Alexandria, third century BC
The knowledge of the world in a single city

Edited by Christian Jacob & François de Polignac, 2000

17x24 cm. 2 maps. 241 pp. Paperback .
ISBN 977 5845 03 3

The authors

Fabienne Burkhalter
Former fellow of the French Archaeological School of Athens and a specialist in Alexandrian toreutic work and Græco-Roman Egypt.

Luciano Canfora
Professor of philology at the University of Bari and author of "The Vanished Library", Vintage, London, 1991.

Michel Chauveau
Former Fellow of the Institut français d'archéologie orientale in Cairo and a specialist in Egyptian demotic.

Jean-Yves Empereur
Director of research with the Centre national de la recherche scientifique and director of the Centre d'études alexandrines, an archæological mission in Alexandria engaged in salvage digs. Author of "Alexandria Rediscovered", British Museum Press, London, 1998. b

Françoise Dunand
Professor of the history of religion at the University of Human Sciences, Strasbourg. Author of "Dieux et hommes d'Égypte (3000BC-395AD). Anthropologie religieuse" with Christiane Zivie-Coche, Armand Colin, Paris, 1991.

Christine Favard-Meeks
Research Fellow at the École pratique des hautes études; specialist on the Nile Delta.

Paul Goukowsky
Professor of Greek language and literature at the University of Nancy II.

Christian Jacob
Research Fellow with the Centre national de la recherche scientifique and specialist in the history of Greek culture.

Raymond Klibansky
Philosopher and historian of science.

Jean Lallot
Lecturer at the École nationale superieure.

Alain Le Boulluec
Hellenist and historian of early Christianity, Director of Studies at the École des hautes études.

Dimitri Meeks
Director of Research with the Centre national de la recherche scientifique and specialist on ancient Egypt.

Claude Mossé
Professor Emeritus of Greek history at the University of Paris VIII.

Claude Orrieux
Former professor of ancient Greek history at the University of Caen.

François de Polignac
Research Fellow with the Centre national de la recherche scientifique and specialist on the myth of Alexander the Great.

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.

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 town.

The world in a scroll
Luciano Canfora
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.

Alien wisdom
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 Judaism.

"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 geometer?

Demetrius of Phaleron: a philosopher in power?
Claude Mossé
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
Jean Lallot
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
Christian Jacob
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
Christian Jacob
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.

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
Michel Chauveau
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 its capital.

The pomp of the Ptolemies
Paul Goukowsky
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.

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 to Alexandria.

The factory of the gods
Françoise Dunand
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
Fabienne Burkhalter
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.

The network
Claude Orrieux
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.

Alexandria rising
Jean-Yves Empereur
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

Copyright © Harpocrates Publishing, 2004