Hellenistic Period and Alexandria (323 B.C. to 31 B.C.)

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Pharos Lighthouse in Alexandria, one of the
Seven Wonders of the World
Many cities in Greece and Turkey are referred to as Hellenistic, but what exactly does Hellenistic mean? According to Greek mythology Hellen was a Thessalian king who was the grandson of Prometheus and the ancestor of all Greeks.

Hellenic refers to the period of Greek history before Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) and Hellenistic usually refers to the 300 year period between Alexander's birth and the defeat of Anthony and Cleopatra.

The center of Hellenistic Greece was Alexandria, Egypt. The Hellenistic period was a time when Greek culture was introduced all over the Mediterranean and as far east as India. Hellenistic philosophy stressed the private individual's search for happiness, with the Cynics emphasizing animal satisfaction and the Stoics emphasizing reason.

The Hellenized kingdom of Macedon, dominated Greece under Phillip II, who passed it to his son Alexander in 336 B.C. After Alexander’s death the empire was broken into three parts: 1) Macedon, including parts of Asia Minor and Greece under the the Antigonids; 2) Egypt ruled by the Ptolemies in Egypt (which included Cleopatra); and Selecuid Empire, under the Selecuids, who occupied a stretch of land that extended from present-day Syria and Lebanon to Persia.

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia hsc.edu/drjclassics ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization pbs.org/empires/thegreeks ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Ancient-Greek.org ancientgreece.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Ancient City of Athens stoa.org/athens; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea showgate.com/medea ; Greek History Course from Reed web.archive.org; Classics FAQ MIT rtfm.mit.edu; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu

Book: “From Alexander to Cleopatra, the Hellenistic World” by Michael Grant.

Hellenistic Achievements

The sciences thrived during the Hellenistic period, especially in Alexandria where the Ptolemies financed a great library, quasi-university and museum. Fields of study included mathematics (Euclid's “Geometry”, 300 B.C.), astronomy (heliocentric theory of Arisrtarchus, 310 B.C., Julian calendar 45 B.C., Ptolemy's “Almagest” 150 A.D.), geography (Ptolemy's “ Geography” , world map of Eratosthenes 276-194 B.C.), hydraulics (Archimedes, 287-212 B.C.), medicine (Galen, 130-200 A.D.), and chemistry. Inventors refined uses for siphons, valves, gears, springs, screws, levers, cams, and pulleys.↕ see Greek Science

Hellenistic culture produced seats of learning throughout the Mediterranean. Hellenistic science differed from Greek science in at least two ways: first, it benefited from the cross-fertilization of Greek ideas with those that had developed in the larger Hellenistic world; secondly, to some extent, it was supported by royal patrons in the kingdoms founded by Alexander's successors. Especially important to Hellenistic science was the city of Alexandria in Egypt, which became a major center of scientific research in the 3rd century BC. Hellenistic scholars frequently employed the principles developed in earlier Greek thought: the application of mathematics and deliberate empirical research, in their scientific investigations. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Hellenistic Geometers such as Archimedes (c. 287 – 212 BC), Apollonius of Perga (c. 262 – c. 190 BC), and Euclid (c. 325 – 265 BC), whose Elements became the most important textbook in mathematics until the 19th century, built upon the work of the Hellenic era Pythagoreans. Euclid developed proofs for the Pythagorean Theorem, for the infinitude of primes, and worked on the five Platonic solids. Eratosthenes used his knowledge of geometry to measure the circumference of the Earth. His calculation was remarkably accurate. He was also the first to calculate the tilt of the Earth's axis (again with remarkable accuracy). Additionally, he may have accurately calculated the distance from the Earth to the Sun and invented the leap day. Known as the "Father of Geography ", Eratosthenes also created the first map of the world incorporating parallels and meridians, based on the available geographical knowledge of the era. +

Astronomers like Hipparchus (c. 190 – c. 120 BC) built upon the measurements of the Babylonian astronomers before him, to measure the precession of the Earth. Pliny reports that Hipparchus produced the first systematic star catalog after he observed a new star (it is uncertain whether this was a nova or a comet) and wished to preserve astronomical record of the stars, so that other new stars could be discovered. It has recently been claimed that a celestial globe based on Hipparchus's star catalog sits atop the broad shoulders of a large 2nd-century Roman statue known as the Farnese Atlas. Another astronomer, Aristarchos of Samos developed a heliocentric system. +

Antikythera Mechanism: an Ancient Computer?

In November 2006, in an article published in Nature, team of researchers lead by Mike Edmunds of the University of Cardiff announced they had pieced together and figured out of the functions of an ancient astronomical calculator made at the end of the 2nd century B.C. that was so sophisticated it has been described as the world’s first analog computer. The devise was more accurate and complex than any instrument that would appear for the next 1,000 years. [Source: Reuters]

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Antikythera Mechanism
The Antikythera Mechanism is the earliest known device to contain an intricate set of gear wheels. It was discovered by sponge divers on a shipwreck off Antikythera, a Greek island north of Crete, in 1901 but until recently no one knew what it did. Using X-ray tomography, computer models and copies of the actual pieces, scientists from Britain, Greece and the United States were able to reconstruct the device, whose sophistication was far beyond what was though possible for the ancient Greeks.

The lunch-box-size device was comprised of 37 gear wheels packed together sort of like the gears in a watch and was housed in a wooden case with inscriptions on the cover and bronze dials. It could add, multiply, divide and subtract. It was also able to align the number of lunar months with years and display where the sun and the moon were on the zodiac. On top of all that it also had a dial that indicated when solar and luna eclipses were likely to occur; it tracked the dates of the ancient Olympics and other sporting events; it took into account the elliptical orbits of the moon; and it may have had extra gears that predicted the motions of the planets.

Edmunds told Reuters, “It could be described as the first known calculator. Our recent work has applied very modern techniques that we believe have now revealed what its actual functions were...the actual astronomy is perfect for the period. What is extraordinary about the things is that they were able to make such a sophisticated technological device and be able to put that into metal.” Edmundssaid the device is unique. Nothing like it has ever been since, and devices that were as sophisticated would not appear until the Middle Ages, when the first cathedral clocks were put into use.

On the discovery that the Antikythera Mechanism tracked Olympic days Yanas Bitsakis, a Greek researcher involved with project told AP. “We were astonished because this is not an astronomic cycle but an Olympian cycle, one of social events. One does not need a piece of high technology to keep track of a simple four-year cycle .” He said the mechanics might have been seen as “microcosm illustrating the temporal harmonization of human and divine order.”

The device also has a function related to the Metonic calendar, which was used to reconcile a day difference between the lunar months and solar year. Researchers believe the Olympic tracking system gives the Antikythera Mechanism a connection to the colonies of Corinth, possible Syracuse in Sicily, where Archimedes lived and this in turn hints of a connection with Archimedes himself. Archimedes, who lived in Syracuse and died in 212 B.C. He invented a planetarium that calculated motions of the moon and the known planets and wrote a lost manuscript on astronomical mechanisms.

Hellenistic Sculpture

Hellenistic Sculpture (323 B.C. to 31 B.C.) was much more varied and extreme than sculpture produced during the Classical period. Some of the most beautiful pieces of Greek statuary, including the Nike of Samonthrace, the Dying Gaul, Apollo Belvedere , and the Lacoön Group, date back to Hellenistic times. The Dying Gual has the hair and facial features of an ethnic Gaul.

Apollo Belvedere

The Lacoon, now at Vatican Museum, features a father and two sons struggling to entangle themselves from the grasps of giant serpents. The 2000-year-old statue depicts the punishment meted out to a priest who warned the Trojans to beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

Adam Masterman, wrote in Quora.com: During the Hellenistic period (323031 B.C.) sculpture fully embraced naturalism. Figures look like individuals instead of ideals, and a full range of emotions and actions are portrayed. Poses are the most diverse of any of the periods, representing a wide variety of actions and physical states. The anatomical detail is the most closely resembling real bodies (and thus the least idealized), and particular attention is paid to how bodies morph and change in different positions, showing a strong tradition of empirical observation. Finally, the work is more ornate than in any other period, reflecting a preference for complexity of design that can also be seen in the architecture of the time.

Apollo Belvedere , also at the Vatican Museum, glorifies the male body. Described by one critic as "a symbol of all that is young and free strong and gracious," it is most likely a Roman copy of a Greek bronze made by Leochares around 330 B.C. The original once stood in the Agora in Athens but is now lost. The copy lacks its left hand and most of its straight arm and scholars believe the right hand held a quiver and the left hand a bow. The elegant cloak is still in place. For several centuries it had a fig leaf over private parts.

Apollo Belvedere stood for four centuries in a niche in the Octagonal court of the Vatican until it was taken by Napoleon's army in 1798 and kept in Paris until 1816, when it was returned. It was said Napoleon that coveted it more than any other booty because it was considered the embodiment of the high culture of classical Greece.

Nike of Samonthrace , at the Louvre, is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Greek art. Wings spread wide into a headwind that blows her clothes against her headless body, an image that later would grace the bow of many ships. see the Louvre

Venus de Milo

Venus de Milo

Apollo Belvedere The Venus de Milo is arguable the world's most famous sculpture and may be the second most famous work of art after the Mona Lisa . Thousands check it out daily in the Louvre, where it has stood for more than a century. It has been sketched, copied, debased and lampooned, Among the artists who have been inspired by it and/or placed it in their own works have been Cezanne, Dail and Magritte but at the same time it has been debased in advertisement and kitschy souvenirs . When she came to Japan in 1964 more than 100,000 people came to greet the ship that carried her and 1.5 million filed past on a moving sidewalk that ran past where she was displayed. [Source: Gregory Curtis, Smithsonian magazine, October 2003]

The Venus de Milo was originally carved in two parts, with the two halves concealed by the fold of drapery circling her hips. The pedestal and the arms have been lost. No one is sure how the arms were posed. Some believe the upraised arm rested on a pillar. Others believe it may have held a shield. Yet others believe it may have held an apple found near the statue.

After the statue was brought to the Louvre restorers tried to attach plaster arms in all conceivable positions — carrying robes, apples and lamps or just painting here and there. None of which looked right. It was thus decreed that the "work of another artist must never mar her beauty" which set a worldwide precedent. From then on classical works of art were never monkeyed with again.


After the death of Alexander the Great, the Egyptian portion of his kingdom was ruled Ptolemy I, a Macedonian general. The Macedonian-Greek dynasty (the Ptolemies) he founded ruled Egypt for more than 300 years. There were 15 Ptolemic leaders and they ruled from 332 B.C. to 30 B.C. from Alexandria. Cleopatra was the last of Ptolemies. When she died in 30 B.C., Romans took over territory formally controlled by the Ptolemies.

Menthu and Ptolemy IV
Chip Brown wrote in National Geographic, “The Ptolemies of Macedonia are one of history's most flamboyant dynasties, famous not only for wealth and wisdom but also for bloody rivalries and the sort of "family values" that modern-day exponents of the phrase would surely disavow, seeing as they included incest and fratricide. [Source: Chip Brown, National Geographic, July 2011]

The Ptolemies came to power after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great, who in a caffeinated burst of activity beginning in 332 B.C. swept through Lower Egypt, displaced the hated Persian occupiers, and was hailed by the Egyptians as a divine liberator. He was recognized as pharaoh in the capital, Memphis. Along a strip of land between the Mediterranean and Lake Mareotis he laid out a blueprint for Alexandria, which would serve as Egypt's capital for nearly a thousand years.

The dynasty's greatest legacy was Alexandria itself, with its hundred-foot-wide main avenue, its gleaming limestone colonnades, its harborside palaces and temples overseen by a towering lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, on the island of Pharos. Alexandria soon became the largest, most sophisticated city on the planet. It was a teeming cosmopolitan mix of Egyptians, Greeks, Jews, Romans, Nubians, and other peoples. The best and brightest of the Mediterranean world came to study at the Mouseion, the world's first academy, and at the great Alexandria library.

The Ptolemies' talent for intrigue was exceeded only by their flair for pageantry. If descriptions of the first dynastic festival of the Ptolemies around 280 B.C. are accurate, the party would cost millions of dollars today. The parade was a phantasmagoria of music, incense, blizzards of doves, camels laden with cinnamon, elephants in golden slippers, bulls with gilded horns. Among the floats was a 15-foot Dionysus pouring a libation from a golden goblet.

See Separate Article on the Ptolemies



Alexandria today is Egypt's second largest city and the country's largest port. In the time of the ancient Egyptians it wasn’t even built yet. But in the Greco-Roman era it was one of the greatest cities of antiquity. Regarded as the greatest intellectual center in the world, it was home to the great Alexandria Library and the Pharos Lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Chip Brown wrote in National Geographic, It was in Alexandria, “18 centuries before the Copernican revolution, that Aristarchus posited a heliocentric solar system and Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth. Alexandria was where the Hebrew Bible was first translated into Greek and where the poet Sotades the Obscene discovered the limits of artistic freedom when he unwisely scribbled some scurrilous verse about Ptolemy II's incestuous marriage to his sister. He was deep-sixed in a lead-lined chest.” [Source: Chip Brown, National Geographic, July 2011]

Book: “Alexandria & the Sea: Maritime origins and Underwater Explorations” by Kimberly Williams

Alexander the Great Founds Alexandria

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Alexander's military campaign was the founding of Alexandria. Arrian wrote that "he himself designed the general layout of the new town, indicating the position of the market square, the number of temples...and the precise limits of its outer defenses." After Alexander died, Alexandria grew into the center of Hellenistic Greece and was the greatest city for 300 years in Europe and the Mediterranean.

Plutarch wrote: “For when he was master of Egypt, designing to settle a colony of Grecians there, he resolved to build a large and populous city, and give it his own name. In order to which, after he had measured and staked out the ground with the advice of the best architects, he chanced one night in his sleep to see a wonderful vision; a grey-headed old man, of a venerable aspect, appeared to stand by him, and pronounce these verses: “An island lies, where loud the billows roar, Pharos they call it, on the Egyptian shore." Alexander upon this immediately rose up and went to Pharos, which, at that time, was an island lying a little above the Canobic mouth of the river Nile, though it has now been joined to the mainland by a mole. As soon as he saw the commodious situation of the place, it being a long neck of land, stretching like an isthmus between large lagoons and shallow waters on one side and the sea on the other, the latter at the end of it making a spacious harbour, he said, Homer, besides his other excellences, was a very good architect, and ordered the plan of a city to be drawn out answerable to the place. [Source: Plutarch (A.D. 45-127), “Life of Alexander”, A.D. 75 translated by John Dryden, 1906, MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ]

Alexandria laying out his plan for Alexandria

"To do which, for want of chalk, the soil being black, they laid out their lines with flour, taking in a pretty large compass of ground in a semi-circular figure, and drawing into the inside of the circumference equal straight lines from each end, thus giving it something of the form of a cloak or cape; while he was pleasing himself with his design, on a sudden an infinite number of great birds of several kinds, rising like a black cloud out of the river and the lake, devoured every morsel of the flour that had been used in setting out the lines; at which omen even Alexander himself was troubled, till the augurs restored his confidence again by telling him it was a sign the city he was about to build would not only abound in all things within itself, but also be the nurse and feeder of many nations. He commanded the workmen to proceed, while he went to visit the temple of Ammon."

Arrian wrote: “The following story is told, which seems to me not unworthy of belief:—that Alexander himself wished to leave behind for the builders the marks for the boundaries of the fortification, but that there was nothing at hand with which to make a furrow in the ground. One of the builders hit upon the plan of collecting in vessels the barley which the soldiers were carrying, and throwing it upon the ground where the king led the way; and thus the circle of the fortification which he was making for the city was completely marked out. The soothsayers, and especially Aristander the Telmissian, who was said already to have given many other true predictions, pondering this, told Alexander that the city would become prosperous in every respect, but especially in regard to the fruits of the earth. [Source: Arrian the Nicomedian (A.D. 92-175), “Anabasis of Alexander”, translated, by E. J. Chinnock, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884, gutenberg.org]

“At this time Hegelochus sailed to Egypt and informed Alexander that the Tenedians had revolted from the Persians and attached themselves to him; because they had gone over to the Persians against their own wish. He also said that the democracy of Chios were introducing Alexander's adherents in spite of those who held the city, being established in it by Autophradates and Pharnabazus. The latter commander had been caught there and kept as a prisoner, as was also the despot Aristonicus, a Methymnaean, who sailed into the harbour of Chios with five piratical vessels, fitted with one and a half banks of oars, not knowing that the harbour was in the hands of Alexander's adherents, but being misled by those who kept the bars of the harbour, because forsooth the fleet of Pharnabazus was moored in it. All the pirates were there massacred by the Chians; and Hegelochus brought to Alexander, as prisoners Aristonicus, Apollonides the Chian, Phisinus, Megareus, and all the others who had taken part in the revolt of Chios to the Persians, and who at that time were holding the government of the island by force. He also announced that he had deprived Chares of the possession of Mitylene, that he had brought over the other cities in Lesbos by a voluntary agreement, and that he had sent Amphoterus to Cos with sixty ships, for the Coans themselves invited him to their island. He said that he himself had sailed to Cos and found it already in the hands of Amphoterus. Hegelochus brought all the prisoners with him except Pharnabazus, who had eluded his guards at Cos and got away by stealth. Alexander sent the despots who had been brought from the cities back to their fellow-citizens, to be treated as they pleased; but Apollonides and his Chian partisans he sent under a strict guard to Elephantinē, an Egyptian city."

History of Alexandria in the Greco-Roman Period

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Alexandria Pompey Pillar
Founded by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C., Alexandria was the greatest city in Mediterranean in its day, eclipsing even Athens and Rome. At its peak it was the home to 600,000 people and boasted temples and places that stretched from the Gate of the Moon to the Gate of the Sun. It hosted a Dionysian festivals that featured a 180-foot-high golden phallus, 2,000 golden-horned bulls and a gold statue of Alexander carried by elephants.

Regarded by some as the first true metropolis, Alexandria was multi cultural capital of Greco-Roman (Ptolemaic) Egypt, the center of a rebirth of Greek culture (known today as the Hellenistic period), the site of Cleopatra's stormy relationships with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, and a center of Jewish culture and early Christians thinkers.

Alexander chose Alexandria for a port by while traveling on the Mediterranean coastline from Syria to Egypt. He wanted to link the Mediterranean with the Nile and picked Alexandria’s general location because of its magnificent harbor and chose to set up the city 30 kilometers to the west of the Nile on spit of land between a the sea and a lake because he realized that the Mediterranean's west-to east-currents would prevent Nile silt from accumulating there. A canal was built the Nile to bring freshwater and provide transport. Greek engineers designed an effective wave break by building a pier between the mainland the island of Pharaohs. Alexandria grew by supplying papyrus, jewels, glass and grain to the Greeks and Romans.

Alexandria flourished under the Ptolemaic Greeks who built the Light of Pharos, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and the Library of Alexandria, the world's first great library and academic center. It also became a major trading center for goods such as silk, spices and aromatic plants , ebony and ivory tusks brought from Africa and the maritime and overland Silk Roads. Theaters, bordellos and halls emerged. Jews were give their own quarter. They mingled with Egyptians, Christians, Greeks, Phoenicians, Nabateans, Arabs and Nubians. Cleopatra was the last of the Ptolemaic rulers and after she committed suicide the city was taken over by Romans.

Alexandria declined as a Mediterranean superpower and was eclipsed by Rome after the suicide of Antony and Cleopatra in 30 B.C. During the Roman period Alexandria was most important center of Christianity in the world until the 4th century when large numbers of Christians were slaughtered under the rule of the Roman emperor Diocletian.

Alexandria Library

Alexandria Library Inscription
The great library of Alexandria was “first ample repository of the west's literary inheritance." It was inaugurated by in 298 B.C. Ptolemy I. According to legend Alexandria the Great envisioned a great library but it was Ptolemy I who proposed collecting “books of all the peoples of the world.” He sent letters to rulers in the known world and asked them for works by “poets, and prose-writers, rhetoricians and sophists, doctors and soothsayers, historians.” "Ptolemy II enlarged the library, adding a museum and research center. [Source: Alexander Stille, New Yorker, May 8, 2000, Lionel Casson, Smithsonian Magazine.

Before the establishment of the Alexandria Library, most book collections belong to private owners. Aristotle and Alexander the Great supposedly had large libraries. Libraries were not a new idea. The Egyptians built papyrus libraries in 3200 B.C. and Athens had a library in the 4th century. But the size and scope of the Alexandria Library was on a scale the world had never seen.

Probably modeled on the Lyceum, Aristotle’s library and school in Athens, the Alexandria Library was located in the Mouseion, the Temple of Muses. No one knows exactly where that was except that it was part of the Royal Court of the Ptolemy, a huge complex that covered a large area and included a zoo and botanical gardens.

According to Strabo, who visited Alexandria in 20 B.C., the library "was part of the royal palaces, it had a walk, an arcade, a large house in which was a refractory for members of the Mouseion."

The great library of Alexandria was an ancient think tank, a meeting place for scholars from throughout the known world. Scholars lived together in a communal residence and ate together in a dining hall. Among their achievement was creating Euclidian geometry, performing the first dissections of human bodies, translating the Hebrew Bible into Greek, and compiling Homer's epic poems.

Around 200 B.C. a large library was established in Pergamum on Asia Minor that competed with the Alexandria library to get its hands on the best books. The family that inherited Aristotle's collection reportedly hid all their books when their town was ruled by Pergamom. Eventually the Pergammon collections was transferred to Alexandria when Antony gave Cleopatra Asia Minor as a gift.

Alexandria Library Book: “ The Vanishing Library: A Wonder of the Ancient World” by Luciano Canfora.

World’s First University in Alexandria?

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Ptolemy II and Jews
Before the library was built in Alexandria, Ptolemy I founded the Mouseion, a research institute which some regard as the world’s first university. It had lecture halls, laboratories and guest rooms for visiting scholars. Archimedes, Aruistarchus of Samos and Euclid all worked there. [Source: Andrew Lawler, Smithsonian magazine, April 2007]

Excavations in downtown Alexandria in the 1990s and 2000s revealed lecture halls from the Mouseion. The area that has been reconstructed thus far shows a row of rectangular halls. Each has a a separate entrance into the street and horse-shoe-shaped stone bleachers. The neat rows of rooms lie in a portico between the Greek theater and the Roman baths. The facilities were built about A.D. 500.

Grzegorz Majcherek. A Polish archaeologist from Warsaw University who is working the site, told Smithsonian magazine, he believes the rooms and hall “were used for higher education — and the level of education was very high.” Texts in other archives show that professors were well paid with public funds and they were forbidden from teaching private lessons except on their days off. There is also evidence that both Christian and pagan scholars worked there.”

Perhaps similar institutions existed in Antioch, Constantinople, Beirut or Rome but no evidence of them has turned up. Majcherek believes Mouseion may have attracted many scholars from the Athens Academy, which closed in A.D. 529. There is some evidence that intellectual activity continued after the arrival of Islam in the 7th century but things later quieted down and likely shifted to Damascus or Baghdad.

See Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum Under Philosophy and Science

Contents of the Alexandria Library

The Alexandria Library boasted it had a copy of every known manuscript. It probably contained about a 490,000 scrolls. Scholars debate whether 490,000 scrolls represented 490,000 individual works or the total number of scrolls. Many works contained multiple scrolls. The 24 books of Homer's “ Odyssey” , for example, was probably represented by 24 scrolls. It there were duplicates it may have contained 700,000 or copies. It was rivaled only by the Perguman library which had 200,000 scrolls. Most of the books in the Alexandria Library were written on foot-wide, 20-feet-long scrolls. Many were written on both sides and on average one scroll contained the equivalent of sixty pages of text from a modern book. Books were collected from leaders in the known world. The Athenians were tricked into handing over a stash of major Greek tragedies and paid a fortune for library said to belonging to Aristotle. Many new works were obtained from ships anchored in the city's harbor, which were required to hand over books to the library which were copied as "special rapid-copying shops." Sometimes the libraries officials kept the original and gave the owner back a copy.

The Alexandria Library is believed to be one of the first places where books were arranged in alphabetical order by author’s last name, and authoritative text editions, glossaries and indexes were kept. The scrolls were kept in warehouses and shelf-lined rooms, often stored in bucket-like containers.

Alexandria Library

Alexandria Library as an Intellectual Center

The Alexandria Library also contained a museum, or literally "a Place of Museum." Unlike a modern museum it was gathering places for scholars and intellectuals. According to one classics professor, "it had a dining hall in which they took their meals in common, private studies, laboratories, a cloisterlike promenade for thoughtful strolling, and so forth, all funded by generous endowment from the crown." Strabo wrote, "They formed a community who held property in common with priest appointed by the kings."

Among the great minds who worked there were the mathematicians Eratosthenes and Euclid, the physicists Archimedes, the poet Theocritus and, and the philosophers Zeno and Epicurus. Euclid completed his famous “ Elements” at the library. Eratosthenes, who made his famous measurement of earth's circumference, worked as a librarian of the library. Others worked out the principal of the steam engine, dissected human bodies and worked out the brain was the center of the nervous system and intelligence.

The Alexandria Library was "the seedbed of the ancient Greek Renaissance.” Scholars there mapped the stars and planets, created geometry, came up with the idea of the "leap years," revived Plato and Aristotle, translated works by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and collected Buddhist, Jewish and Zoroastrian texts. “ Greek Grammar” by Dionysus Thrax was used as a guide to grammar and style until the 12th century.

One of the greatest achievements was the essential creation of the Old Testament by seventy-two Jewish scholars, when they translated the Hebrew Bible (the Torah), "which from its beginning was enshrouded in legend and folklore," into Greek. The scholars were brought together by Ptolemy I. According to a Jewish legend, he asked each of the Jewish scholars individually to translate the whole Hebrew Bible and miraculously the result, was 72 identical versions. Modern copies of the Bible are all based on the Greek translation.

Burning of the Alexandria Library

The loss of the contents of the Alexandria Library by a massive fire is regarded by some as the worst intellectual tragedy ever. All that remains today are fragments and copies that appeared on later texts. Scholars still debate how the Alexandria Library came to a fiery end. Many believed the some of scrolls were destroyed in a fire in 48 B.C. and the library itself was destroyed by Christians in A.D. 391.

Some blame Caesar. Both Seneca and Plutarch wrote that Caesar set fire to boats during his conquest of Alexandria in 48 B.C. According to Seneca the fire spread and 40,000 scrolls were destroyed. He said these scrolls were in the warehouse. Even if they were part of the library, they were only a fraction of the total collection.

Some blame early Christian who went on a campaign against paganism in A.D. 391 under the Roman-Byzantine Emperor Theodosius. The Christians smashed idols, destroyed the Temple of Serapis and terrorized Alexandria’s intellectual community in a way that brings to mind the way the Taliban act in Afghanistan. In A.D. 415 Christian kidnapped and tortured to death the female philosopher and mathematician Hypatia, regarded as one greatest thinkers of her time. However there is no record of anything happening to the library.

Alexandria Fire by Hermann Goll (1876)

Others say it was the Arabs who destroyed the library when they conquered Egypt in the 7th century. According to one account, the Arabs entered Alexandria and used 700,000 books from the famous library to kindle fires in the city's 4,000 public baths because they contained "matter not in accord with the book of Allah." The problem with the account is that it was written 600 years after the purported event happened. A 7th century letter form a Muslim conqueror to the Muslim caliph, cited in the account, reportedly asks what to do with all the books. The caliph answered: “As for the book you mention, if what was written in them agrees with the book of God, they are not required; if it disagrees, they are not desired. Destroy them therefore.”

It is likely that most of the scrolls just withered away. The idea that the entire library was destroyed in a single catastrophic event is probably in accurate. Even if there was no fire, the scrolls would probably not survived for centuries because they were mostly written on papyrus, a very fragile, perishable material. There are virtually no remains from other great ancient libraries in Pergamun, Athens and Rome. The Dead Sea scrolls and papyrus texts from ancient Egypt have survived because they were placed in containers and stored in caves or tombs in very dry places.

Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria

The Lighthouse of Pharos (possibly located on the site occupied by the Fortress of Qait Bay) was one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Named after the maritime god, it was built on a small island off the coast of Alexandria in 280 B.C. about 40 years after Alexander's death by Ptolemy I and Ptolemy II.

The Lighthouse of Pharos was the forerunner to modern lighthouses. Guiding Mediterranean ships into Alexandria’s harbor, it lit the entrance to Alexandria harbor with a massive flame at its crest and was said to be 390 feet tall (almost as high as the pyramids) and had three stories and maybe as many as 300 rooms.No one is sure what it looked like. There are etching, a few representations in mosaics, paintings and glass but most of them were made long after it collapsed.

The Lighthouse of Pharos, according to soem descriptions, was made of white marble and was constructed of alternating circular and square tiers, each of which had a balcony. At the top was a small octagonal section and a cylindrical section and a statue of Poseiden or Zeus. The light was reportedly provided by a great brazier surrounded by mirrors that reportedly could amplify the light from the fire so that it could seen 300 miles way at sea. It warned ships of reefs and sand near Alexandria and showed the best way to approach the harbor.

Half the tower was torn down during Arab invasions of the 7th and 8th century. Weakened over the centuries, the remaining half collapsed into the sea in a great earthquake in 1375. Later it covered with Mamluk fortress. Virtually nothing remains of it today. The island on which it was located is now joined to the Alexandria mainland. The Alexandria Naval Museum has a model of the famous lighthouse. Ptolemaic lighthouses west of Alexandria are reputed to be models of the Pharos original.

There are at least six plans on the drawing board to recreate the lighthouse. In September 1998, Pierre Cardin announced plans to build a 400-foot-high fluorescent obelisk near the site of the old Alexandria lighthouse in Egypt. Costing $86.2 million, it will be made of concrete covered with mirrored glass and 16,500 computer-controlled lights and lasers that will cast a beam 50 miles out to sea.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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