A short history of nearly everything classical. The foundations of the modern world were laid in Alexandria of Egypt at the turn of the first millennium. In this compulsively readable narrative, Justin Pollard and Howard Reid bring one of history's most fascinating and prolific cities to life, creating a treasure trove of our intellectual and cultural origins. Famous for its lighthouse, its library-the greatest in antiquity-and its fertile intellectual and spiritual life--it was here that Christianity and Islam came to prominence as world religions--Alexandria now takes its rightful place alongside Greece and Rome as a titan of the ancient world. Sparkling with fresh insights on science, philosophy, culture, and invention, this is an irresistible, eye-opening delight.
Ancient Alexandria was first and foremost a Greek city. Its history, however, is framed by two religious events that were alien to Greek intellectual traditions: Ptolemy's creation of the cult of Serapis, which helped him establish rule, and the Christian riots that massacred the pagan philosopher Hypatia in A.D. 415. Between these two events is an unmatched record of intellectual achievement, elegantly chronicled by documentary makers Pollard and Reid. Among the many scientific advances they cover, from Euclid and Archimedes to Claudius Ptolemy, perhaps the most illustrative of the city's cosmopolitanism is human anatomy, the Greeks' limited understanding of which was tremendously aided by contact with Egyptian mummification. Throughout, the authors are eager, at times overly eager, to demonstrate ancient Alexandria's modernity. So it is curious that little is said about the famous feud between Callimachus, poet and cataloguer of the great library, and his former pupil Apollonius. The ingredients of the feud--plagiarism, obscenity, professional envy--are strangely contemporary. The authors also paint an incomplete picture of the city's literary culture and its museum, which functioned like a modern university. These criticisms aside, most readers, especially those interested in the history of science, will find this a nourishing account. (Oct. 23)
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October 29, 2007
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