The empire of Alexander was partitioned into three great kingdoms—that of Egypt and Cyrene, that of Macedonia, including Greece, and that of Asia, the capital of which was at first on the banks of the Euphrates, but was afterwards unwisely transferred to Antioch. In these three kingdoms, and in their numerous dependencies, Greek became the language of government and trade. It was spoken all over the world—on the shores of Malabar, in the harbours of Ceylon, among the Abyssinian mountains, in distant Mozambique. The shepherds of the Tartar steppes loved to listen to recitations of Greek poetry, and Greek tragedies were performed to Brahmin "houses" by the waters of the Indus. The history of the Greeks of Inner Asia, however soon comes to an end. Sandracottus, the Rajah of Bengal, conquered the Greek province of the Punjab. The rise of the Parthian power cut off the Greek kingdom of Bokhara from the Western world, and it was destroyed, according to the Chinese historians, by a powerful horde of Tartars a hundred and thirty years after its foundation.
We can now return to African soil, and we find that a city of incomparable splendour has arisen, founded by Alexander and bearing his name. For as he was on his way to the oasis of Ammon, travelling along the seacoast, he came to a place a little west of the Nile’s mouth where an island close to the shore, and the peculiar formation of the land, formed a natural harbour, while a little way inland was a large lagoon communicating with the Nile. A few houses were scattered about, and this, he was told, was the village of Rhacotis, where in the old days the Pharaohs stationed a garrison to prevent the Greek pirates from coming on shore. He saw that the spot was well adapted for a city, and with his usual impetuosity went to work at once to mark it out. When he returned from the oasis the building of the city had begun, and in a few years it had become the residence of Ptolemy and the capital of Egypt. It filled up the space between the sea and the lagoon. On the one side its harbour was filled with ships which came from Italy and Greece and the lands of the Atlantic with amber, timber, tin, wine, and oil. On the other side were the cargo boats that came from the Nile with the precious stones, the spices, and the beautiful fabrics of the East. The island on which stood the famous lighthouse was connected with the mainland by means of a gigantic mole furnished with drawbridges and forts. It is on this mole that the modern city stands—the site of the old Alexandria is sand.
When Ptolemy the First, one of Alexander’s generals, mounted the throne he applied himself with much caution and dexterity to that difficult problem the government of Egypt. Had the Greeks been the first conquerors of the country, it is doubtful whether the wisest policy would have kept its natives quiet and content. For they were like the Jews, a proud, ignorant, narrow-minded, religious race who looked upon themselves as the chosen people of the gods, and upon all foreigners as unclean things. But they had been taught wisdom by misfortune; they had felt the bitterness of an Oriental yoke; the feet of the Persians had been placed upon their necks. On the other hand, the Greeks had lived for centuries among them, and had assisted them in all their revolts against the Persian king. During their interlude of independence the towns had been garrisoned partly by Egyptian and partly by Greek soldiers: the two nations had grown accustomed to each other. Persia had finally re-enslaved them, and Alexander had been welcomed as the saviour of their country. The golden chain of the Pharaohs was broken. It was impossible to restore the line of ancient kings. The Egyptians therefore cheerfully submitted to the Ptolemies, who reciprocated this kindly feeling to the full. They patronised the Egyptian religion, they built many temples in the ancient style, they went to the city of Memphis to be crowned, they sacrificed to the Nile at the rising of the waters, and they assumed the divine titles of the Pharaohs. The priests were content, and in Egypt the people were always guided by the priests. The Rosetta Stone, that remarkable monument which, with its inscription in Greek, in the Egyptian vernacular, and in the sacred hieroglyphics, has afforded the means of deciphering the mysterious language of the Nile, was a memorial of gratitude from the Egyptian priests to a Greek king, to whom in return for favours conferred they erected an image and a golden shrine.
But while the Ptolemies were Pharaohs to the Egyptians, they were Greeks to the colonists of Alexandria, and they founded or favoured that school of thought upon which modern science is established.
There is a great enterprise in which men have always been unconsciously engaged, but which they will pursue with method as a vocation and an art, and which they will devoutly adopt as a religious faith as soon as they realise its glory. It is the conquest of the planet on which we dwell, the destruction or domestication of the savage forces by which we are tormented and enslaved. An episode of this war occurring in ancient Egypt has been described; the war itself began with the rise of our ancestors into the human state, and when, drawing fire from wood or stone, they made it serve them night and day the first great victory was won. But we can conquer Nature only by obeying her laws, and in order to obey those laws we must first learn what they are.
Storms and tides, thunder and lightning and eclipse, the movements of the heavenly bodies, the changing aspects of the earth, were among all ancient people regarded as divine phenomena. In the Greek world there was no despotic caste, but the people clung fondly to their faith, and the study of Nature which began in Ionia was at first regarded with abhorrence and dismay. The popular religion was supported by the genius of Homer. The Iliad and the Odyssey were regarded not only as epic poems but as sacred writ; even the geography had been inspired. However, when the Greeks began to travel the old legends could no longer be received. It was soon discovered that the places visited by Ulysses did not exist, that there was no River Ocean which ran round the earth, and that the earth was not shaped like a round saucer with the oracle of Delphi in its centre. The Egyptians laughed in the faces of the Greeks, and called them children when they talked of their gods of yesterday, and so well did their pupils profit by their lesson that they soon laughed at the Egyptians for believing in the gods at all. Xenophanes declaimed against the Egyptian myth of an earth-walking, dying resuscitated god. He said that if Osiris was a man they should not worship him, and that if he was a god they need not lament his sufferings. This remarkable man was the Voltaire of Greece; there had been
free-thinkers before his time, but they had reserved their opinions for their disciples.
Xenophanes declared that the truth should be made known to all. He lived, like Voltaire, to a great age; he poured forth a multitude of controversial works; he made it his business to attack Homer, and reviled him bitterly for having endowed the gods of his poems with the passions and propensities of men; he denied the old theory of the Golden Age, and maintained that civilisation was the work of time and of man’s own toil. His views were no doubt distasteful to the vulgar crowd by whom he was surrounded, and even to cultivated and imaginative minds which were sunk in sentimental idolatry, blinded by the splendour of the Homeric poems. He was, however, in no way interfered with; religious persecution was unknown in the Greek world except at Athens. In that city free thought was especially unpopular because it was imported from abroad. It was the doctrine of those talented Ionians who streamed into Athens after the Persian wars. When one of these philosophers announced, in his open-air sermon in the market-place, that the sun which the common people believed to be alive—the bountiful god Helios which shone both on mortals and immortals—was nothing but a mass of red-hot iron; when he declared that those celestial spirits the stars were only revolving stones; when he asserted that Jupiter, and Venus and Apollo, Mars, Juno, and Minerva, were mere creatures of the poet’s fancy, and that if they really existed they ought to be despised; when he said that over all there reigned, not blind Fate, but a supreme, all seeing Mind, great wrath was excited among the people. A prophet went about uttering oracles in a shrill voice, and procured the passing of a decree that all who denied the religion of the city or who philosophised in matters appertaining to the gods should be indicted as state criminals. This law was soon put in force. Damon and Anaxagoras were banished; Aspasia was impeached for blasphemy, and the tears of Pericles alone saved her; Socrates was put to death; Plato was obliged to reserve pure reason for a chosen few, and to adulterate it with revelation for the generality of his disciples; Aristotle fled from Athens for his life, and became the tutor of Alexander.
Alexander had a passion for the Iliad. His edition had been corrected by Aristotle; he kept it in a precious casket which he had taken from the Persian King, and it was afterwards known as the "edition of the casket." When he invaded Asia he landed on the plains of Troy, that he might see the ruins of that celebrated town and hang a garland upon the tomb of Achilles. But it was not poetry alone that he esteemed; he had imbibed his master’s universal tastes. When staying at Ephesus he used to spend hours in the studio of Apelles, sitting down among the boys who ground colours for the great painter. He delighted in everything that was new and rare. He invented exploration. He gave a large sum of money to Aristotle to assist him in composing the history of animals, and employed a number of men to collect for him in Asia. He sent him a copy of the astronomical records of the Babylonians, although by that time they had quarrelled—like Dionysius and Plato, Frederick and Voltaire. It is taken for granted that Alexander was the one to blame, as if philosophers were immaculate and private tutors never in the wrong.
The Ptolemies were not unworthy followers of Alexander. They established the Museum, which was a kind of college, with a hall where the professors dined together, with corridors for promenading lectures, and a theatre for scholastic festivals and public disputation. Attached to it also was the Botanical Garden, filled with medicinal and exotic plants; a menagerie of wild beasts and rare birds; and the famous Library, where 700,000 volumes were arranged on cedar shelves, and where hundreds of clerks were continually at work copying from scroll to scroll, gluing the separate strips of papyrus together, smoothing with pumice-stone and blackening the edges, writing the titles on red labels, and fastening ivory tops on the sticks round which the rolls were wrapped.
All the eminent men of the day were invited to take up their abode at the Museum, and persons were dispatched into all countries to collect books. It was dangerous to bring original manuscripts into Egypt—they were at once seized and copied, the originals being retained. The city of Athens lent the autograph editions of its dramatists to one of the Ptolemies, and saw them no more. It was even said that philosophers were sometimes detained in the same manner.
Soon after the wars of Alexander, the "barbarians" were seized with a desire to make known to their conquerors the history of their native lands. Berosus, a priest of Babylon, compiled a history of Chaldea; Menander, and Phoenician, a history of Tyre; and Manetho wrote in Greek, but from Egyptian sources, a history which Egyptology has confirmed. It was at the Museum also that the Old Testament was translated under royal patronage into Greek, and at the same time the Zoroastrian Bible or Zend-Avesta.
There was some good work done at the Museum. Among works of imagination the pastorals of Theocritus have alone obtained the approbation of posterity. But it was in Alexandria that the immortal works of the preceding ages were edited and arranged, and it was there that language was first studied for itself, and that lexicons and grammars were first compiled. It was only in the Museum that anatomists could sometimes obtain the corpse of a criminal to dissect; elsewhere they were forced to content themselves with monkeys. There Eratosthenes, the "Inspector of the Earth," elevated geography to a science, and Euclid produced that work which, as Macaulay would say, "every schoolboy knows." There the stars were carefully catalogued and mapped, and chemical experiments were made. Expeditions were sent to Abyssinia to ascertain the cause of the inundation of the Nile. The Greek intellect had hitherto despised the realities of life: it had been considered by Plato unworthy of a mathematician to apply his knowledge to so vulgar a business as mechanics. But this notion was corrected at Alexandria by the practical tendencies of Egyptian science. The Suez Canal was reopened, and Archimedes taught the Alexandrians to apply his famous screw to the irrigation of their fields. These Egyptian pumps, as they were then called, were afterwards used by the Romans to pump out the water from their silver-mines in Spain.
No doubt most of the Museum professors were pitiful "Graeculi"—narrow-minded pedants such as are always to be found where patronage exists, parasites of great libraries who spend their lives in learning the wrong things. No doubt much of the astronomy was astrological, much of the medicine was magical, much of the geography was mythical, and much of the chemistry was alchemical—for they had already begun to attempt the transmutation of metals and to search for the elixir vitae and the philosopher’s stone. No doubt physics were much too metaphysical, in spite of the example which Aristotle had given of founding philosophy on experiment and fact; and the alliance between science and labour, which is the true secret of modern civilisation, could be but faintly carried out in a land which was under the fatal ban of slavery. Yet with all this it should be remembered that from Alexandria came the science which the Arabs restored to Europe, with some additions, after the Crusades. It was in Alexandria that were composed those works which enabled Copernicus to lay the keystone of astronomy, and which emboldened Columbus to sail across the Western seas.
The history of the nation under the Ptolemies resembles its history under the Phil-Hellenes, Egypt and Asia were again rivals, and again contested for the vineyards of Palestine and the forests of Lebanon. Alexander had organised a brigade of elephants for his army of the Indus, and these animals were afterwards invariably used by the Greeks in war. Pyrrhus took them to Italy, and the Carthaginians adopted the idea from him. The elephants of the Asiatic Greeks were brought from Hindustan. The Ptolemies, like the Carthaginians, had elephant forests at their own doors. Shooting-boxes were built on the shores of the Red Sea: elephant hunting became a royal sport. The younger members of the herd were entrapped in large pits, or driven into enclosures cunningly contrived; were then tamed by starvation, shipped off to Egypt, and drilled into beasts of war. On the field of battle the African elephants, distinguished by their huge, flapping ears and their convex brows, fought against the elephants of India, twisting their trunks together and endeavouring to gore one another with their tusks. The Indian species is unanimously described as the larger animal and the better soldier of the two.
The third Ptolemy made two brilliant campaigns. In one he overran Greek Asia and brought back the sacred images and vessels which had been carried off by the Persians centuries before; in the other he made an Abyssinian expedition resembling the achievement of Napier. He landed his troops in Annesley Bay, which he selected as his base of operations, and completely subdued the mountaineers of the plateau, carrying the Egyptian arms, as he boasted, where the Pharaohs themselves had never been. But the policy of the Ptolemies was on the whole a policy of peace. Their wars were chiefly waged for the purpose of obtaining timber for their fleet, and of keeping open their commercial routes. They encouraged manufactures and trade, and it was afterwards observed that Alexandria was the most industrious city in the world. "Idle people were there unknown. Some were employed in the blowing of glass, others in the weaving of linen, others in the manufacture of the Papyrus. Even the blind and the lame had occupations suited to their condition."
The glorious reigns of the three first Ptolemies extended over nearly a century, and then Egypt began again to decline. Such must always be the case where a despotic government prevails, and where everything depends on the taste and temper of a single man. As long as a good king sits upon the throne all is well. A gallant service, an intellectual production, merit of every kind is recognised at once. Corrupt tax-gatherers and judges are swiftly punished. The enemies of the people are the enemies of the king. His palace is a court of justice always open to his children; he will not refuse a petition from the meanest hand. But sooner or later in the natural course of events the sceptre is handed to a weak and vicious prince, who empties the treasury of its accumulated wealth; who plunders the courtiers, allowing them to indemnify themselves at the expense of those that are beneath them; who dies, leaving behind him a legacy of wickedness which his successors are forced to accept. Oppression has now become a custom, and custom is the tyrant of kings. In Egypt the prosperity of the land depended entirely on the government. Unless the public works were kept in good order half the land was wasted, half the revenue was lost, half the inhabitants perished of starvation. But the dikes could not be repaired and the screw pumps could not be worked without expense, and so if the treasury was empty the inland revenue ceased to flow in. The king could still live in luxury on the receipts of the foreign trade, but the life of the people was devoured, and the ruin of the country was at hand. The Ptolemies became invariably tyrants and debauchees—perhaps the incestuous marriages practised in that family had something to do with the degeneration of the race. The Greeks of Alexandria became half Orientals, and were regarded by their brethren of Europe with aversion and contempt. One by one the possessions of Egypt abroad were lost. The condition of the land became deplorable. The empire which had excited the envy of the world became deficient in agriculture, and was fed by foreign corn. Alexandria glittered with wealth which it was no longer able to defend. The Greeks of Asia began to fix their eyes on the corrupt and prostrate land. Armies gathered on the horizon like dark clouds; then was seen the flashing of arms; then was heard the rattling of distant drums.
The reigning Ptolemy had but one resource. In that same year a great battle had been fought, a great empire had fallen on the African soil. For the first time in history the sun was seen rising in the West. Towards the West ambassadors from Egypt went forth with silks and spices and precious stones. They returned bringing with them an ivory chair, a course garment of purple, and a quantity of copper coin. These humble presents were received in a delirium of joy. The Roman senate accorded its protection, and Alexandria was saved. But its independence was forfeited, its individuality became extinct. Here endeth the history of Egypt. Let us travel to another shore.