The Alexandria of the third century BC is often and justly celebrated today as a hotbed of scientific discovery millennia before the word “science” was invented. Yet there were also other dimensions to the city’s intellectual achievements. In addition to its many innovations in such “hard” disciplines as mathematics, astronomy, and medicine, Alexandria excelled in the softer arts that we now call the humanities. It was nothing less than the literary capital of the world in its heyday, attracting poets and playwrights, translators and historians, in every bit as large a number as it did doctors and stargazers. Indeed, in this era so long before our present Age of the Specialist, some of the accomplished men who lived there excelled almost equally in the harder and the softer arts.
Sadly, we have lost even more of the evidence of Alexandria’s vibrant literary scene than we have of the city’s more numbers-oriented innovations. Some of the biggest literary names of the epoch have become just that for us: names, with no preserved works to attach to them. In some other cases, we don’t have even that much. Alexandria was, for example, famous for its poetic and theatrical tragedies; a group consisting of seven of the very best Alexandrian tragedians was known as the Pleiad, after the seven stars of the Pleiades cluster. Yet we don’t even know with complete confidence the names of all of the members of the group, and just one complete poem by just one of its members has come down to us intact. It may very well be that among the hundreds of works of the Pleiad that have been lost were some that were the equals of the most exquisite plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, those three tragedians of classical Athens who are now widely considered to have been the greatest practitioners of the form prior to Shakespeare.
We do know, however, that the Ptolemaic monarchs concerned themselves deeply with Alexandrian literature, as they did with the rest of the city’s intellectual life. Royal favor and patronage were the surest routes to success for any aspiring young writer.
The most successful of all the court poets was a man named Theocritus, who arrived in Alexandria from his native Sicily in or around 276 BC. Thanks to his poetry’s immense popularity in Alexandrian and foreign high society, more of it has been preserved than that of any of his peers, although our collection of even his works is far from complete. Theocritus invented the evergreen form of the pastoral, those bucolic paeans to the allegedly simpler, cleaner lives led by country folks, to be marketed in his own and later ages to the city dwellers who have left those lives behind. He explicitly presented his tales of nymphs and farm boys, centaurs and shepherds as an antidote to the dusty chaos of the urban life around him. One of his pieces was a sort of Beverly Hillbillies of the ancient world, describing the confusion of a group of country bumpkins caught out on the bustling streets of Alexandria for the first time.
O Heavens, what a mob! I can’t imagine
How we’re to squeeze through, or how long it’ll take;
An ant heap is nothing to this hurly-burly…
O Gorgon, darling, look! — what shall we do?
The royal cavalry! Don’t ride us down!
Eunoa, get out of the way!
Theocritus was widely read again in Europe from the Renaissance onward, and left his imprint on Spencer and Shakespeare, on the Romantic poetry of the early nineteenth century and the utopian fables of the early twentieth, along with entire schools of painting. In our own time, his poetry stands as the original wellspring of every bourgeois fantasy of going back to the land, from John Denver to Garrison Keillor, Harlequin to the Hallmark Channel.
As much as apples sweet the damson crude Excel;
the blooming spring, the winter rude;
In fleece the sheep her lamb, the maiden in sweetness
The thrice-wed dame; the fawn the calf in fleetness;
The nightingale in song all feathered kind —
So much thy longed-for presence cheers my mind.
To thee I hasten, as to shady beech,
The traveler, when from heaven’s reach the sun fierce blazes.
We do have bits and pieces of a less complacent, more challenging Alexandrian literary culture. Among the most fascinating of them is the poem by one Lycophron that is entitled simply Alexandria. A work of 1474 lines that has come down to us intact, its theme is hardly unusual for the time: it tells how the Homeric heroes and their descendants fared after the Trojan War, and how their spirit was resurrected in the person of Alexander the Great. But, rather than ancient poetry, it reads like nothing so much as a work of Modernism from the twentieth century, being replete with obscure vocabulary and convoluted literary and historical references about which scholars continue to argue to this day; it would seem that Lycophron was the ancient world’s T.S. Eliot, Alexandria his The Waste Land. Small wonder that he was given the epithet “the Obscure.”
The poet named Callimachus — the same who organized the Library of Alexandria’s collection to relieve the bursting brains of the librarians — seems equally unmoored from his own time when read today. In a literary milieu best known for its obsession with the epic, he was a dedicated miniaturist, determined to wring the maximum value out of every syllable: “A big book,” he wrote, “is a big evil.” His poetry, a fair amount of which has survived, is shot through with a subtle but often caustic wit. Consider this epigram, a dialog involving a visitor to the grave of a fellow named Charidas:
Tell me, is Charidas buried here?
“If it’s the son of Arimmas you mean, he’s here.”
Charidas, how is it down there?
What of Return?
We’re done for, then.
“I’ve given you the truth. If you prefer a pleasantry, beef’s a penny a pound in Hades.”
More prosaic literary endeavors also found a home in Alexandria. A man named Aristophanes, who served as the fourth Head Librarian from approximately 205 to 185 BC, created the first known dictionary of Greek. A few entries from it, or from a later work very similar to it, have come down to us. Like so much in Alexandrian culture, they can seem peculiarly contemporary; Webster or Oxford would not have written most of the definitions all that much differently.
melgion: A Scythian beverage. This drink is more intoxicating than wine. It is made of honey boiled with water, with the addition of a certain herb.
melôdia: Obsolete term for “tragedy.” See Callimachus’s Commentaries.
Shortly after Aristophanes, another scholar, by the name of Dionysus — presumably no relation to the Greek god of wine — wrote the first known book to lay out the rules of Greek grammar. Running to a succinct 50 pages that would doubtless have made Callimachus proud, it would remain the standard grammar in Greek schools until the twelfth century AD.
Not all Alexandrian literature had the institutional character of the aforementioned writers and their projects; it appears that an underground poetry scene of sorts did exist in the city. Well before Aristophanes and Dionysus, a poet named Sotades specialized in edgy subject matter of a sexual and political stripe, so much so that he earned himself the epithet “the Obscene.” Very little that he wrote has survived, but we do have one delicious line, written after Ptolemy II became the first of the Ptolemaic kings to marry his own sister: “You are pushing the peg into an unholy hole.” Legend has it that the monarch in question, finding the poem in question decidedly unamusing, had Sotades thrown into jail. He escaped, only to be recaptured, and this time the authorities made no mistake: he was sealed up in a coffin and tossed into the sea. Speaking truth to power was as dangerous in ancient Alexandria as it has been in most times and places in history.
All told, 95 percent or more of all the literature produced in Alexandria’s first century and a half has been lost to us. Yet, in a telling testament to the prolificacy and talent of the city’s writers, the 5 percent that remains includes three works of such major importance that they demand a degree of concerted attention from us here.
The first is by one Apollonius — not the Apollonius who hailed from Perga and was the younger rival to Archimedes in the field of mathematics, but rather a different Apollonius, who came from Rhodes and served as the second Head Librarian. His lengthy epic poem the Argonautica tells the tale of the mythical Greek hero Jason and his quest for the Golden Fleece in a style superficially similar to that of Homer. Indeed, it was probably something of a neoclassical work even in the context of its time, and this may have earned it a degree of scorn from the city’s more progressive literary figures; some say that Callimachus’s famous statement that “big books are evil” was born in a critique of this particular big book.
Over the millennia since, many another critic has likewise dismissed the Argonautica as a pale imitation of Homer’s genius: “It is not indispensable to a modern education,” shrugs Will Durant. But it was enormously popular in its day, and remains an exciting yarn today, proving to be exactly the more straightforward tale of action and adventure that countless bored schoolboys have longed for the Odyssey to be. It remains the definitive source for one of the more enduring of the Greek myths that do not involve the Trojan War, a story that is still read by or told to just about every child at one time or another. The fact is that everything written since that recounts the story of Jason and the Argonauts is, to a greater or lesser degree, cribbed from the Argonautica. Of late, scholars have finally begun to give it a harder look as a work of literature in its own right, noting how Apollonius rather cleverly blends his received mythic tradition with the geography of the real world as he and his learned peers had come to know it. The places to which Jason and company sail are described in much more accurate detail than the likes of Homer could ever have managed; whereas the voyage of Odysseus takes place on what is most kindly described as a Mediterranean of the imagination, one can easily trace the voyage of Jason on a real map. If one can see fit to look beneath the Homeric trappings on its surface, its blending of myth and reality gives the Argonautica a personality all its own.
Another, even more important Alexandrian writer was known as Manetho. He was an unusual character even for Alexandria, so much so that one can only wish that we knew more about him: he was a rare example of a native Egyptian who became fluent in Greek and was by all indications accepted by the Alexandrian scholarly community as one of their own. Moreover, he managed this feat of integration at a remarkably early date, during the reign of Ptolemy II if not Ptolemy I.
Manetho’s great work was a comprehensive chronicle of his native land’s impossibly lengthy history, written in Greek for the benefit of outsiders. It succeeded in its mission to an extent of which its author could never have imagined. For, when it reached the Europe of the Renaissance a millennium and a half later, it provided people who still imagined the Pyramids of Giza to have been silos for grain storage built by the Biblical Joseph with their first glimpse into the real history and culture of ancient Egypt, in all its long-vanished splendor and glory. What with Egyptian hieroglyphs not being readable by any living person, it remained one of the world’s few paths to understanding that land for centuries thereafter, until Jean-François Champollion finally turned on the lights for modern Egyptology by deciphering the hieroglyphs in the early nineteenth century.
Even today, the shadow which Manetho casts over that field of history is every bit as long as that of Champollion. For example, the procession of 30 numbered dynasties which Manetho used to bring some sense of order to his land’s chaotic past — running from the rise of the canonical first pharaoh Narmer in circa 3000 BC to the deposition of Nakhthorheb, the very last ethnically Egyptian pharaoh, in 343 BC — is still used by historians today. In other words, every schoolchild of today who reads about the storied Fourth Dynasty that built the Pyramids of Giza or the legendary Nineteenth that built the temples at Abu Simbel is in Manetho’s debt. We have come to realize that he was mistaken in many particulars, but his is nevertheless still the abstract framework we use whenever we think about ancient Egypt.
The final work which we absolutely must discuss here has been yet more important in the history of human thought. It too was the product of an outsider to the city’s dominant Greek culture — or rather a group of outsiders. For it was in third-century Alexandria that the first and most important part of what would later become known as the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament was first translated from Hebrew, a tongue known only to the Jews, into Greek, the lingua franca of the time. This accomplishment was an indispensable step in the protracted, variegated, and thoroughly unlikely process by which a strange new monotheism rose from utter obscurity to displace the world’s dominant ethos of pagan polytheism.
The question of just how and why the part of the Bible which Jews call the Torah or Pentateuch — consisting of its first five books, from Genesis through Deuteronomy — came to be translated in this time and place is by no means settled. The Jews of later generations claimed that the translation was not commissioned by their people at all, but was rather another byproduct of the Library of Alexandria’s insatiable hunger for books of all stripes. By way of evidence, they pointed to a lengthy letter, purportedly written by an Alexandrian scholar named Aristeas to his brother during the reign of Ptolemy I. This Aristeas was a friend of Demetrius, the former librarian of the Lyceum in Athens who may have been recruited by Ptolemy I to help him to establish his own similar institution. Aristeas describes how Demetrius set the translation project in motion with the personal blessing of Ptolemy I.
On one occasion when I [Aristeas] was present he [the king] was asked, “How many thousand books are there in the library?”
And he [Demetrius] replied, “More than 200,000, O king, and I shall make endeavor in the immediate future to gather together the remainder also, so that the total of 500,000 may be reached. I am told that the laws of the Jews are worth transcribing and deserve a place in your library.”
“What is to prevent you from doing this?’ replied the king. “Everything that is necessary has been placed at your disposal.”
“They need to be translated,” answered Demetrius, “for in the country of the Jews they use a peculiar alphabet (just as the Egyptians, too, have a special form of letters) and speak a peculiar dialect. They are supposed to use the Syriac tongue, but this is not the case; their language is quite different.”
And the king when he understood all the facts of the case ordered a letter to be written to the Jewish High Priest that his purpose might be accomplished.
From there, this Letter of Aristeas explains how Demetrius recruited 72 Jewish scholars and holy men from Jerusalem — six from each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel — brought them to Alexandria, and set each of them to work on the translation in complete isolation from his peers. When they all finished simultaneously exactly 72 days later, he compared their translations to find that every single one of them was identical. Clearly the hand of God must have been guiding the pens of the sages. “Inasmuch as the translation has been well and piously made and is in every respect accurate,” the scholars as a whole concluded, “it is right that it should remain in its present form and that no revision of any sort take place.”
There is ample reason to question this story even for those willing to admit the possibility of divine intervention. For one thing, the Letter of Aristeas makes a habit of confusing Ptolemy I and Ptolemy II — and, indeed, most Bible historians now believe that it is far more likely that the translation occurred during the reign of the latter rather than the former, which means it would also have occurred well after the death of Demetrius, the man who plays such a starring role in Aristeas’s tale. And there is another, even bigger problem: we do have the translated text in question, and it is anything but the immaculate creation described by Aristeas; it smacks more of Google Translate than divine inspiration.
In commissioning multiple independent scholars, the Demetrius of legend fulfilled one best practice of modern translation efforts. But he failed badly at another: one should always translate into one’s native language rather than from it. “The Greek translation of the Pentateuch is highly literal, to the point where it in places hardly resembles Greek,” notes the historian of the Bible Michael L. Satlow. “The reason why this is so was not because translators made a deliberate choice to make the underlying Hebrew text visible in the Greek [as some would later claim to be the case]. Rather, it is because their Greek was not very good.”
The reality is that the translation of the Torah was probably a project initiated within the Jewish community in Alexandria rather than by the city’s ruling classes — which of course does not preclude the possibility, even likelihood, of a copy winding up in the library. Rather than being a piece of contemporaneous correspondence, the Letter of Aristeas is now believed to have been written well after the translation project, perhaps as long as two centuries later. It bears all the classic trappings of a Jewish apologia: an attempt to elevate the historical importance of a people who had spent most of their existence as a relatively small, nearly powerless, oft-displaced minority, well-removed from the proverbial counsels of the great. As is typical in such texts, the king of the land in Aristeas’s story goes from being contemptuous of the Jews and their strange religion to evincing all the zeal of a convert. “The greatest blessings have accrued to me by your coming here, for I have profited greatly by the doctrine which you have grounded for me with reference to kingship,” he admits after extensive discussions with the Jewish wise men. Similar stories of other mighty monarchs who realized the power of Jewish teachings can be found in many another Jewish text, both inside and outside of the Bible. Think, for example, of the unnamed Egyptian pharaoh of yore who makes the prophet Joseph the steward of his entire kingdom in the Book of Genesis, or the divine madness and then divine deliverance of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II in the Book of Daniel. We have no reason to believe that any of these self-aggrandizing Jewish legends have any basis in fact, any more than the one described in the Letter of Aristeas.
Yet, for all that it is not what it purports to be, the Letter of Aristeas is still a document of immense historical importance. It is a central tenet of modern literary scholarship that every text — perhaps especially a forgery like this one — includes between its lines much valuable truth about the time and place that created it, if not always the time and place it purports to describe. The Letter of Aristeas had a clear rhetorical purpose in its own time, one which is fascinating in and of itself: in addition to elevating the role of the Jews in history in the fashion of so many other apologia, it is designed to convey upon the Alexandrian translation of the Torah the status of a perfect, immutable holy text. So, I must confess at this point that I’ve rather buried the lede here. The importance of the translation in question isn’t to be found in the resulting text itself or even the act of translation itself, but rather in the status said translation was accorded by later generations of Jews.
Jews have long been grouped with Christians and Muslims as “The Peoples of the Book.” And for almost as long as that phrase has been in circulation, Biblical scholarship — even that which approached its subject from an avowedly secular perspective — hewed to the notion that the holy texts of Judaism were sacrosanct from the moment of their first creation, wherever and whenever that may have been; indeed, they were sacrosanct to such an extent that human authors were never even credited. This fact, just as much as their monotheism, set the Jews apart from other ancient worshipers, whose religious practices were less rigidly codified, being based on a set of looser oral traditions which, even when they were written down, were always understood to be imperfect human interpretations of the domain of the gods; the closest things to holy texts in Greek religion were the Iliad and Odyssey of the celebrated but mortal Homer.
I’ll return shortly to the philosophical implications of this distinction. Before I do so, however, I need to address an even more fundamental question: that of whether the Jews were really a People of the Book at all from as early a date as Bible historians once believed. For the scholarship of recent decades has indicated more and more that early Judaism was not so different from other ancient religions in this respect. Rather than functioning as a single, sacrosanct textual authority, scripture would appear to have existed for these Jews as a set of quite mutable texts, cemented together with a robust oral tradition. This did not begin to change until the Alexandria of the third century BC, with the first attempt to compile an authoritative holy text in Greek.
Over the 200 years that followed, most of the rest of what we now know as the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament was also translated by the Jews of Alexandria. All of these texts together were called the Septuagint, a reference to the 72 translators who supposedly tackled the Torah. In time, such rhetorical devices as the Letter of Aristeas were employed to sanctify and legitimize the Septuagint as the one true holy text. It was in Alexandria between the third and first centuries BC, in other words, that the People of the Book well and properly earned their sobriquet. It was here that Judaism became the first religion in the history of the world to be grounded less in the ongoing life of the people than in the static dictates of words on a page.
Why should this have happened here rather than in the Jewish capital of Jerusalem? The answer to this question evokes the experience of the Jewish diaspora throughout history. Those Jews who first began coming to Egypt when it was still a Persian territory, who then prospered in Alexandria under the Ptolemaic kings, lived as both insiders and outsiders to the culture all around them. As the generations passed, they became more fluent in Greek than in Hebrew, and won a measure of respect for themselves as industrious, intelligent, and prudent citizens. For all that, though, they remained Jews first and foremost in the eyes of the wider society, and were allowed to penetrate only so deeply into the social fabric. And so, as people in their position have always done, they formed their own thriving subculture within the larger one, clinging all the tighter to their shared Jewishness.
Being cut off from its Holy Land, the religion of these Alexandrian Jews came to revolve more and more around its Holy Book instead. The tortured Greek of their forefathers came to seem to them a marker of the Septuagint’s distance from their own everyday concerns. They read the words aloud with reverence as part of their religious ceremonies; turned into an annual holiday the day when the original translation of the Torah was believed to have been completed; wrote and performed plays based upon both the contents of their holy book and the momentous event that was the translation itself. To them, these imperfect Greek translations became more authoritative, more important, more holy than their Hebrew originals.
It was natural for this profound transformation in religious practice to occur in Alexandria; Alexandria was, after all, the foremost literary city of the time, and thus the perfect place for such a bookish form of religion to take root. Jerusalem, on the other hand, was a relative backwater. “By the early first century AD,” writes Michael L. Satlow, “most Jews who lived in larger cities outside of Judea would probably have had far greater knowledge of scripture than those who lived in Jerusalem.” For many centuries to come, Alexandria rather than Jerusalem would be the true center of Jewish thought.
What, then, did it mean for Alexandria and the world around it to see the rise of this religion of a book in place of a religion of lived experience? It’s all too easy to answer the question all too glibly.
I will presume that most of you who have read this far are fond of books. We see them as symbols of education, of enlightenment, of thoughtfulness in all its forms. But when books become the enemies of lived experience they also become the enemies of just the kind of empiricist explorations we have been learning about in the last few chapters; dogma and science make for incompatible bedfellows. Thus the Septuagint was, whatever else it may have been, an early harbinger of a conflict between worldviews, one that in the course of time would all but rend the city of Alexandria in twain.
(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)