HAVE NEVER BEEN AMONG THOSE who think that it is better to be dead than to leave Rome. In fact, I have fled Rome many times in order to preserve my life. For me, however, life away from Rome is usually a sort of living death, a trans-Styxian suspension of the processes of living and a sense that everything important is happening far away. But there are exceptions to this. One of them is Alexandria.
I remember my first sight of the city as though it were yesterday, except that I remember nothing at all about yesterday. Of course, when you approached Alexandria by sea, you did not see the city first. You saw the Pharos.
It appeared as a smudge on the horizon while we were still a good twenty miles out to sea. We had cut straight across the sea like fools, rather than hugging the coast like sensible men. To compound the folly, we weren’t in a broad-beamed merchantman that could ride out a storm at sea, but rather in a splendid war galley that carried enough paint and gilding to sink a lesser ship. On its
bows, just above the ram, were a pair of bronze crocodiles that appeared to be foaming through their toothy jaws as the flashing oars propelled us over the waves.
“That’s Alexandria,” said the sailing master, a weather-beaten Cypriote in Roman uniform.
“We’ve made good time,” grunted my high-placed kinsman, Metellus Creticus. Like most Romans, we both loathed the sea and anything having to do with sea travel. That was why we had chosen the most dangerous way to travel to Egypt. It was the quickest. There is nothing afloat swifter than a Roman trireme under all oars, and we had kept the rowers sweating since leaving Massilia. We had been on a tedious embassy to a pack of disaffected Gauls, trying to persuade them not to join the Helvetii. I detested Gaul, and was overjoyed when Creticus received a special commission from the Senate sending him to the Egyptian embassy.
The galley had a delightful miniature castle erected before the mast, and I climbed to its fighting platform for a better view. Within minutes the smudge became a definite column of smoke, and before much longer the tower was visible. From so far out there was nothing to give the thing scale, and it was hard to believe that this was one of the wonders of the world.
“You mean that’s the famous lighthouse?” This from my slave Hermes. He had climbed after me, unsteadily. He was even more wretchedly seasick than was I, a matter of some satisfaction to me.
“I hear that it is more impressive up close,” I assured him. It looked at first like a slender column, dazzling white in the noon sunlight. As we drew nearer, I could see that the slender shaft sat atop a stouter one, and that one on one broader still. Then we saw the island itself, and I began to get an idea of how huge the lighthouse was, for it dominated utterly the island of Pharos, which was itself large enough to conceal from view the entire great city of Alexandria.
The Pharos sat upon the eastern extremity of the island, and it was toward that cape that we steered, for we were bound for the Great Harbor. Around the western end of the island lay the Eunostos
Harbor, the Harbor of Safe Return, where ships could enter the canal that connected the city to the Nile, or could proceed on to Lake Mareotis to the south. Hence the Eunostos was the favored commercial harbor. But we were on a government mission and therefore were to be received at the Palace, which was situated on the Great Harbor.
As we rounded the eastern end of the island, Hermes craned his neck to look up at the lighthouse. It was capped by a round kiosk from which smoke and flame billowed to the prevailing breeze.
pretty tall,” he admitted.
“More than four hundred feet, it’s said,” I affirmed. The old Successor Kings who followed Alexander built on a scale rivaling the Pharaohs. Their monster tombs and temples and statues weren’t good for much, but they were impressive, which was the main idea. We Romans could understand that. It is important to impress people. Of course, we preferred useful things like roads and aqueducts and bridges. At least the Pharos was a truly useful structure, if a bit outsized.
When we passed between the Pharos and Cape Lochias, we came into view of the city, and it was breathtaking. Alexandria was situated on a strip of land separating Lake Mareotis and the sea, just to the west of the Nile Delta. Alexander had chosen the spot so that his new capital would be a part of the Greek world, rather than of priest-besotted old Egypt. It had been a wise move. The whole city was built of white stone and the effect was astonishing. It was like some idealized model of a city, rather than the real thing. Rome is not a beautiful city, although it has some beautiful buildings. Alexandria was incomparably beautiful. Its population was greater than that of Rome, but it had none of Rome’s crowded, jumbled aspect. It had not just grown there like most cities. Instead it had been planned, laid out and built as a great city. On its flat spit of land, all the greater buildings were clearly visible from the harbor, from the huge Temple of Serapis in the western quarter to the strange artificial hill and temple of the Paneum in the east.
The greatest complex of buildings was the Palace, which stretched from the Moon Gate eastward along the sickle curve of Cape Lochias. There was even an Island Palace in the harbor, and a royal harbor attached to the Palace complex. The Ptolemies liked to live in style.
I went down to the deck and sent Hermes to fetch my best toga. The marines on deck were polishing their armor, but our mission was diplomatic, so Creticus and I would not be wearing military uniform.
Dressed in our best, flanked by our honor guard, we approached the dock nearest the Moon Gate. Above the gate was the figure of the beautiful but extremely elongated goddess Nut, the Egyptian goddess of the sky. Her feet stood upon one side of the gate, her long body overarched it and her fingertips rested on the opposite side. Her body was deep blue, spangled with stars, and slung beneath the arch thus formed was a huge brazen alarm gong, fashioned in the shape of a sun-disc. I was to see these reminders of Egyptian religion everywhere in Alexandria, which was otherwise a Greek city.
We sped toward the stone pier as if we intended to ram and sink it. At the last possible instant, the sailing master barked a command and the oars plunged into the water and stayed there, flinging forward a massive spray. The ship rapidly lost way and came to a gentle stop against the seawall.
“Could’ve tied a rose to the ram and she wouldn’t’ve lost a petal,” said the sailing master, with a certain justifiable exaggeration. The oars were shipped, lines were cast ashore and the trireme was drawn against the pier and made fast. The big boarding-bridge was lowered by its crane to the stone pavement and the marines arranged themselves along its railings, their old-fashioned bronze breastplates gleaming in the sun.
A delegation had come from the city to greet us, a mixed group, court officials in Egyptian garb and Romans from the embassy wearing togas. The Egyptian contingent had not neglected to bring entertainment. There were tumblers and trained monkeys and
several naked girls dancing through lubricious gyrations. The Romans were more dignified, but several of them swayed on their feet, already drunk at this early hour.
“I think I’m going to like this place,” I said as we descended the bridge.
“You would,” Creticus said. My family did not have a high opinion of me in those days. Drums thumped and pipes shrilled and sistra rattled while boys swung censers, engulfing us in clouds of fragrant smoke. Creticus bore all this with a becoming stoicism, but it all delighted me.
“Welcome to Alexandria, noble Senator Metellus!” cried a tall man dressed in a blue gown with a lot of gold fringe. He was speaking to Creticus, not to me. “Welcome, Quintus Caecilius Metellus, conqueror of Crete!” It wasn’t much of a war, but the Senate had voted him the title and the triumph. “I, Polyxenus, Third Eunuch of the court of King Philopator Philadelphus Neos Dionysus, the eleventh Ptolemy, bid you welcome and give you freedom of our city and our Palace, in recognition of the deep love and respect which has for so long existed between Rome and Egypt.” Polyxenus, like the other court officials, wore a black, square-cut Egyptian wig, heavy black makeup around his eyes and rouge on his cheeks and lips.
“What’s a Third Eunuch?” Hermes asked me in a low voice. “Do Eunuchs One and Two have one ball each or something?” Actually, I’d been wondering that myself.
“On behalf of the Senate and People of Rome,” Creticus said, “I am empowered and privileged to extend the great esteem which we have always cherished for King Ptolemy, the nobles and the people of Egypt.” The courtiers clapped and twittered like so many trained pigeons.
“Then please accompany us to the Palace, where a banquet has been laid in your honor.” That was more like it. No sooner had I felt solidity beneath my feet than my appetite had returned. To the accompaniment of drum and flute, sistrum and cymbal, we passed through the Moon Gate. Some of the Roman contingent fell
in around us and I recognized a familiar face. This was a cousin of the Caecilian gens nicknamed Rufus for his red hair. He was not only red-haired but left-handed. With that combination he had no future in Roman politics, so he was always being sent out on foreign service. He clapped a hand on my shoulder and breathed wine in my face.
“Good to see you. Decius. Make yourself unwelcome in Rome again?”
“The old men decided it would be a good time for me to be away. Clodius finally got his transfer to the plebs and he’s standing for the Tribuneship. If he gets it, that means I won’t be able to go home next year either. He’ll be too powerful.”
“That’s rough,” Rufus said. “But you’ve just found the only place in the world where you won’t miss Rome.”
“That good?” I asked, brightening at the prospect.
“Unbelievable. The climate is wonderful all year, every debauchery in the world is to be had here cheap, the public spectacles are superb, especially the races, the high life doesn’t stop just because the sun goes down, and, Decius my friend, you have absolutely never had your bottom kissed until you’ve had it kissed by Egyptians. They think every Roman is a god.”
“I’ll try not to disappoint them,” I said.
“And the streets are clean. Not that you’ll have to walk much if you don’t want to.” He gestured to the litters that awaited us just inside the Moon Gate. I gaped like a yokel who has just caught his first sight of the Capitol.
I had been carried around in litters before, of course. The sort we used in Rome were carried by two or four bearers and were a slow but dignified alternative to tramping through the mud and garbage. These were somewhat different. To begin with, each of them was carried by at least fifty black Nubians who shouldered poles as long as ships’ masts. Each had seating accommodations for at least ten passengers which we reached by climbing a flight of stairs. Seated and hoisted, we were higher than the second-story windows.
The chair I was led to was made of ivory-inlaid ebony, draped with leopard skins. Overhead, a canopy protected me from the sun while a slave armed with a feather fan cooled me and kept the flies at bay. This was a definite improvement over Gaul. To my relief, Creticus and the eunuchs took the other litter. The musicians ranged themselves on the lower levels of the litters while dancers and tumblers frolicked along the poles, somehow managing to avoid the bearers. Then, like images of the gods carried in a sacred procession, we were off.
From my point of vantage, I saw immediately how such huge vehicles could traverse the city. The streets were broad and absolutely straight, a thing unknown in Rome. The one we were on ran right through the city, north to south.
“This is the Street of the Soma,” Rufus told me, hauling a pitcher of wine from beneath his seat. He poured a cupful and handed it to me. “The Soma is Alexander’s tomb. It’s not really on this street, but it’s close.” We passed a number of cross streets, all of them straight but not as wide as the one we were on. All the buildings were of white stone and all of them of the same high quality, unlike Rome, where mansions and slums occupy the same block. I was later to learn that all the buildings in Alexandria were built completely of stone, with no wooden frames, floors or roofs. The city was all but fireproof.
We came to a cross street that was even wider than the one we were on. Here the litters turned east like ships tacking into the wind. The throngs in the streets cheered our little procession, all the louder, it seemed, when they saw the distinctive Roman garb. There were exceptions. The soldiers who seemed to be on every street corner regarded us sourly. I asked about these.
“Macedonians,” said Rufus. “Not to be confused with the degenerate Macedonians of the court. These are barbarians right out of the hills.”
“Macedonia’s been a Roman province since Aemilius Paullus,” I said. “How is it they have an army here?”
“They’re mercenaries in the service of the Ptolemies. They don’t much like Romans.”
I held out my cup for a refill. “No reason why they should, considering how many times we’ve beaten them. They’re still in rebellion, last I heard. Sent Antonius Hibrida packing.”
“They’re a tough lot,” Rufus said. “Best to steer clear of them.”
Aside from the sour-faced soldiers, the citizenry seemed to be a cheerful and cosmopolitan lot. I never saw such a combination of skin, hair and eye color except at a slave market. Greek dress predominated, but there was garb from every land under the sun, from swathing desert robes to jungle skins and feathers. The effect of all the white stone was somewhat softened by the masses of greenery that hung from balconies and rooftop gardens. Vases were filled with flowers and festal wreaths hung lavishly.