Foundation and Early History of Alexandria

We hear about the founding of Alexandria from a handful of ancient authors. Both Plutarch in his Life of Alexander and the native Alexandrian, Pseudo-Callisthenes, give us useful but highly romanticized information regarding Alexandria’s beginnings. For our purposes, the less-embellished historical account given by Arrian in his Anabasis of Alexander will suffice. According to Arian, Alexander, after having laid siege upon Tyre in 332/331 BCE, traveled with his troops southwest through the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, which had been a remote sovereignty of the Persian Empire since King Cambyses conquered it in 526/525 BCE. Persian rule had been harsh during the 4th century BCE and therefore Alexander met a hero’s welcome by the discontent Egyptians. Alexander was crowned Pharaoh in the city of Memphis in 331. Leaving Memphis, Alexander traveled north down the Nile toward the Libyan desert where he intended to consult the oracle of Zeus Ammon located there. However, before reaching his destination, Alexander stopped at the western end of the Nile delta between Lake Mareotis and the sea. There, Alexander found a site ideal for a glorious city. Arrian recounts:

And it seemed to him that the site was the very best in which to found a city, and that the city would prosper. A longing for this task seized him, and he personally established the main points of the city – where the agora should be constructed, and how many temples there should be, and of which gods, those of the Greek gods and of Egyptian Isis – and what the course of the city wall should be. And he made a scarifice for the furtherance of these projects, and the omens appeared good. (Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander)

Arrian’s account leaves out some important facts, namely that the site which Alexander chose already was occupied by the small village of Rhakotis, a place which had been utilized by the Pharoahs for many years as a guard post as the Roman author Strabo of Amasia would later indicate. In addition, although Alexander probably did indicate where he wanted main features of the city, the actual design of Alexandria was left in the hands of Deinokrates, the Macedonian architect who had most recently overseen the construction of the new temple of Artemis at Ephesos. Nevertheless, Arrian’s account does elucidate the fact that Alexander chose the site specifically because of its potential for commercial prosperity and did not take a passive role in city planning, even though the technical work was carried out by Deinokrates.

Arrian goes on to explain how Alexander marked the perimeter of the town with meal that his soldiers were carrying. Upon spreading it where he saw fit for the boundary should be, many birds came down to feast on the meal and then, having eaten it, flew off in all directions. Soothsayers saw this as an omen that Alexandria would one day feed the whole world. This story, clearly fictionalized, does serve to emphasize the future stature of Alexandria as the most prominent cultural and commercial center in the Meditterranean and the world. Indeed, grain shipped from Alexandria was to be the main source of food for the city of Rome in the height of its Empire.

After the death of Alexander in 323 BCE. The Macedonian Empire was divided into three regions: Macedonian, Asiatic, and Egyptian. The satrapy of Egypt was assigned to Ptolemy, son of Lagus, a boyhood friend of Alexander and a reputed general in his army. At that time, a man named Cleomenes ruled Egypt, appointed by Alexander to handle the financial affairs of the Nile region. Cleomenes was infamous for his tyranny, malice, and greed. Demosthenes, in a speech against Dionysodorous, tells of the wicked deeds of Cleomenes, unjustly raising the price of grain for Athens and other Greeks poleis for purpose of personal profit. Ptolemy’s governorship was thus welcome by the unhappy citizens of Egypt. He wasted no time in ordering the execution of Cleomenes, which undoubtedly a popular and wise act. After Ptolemy gained solid political ground for his rule, he declared himself king of Egypt in 305 BCE and made Alexandria its capital. Soon thereafter, Ptolemy received the title Soter, or the Deliverer, after defending Egypt against many caimpaigns by rivals from Syria. Ptolemy Soter, thus established a dynasty that was to rule Egypt for many generations.

Ptolemy Soter was keen on intellectual and cultural matters. He, himself, was known to have written works of history, though they have since been lost. Knowing that the grandeur of a city had its roots in the cultrual and intellectual prowess of its citizens, Ptolemy followed in the tradition of regal patronage for scholars and artists, started by kings and tyrants in the 6th century BCE. Like the Pisistratids of Athens and Hieron of Syracuse, Soter sought to attract the most learned and artistically skilled of the Greek World to his court in Alexandria. This practice of royal support for intellectual activity was to continue in the Ptolemaic dynasty for many years to come. Soter’s son Ptolemy Philadelphus, continued this tradition, as did his son, Ptolemy Euergetes, literally “the Benefactor.” Thus Alexandria a promising new city with a very small native population began to attract immigrants of various racial and ethnic backgrounds and contiued to grow in size and in grandeur. In 60 BCE, Diodorus Siculus estimated that there were approximately around 300,000 freemen in the city. Thus, a plausible estimation for a total population for Alexandria, including slaves, is approximately 500,000 people. This population was composed of Greeks, Egyptians, Arabs, Persians, Jews, Syrians, Thracians, and other Balkan tribes, (though only Greeks were given the rights of full cutizens). Alexandria thus was truly the first city of its kind – an international city. This cosmoplitian environment helped to foster its cultural and intellectual growth.

Sources: (1). Encyclopedia of Greece and the Hellenic Tradition. (2 Vols.) Speake, Graham (ed.) Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers: Chicago, London 2000. (2). The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Hornblower, S. (ed.) and Spawforth, A. (ed.) Oxford University Press: New York 1996 (3rd edition). (3).Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites. Stillwell, R. (ed.) Princeton University Press: Princeton 1976. (4). Fraser, P. M. Ptolemaic Alexandria. (4 Vols.) Oxford University Press: New York 1998.