Cleopatra - Jacob Abbott


It must not be imagined by the reader that the scenes of vicious indulgence, and reckless cruelty and crime, which were exhibited with such dreadful frequency, and carried to such an enormous excess in the palaces of the Egyptian kings, prevailed to the same extent throughout the mass of the community during the period of their reign. The internal administration of government, and the institutions by which the industrial pursuits of the mass of the people were regulated, and peace and order preserved, and justice enforced between man and man, were all this time in the hands of men well qualified, on the whole, for the trusts committed to their charge, and in a good degree faithful in the performance of their duties; and thus the ordinary affairs of government, and the general routine of domestic and social life, went on, notwithstanding the profligacy of the kings, in a course of very tolerable peace, prosperity, and happiness. During every one of the three hundred years over which the history of the Ptolemies extends, the whole length and breadth of the land of Egypt exhibited, with comparatively few interruptions, one widespread scene of busy industry. The inundations came at their appointed season, and then regularly retired. The boundless fields which the waters had fertilized were then every where tilled. The lands were plowed; the seed was sown; the canals and water-courses, which ramified from the river in every direction over the ground, were opened or closed, as the case required, to regulate the irrigation. The inhabitants were busy, and, consequently, they were virtuous. And as the sky of Egypt is seldom or never darkened by clouds and storms, the scene presented to the eye the same unchanging aspect of smiling verdure and beauty, day after day, and month after month, until the ripened grain was gathered into the store-houses, and the land was cleared for another inundation.

We say that the people were virtuous because they were busy; for there is no principle of political economy more fully established than that vice in the social state is the incident and symptom of idleness. It prevails always in those classes of every great population who are either released by the possession of fixed and unchangeable wealth from the necessity, or excluded by their poverty and degradation from the advantage, of useful employment. Wealth that is free, and subject to its possessor's control, so that he can, if he will, occupy himself in the management of it, while it sometimes may make individuals vicious, does not generally corrupt classes of men, for it does not make them idle. But wherever the institutions of a country are such as to create an aristocratic class, whose incomes depend on entailed estates, or on fixed and permanent annuities, so that the capital on which they live can not afford them any mental occupation, they are doomed necessarily to inaction and idleness. Vicious pleasures and indulgences are, with such a class as a whole, the inevitable result; for the innocent enjoyments of man are planned and designed by the Author of nature only for the intervals of rest and repose in a life of activity. They are always found wholly insufficient to satisfy one who makes pleasure the whole end and aim of his being.

In the same manner, if, either from the influence of the social institutions of a country, or, from the operation of natural causes which human power is unable to control, there is a class of men too low, and degraded, and miserable to be reached by the ordinary inducements to daily toil, so certain are they to grow corrupt and depraved, that degradation has become in all languages a term almost synonymous with vice. There are many exceptions, it is true, to these general laws. Many active men are very wicked; and there have been frequent instances of the most exalted virtue among nobles and kings. Still, as a general law, it is unquestionably true that vice is the incident of idleness; and the sphere of vice, therefore, is at the top and at the bottom of society—those being the regions in which idleness reigns. The great remedy, too, for vice is employment. To make a community virtuous, it is essential that all ranks and gradations of it, from the highest to the lowest, should have something to do.

In accordance with these principles, we observe that, while the most extreme and abominable wickedness seemed to hold continual and absolute sway in the palaces of the Ptolemies, and among the nobles of their courts, the working ministers of state, and the men on whom the actual governmental functions devolved, discharged their duties with wisdom and fidelity, and throughout all the ordinary ranks and gradations of society there prevailed generally a very considerable degree of industry, prosperity, and happiness. This prosperity prevailed not only in the rural districts of the Delta and along the valley of the Nile, but also among the merchants, and navigators, and artisans of Alexandria.

Alexandria became, in fact, very soon after it was founded, a very great and busy city. Many things conspired to make it at once a great commercial emporium. In the first place, it was the depôt of export for all the surplus grain and other agricultural produce which was raised in such abundance along the Egyptian valley. This produce was brought down in boats to the upper point of the Delta, where the branches of the river divided, and thence down the Canopic branch to the city. The city was not, in fact, situated directly upon this branch, but upon a narrow tongue of land, at a little distance from it, near the sea. It was not easy to enter the channel directly, on account of the bars and sand-banks at its mouth, produced by the eternal conflict between the waters of the river and the surges of the sea. The water was deep, however, as Alexander's engineers had discovered, at the place where the city was built, and, by establishing the port there, and then cutting a canal across to the Nile, they were enabled to bring the river and the sea at once into easy communication.

The produce of the valley was thus brought down the river and through the canal to the city. Here immense warehouses and granaries were erected for its reception, that it might be safely preserved until the ships that came into the port were ready to take it away. These ships came from Syria, from all the coasts of Asia Minor, from Greece, and from Rome. They brought the agricultural productions of their own countries, as well as articles of manufacture of various kinds; these they sold to the merchants of Alexandria, and purchased the productions of Egypt in return.

The port of Alexandria presented thus a constant picture of life and animation. Merchant ships were continually coming and going, or lying at anchor in the roadstead. Seamen were hoisting sails, or raising anchors, or rowing their capacious galleys through the water, singing, as they pulled, to the motion of the oars. Within the city there was the same ceaseless activity. Here groups of men were unloading the canal boats which had arrived from the river. There porters were transporting bales of merchandise or sacks of gain from a warehouse to a pier, or from one landing to another. The occasional parading of the king's guards, or the arrival and departure of ships of war to land or to take away bodies of armed men, were occurrences that sometimes intervened to interrupt, or as perhaps the people then would have said, to adorn this scene of useful industry; and now and then, for a brief period, these peaceful avocations would be wholly suspended and set aside by a revolt or by a civil war, waged by rival brothers against each other, or instigated by the conflicting claims of a mother and son. These interruptions, however, were comparatively few, and, in ordinary cases, not of long continuance. It was for the interest of all branches of the royal line to do as little injury as possible to the commercial and agricultural operations of the realm. In fact, it was on the prosperity of those operations that the revenues depended. The rulers were well aware of this, and so, however implacably two rival princes may have hated one another, and however desperately each party may have struggled to destroy all active combatants whom they should find in arms against them, they were both under every possible inducement to spare the private property and this lives of the peaceful population. This population, in fact, engaged thus in profitable industry, constituted, with the avails of their labors, the very estate for which the combatants were contending.

Seeing the subject in this light, the Egyptian sovereigns, especially Alexander and the earlier Ptolemies, made every effort in their power to promote the commercial greatness of Alexandria. They built palaces, it is true, but they also built warehouses. One of the most expensive and celebrated of all the edifices that they reared was the light-house which has been already alluded to. This light-house was a lofty tower, built of white marble. It was situated upon the island of Pharos, opposite to the city, and at some distance from it. There was a sort of isthmus of shoals and sand-bars connecting the island with the shore. Over these shallows a pier or causeway was built, which finally became a broad and inhabited neck. The principal part of the ancient city, however, was on the main land.

The curvature of the earth requires that a light-house on a coast should have a considerable elevation, otherwise its summit would not appear above the horizon, unless the mariner were very near. To attain this elevation, the architects usually take advantage of some hill or cliff, or rocky eminence near the shore. There was, however, no opportunity to do this at Pharos; for the island was, like the main land, level and low. The requisite elevation could only be attained, therefore, by the masonry of an edifice, and the blocks of marble necessary for the work had to be brought from a great distance. The Alexandrian light-house was reared in the time of Ptolemy Philadelphus, the second monarch in the line. No pains or expense were spared in its construction. The edifice, when completed, was considered one of the seven wonders of the world. It was indebted for its fame, however, in some degree, undoubtedly to the conspicuousness of its situation, rising, as it did, at the entrance of the greatest commercial emporium of its time, and standing there, like a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night, to attract the welcome gaze of every wandering mariner whose ship came within its horizon, and to awaken his gratitude by tendering him its guidance and dispelling his fears.

The light at the top of the tower was produced by a fire, made of such combustibles as would emit the brightest flame. This fire burned slowly through the day, and then was kindled up anew when the sun went down, and was continually replenished through the night with fresh supplies of fuel. In modern times, a much more convenient and economical mode is adopted to produce the requisite illumination. A great blazing lamp burns brilliantly in the center of the lantern of the tower, and all that part of the radiation from the flame which would naturally have beamed upward, or downward, or laterally, or back toward the land, is so turned by a curious system of reflectors and polyzonal lenses, most ingeniously contrived and very exactly adjusted, as to be thrown forward in one broad and thin, but brilliant sheet of light, which shoots out where its radiance is needed, over the surface of the sea. Before these inventions were perfected, far the largest portion of the light emitted by the illumination of light-house towers streamed away wastefully in landward directions, or was lost among the stars.

Of course, the glory of erecting such an edifice as the Pharos of Alexandria, and of maintaining it in the performance of its functions, was very great; the question might, however, very naturally arise whether this glory was justly due to the architect through whose scientific skill the work was actually accomplished, or to the monarch by whose power and resources the architect was sustained. The name of the architect was Sostratus. He was a Greek. The monarch was, as has already been stated, the second Ptolemy, called commonly Ptolemy Philadelphus. Ptolemy ordered that, in completing the tower, a marble tablet should be built into the wall, at a suitable place near the summit, and that a proper inscription should be carved upon it, with his name as the builder of the edifice conspicuous thereon. Sostratus preferred inserting his own name. He accordingly made the tablet and set it in its place. He cut the inscription upon the face of it, in Greek characters, with his own name as the author of the work. He did this secretly, and then covered the face of the tablet with an artificial composition, made with lime, to imitate the natural surface of the stone. On this outer surface he out a new inscription, in which he inserted the name of the king. In process of time the lime moldered away, the king's inscription disappeared, and his own, which thenceforward continued as long as the building endured, came out to view.

The Pharos was said to have been four hundred feet high. It was famed throughout the world for many centuries; nothing, however, remains of it now but a heap of useless and unmeaning ruins.

Besides the light that beamed from the summit of this lofty tower, there was another center of radiance and illumination in ancient Alexandria, which was in some respects still more conspicuous and renowned, namely, an immense library and museum established and maintained by the Ptolemies. The Museum, which was first established, was not, as its name might now imply, a collection of curiosities, but an institution of learning, consisting of a body of learned men, who devoted their time to philosophical and scientific pursuits. The institution was richly endowed, and magnificent buildings were erected for its use. The king who established it began immediately to make a collection of books for the use of the members of the institution. This was attended with great expense, as every book that was added to the collection required to be transcribed with a pen on parchment or papyrus, with infinite labor and care. Great numbers of scribes were constantly employed upon this work at the Museum. The kings who were most interested in forming this library would seize the books that were possessed by individual scholars, or that were deposited in the various cities of their dominions, and then, causing beautiful copies of them to be made by the scribes of the Museum, they would retain the originals for the great Alexandrian Library, and give the copies to the men or the cities that had been thus despoiled. In the same manner they would borrow, as they called it, from all travelers who visited Egypt, any valuable books which they might have in their possession, and, retaining the originals, give them back copies instead.

In process of time the library increased to four hundred thousand volumes. There was then no longer any room in the buildings of the Museum for further additions. There was, however, in another part of the city, a great temple called the Serapion. This temple was a very magnificent edifice, or, rather, group of edifices, dedicated to the god Serapis. The origin and history of this temple were very remarkable. The legend was this:

It seems that one of the ancient and long venerated gods of the Egyptians was a deity named Serapis. He had been, among other divinities, the object of Egyptian adoration ages before Alexandria was built or the Ptolemies reigned. There was also, by a curious coincidence, a statue of the same name at a great commercial town named Sinope, which was built upon the extremity of a promontory which projected from Asia Minor into the Euxine Sea. Sinope was, in some sense, the Alexandria of the north, being the center and seat of a great portion of the commerce of that quarter of the world.

The Serapis of Sinope was considered as the protecting deity of seamen, and the navigators who came and went to and from the city made sacrifices to him, and offered him oblations and prayers, believing that they were, in a great measure, dependent upon some mysterious and inscrutable power which he exercised for their safety in storms. They carried the knowledge of his name, and tales of his imaginary interpositions, to all the places that they visited; and thus the fame of the god became extended, first, to all the coasts of the Euxine Sea, and subsequently to distant provinces and kingdoms. The Serapis of Sinope began to be considered every where as the tutelar god of seamen.

Accordingly, when the first of the Ptolemies was forming his various plans for adorning and aggrandizing Alexandria, he received, he said, one night, a divine intimation in a dream that he was to obtain the statue of Serapis from Sinope, and set it up in Alexandria, in a suitable temple which he was in the mean time to erect in honor of the god. It is obvious that very great advantages to the city would result from the accomplishment of this design. In the first place, a temple to the god Serapis would be a new distinction for it in the minds of the rural population, who would undoubtedly suppose that the deity honored by it was their own ancient god. Then the whole maritime and nautical interest of the world, which had been accustomed to adore the god of Sinope, would turn to Alexandria as the great center of religious attraction, if their venerated idol could be carried and placed in a new and magnificent temple built expressly for him there. Alexandria could never be the chief naval port and station of the world, unless it contained the sanctuary and shrine of the god of seamen.

Ptolemy sent accordingly to the King of Sinope and proposed to purchase the idol. The embassage was, however, unsuccessful. The king refused to give up the god. The negotiations were continued for two years, but all in vain. At length, on account of some failure in the regular course of the seasons on that coast, there was a famine there, which became finally so severe that the people of the city were induced to consent to give up their deity to the Egyptians in exchange for a supply of corn. Ptolemy sent the corn and received the idol. He then built the temple, which, when finished, surpassed in grandeur and magnificence almost every sacred structure in the world.

It was in this temple that the successive additions to the Alexandrian library were deposited, when the apartments at the Museum became full. In the end there were four hundred thousand rolls or volumes in the Museum, and three hundred thousand in the Serapion. The former was called the parent library, and the latter, being, as it were, the offspring of the first, was called the daughter.

Ptolemy Philadelphus, who interested himself very greatly in collecting this library, wished to make it a complete collection of all the books in the world. He employed scholars to read and study, and travelers to make extensive tours, for the purpose of learning what books existed among all the surrounding nations; and, when he learned of their existence, he spared no pains or expense in attempting to procure either the originals themselves, or the most perfect and authentic copies of them. He sent to Athens and obtained the works of the most celebrated Greek historians, and then causing, as in other cases, most beautiful transcripts to be made, he sent the transcripts back to Athens, and a very large sum of money with them as an equivalent for the difference of value between originals and copies in such an exchange.

In the course of the inquiries which Ptolemy made into the literature of the surrounding nations, in his search for accessions to his library, he heard that the Jews had certain sacred writings in their temple at Jerusalem, comprising a minute and extremely interesting history of their nation from the earliest periods, and also many other books of sacred prophecy and poetry. These books, which were, in fact, the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament, were then wholly unknown to all nations except the Jews, and among the Jews were known only to priests and scholars. They were kept sacred at Jerusalem. The Jews would have considered them as profaned in being exhibited to the view of pagan nations. In fact, the learned men of other countries would not have been able to read them; for the Jews secluded themselves so closely from the rest of mankind, that their language was, in that age, scarcely ever heard beyond the confines of Judea and Galilee.

Ptolemy very naturally thought that a copy of these sacred books would be a great acquisition to his library. They constituted, in fact, the whole literature of a nation which was, in some respects, the most extraordinary that ever existed on the globe. Ptolemy conceived the idea, also, of not only adding to his library a copy of these writings in the original Hebrew, but of causing a translation of them to be made into Greek, so that they might easily be read by the Greek and Roman scholars who were drawn in great numbers to his capital by the libraries and the learned institutions which he had established there. The first thing to be effected, however, in accomplishing either of these plans, was to obtain the consent of the Jewish authorities. They would probably object to giving up any copy of their sacred writings at all.

There was one circumstance which led Ptolemy to imagine that the Jews would, at that time particularly, be averse to granting any request of such a nature coming from an Egyptian king, and that was, that during certain wars which had taken place in previous reigns, a considerable number of prisoners had been taken by the Egyptians, and had been brought to Egypt as captives, where they had been sold to the inhabitants, and were now scattered over the land as slaves. They were employed as servile laborers in tilling the fields, or in turning enormous wheels to pump up water from the Nile. The masters of these hapless bondmen conceived, like other slave-holders, that they had a right of property in their slaves. This was in some respects true, since they had bought them of the government at the close of the war for a consideration; and though they obviously derived from this circumstance no valid proprietary right or claim as against the men personally, it certainly would seem that it gave them a just claim against the government of whom they bought, in case of subsequent manumission.

Ptolemy or his minister, for it can not now be known who was the real actor in these transactions, determined on liberating these slaves and sending them back to their native land, as a means of propitiating the Jews and inclining them to listen favorably to the request which he was about to prefer for a copy of their sacred writings. He, however, paid to those who held the captives a very liberal sum for ransom. The ancient historians, who never allow the interest of their narratives to suffer for want of a proper amplification on their part of the scale on which the deeds which they record were performed, say that the number of slaves liberated on this occasion was a hundred and twenty thousand, and the sum paid for them, as compensation to the owners, was six hundred talents, equal to six hundred thousand dollars. And yet this was only a preliminary expense to pave the way for the acquisition of a single series of books, to add to the variety of the immense collection.

After the liberation and return of the captives, Ptolemy sent a splendid embassage to Jerusalem, with very respectful letters to the high priest, and with very magnificent presents. The embassadors were received with the highest honors. The request of Ptolemy that he should be allowed to take a copy of the sacred books for his library was very readily granted.

The priests caused copies to be made of all the sacred writings. These copies were executed in the most magnificent style, and were splendidly illuminated with letters of gold. The Jewish government also, at Ptolemy's request, designated a company of Hebrew scholars, six from each tribe—men learned in both the Greek and Hebrew languages—to proceed to Alexandria, and there, at the Museum, to make a careful translation of the Hebrew books into Greek. As there were twelve tribes, and six translators chosen from each, there were seventy-two translators in all. They made their translation, and it was called the Septuagint, from the Latin septuaginta duo, which means seventy-two.

Although out of Judea there was no feeling of reverence for these Hebrew Scriptures as books of divine authority, there was still a strong interest felt in them as very entertaining and curious works of history, by all the Greek and Roman scholars who frequented Alexandria to study at the Museum. Copies were accordingly made of the Septuagint translation, and were taken to other countries; and there, in process of time, copies of the copies were made, until at length the work became extensively circulated throughout the whole learned world. When, finally, Christianity became extended over the Roman empire, the priests and monks looked with even a stronger interest than the ancient scholars had felt upon this early translation of so important a portion of the sacred Scriptures. They made new copies for abbeys, monasteries, and colleges; and when, at length, the art of printing was discovered, this work was one of the first on which the magic power of typography was tried. The original manuscript made by the scribes of the seventy-two, and all the early transcripts which were made from it, have long since been lost or destroyed; but, instead of them, we have now hundreds of thousands of copies in compact printed volumes, scattered among the public and private libraries of Christendom. In fact, now, after the lapse of two thousand years, a copy of Ptolemy's Septuagint may be obtained of any considerable bookseller in any country of the civilized world; and though it required a national embassage, and an expenditure, if the accounts are true, of more than a million of dollars, originally to obtain it, it may be procured without difficulty now by two days' wages of an ordinary laborer.

Besides the building of the Pharos, the Museum, and the Temple of Serapis, the early Ptolemies formed and executed a great many other plans tending to the same ends which the erection of these splendid edifices was designed to secure, namely, to concentrate in Alexandria all possible means of attraction, commercial, literary, and religious, so as to make the city the great center of interest, and the common resort for all mankind. They raised immense revenues for these and other purposes by taxing heavily the whole agricultural produce of the valley of the Nile. The inundations, by the boundless fertility which they annually produced, supplied the royal treasuries. Thus the Abyssinian rains at the sources of the Nile built the Pharos at its mouth, and endowed the Alexandrian library.

The taxes laid upon the people of Egypt to supply the Ptolemies with funds were, in fact, so heavy, that only the bare means of subsistence were left to the mass of the agricultural population. In admiring the greatness and glory of the city, therefore, we must remember that there was a gloomy counterpart to its splendor in the very extended destitution and poverty to which the mass of the people were every where doomed. They lived in hamlets of wretched huts along the banks of the river, in order that the capital might be splendidly adorned with temples and palaces. They passed their lives in darkness and ignorance, that seven hundred thousand volumes of expensive manuscripts might be enrolled at the Museum for the use of foreign philosophers and scholars. The policy of the Ptolemies was, perhaps, on the whole, the best, for the general advancement and ultimate welfare of mankind, which could have been pursued in the age in which they lived and acted; but, in applauding the results which they attained, we must not wholly forget the cost which they incurred in attaining them. At the same cost, we could, at the present day, far surpass them. If the people of the United States will surrender the comforts and conveniences which they individually enjoy—if the farmers scattered in their comfortable homes on the hillsides and plains throughout the land will give up their houses, their furniture, their carpets, their books, and the privileges of their children, and then—withholding from the produce of their annual toil only a sufficient reservation to sustain them and their families through the year, in a life like that of a beast of burden, spent in some miserable and naked hovel—send the rest to some hereditary sovereign residing upon the Atlantic sea-board, that he may build with the proceeds a splendid capital, they may have an Alexandria now that will infinitely exceed the ancient city of the Ptolemies in splendor and renown. The nation, too, would, in such a case, pay for its metropolis the same price, precisely, that the ancient Egyptians paid for theirs.

The Ptolemies expended the revenues which they raised by this taxation mainly in a very liberal and enlightened manner, for the accomplishment of the purposes which they had in view. The building of the Pharos, the removal of the statue of Serapis, and the endowment of the Museum and the library were great conceptions, and they were carried into effect in the most complete and perfect manner. All the other operations which they devised and executed for the extension and aggrandizement of the city were conceived and executed in the same spirit of scientific and enlightened liberality. Streets were opened; the most splendid palaces were built; docks, piers, and breakwaters were constructed, and fortresses and towers were armed and garrisoned. Then every means was employed to attract to the city a great concourse from all the most highly-civilized nations then existing. The highest inducements were offered to merchants, mechanics, and artisans to make the city their abode. Poets, painters, sculptors, and scholars of every nation and degree were made welcome, and every facility was afforded them for the prosecution of their various pursuits. These plans were all eminently successful. Alexandria rose rapidly to the highest consideration and importance; and, at the time when Cleopatra—born to preside over this scene of magnificence and splendor—came upon the stage, the city had but one rival in the world. That rival was Rome.