The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: A Review

Jeremy J. Baer

“Most of us take if for granted that two cities, Athens and Rome, completely dominated the classical world,” opine Justin Pollard and Howard Reid.  “In fact, there was a third city that, at its height, dwarfed both of these in wealth and population as well as in scientific and artistic achievement. “That city was Alexandria, the Greco-Egyptian capital of the Ptolemaic empire. The authors call the city “the greatest mental crucible the world has ever known,”  the intellectual foundation upon which the later Renaissance forged the minds of modern men.  The Rise and Fall of Alexandria is a delightful and informative read that effectively waves the banner of an unappreciated aspect of the Western legacy.

The author’s preface and epilogue recount how the scholar Claudius Ptolemy indirectly changed the world.  At the end of the thirteenth century a Byzantine monk in Constantinople managed to procure an Arabic copy of a book once contained in Alexandria’s famous library.  That was Ptolemy’s Geographia, a tome purporting to have mapped out a spherical globe.  From Constantinople, a copy found its way to the Vatican, and Latin editions were then circulated to royal courts in Western Europe. One Christopher Columbus, intrigued by the possibilities, began fathoming up a great expedition to sail west around the globe.

With this point of the Alexandrian legacy having been made, the next few chapters trace the birth and development of the city. Chapter one highlights the exploits of Alexander the great, and his founding of a new Greek city in Egypt off the coast of a trading island known to Homer. Chapters two and three recount how the wily Ptolemy, son of Lagos and general of Alexander, wrestled control of Egypt and forged a new culture to compliment the new capitol. Chapters four and five inquire into the philosophical upbringing of Alexander and Ptolemy via Aristotle, and how an inspired Ptolemy attracted some remarkable scholars and philosophers to Alexandria in its nascent phases.  The next chapter illustrates how Ptolemy II presided over the city’s enduring landmarks: its Museum, Library and light house.

The remaining bulk of the book then discusses Alexandria’s various intellectual achievements.  The authors call the city’s Library and Museum the world’s first university and integrated scientific research complex.  The native Egyptians had already developed a considerable expertise in medicine, astronomy and engineering;  the Greeks had led the world in advances in mathematics, biology and philosophy.  These trends converged in the new Greco-Egyptian port city. Funded by the largesse of the Ptolemaic regime, intellectuals throughout the Mediterranean could live a comfortable life of scientific inquiry and scholarly interaction.   Nor were Greeks the only beneficiaries; Alexandria the cosmopolitan world city beckoned members of every race, including a large Jewish population.

With its impressive array of mathematicians, astronomers, doctors, biologists, geographers, mechanical engineers, theological thinkers and literati, Alexandria produced scientific and artistic heights not approached until modern times.  While a long list of intellectual notables might be too unwieldy, a highlight of their fruits of labor can be offered here. Among other things, Alexandrian intellectuals proposed that earthquakes were the result of natural phenomenon and not angry gods; they suspected the heliocentric nature of the solar system;  they accurately predicted the circumference of a spherical earth; they discovered the nature of the human body’s circulatory system; they invented a type of working steam engine that, if properly applied, would have witnessed the beginning of the Industrial Age centuries before it otherwise happened.  In architectural terms the massive Lighthouse of Pharos, which beckoned Mediterranean commercial ships to Alexandria’s dual harbors, went down in history as a worthy engineering achievement in its own right. Sadly, these triumphs are only dimly recognized in the modern West, taking a back seat to Athen’s extolled legacy.

In terms of abstract intellectual movements, Alexandria was no stranger either. Egyptian mysticism had long been a source of fascination to Greek intellectuals, and it is said that Pythagoras had learned the nature of his doctrines in the land of the Nile.  Plato’s philosophy held common strands with Pythagoras, and it was in Alexandria that Platonism experienced a revival. Plotinus the Neoplatonist, a product of the city’s intellectual heritage, developed a philosophical corpus that would serve as the last great Pagan intellectual movement of the Roman Empire. Ascetic and otherworldly, Neoplatonism was the mental hinge between classical Pagan thought and Christianity.

Speaking of  Christianity, the world had been well prepared for it when the Jewish Bible was famously translated in Alexandria into the common Greek dialect.   From there Hellenized Jews in Egypt’s considerable Jewish population could introduce a new Christian religion to Gentiles.  The theologian Origen was a son of a Greek father and Jewish mother.  He reworked the Jewish based Christian religion into a Neoplatonic intellectual framework that Alexandrian intellectuals could understand.  In so doing he earned the wrath of not only the Pagan state, but the leaders of the later Roman Catholic Church. Nonetheless his intellectual defense of Christianity is one of early Christianity’s most honored tomes.

But the intellectual demise of Alexandria coincided with the rise of an intolerant breed of Christianity.  Eager to purge the entire Pagan legacy,
Christian monks and laymen destroyed temples everywhere, including the famous Serapeum, a city landmark and one of the greatest religious sites of Antiquity. When Hypatia, a female intellectual prodigy and Neoplatonist thinker, was tortured and killed by Christian monks, a new age dawned.  Alexandria had slowly been dragging the world from mythos to logos, but the ascendancy of Christianity reversed the trend.

The emphasis of the book is on Alexandria’s intellectual accomplishments. However, political history is skimmed where appropriate.  The authors make it clear that Alexandria’s intellectualism was fueled by the political and economic prosperity of the Ptolemaic regime.  While the first three Ptolemies were worthy rulers, the later degeneration of the regime relative to its Hellenistic competitors and to the rise of Rome would place a damper on the city’s greatness, above and beyond the stifling anti-intellectualism of early Christianity.

Another factor in the collapse of Alexandria was its failure to truly integrate the native Egyptian population. The Ptolemies ran Egypt as a state controlled economic machine, whose profits underpinned the Greco-Macedonian elite.  To many Egyptian peasants, Alexandria was a foreign city on their soil.  Their frequent rebellions and strikes betray that this “city of the mind”, as the authors ubiquitously call Alexandria, was erected first and foremost for the prestige of the Ptolemies. Its intellectual benefactions to humanity were secondary and subordinate to that end.

The book is written in a clear and enjoyable prose.  Primary sources are quoted to good effect.  There are maps, a chronology and an appendix, but regrettably no photographs or illustrations. On the whole this is an excellent book to read on Western Civilization’s forgotten child.  It is informative and enjoyable, and now has graciously placed it on its bargain bin.


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