What Rome was to politics and war, Alexandria was to scholarship and culture—or so contends Vrettos (The Elgin Affair, 1997) in this rather disjointed history.
Founded by Alexander the Great in 332 b.c., the city was capital of Egypt and intellectual center of the Western world until the Arabs conquered the country in a.d. 641. A multicultural metropolis that would eventually harbor Christians, Jews, and pagans, with inhabitants hailing from places as far-flung as Spain and India, Alexandria continued the traditions of intellectual endeavor established in Athens. Its scholars translated the Old Testament into Greek and established Neo-Platonism as a school of philosophy. Vrettos suggests that the city owed its character to the wisdom of Alexander’s urban planning, which created a town not unlike Manhattan. Alexandria was built on an island, with its sumptuous palaces, university, and famous library forming the heart of the city. At the same time, Alexandria’s corn exchange was the largest in the ancient world, and its location at the mouth of the Nile allowed the Ptolemys, Egypt’s royal family, to regulate trade from the Far East. The city declined under Cleopatra, however. Even though she was probably the most gifted Ptolemy ever to rule, she had the misfortune to govern when Rome was racked by civil wars. She hitched her star first to Caesar, bearing his son, then after his assassination allied herself with Marc Antony, an incompetent drunk who could not bring his many schemes to fruition. Eventually, the Romans, under Octavian, took over the city. Vrettos enjoys delving into the stories behind Alexandria’s many faces, dividing his five chapters into headings like “The Mind of the City” and “The Soul of the City.” Taken separately, each is an accomplished monograph. Together, however, they fail to cohere. The reader often loses sight of the big picture the author is trying to convey.
Still, a fine portrait of a city long overshadowed by its Italian master.