted to Greek culture and especially to the novel idea of the soul that had its origin in Plato and his predecessors.

The Jewish worldview, like other primeval worldviews, assumed that death was the end: when the body died, you died. Period. Both ancient Jews and ancient Greeks left room for a shadow world beneath the earth, where the insubstantial shades of what were once living men and women drifted like smoke. The Hebrews called this underworld Sheol, the Greeks Hades, but it was in essence the same place. Both cultures may have adapted their “Hell” from a similar shadow world that the even more ancient Mesopotamians had imagined; or it may simply be the normal way for early peoples to envision the shadowy existence of those who have been buried underground. What was important to the Jews was life, not death (which no one can do anything about, anyway). Live according to the laws of God, and you will live well and long.

What then of the martyr, the one whose life is artificially shortened by his devotion to God, the one who is, say, executed by a God-hating tyrant? Are death and the gloom of Sheol his only rewards? Surely not. Out of such concerns arose the later Jewish idea of bodily resurrection—one’s return “in the flesh” by an act of God at “the end of days”—which would become central to primitive Christianity.

But if we are to look forward to physical resurrection at the end of time, what may we say about the personal identity of the dead person in the meanwhile? If he cannot have utterly ceased to exist, where is he? It is here that the Plato-sponsored idea of the soul comes in so handy. “The souls of the just are in the hands of God,” concludes the Book of Wisdom, written by an Alexandrian Jew in the century before Christ, written not in Hebrew, the sacred language of the Jews, but in lively, contemporary Greek. This Book of Wisdom, which masqueraded under the title “The Wisdom of Solomon,” wrapped itself in the mantle of tradition, even though it was very much of its moment, the granddaddy of all spirituality books, a sort of “How to Love God and Still Be Cool by the Pool,” a book that shows you how to be faithful to Judaism while impressing your hip Greek neighbors with the right lingo.

The Jewish community at Alexandria, probably as old as the city itself, boasted the largest Jewish population in the ancient world. In the third century B.C., under the second Ptolemy—Ptolemy Philadelphus (or Loving Brother)—a historic assembly of Jewish scholars had been convened on Pharos Island. Their task was to make a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures for deposit in the great Library. Thus would the insights of this singular monotheistic religion begin to be shared with the whole world. Several legends would afterwards accrue to this unusual enterprise: there were seventy-two scholars who took seventy-two days to complete their translations; and each, working separately, came up with the exact same translation.

But however it was actually composed, the translation, called the Septuagint (or Seventy, after the approximate number of translators), turned into a best-selling sensation throughout the Greek-speaking world, not only among the many diaspora Jews who could no longer read Hebrew but even among gentiles in search of a more rigorous and satisfying spiritual way. Though few of the latter underwent circumcision or abided strictly by Judaism’s tedious dietary rules, they were welcomed to Jewish worship and study as “Godfearers” and “sons of Noah.” From their ranks many—probably most—of the first gentile Christians would be recruited. By the time Christianity appeared, editions of the Septuagint usually included the Book of Wisdom as well as a few other late compositions. This expanded version of the Septuagint, its books shuffled somewhat to coincide with Christian presuppositions, would then become known throughout the dawning medieval world as the “Old Testament.”c

Before we begin to consider the impact that Christianity made on the Greco-Roman mindset, there is one more instance of Greek-influenced Judaism we should have a look at, in many ways the most elegant and influential. Philo Judaeus (Philo the Jew) was born at Alexandria in the last decades of the first century B.C. and died toward the middle of the first century A.D. Unlike his elder contemporary, the anonymous author of the Book of Wisdom, Philo was no popularizer. His extant works—and we by no means possess everything he wrote—run to thirty-five volumes in their annotated French edition. And though he commented on many subjects in the course of his impressive literary career, his main thrust was to expound on the sacred texts of the Septuagint in such a way that their stories and assertions would be rendered immune from Greek ridicule.

For though there was throughout the late classical world much admiration for Judaism among both Greeks and Romans, Greek tongues were sharp, Greek logic was quick to seize on anomalies and contradictions, and Greek comedians delighted in parodying folkloric inanities and provincial narrow-mindedness. In not a few passages of the Septuagint, translated from exceedingly ancient (and foreign) texts into the sometimes clumsily Semitized prose of immigrant translators—what could sound like Molly Goldberg Greek to an educated ear—critics found considerable material for satire.

Philo’s main device for turning Greek ridicule to admiration was allegorical interpretation. The talking serpent of Eden, for instance, is not meant to be a snake, silly. Rather, as might be the case in one of Aesop’s fables, it is the evil principle of pleasure. (Were you really so unsophisticated as to misunderstand that?) Moreover, God’s curse upon this principle, claimed Philo,

is appropriate: “Earth shalt thou eat all the days of thy life” [Genesis 3:14]. For the food of the body brings pleasures of earth; and rightly so, it would seem. For there are two things of which we consist, soul and body. The body, of course, has been formed from the earth, but the soul belongs to the upper air, a shard detached from the Deity: “For God breathed into [Adam’s] face a breath of life and man became a living soul” [Genesis 2:7]. It accords with reason, therefore, that the body, made from earth, has food like unto itself, which earth provides, while the soul, partaking of ethereal being, has, rather, ethereal and divine food, for it is fed by knowledge in its various forms and not by the meat and drink that the body requires.

The “living soul” of Genesis 2:7 is a literal translation of psychē zōē, the Greek phrase employed in the Septuagint, which is the Hellenic-flavored version of Genesis that Philo is quoting. The words used in the original Hebrew, however, are nephesh hayyah,which mean only “living [that is, moving, breathing] being.” The Hebrews of the period in which Genesis was written down (perhaps ten centuries before Philo) had no notion of a soul—and Philo, so far as we can determine, had no Hebrew. So the Greek of the Septuagint enables Philo to stake out an implicit claim that the very earliest passages of Genesis, the first of the Five Books of the Law of Moses, already employ the lofty Platonic distinctions of body and soul. In Philo’s telling, Moses even becomes the teacher of Plato and of the entire Greek philosophical tradition! For Philo, no proof of this amazing connection was necessary, since the texts themselves reveal that such must be the case. The Greeks, having no way of critiquing this fanciful claim, tended to give it credence.

Thus, over the course of Philo’s many books, the Hebrew and Greek traditions shed light on one another and become, at last, inextricably intertwined. The extensive Greek vocabulary explicates difficult, sometimes previously inexplicable passages in the scriptures, clothing even barbarous incidents in refined Hellenic draperies. The Hebrew stories and the astonishing assertions of the God of Moses lend their memorable pithiness and rude strength to the airy speculations of the Greeks.

But Philo, prolix and rambling as he often is—a writer who never met a digression he didn’t love—is ultimately no compromiser. Greek philosophy is all well and good, but only insofar as it can be reconciled to Moses. The softening of biblical stories by means of allegorical interpretation should be taken just so far:

It is quite true that the Seventh Day is meant to teach the power of the Unoriginate and the nonaction of created beings. But let us not for this reason abrogate the laws laid down for its observance, and light fires or till the ground or carry loads or institute proceedings in court or act as jurors or demand restoration of deposits or recover loans, or do all the things we are permitted to do on [other] days.

The Sabbath of Moses is to be kept strictly, not allegorically. Circumcision, though it “does indeed portray the excision of pleasure and all passions, and the putting away of the impious conceit under which the mind imagined that it was able to beget by its own power,” is not to be merely symbolic; it requires the cutting of the foreskin. Otherwise, there is no genuine symbol, just empty waffling. Philo is no Jewish Unitarian; he is a deadly serious apologist for his ancient religion, one who understands the Greek context so well that he can use its language fluently and convincingly, while never leaving the central tenets of Judaism unprotected.

All the same, Philo adopts (and adapts) many Greek philosophical categories. God is indeed the One of which nothing may be known or said—except that he is, which is why he gave his name to Moses as ho on (He Who Is). By his Word (Logos, in Greek), as Genesis tells us, God created the world. Philo even calls the Logos a “second god” and God’s firstborn. And Philo perceives even a third level in God, the Powers by which he acts in the world. Philo’s Logos and Powers, therefore, play the role of mediators between the unknowable One and mankind.

If Philo, more than any other figure, found the means to reconcile Judaism and Hellenism, he was also—without knowing it—an extraordinary intellectual channel that linked Judaism, Hellenism, and the Christianity that was to come. For the somewhat sketchy Trinity of Persons that Philo discerned in the Hebrew Godhead will cascade into the future, not only influencing the thought of Plotinus but forming the theoretical framework for the Christian Trinity.d Philo’s writings seemed so alien to later Judaism that they had no impact on rabbinical thought and were lost to intellectual Judaism till well into the Renaissance. For Christians, however, Philo would become an honorary “father of the church.” In Byzantine copies of his works, he is often designated as “Bishop Philo,” even though there is no hint in any of his writings that he ever heard of the Palestinian offshoot of Judaism that would come to be called Christianity and that remained in his lifetime a hunted, marginal sect.

Though Philo lived only into the early first century A.D., we know more of him than of the mysterious Plotinus, who flourished two centuries later. Philo was born to an exceedingly wealthy Alexandrian family. His brother Alexander was probably chief customs officer for Egypt’s eastern border and guardian of the empress dowager’s Egyptian properties. Alexander even made a loan to the Jewish king Agrippa I and plated the gates of the Jerusalem Temple in silver and gold. Alexander’s son, who became an apostate from Judaism, served as procurator of Judea, then as imperial prefect of all Egypt, and finally—to his shame—as chief of staff to the emperor Titus during the Roman seige of A.D. 70 that leveled Jerusalem, the sacred city his father had so lovingly adorned.

Uncle Philo, however, always a protector of his fellow Jews, journeyed in old age to Rome in the year 40e to beg the then-emperor not to outlaw the Jews of Alexandria, who found themselves unable to join in emperor-worship. The emperor in that year was the vindictive, delusional Caligula, who believed himself a god. Plucky Philo was lucky to escape the confrontation with his life. But Caligula seems to have (at least briefly) entertained Philo’s argument—that the Jews of Alexandria were unswerving in loyalty to the emperor even if their religion forbade the worship of a, um, human being—because it was so deftly presented. In the end, however, the god-emperor could not accede to such a demotion of himself. And the pogrom, instigated against the Jews of Alexandria by Greeks who were jealous of the Jews’ soaring financial successes, raged on till Caligula was assassinated the following year. His imperial successor, Claudius, decreed a halt to the violence and affirmed the rights of the Alexandrian Jews, though they would never again find themselves on an equal footing with citizens of Greek ancestry.

In a world of competitive strivers, each of whom meant to excel all others, envy and Schadenfreude were the warp and woof of daily experience, and collective violence—one group determined to get rid of another—was a common occurrence in the life of Greco-Roman cities. The ancient Greek ideal of combative personal excellence, combined with more primeval urges to familial and tribal dominance, almost ensured the periodic eruption of urban riots and interethnic carnage—and this despite the fact that late classical philosophy stressed that the good life must be a life devoid of uncontrollable passion. Apatheia was the thing to strive for; and though the word turns into apathy in English, its original Greek meaning is “passionless balance, calm equipoise.” But, hey, not everybody was a philosopher.

The Greeks had gone through several stages in their approach to human emotion. In the ancient lore, the passions that overcome us, especially anger and lust, are gods that possess us and that we must submit to. But at least from the sixth century B.C.—from the time of Plato’s predecessor, Pythagoras—there was an alternative doctrine, taught by a minority of Greek sages who saw uncontrollable passion as an antisocial evil and insisted it was possible to overcome such passion by a strict regimen of life, which could be mastered by dedicated disciples. Such disciples gathered in communities under a revered teacher and practiced techniques of self-denial that enabled their will to control their emotions. To us, such quiet, introspective communities would have seemed rather like monasteries (and there is even some reason to think that the earliest of them, the Pythagorean conventicles of Sicily, may have been modeled on the practices of Indian religious movements, such as late Hinduism and early Buddhism, that invented the world’s first monasteries).

There can be no doubt, however, that the vast majority of men and women have never been particularly attracted to monasticism in any form. Pythagorean and Platonic communities, as well as the Stoic communities that developed later—about the time Jewish scholars were gathering at Alexandria to translate their holy books into Greek—were the object at times of awe but often of hostility from ordinary people who found spiritual asceticism alien or even unattractive. Most people knew in their bones that they, at any rate, would never gain control over their emotions and could only respect or resent those who claimed to be able to do so. The tranquil apathics, for their part, could be chilly and contemptuous toward ordinary people and their flotsam-and-jetsam lives.

Though we may view the self-denying practices of this minority through the lens of later monasticism, picturing the apathics as pagan monks and nuns, there is no way to view the generality of Greco-Roman sexual attitudes through any lens in our modern repertoire. For one thing, Death was so present to the ancients that his name resounded through their streets with numbing frequency. The average life span was twenty-five years, and only four men in a hundred—and far fewer women—lived to celebrate their fiftieth birthday. Infants and children expired like fireflies in the night. This was a society, in the words of Peter Brown, “more helplessly exposed to death than is even the most afflicted underdeveloped country in the modern world.” For the population to remain stable, let alone grow, each woman had to produce five children in the course of her short life; and since not all women would prove fertile or long-lived enough to do so, others had to make up the deficit in the death-defying task of population replacement.

Only when we take into account the constant presence of Death can we come to understand the uses of sex among the ancients. The Jewish obsession with generativity—God’s primeval command to Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply,” God’s promise to Abraham that his seed would be countless as the stars in the sky—finds many echoes in the classical world, where the principal role of an upstanding man was to engender children of his body and protect their lives insofar as he could, while the role of a woman was to bear those children and rear them to adulthood. But whereas the Jews developed a fairly straightforward morality of sex—men are obliged to marry and perpetuate the race, women to be obedient and faithful—the Greeks and Romans inhabited a society that came to permit somewhat more elastic options.

Ethnicity as such had none of the mystical meaning for Greeks and Romans that it had for Jews, enjoined to raise up God-fearing children for Israel. Obligation for Greeks and Romans was not to the nation but to the city. The free adult male, if he meant to be of any consequence, was required to exhibit in his stately carriage and resonant voice the natural sense of command, the graced aura of unquestioned authority that triggered knee-jerk submission from all lesser beings, whether lower-class males, women, children, horses, hounds, or slaves. In an age free from all media magic—the tricked-up images of television and advertising, the spin doctors controlling the way we perceive our leaders—a man was more likely to be who he seemed to be, the ensouled body that presented itself to our senses. His physical presence either exuded authority or did not. It was harder to hide behind Wizard of Oz manipulations.

By means of genuine leaders, human magnets who actually drew others to themselves by the visual and aural magic of corporeal attraction, the polis, the city, the impressive civic entity that the Greco-Roman world saw as its greatest achievement, could be saved from sundering and chaos. The city was not unlike the human body, fragile, tempted to excess, vulnerable to disease. Its unpredictable swings and irrational tides needed to be kept in check by a spiritual principle, a Logos of its own—the controlling male intelligence.

The human body, an iffy thing, easily undone, was yet the acme of the beauty of the cosmos. No wonder that a male on the cusp of full manhood was the loveliest thing in the universe, repeatedly portrayed in statuary and fresco, “the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals,” desirable by all, whether female or male (though completely possessable by none), whose hot blood beat against the walls of his body, seeking release, turning to white foam and spurting from his engorged penis—“a human Espresso machine,” as Brown calls him. The first spurt of the adolescent male was celebrated by his family at the Roman Feast of the Liberalia on March 17. It was, of course, but the first of many, for the achieved male body was a furnace of fire that required repeated release from inner pressure.

The female body, on the other hand, was visibly deficient. In her mother’s womb, the female had received insufficient heat, so she was softer, more liquid, underdone. Periodic menstruation proved that she was not fiery enough to burn up her excess liquids, which would nonetheless come in time to supply the nurturing wetland for the hot male seed that must be implanted within her. Were it not for this providential usefulness of her excess, we would have to conclude that she was simply a mutilated male, wroteGalen, the Greek physician of the second century whose pronouncements would exercise unparalleled influence over natural philosophy and medical practice well into modern times. (Because the treatises of Galen and other Greek physicians would come at last into the hands of medieval healers like Hildegard of Bingen and Roger Bacon, Greek is still the technical language of Western medicine.)

Galen was full of convictions. He knew only too well the differences between men and women. Why, hadn’t his own father been “the most just, the most devoted, and the kindest of men,” the model Greco-Roman paterfamilias? “Mother, however, was so very prone to anger that sometimes she bit her handmaids!” That Father’s gracious calm might have issued from his civic and domestic omnipotence, whereas Mother’s irascible outbursts might be laid at the door of her total powerlessness, would never have occurred to Galen, who was convinced (as were most of his readers ever after) that he knew just about all there was to know about Nature, whether physical or psychological.

Physicians like Galen counseled their patients to moderation (one could spurt too often), even to periodic celibacy (in the case of athletes who needed to bank their fires for the contest ahead), but never to a life of complete sexual renunciation.f Before a male took up the duties of full citizenship, he was allowed to discharge his excessive heat as he wished, so long as he didn’t, in Cicero’s words, “undermine [another citizen’s] household”—by adultery with the citizen’s wife. Once he became paterfamilias in his own right, his sexual affairs—usually with house slaves of either sex, whose bodies he owned—needed to be carried on discreetly. Condemnation of those who were openly and carelessly self-indulgent was a matter not of morals but of breeding. For to spend too much time tending to the needs of one’s body “in much exercise, in much eating, drinking, much evacuating the bowels, and much copulating” was, in the severe opinion of Epictetus the Stoic, who died a few years before Galen was born, “a mark of lack of refinement.”

Ancient Greek science and Greco-Roman philosophy, though replete with insights and discoveries that have served mankind, were partly dependent on the biases of their practitioners, as no doubt are science and philosophy in any age of the world. Ancientmedicine, in particular, depended on the observations of highly prejudiced, supremely privileged males, who alone were free to speak aloud and who wrote all the books—from high-minded marriage manuals (in which well-born wives were seen to be sufficiently educable by thoughtful husband-instructors as to be given eventual control over their households) to scurrilous pornography (in which low-born women were seen to be throwaway playthings). But the focus of attention was never a female of any sort but the urbane man of affairs, whose bounden duty was to orchestrate the pageant of his domestic life with such taut refinement and graceful superiority that he could be trusted to go on, according to Plutarch’s stuffy Maxims for Marriage, to “harmonize state, forum, and friends.”

Pleasure, seldom an articulated motive among ancient Jews, was of conscious importance to Greeks and Romans, for whom visual, gustatory, and tactile pleasures were both the lifetime work of many artisans—architects, artists, musicians, chefs, trainers, masseurs, and courtesans—and the subjects of extensive philosophical commentary. Hardly puritanical, Greco-Roman caution about sex concerned the possibly all-consuming tyranny of pleasure, not its extirpation. But when in the second century we reach the first Christian treatises on sex, we are shocked to hear a new tune altogether. Clement of Alexandria, urban gentleman, Christian convert, and Galen’s contemporary, concedes that the best pagans have had admirable goals: “The human ideal of continence—as set forth by the Greek philosophers, that is—teaches one to resist passion, so as not to become its slave, and to train the instincts in the pursuit of rational goals.” All well and good. But, adds Clement on behalf of his fellow Christians, “our ideal is not to feel desire at all.”

By Zeus, how’s that?

Like Philo, Clement is a religious apologist, setting forth arguments meant to convince readers of the superiority of his way over other courses of life. Just as Philo had borrowed concepts from pagan philosophy and interpretive techniques from pagan literary criticism, Clement borrows from pagan manuals of manners. Christians had been tarnished with every slander imaginable: they were cannibals (because of the Eucharist), practitioners of free love (because of their custom of embracing one another warmly), atheists (because of their refusal to sacrifice to the gods). Clement’s task is to show that Christians are even more refined and high-minded than the most exquisite pagan.

The compleat Christian’s manners are impeccable: he does not slobber over food nor “besmear [his] hands with the condiments,” nor is he ever “amazed and stupefied at what is presented,” however “vulgar” and extravagant the dishes may be, for he has already partaken of “the rich fare which is in the Word.” You can always recognize the true Christian by his admirable comportment: he eats and drinks but little and “commits no indecorum in the act of swallowing”; his burps are inaudible, his farts undetectable; he wouldn’t think of laughing—too coarse, altogether—but smiles his gentle smile. His chin is never greasy. If “attacked with sneezing” or with hiccups, the Christian does not “startle those near him with the explosion and so give proof of his bad breeding” but “quietly transmits” his sneeze or hiccup “with the expiration of the breath, the mouth being composed becomingly, and not gaping and yawning like the tragic masks.” “Snorting” is unthinkable. The Christian woman is no “ape smeared with white paint,” nor does she “season the flesh like a pernicious sauce” nor dye her hair yellow as if she were some Northern barbarian “nor stain her cheeks nor paint her eyes.”

“In a word, the Christian is characterized by composure, tranquility, calm, and peace,” writes Clement. In a word, my religion is classier than your religion—and the Christian alone fulfills the Greco-Roman ideal of the balanced, always-in-control public man, steadily reigning above all fitfulness. As a householder, he shrewdly oversees his extensive properties, knowing that Christ did not intend that he sell everything he has and give it to the poor, even if that’s what Jesus actually said in the gospels. (He was being metaphorical, of course. He meant only that one should not set one’s heart on the things of this world.) Naturally, the ideal Christian has done his duty by the city and engendered children of his body, but in old age he devotes himself as a wise church elder to higher things, having put away the passions—though he may be permitted just a cup or two more of wine in the evenings than would be appropriate for the hotblooded young.

Clement is easy to caricature and even to dislike—till we take notice of what he was fighting against. For impassioned movements were swirling around the Christian church that struck Clement as even more barbaric than a Greek lady dyeing her hair yellow. TheEncratites (or Retaining Ones or Those Who Do Not Spill Over) had given up sex altogether, believing that only in this way could they bring the world to an end and usher in the Second Coming of Christ. They were sweaty, ignorant, underbred, and intolerant and had brought their peculiar notions with them from the hinterlands of (God help us) Syria. But as convinced fundamentalists often do, they impressed simpleminded souls with their simple rules: give up sex, go to Heaven. Their way, if taken up wholesale by Christian communities, would, as Clement saw it, result only in Christianity’s extinction.

The Gnostics were at the other end of the spectrum, always whispering among themselves about secret knowledge available to the select few, teachings Jesus had passed on only to his most intimate associates that treated of the evil nature of creation and the evil hopelessness of the human body. Why, did you know, Jesus hadn’t even been human, just appeared to take on flesh, not unlike a Greek god? Christ the Logos, after all, could never have united himself to the, ugh, material world. The Gnostics, too, tended to favor total abstinence from sex, though rather less vociferously than the Encratites; at times it seemed as if they favored doing whatever you liked, so long as you didn’t get caught. Whatever the case—and it was difficult to know exactly what the heads-in-the-clouds Gnostics were talking about—neither Gnostics nor Encratites were interested in the wonders of the world as it was: the sun-dappled familial peace and richly embroidered civic life that were the protected pride of Greco-Roman civilization. Both groups would gladly look upon the collapse of the world that Clement loved, and it was as much against them both as against the slandering pagans that he took up his quill.




Alexander the great,

323 B.C.

Ptolemy Soter,

283 B.C.

Ptolemy Philadelphus,

246 B.C.

Cleopatra VII,

30 B.C.




early third century B.C.


mid-third century B.C.


c. 194 B.C.

Claudius Ptolemy,

c. 178 B.C.


A.D. 99




C. A.D. 45


C. A.D. 213


A.D. 254


A.D. 270


A.D. 336




A.D. 373


A.D. 444

In the eyes of Clement, who had been raised a Stoic and continued to teach characteristically stoical attitudes after his conversion, Christianity was available to save the best of Greco-Roman life and make it even better.g But his view was soon to become a minority one. His successor as head of Alexandria’s famed Catechetical School was an earnest scholar in his early thirties, Origen, a contemporary of Plotinus who, like him, believed in the eternal preexistence of the human soul but who wrote with a clarity and precision Plotinus could not touch. Origen, a theological prodigy, wiped the floor with the airheaded Gnostics. But the tenderhearted young man also believed that at the end of time even the most evil of beings—the bloodiest tyrants, Satan himself—would be redeemed, a position unacceptable to orthodoxy. Origen was, for all his clarity, an emotional extremist: at twenty, he had had himself surgically castrated, a fearful violence against the erotic self that could claim no place in Clement’s poky philosophy. Worse was to come.

In the year 313, less than a century after Clement’s time, Christianity was given protected legal status by the Emperor Constantine. Throughout the fourth century, increasingly bellicose theological controversy clanged along Alexandria’s splendid avenues. Arius, a priest of the city, proposed that Christ the Logos was like God but less than God. Athanasius, the implacably contentious patriarchal bishop, opposed Arianism with such vehemence that he was five times exiled from the city. Arius himself collapsed one day in an Alexandrian street and died of epilepsy. In the end, Athanasius was victorious, and his formula for describing Christ—homoousios patri (of the same substance as the Father)—became the enduring formula of orthodox Christianity.

Before the fourth century was out, Christian vigilantes attacked the Temple of Serapis, center of the city’s pagan cult, and in the process destroyed countless volumes of the great Library that were stored in the cloisters surrounding the buildings of the Temple. (Ah well, but the demonic Temple was destroyed, that was the main thing—and, anyway, most of the books weren’t worth reading, don’t you know.) In 415, a wild-eyed army of illiterate, black-cowled monks filled the streets of Alexandria like so many crazed bats, “human only in their faces.” In a sense, they were the prototype for all the mobs of religious fanatics that sweep through history. One of their number had already stoned the imperial prefect and been canonized for his deed by Cyril, Athanasius’s successor as holy patriarch.h Now they encountered Hypatia, a philosopher and mathematician, on her way home from lecturing at the Mouseion. She was a pagan teacher, an unescorted woman; she didnot bow to their beliefs. She lured impressionable young Christians to her lectures; she consorted with Jews; she had dared to speak against the patriarch. She practiced who-knows-what obscenities. They dragged her from her carriage and into the cathedral, where they stripped her, gouged her eyes out, skinned her alive, and tore her to pieces with jagged tiles ripped from the mosaics.

By this time, the Gnostics had been read out of the churches, some of Origen’s teachings had been condemned either as pagan philosophy or as Arian heresy, and the ancient ideal of the city as bastion of balanced reasonableness was long buried. But in the spectral, screeching monks, the Encratites had triumphed.

a The original Library, called the Mother, was much enlarged under Ptolemy Soter’s son and heir and was thereafter called the Daughter. The Library was burned three times, first in 47 B.C. by Julius Caesar (who accidentally set fire to some storerooms in the course of a battle), then deliberately and more extensively by a Christian mob toward the end of the fourth century of our era, and finally in A.D. 642 by the forces of Caliph Omar. At its greatest extent it may have contained considerably more than half a million separate texts—which astonishing abundance alone accounts for its legendary status throughout the ancient and early medieval world.

b Plato is an important subject in How the Irish Saved Civilization, Chapter II (“What Was Lost: The Complexities of the Classical Tradition”), and the chief subject of Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, Chapter V (“The Philosopher: How to Think”).

c These late compositions—principally Esther, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus (or Ben Sira), Baruch, Tobit, and three additions to Daniel that are extant only in Greek—have been accounted differently by different religious communities in the course of Judeo-Christian history. The church fathers of the fourth century A.D., who issued the first definitive “canon” of the Bible, regarded all of them as divinely inspired, as the Orthodox and Catholic churches continue to do. Later Jewish and Reformation traditions accept only Esther (in a shorter—and older—Hebrew version) and consider the other compositions “apocryphal.” The order of books within the Bible could not be fixed till after the invention of the codex (or bound book, as we still know it), since before that time writings were kept not in order within a single volume but in a cabinet of multiple scrolls. But even in the days of Jesus, centuries before the codex, “The Torah [or Law of Moses] and the Prophets” was the common phrase for referring to the Hebrew scriptures. What was neither Torah nor Prophets was included among the nondescript “Writings,” as the third (and last) division of the scriptures. These are the three divisions still maintained in order in Jewish Bibles. Christian Bibles, however, place the books that Jews count as the Latter Prophets at the end of the “Old Testament,” so that these may more easily be read as prophesying the coming of Jesus, whose story appears immediately afterwards at the beginning of the “New Testament.”

d The Trinity is commonly regarded among Christians as deriving exclusively from the inspired revelation of the New Testament, especially the “trinitarian” passages in John’s Gospel and, more sparingly, in Paul’s letters. But these few passages, though suggestive, cannot yield anything like a systematic theology of the inner life of God. The early Christian apologists needed to rely on Philo’s more elaborate philosophical scheme in order to begin to make coherent sense of the hints they found in the New Testament. Philo’s Logos and Powers undoubtedly owe much to the philosophy of the Stoics, but to explore this connection would take us far afield.

e Henceforth, the text will designate B.C. dates as such; A.D. dates will be left undesignated.

f Nor were women encouraged to a life of virginity, the exception being priestesses at important shrines, who tended to “have menstrual difficulties and grow fat and ill-proportioned” (according to Soranus, a Greek gynecologist, contemporary with Galen and like him active at Rome). But consecrated virgins were often released from their vows at some point. Rome’s Vestal Virgins, for instance, were allowed to marry after thirty years of duty, even if the record is blank as to how many of these lumbering lovelies attracted spouses. At any rate, though discovery of the loss of virginity in an on-duty Vestal was cause for her to be buried alive, none of these women had ever been consulted about whether she wished to be virginal. She was basically a kinder, gentler human sacrifice, her virginity an apotropaic relict of prehistoric propitiation of the gods.

g Stoic philosophy was attractive to both Jews and Christians because it tended toward monotheism and opposed images of the divine. Furthermore, it emphasized classless human kinship, the divine element in each person, and the importance of ethical behavior and even (to some extent) social justice. The philosophy of the Epicureans, whom the Stoics saw as enemies, was deplored by Jews and Christians for its denial of divine providence and exaltation of pleasure as “the beginning and end of living happily.” Though Epicureanism was subtler than its historical caricature, there’s no getting around the fact that Epicureans would have been useless as martyrs.

h Rigid, unrelenting, intolerant leaders of the Greek church like Athanasius and Cyril would one day serve as models for certain Muslim clerics, once Islam had ushered in the next wave of religion to the Greek East, known to us today as the Middle East.

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