Alexandria in the first decades of the third century
BC was the greatest city of the Mediterranean. It was a royal city,
residence of the Ptolemaic dynasty, which history had grafted onto the
timeless tree of the Pharaohs, and it was also a cosmopolitan city bringing
together adventurers, men of letters and science, merchants and travellers.
Alexandria was the heart of a complex administration whose particular
ambition was to amass all the trappings of wealth, the intellectual
heritage of the Greeks and other peoples, as well as the curios of the
natural world. All this was to be held and displayed in a town that
would reflect the entire world at the same time as the glory of the
dynasty. This book explores the varied elements, ideas and personalities
that transformed a new town on the western edge of the Nile Delta into
a metropolis of international importance and, ultimately, one of the
cornerstones of the modern world.
The Alexandria mirage
Christian Jacob & François de Polignac
The heir of the Delta
Christine Favard-Meeks & Dimitri Meeks
Though built on the margins of Egypt, Alexandria did not come as an
intruder into the Nile Delta. The city's foundation followed an economic
and political logic that had slowly developed over the course of centuries.
The Greek town was the direct heir of the last indigenous capitals.
2) THE CITY AS MICROCOSM
A new town in the eastern Mediterranean, the capital of the Ptolemies
carried the ambitions and sheltered the tomb of its founder, Alexander
the Great. It attracted intellectuals, men of letters, books, rare animals,
grey matter and precious stones. The city of kings and of the Muses
assembled the quintessence of a civilisation. The city as microcosm
reflected, above all, a grand project where politics and culture were
strictly linked: to make of Alexandria a place of memory, where the
Ptolemies symbolically affirmed the ecumenical dimension of their power.
The shadow of Alexander
François de Polignac
Was Alexandria promised a universal destiny from its very foundation?
Its inhabitants were happy to think so, but it was rather the legend
of Alexander that gave birth to the dream of an ecumenical metropolis
from the moment the deified conqueror was buried at the heart of the
The world in a scroll
Walls covered with shelves and thousands of carefully labelled papyrus
scrolls: such was the Library of Alexandria. To recapture this world
of knowledge, Luciano Canfora delves into the maze of ancient sources,
fragmentary evidence and scholarly memory. In this labyrinth of Alexandrian
learning the modern historian follows in the footsteps of Jorge Luis
Borges and Umberto Eco, the cartographers of imaginary libraries.
Alain Le Boulluec
With its universalist claims and geographic position, Alexandria could
not remain indifferent to the "alien wisdom" as Arnaldo Momigliano has
put it. Greek language and culture turned to the great philosophical
and religious texts of the now subject people. Aside from treatises
on magic and astrology supposedly adapted from Egyptian and Chaldaean
sources, the "Septuagint", Greek translation of the Torah, is the exemplar
of this openness to others and on it was founded the tradition of Alexandrian
3) BIRDS IN A CAGE
"In the populous land of Egypt many are they who get fed, cloistered
book worms, endlessly arguing in the bird cage of the Muses." This is
how the satirical poet Timon of Phlius sketched his contemporaries who
regularly held forth within the confines of the Museum and Library.
The cage of these chattering birds was a simple ivory tower like any
other where the protégés of the royal family could devote themselves
to matters of the mind, closeted away from real life.
But who were these walking encyclopædias, filled with curiosity, the
love of words and books, and the knowledge of the antiquarian or the
Demetrius of Phaleron: a philosopher in power?
Philosophers are rarely successful in politics. Demetrius, an enlightened
dictator, but pursued by the changing fortunes of the century, brought
with him from Athens to Alexandria the Aristotelian ambition for universal
knowledge which was to become real with the foundation of the Museum
and the Library.
Zenodotus: the editor of Homer
The towering accumulation of papyrus scrolls made the first librarian
a discriminating reader: correcting, removing dubious lines, bringing
together different manuscripts into one coherent text, such was the
work undertaken by Zenodotus, first editor of The Iliad and The Odyssey,
and founding father of the line of philologists who, from Alexandria
to our days, have endeavoured to make Homer readable.
Callimachus: a poet in the labyrinth
The life of Callimachus was a long journey through the maze of Alexandria's
Library and the hidden memory of Hellenism. An untiring collector of
all manner of curiosities, rare words, forgotten myths, he amused himself
with the infinite possibilities of erudite cataloguing as with the sport
of masterful and innovative poetry
Eratosthenes: intellectual athlete
The third Librarian was a poet, literary critic and, especially, scientist
and the only philosopher to hold the post in the third century BC. Eratosthenes
continued the tradition of Platonic mathematics and cosmology, redrew
the map of the "inhabited world" upon new principles and worked out
a universal chronology, from the Trojan War to the death of Alexander.
4) THE CITY AND THE COURT
Alexandria was the first Greek town to become the seat of a great,
centralised monarchy. Its dual nature as a traditional city and the
capital of a kingdom gave rise to a new type of town where power, no
longer springing from a community of citizens, had, at one and the same
time, to create the space for its exercise and establish new relations
with the population, manifesting its concern just as much as its authority.
Between the isolation, which the very essence of a monarchy renders
necessary, a concern for the international prestige of the dynasty and
the privileged treatment extended towards Greeks and Macedonians, there
was not much room for manoeuvre. The court and the palace, the festivals
and the monuments were the elements in a delicate balancing act that
Ptolemy II managed to realise and maintain, making of Alexandria the
centre of the new world.
The Alexandria of Strabo's 'Geography'
A singular city
François de Polignac
Ptolemy II Philadelphus
The consolidation of the dynasty, organisation of power and of the administration
of Egypt, the development of cultural and religious institutions: Ptolemy
II, who ruled from 285 to 246 BC, completed in all aspects the work
of his father and gave an unequalled brilliance to the monarchy and
The pomp of the Ptolemies
Displays of wealth, generosity and power, the festivals that Ptolemy
Philadelphus and Arsinoe established and patronised skilfully associated
the exaltation of royal virtues with the celebration of divine manifestations.
By bringing together an enthusiastic mass to fete the glory of the rulers,
they united the town with the dynasty and boosted the prestige of the
Ptolemies throughout the Greek world.
5) THE CAPITAL
Between Alexandria and Egypt the constant to and fro of men and
gods, of missives and merchandise, laid down a network of exchange,
administration and society, all converging on the capital. The Greeks
of the provinces, whether officials overseeing the intensive exploitation
of the country or simple private citizens, maintained a steady relationship
with the influential parties of the town. The information and services
which they exchanged were of much the same manner as the mutual support
which existed at the highest level between the Ptolemaic kings and the
indigenous priesthood in their efforts to introduce Greek cults into
an Egyptian milieu or vice versa. If the dream of many was to recreate
a part of the city's brilliance in their own province, the way was also
open for the creation of an original Græco-Egyptian civilisation particular
The factory of the gods
Sitting at the junction of two worlds, Alexandria enjoyed a very favourable
climate for the birth of gods. Whether of Hellenic or Egyptian origin,
the cults of the capital were above all aimed at the Greek population.
However, the diminishing distance between the two traditions gave rise
to a new expression of Egyptian religion, of which the city was both
the home and the display case.
The home front
For the Ptolemies, Egypt was a rich patrimony to be managed as rigorously
as possible in order to assure the king of the vast revenues needed
for his great Mediterranean ambitions. As viewed from the offices of
Alexandria, the administration that was established to encompass production,
distribution and taxation, seemed remarkably well organised. On the
ground, the task was immense.
Initially as part of Apollonius' entourage and then as manager of his
lands in The Fayoum, the Greek Zenon was well placed to perform all
kinds of services for his compatriots. His correspondence reveals how,
behind the apparent solidarity of the "citizens", there lay a network
of interdependency and patronage, which benefited those who had useful
connections at Alexandria.
Alexandria is a palimpsest on which all the ages of history have
left their mark. Traces of the town and its monuments float to the surface
under the eye of the archaeologist. Literature and commentaries following
the flow of knowledge, condensing the written memory of humanity, nourished
the cultures of the Byzantine East, medieval Islam and the Latin West.
From the Fathers of the Church to the progressive spread of the culture
of the book throughout Europe of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, here
are several stages in a long history in which the continuation of ancient
heritage is indissociable from the genesis of modern thought.
Recent excavations have revealed a wealth of information about the capital
of the Ptolemies. The increasing pace of real estate development can
provide numerous opportunities to unearth the remains of the ancient
city but, at the same time, it can threaten the physical vestiges of
the past. For the developers, whose immediate interests are at odds
with the archæologists struggling to save the ruins of the capital of
the Hellenistic world in the face of almost general public indifference,
the motto would appear to be "Alexandria delenda est".
Clement, Origen and the eternal nature of
the written word
Alain Le Boulluec
In the second and third centuries AD Alexandria remained the forum of
an intense intellectual life. Christian writers appropriated the heritage
of pagan culture and found in the classical philosophers unexpected
allies in their fight for justification. A curiosity for the universal
continued, as did the philological methods in editing and exegesis,
which were now to be, applied to the Bible itself.
A myth reborn
François de Polignac
The myth of the universal metropolis created by the first Ptolemies
beneath the shadow cast by the memory of Alexander managed to outlive
not only its inventors and their dynasty but also ancient civilisation
itself. The Arabs adopted the idea as their own and expanded it further
in the Middle Ages.
A return to Athens via Alexandria?
An interview with Raymond Klibansky
Scholars and men of letters will never forget that Alexandria was the
origin, the blueprint for Europe, both medieval and modern. In conversation
with Christian Jacob, Raymond Klibansky, historian and philosopher of
science, expands the horizon and retraces a few steps along this history
of the transmission of written memory, from the Alexandrian mirage to
the ideal Library of Aby Warburg.
Genealogical tree of the Ptolemaic dynasty,third century BC
Map of Ptolemaic Egypt
Chronology of events
Biography of the authors