The History, 22.16

Ammian  translated by C. D. Yonge

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16In former times Egypt is said to have been divided into three provinces: Egypt proper, the Thebais, and Libya, to which in later times two more have been added, Augustamnica, which has been cut off from Egypt proper, and Pentapolis, which has been detached from Libya.

2Thebais, among many other cities, can boast especially of Hermopolis, Coptos, and Antinous, which Hadrian built in honour of his friend Antinous. As to Thebes, with, its hundred gates, there is no one ignorant of its renown.

3In Augustamnica, among others, there is the noble city of Pelusium, which is said to have been founded by Peleus, the father of Achilles, who by command of the gods was ordered to purify himself in the lake adjacent to the walls of the city, when, after having slain his brother Phocus, he was driven about by horrid images of the Furies; and Cassium, where the tomb of the great Pompey is, and Ostracine, and Rhinocolura.

4In Libya Pentapolis is Cyrene, a city of great antiquity, but now deserted, founded by Battus the Spartan, and Ptolemais, and Arsinoë, known also as Teuchira, and Darnis, and Berenice, called also Hesperides.

5And in the dry Libya, besides a few other insignificant towns, there are Parætonium, Chærecla, and Neapolis.

6Egypt proper, which ever since it has been united to the Roman empire has been under the government of a prefect, besides some other towns of smaller importance, is distinguished by Athribis, and Oxyrynchus, and Thmuis, and Memphis.

7But the greatest of all the cities is Alexandria, ennobled by many circumstances, and especially by the grandeur of its great founder, and the skill of its architect Dinocrates, who, when he was laying the foundation of its extensive and beautiful walls, for want of mortar, which could not be procured at the moment, is said to have marked out its outline with flour; an incident which foreshowed that the city should hereafter abound in supplies of provisions.

8At Inibis the air is wholesome, the sky pure and undisturbed; and, as the experience of a long series of ages proves, there is scarcely ever a day on which the inhabitants of this city do not see the sun.

9The shore is shifty and dangerous; and as in former times it exposed sailors to many dangers, Cleopatra erected a lofty tower in the harbour, which was named Pharos, from the spot on which it was built, and which afforded light to vessels by night when coming from the Levant or the Libyan sea along the plain and level coast, without any signs of mountains or towns or eminences to direct them, they were previously often wrecked by striking into the soft and adhesive sand.

10The same queen, for a well-known and necessary reason, made a causeway seven furlongs in extent, admirable for its size and for the almost incredible rapidity with which it was made. The island of Pharos, where Homer in sublime language relates that Proteus used to amuse himself with his herds of seals, is almost a thousand yards from the shore on which the city stands, and was liable to pay tribute to the Rhodians.

11And when on one occasion the farmers of this revenue came to make exorbitant demands, she, being a wily woman, on a pretext of it being the season of solemn holidays, led them into the suburbs, and ordered the work to be carried on without ceasing. And so seven furlongs were completed in seven days, being raised with the soil of the adjacent shore. Then the queen, driving over it in her chariot, said that the Rhodians were making a blunder in demanding port dues for what was not an island but part of the mainland.

12Besides this there are many lofty temples, and especially one to Serapis, which, although no words can adequately describe it, we may yet say, from its splendid halls supported by pillars, and its beautiful statues and other embellishments, is so superbly decorated, that next to the Capitol, of which the ever-venerable Rome boasts, the whole world has nothing worthier of admiration.

13In it were libraries of inestimable value; and the concurrent testimony of ancient records affirm that 70,000 volumes, which had been collected by the anxious care of the Ptolemies, were burnt in the Alexandrian war when the city was sacked in the time of Cæsar the Dictator.

14Twelve miles from this city is Canopus, which, according to ancient tradition, received its name from the prophet of Menelaus, who was buried there. It is a place exceedingly well supplied with good inns, of a most wholesome climate, with refreshing breezes; so that any one who resides in that district might think himself out of our world while he hears the breezes murmuring through the sunny atmosphere.

15Alexandria itself was not, like other cities, gradually embellished, but at its very outset it was adorned with spacious roads. But after having been long torn by violent seditions, at last, when Aurelian was emperor, and when the intestine quarrels of its citizens had proceeded to deadly strife, its walls were destroyed, and it lost the largest half of its territory, which was called Bruchion, and had long been the abode of eminent men.

16There had lived Aristarchus, that illustrious grammarian; and Herodianus, that accurate inquirer into the fine arts; and Saccas Ammonius, the master of Plotinus, and many other writers in various useful branches of literature, among whom Didymus, surnamed Chalcenterus, a man celebrated for his writings on many subjects of science, deserves especial mention; who, in the six books in which he, sometimes incorrectly, attacks Cicero, imitating those malignant farce writers, is justly blamed by the learned as a puppy barking from a distance with puny voice against the mighty roar of the lion.

17And although, besides those I have mentioned, there were many other men of eminence in ancient times, yet even now there is much learning in the same city; for teachers of various sects flourish, and many kinds of secret knowledge are explained by geometrical science. Nor is music dead among them, nor harmony. And by a few, observations of the motion of the world and of the stars are still cultivated; while of learned arithmeticians the number is considerable; and besides them there are many skilled in divination.

18Again, of medicine, the aid of which in our present extravagant and luxurious way of life is incessantly required, the study is carried on with daily increasing eagerness; so that while the employment be of itself creditable, it is sufficient as a recommendation for any medical man to be able to say that he was educated at Alexandria. And this is enough to say on this subject.

19But if any one in the earnestness of his intellect wishes to apply himself to the various branches of divine knowledge, or to the examination of metaphysics, he will find that the whole world owes this kind of learning to Egypt.

20Here first, far earlier than in any other country, men arrived at the various cradles (if I may so say) of different religions. Here they still carefully preserve the elements of sacred rites as handed down in their secret volumes.

21It was in learning derived from Egypt that Pythagoras was educated, which taught him to worship the gods in secret, to establish the principle that in whatever he said or ordered his authority was final, to exhibit his golden thigh at Olympia, and to be continually seen in conversation with an eagle.

22Here it was that Anaxagoras derived the knowledge which enabled him to predict that stones would fall from heaven, and from the feeling of the mud in a well to foretell impending earthquakes. Solon too derived aid from the apophthegms of the priests of Egypt in the enactment of his just and moderate laws, by which he gave great confirmation to the Roman jurisprudence. From this source too Plato, soaring amid sublime ideas, rivalling Jupiter himself in the magnificence of his voice, acquired his glorious wisdom by a visit to Egypt.

23The inhabitants of Egypt are generally swarthy and dark complexioned, and of a rather melancholy cast of countenance, thin and dry looking, quick in every motion, fond of controversy, and bitter exactors of their rights. Among them a man is ashamed who has not resisted the payment of tribute, and who does not carry about him wheals which he has received before he could be compelled to pay it. Nor have any tortures been found sufficiently powerful to make the hardened robbers of this country disclose their names unless they do so voluntarily.

24It is well known, as the ancient annals prove, that all Egypt was formerly under kings who were friendly to us. But after Antony and Cleopatra were defeated in the naval battle at Actium, it became a province under the dominion of Octavianus Augustus. We became masters of the dry Libya by the last will of king Apion. Cyrene and the other cities of Libya Pentapolis we owe to the liberality of Ptolemy. After this long digression, I will now return to my original subject.

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