Thursday, February 06, 2014

Greco-Roman Alexandria

I just finished reading The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern World by Justin Pollard  and Howard Reid. It deals with nearly 1000 years of Greco-Roman Alexandria in under 300 pages. It does so by dipping into the history at key points rather than trying for an exhaustive treatment. It focuses on intellectual history, hitting the political transitions lightly and dealing very little with economic history.

Alexandria is sited on the north coast of Egypt, in the relatively healthy climate found to the west of the Nile delta. It has a long island facing it, which was linked to the mainland by a causeway by the Greeks. The result was two large harbors, perhaps the best for many miles in either direction along the Mediterranean coast. Behind the mainland of Alexandria is a large lake which was linked to the Nile by a canal during the Greco-Roman control. Not only was the Nile navigable for many miles from the sea, but it was linked to the Red Sea by a canal dug by the ancient Egyptians, and thus offered a sea route to the east. Thus the port of Alexandria offered facilities for the shipment of the grain exports from Egypt, but an exceptional trading point for the Mediterranean and eastern civilizations.

Alexandria was a multicultural city. It drew Greeks from many of the Greek city states, and of course Egyptians. For many centuries there was a thriving Jewish quarter of the city, as Jews were entrusted by the Greek rulers with many of the duties in administering Egypt. One can only imagine that as a great trading port, traders from many countries would have visited the city, and indeed some trading posts would have been established. When Rome conquered Greece, Romans would have come to the city in numbers, and one must assume that western European and north African commerce would have been possible.

Great Actors

Alexandria was founded about 331 BC by Alexander the Great early in his campaign to conquer the east. Egypt's thousands of years old civilization had fallen under Persian rule a couple of hundred years earlier, and fell to Alexander early in his conquest of the Persian empire. (At least that is the story, but there was a town in place before Alexander arrived.)

After Alexander's death, his empire was divided among three of his generals. Ptolemy, who had been his boyhood friend, also apparently educated by Aristotle, as well as a key general in Alexander's army, took control of Egypt, making Alexandria his capital. He extended his empire's control north into Syria and west toward Carthage. Ptolemy I is portrayed as a man of great ability, who among other things created the Library of Alexandria.

The Ptolemaic empire which he established lasted a few hundred years. It is described in the book as having established an inventory of resources of the Nile basin, a coinage, a banking system, and a system of markets in which goods could be traded, as well as an efficient system of taxation. While the Ptolemies left the temples of Pharaonic Egypt in place (and even rebuilt and strengthened them), they also created a new religion combining aspects of Greek and Egyptian elements, that could be adopted by members of both cultures.

While the economic policies of the Ptolemies applied to the wealth of Egypt generated a substantial income, the empire also depended on increasingly expensive rituals and events, and built both state and religious edifices. These expenses were probably important in maintaining support for the monarchy, but the authors suggest that they ultimately surpassed the income of the state.

While the Ptolemies spoke Greek, they accepted the Egyptian custom of Pharaohs marrying their sisters, something anathema in Greek culture. The history of incest and intra-familial murders would make a tabloid editor blush, but the dynasty seems to have survived in until it was overwhelmed by Rome.

The book also dips into the well known story of Rome's take over of the empire from the Ptolemies. Julius Cesar, Cleopatra and Marc Anthony make their appearance, and Alexandria makes the transition. Again, Alexandria played a role in the Roman empire as a grainary and the sometime seat of government for a region that included Egypt and other nearby lands.

The Roman empire weakened.  Marcus Aurelius spends 175-76 in Alexandria, treating the city mildly after an unsuccessful Egyptian revolt. The Emperor Caracalla visited Alexandria and in 216 AD when rioting broke out devastated the city and massacred its young men.  The emperor Constantine I moved the empire's capitol to Constantinople in 324, perhaps reducing the autonomy of Alexandria and Egypt.  In AD 529 Justinian I forbids all "heathen learning" in Athens, and thereafter many move from Alexandria to Athens and later to Constantinople. In AD 616, the Persians briefly take control of Alexandria and Egypt, and Roman control is finally ended in 646, when Muslim troops under Amr capture the city and Egypt.

The Library

Ptolemy I created the Library of Alexandria, according to Pollard and Reid, in order to have all the references he would need to write his history of Alexander's campaigns. From that start, it grew making copies of books that passed through its port, and buying copies of books from foreign libraries. More than what we would think of as a library, it was a storehouse of written documents, a museum, a place in which knowledge was created, and a place in which intellectual leaders educated others. The library came to possess the largest collection of texts in the ancient world.

The authors describe the fire of 48 BC -- during Julius Cesar's invasion of Alexandria -- which destroyed some of the books of the library, it describes the gift by Marc Anthony of the 200,000 books of the Pergamum Library to Cleopatra, which presumably was added to the Library of Alexandria. The authors suggest that there were other fires, but that the history of the library is unknown; they believe the library was closed in the later days of Alexandria under pressure from Christian fanatics, although some of the books may have been moved to Constantinople, and others may have disappeared into private libraries. (They do not mention that the Arabs too gathered the learning from west and east and created an Islamic Golden Age beginning in the 8th century -- that some of the books from Alexandria might well have made their way into that Muslim intellectual community.)

The Intellectuals

Greco-Roman Alexandria was a place of intellectual ferment, bringing forth some of the great thinkers and great books of western civilization. The book discusses the Antikythera, a brass instrument found a century ago in an ancient ship wreck that was created to predict the path of the sun, moon, five visible planets and stars, which clearly demonstrated great knowledge of astronomy and mechanics, and may well have been built with Alexandrian knowledge in the first century AD.

Indeed, Pollard and Reid have focused most on intellectual history in this book, with brief profiles of key figures and their work. Here are a few:

  • Demetrius of Phalerum, a student of Aristotle and ruler of Athens for a decade, who sought refuge in Alexandria after being deposed from office. He is credited with suggesting the expansion of the library's collection to include as many texts as could be acquired from the lands that Alexander has conquered, and to have identified the need to translate those texts into Greek. It is in this context that 72 experts in the Hebrew bible were invited to Alexandria to produce a definitive version of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the bible). The Septuagint which emerged from their work is still a fundamental version of the bible for scholars.
  • Strato of Lampsacus, a student of the Lyceum in Athens who became the tutor for young Ptolemy II. Known as "the Physicist", he held that the world could be explained by natural processes, a philosophy that influenced his students. A polymath, he wrote many books.
  • Euclid, whose geometry is still the basis for classes in today's schools, can be seen as inventing formal logical proof, by which a large number of valid propositions can be proven to follow from a small number of (self-evident) premises. His surviving writings include work on number theory and three dimensional geometry.
  • Galen, a medical expert whose influence over centuries is unequaled, completed his medical education in Alexandria, before going on to become physician to the Roman emperor. While Greece had not allowed dissection, Egypt had for millenniums dissected corpses as part of the mummification process, and had consequently developed scientific knowledge of anatomy. Building on this, and starting with Herophilus of Chalcedon and Erasistratus of Ceos, an Alexandrian tradition of anatomy and physiology developed, which eventually in the hands of Galen and others resulted in an understanding of pathology.
  • Theocritus, a poet who invented the form of the "pastoral idyll" (which has been influential to modern times) is mentioned, as are Sotades (known as "Sotades the Obscene" for the obscene subject matter of his poetry) and Lycophron (the only member of a group of tragic poets whose work has survived).
  • Eratosthenes, brought to Alexandria from the Athenian Academy to tutor the son of Ptolemy II. He is described as building on the work of Pythagoras (who learned from Egyptian astronomers long before Alexander was born) and Aristarchus (a student of Strato who proposed a heliocentric astronomical system). He was a polymath and prolific author, most of whose books have not survived, but is best known for mathematics and science. He invented the word "geography", recognized the spherical shape of the earth, accurately measured its circumference, and developed maps of the known world with with a system of longitude and latitude.
  • Archimedes, another polymath who lived and worked for some time in Egypt. He is perhaps best remembered today for finding a way to measure the density of irregular water by submerging them in water, for the Archimedes screw (which is still used to pump water in Egypt today) and the military weapons he created to help his home city, Syracuse, to fight the Roman invasion.
  • Hero, a mathematician and the greatest of Alexandria's mechanicians -- the people who used knowledge of fluid mechanics and simple machines to produce mechanisms that pleased and delighted the public. While Hero invented a steam engine (as a toy), it was the special effects he produced for temples and theaters that most impressed his fellow citizens.
  • Claudius Ptolemy, a polymath who lived in Alexandria during the Roman period; little is known about the details of his life, while his works have survived and remained influential for millenniums. He is most famous today for the Ptolemaic model of the sky which dominated thinking in Western Europe for more than 1000 years. His mathematical and astronomical treatise, The Algamest, is described as the second most important book from the ancients (second to Euclid's). His book on Alchemy was very important, and indeed was a critical source for Newton's efforts in Alchemy.
  • The last great polymath, philosopher, mathematician and teacher in the author's Alexandrian pantheon was a woman, Hypatia, who lived from 355 to about 415 AD. A Christian, she opened her school to people of varied philosophies and religions.
Site of the Serapeum, with Pompei's Piller -- Alexandria today

Religious Studies

As mentioned above, the Septuagint was produced in Alexandria early during the Ptolemaic period. So too, the cult of Serapis was created combining elements of preexisting Greek and Egyptian religion, and supported by the Ptolemies. Still the authors describe Ptolemaic Alexandria as having many cults in existence simultaneously.

In the Roman period, Christianity becomes important, and there is competition for influence and adherents among religious groups. Alexandria, in keeping with its historic role, provides intellectual leadership during the period.
  • Philo of Alexandria applies the methods of Greek philosophical analysis to Jewish religious texts and teachings.
  • Celcus produces a critique of Christianity proposing instead a Platonic paganism.
  • Origen began an important school of Christian philosophy and theology, producing an influential treatment of the trinity; his most famous work was a refutation of the critique made by Celcus.
  • Arius also produced a famous and influential treatment of the Trinity, one that triggered the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, where it was eventually declared a heresy.
As time passed religious strife overwhelmed Alexandria. The Jews were attacked and driven out. The Catholic Church became the state religion of the Roman empire. Coptic Christianity emerged from the controversies over Christian belief, as positions judged heretical were abolished in Egypt.

The Book

The authors provide a useful map of the city of Alexandria (undated, but probably in the Ptolemaic period), a list of the rulers and dynasties, and a timeline of events. It has a relatively clear organization by chapters, a decent index, and a reasonable list of sources.

The authors make an interesting choice of including quotations, usually from Greek or Roman authors, rather than the more normal footnotes usual in histories. The result may be a loss of the most recent interpretations of the facts, but an interesting view into the views of the events and actors in ancient times.

Pollard and Reid have had careers in television and films; they are not academic historians. I found the book benefited from the readability that they achieved; it had almost a scene by scene construction which was fun to read. But if you are looking for a profound academic treatment, this is not the book for you.

I came to the book having read a little Roman and Greek history, with an unexamined impression that these, together with Judeo-Christian materials, were the roots of western culture. The book was a useful reminder that Egypt was also an important source of western culture. It pointed out that Egypt had developed a high culture before Greece did so (although it might have done more to underline that fact, and that classical Greek culture owed much to Egypt).

The Golden Age of Islamic Culture began within a century of the Arab conquest of Egypt, and Islam further developed the Greco-Roman materials, combined them with Persian and India materials, and eventually the results were made available to Europe. Indeed, Egypt was a cultural hub for the Arab world during that Golden Age, as it is today.

Roman amphitheater in Alexandria as it is today.

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