A description of Alexandria in Achilles Tatius

A review at Bryn Mawr draws my attention to a new book on the famous library by Monica Berti, La Biblioteca di Alessandria.  But the review (in English) mentions descriptions of Alexandria in ancient literature.  One of these is at the start of book 5 of the 2nd century novel by Achilles Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon

Like most people I have never paid any attention to this work.  So it was a pleasure to have a reason to go and look at it.  The 1917 Loeb edition and translation is at Archive.org — aren’t these old online Loebs useful! — here.  Here’s the relevant passage, over-paragraphed by me for readability.

1. After a voyage lasting for three days, we arrived at Alexandria. I entered it by the Sun Gate, as it is called, and was instantly struck by the splendid beauty of the city, which filled my eyes with delight.

From the Sun Gate to the Moon Gate — these are the guardian divinities of the entrances — led a straight double row of columns, about the middle of which lies the open part of the town, and in it so many streets that walking in them you would fancy yourself abroad while still at home. Going a few hundred yards further, I came to the quarter called after Alexander, where I saw a second town; the splendour of this was cut into squares, for there was a row of columns intersected by another as long at right angles.

I tried to cast my eyes down every street, but my gaze was still unsatisfied, and I could not grasp all the beauty of the spot at once; some parts I saw, some I was on the point of seeing, some I earnestly desired to see, some I could not pass by; that which I actually saw kept my gaze fixed, while that which I expected to see would drag it on to the next.

I explored therefore every street, and at last, my vision unsatisfied, exclaimed in weariness, “Ah, my eyes, we are beaten.”

Two things struck me as especially strange and extraordinary — it was impossible to decide which was the greatest, the size of the place or its beauty, the city itself or its inhabitants ; for the former was larger than a continent, the latter outnumbered a whole nation. Looking at the city, I doubted whether any race of men could ever fill it; looking at the inhabitants, I wondered whether any city could ever be found large enough to hold them all. The balance seemed exactly even.

2. It so fortuned that it was, at that time, the sacred festival of the great god whom the Greeks call Zeus, the Egyptians Serapis, and there was a procession of torches. It was the greatest spectacle I ever beheld, for it was late evening and the sun had gone down ; but there was no sign of night — it was as though another sun had arisen, but distributed into small parts in every direction; I thought that on that occasion the city vied with the sky for beauty.

I also visited the Gracious Zeus and his temple in his aspect as god of Heaven; and then praying to the great god and humbly imploring him that our troubles might be at last at an end, we came back to the lodgings which Menelaus had hired for us.  …

6. … On the morrow came Chaereas at dawn: for very shame we could make no further excuses and got aboard a boat to go to Pharos; Menelaus stayed behind, saying that he was not well.

Chaereas first took us to the light-house and showed us the most remarkable and extraordinary structure upon which it rested; it was like a mountain, almost reaching the clouds, in the middle of the sea. Below the building flowed the waters; it seemed to be, as it were, suspended above their surface, while at the top of this mountain rose a second sun to be a guide for ships.

After this he took us to his house, which was on the shore at the extremity of the island. …

14. … [A rich Ephesian woman living in Alexandria wants to marry the hero] … it was agreed upon between us that the next day we should meet at the temple of Isis in order to discuss our future and take the goddess as witness to our troth. Menelaus and Clinias came there with us, and we took oaths, I to love her honourably, and she to make me her husband and declare me master of all that she possessed.

Note the reference in chapter 2 to street-lighting!

This is all that Achilles Tatius gives us about the city.  It’s rather vague; but of course the author had no notion that his work would be scanned by readers 18 centuries later for clues about ancient Alexandria, any more than I consider some possible future reader of these words, of two centuries hence, who impatiently scans these paragraphs of tedious-seeming antiquarianism on the off-chance that it may contain a description of modern London!  We do not describe what we see every day, until it is vanished.


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