Life with Marc and Cleo in Ancient Alexandria

Classics commentator Elaine Fantham describes what life was like in Alexandria, home to Marc Antony and Cleopatra, among others. Its brief period of glory left a distinctive legacy that is finding new currency with scholars.

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SHEILAH KAST, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Sheilah Kast. Coming up, a new musical craze from south of the border hits Chicago.

But first, when people talk about the cities of the ancient world, they think of Athens and Rome, of course, and then maybe Carthage and Troy. But what about Alexandria? For 300 years, Alexandria, Egypt, the city founded by Alexander the Great, was the most exciting place to be on the Mediterranean coast. Our classics commentator Elaine Fantham joins us from Toronto.

Hello, Elaine.

ELAINE FANTHAM reporting:

Hello, Sheila.

KAST: Is Alexandria overlooked?

FANTHAM: Well, it's increasingly a field of great interest. And there's lots of good reasons for this. You know, Alexander, quote, "founded it," but in fact he founded a lot of cities called Alexandria and most of them just dwindled into triviality. What made Alexandria great was not the living Alexander who founded it for his veterans but the body of Alexander, which his general, Ptolemy, hijacked. It was supposed to be being carried back by boat, of course, to Macedonia, to his homeland. Ptolemy hijacked it, and he had the tomb of Alexander, so this made the city, which was already quite a prosperous place, a place of pilgrimage.

KAST: Alexander--we're talking about Alexander the Great, but what time period?

FANTHAM: Yes, Alexander the Great. He's the fourth century. He died in 323 B.C., and he founded Alexandria without probably ever actually going there. He just ordered it to be founded.

KAST: Now Alexandria was in Egypt, but it wasn't an Egyptian city. Can you explain that?

FANTHAM: Yes. This is one of the things that makes it exciting for us. It was multicultural. Greeks came from all over the eastern Mediterranean, not just from Greece, and they formed perhaps the privileged elite, the army officers, the courtiers, the scholars, the doctors. But then there was also the trading city, had, for instance, a large and very successful Jewish community which was self-governing. And Egyptians were the bottom of the--I was going to say pyramid, but that's not quite the right word, is it?

KAST: Probably the most famous daughter of Alexandria was Cleopatra.

FANTHAM: Yes. Cleopatra the VII and, you know, she had two great men as lovers, Caesar for a while and Marc Antony.

KAST: What was Alexandria like under Cleopatra and Marc Antony?

FANTHAM: Very luxurious. They formed a society that used to go out and riot at night, called the Society of Inimitable Livers(ph). They wanted to show that they didn't care about anything except perfect sophisticated luxury. And they had constant banquets and Cleo and Antony had a wager. She said she could give him a banquet that cost 10 million sesterces, which is like a million dollars.

KAST: Oh, my goodness.

FANTHAM: And he said oh, no, she couldn't. So she staged this banquet and they had the appetizers and they got to the main course and it was very beautiful and luxurious and so on. But Antony said, `Well, you know, this isn't much more luxurious than usual. How are you going to make this cost a million dollars?' There was a pause and then she took out of her ears the huge lustrous pearl earrings that she was wearing and she ordered a flask of vinegar and, according to our source, she dropped one of these pearls in the vinegar, swirled it around a bit and then swallowed it. The story is that vinegar melts these pearls so this would have been the most tremendous loss of wealth, you know. What's quite funny, though, I think in a way, is that apparently there isn't a vinegar that is so strong that it would dissolve pearls. And the editor of our source, who is Pliny the Elder, the Encyclopedia Man(ph), coyly says that he believes that she swallowed the pearl and allowed it to come through in the course of nature. So she wouldn't even have spent the million dollars after all.

KAST: What happened to Alexandria after Cleopatra?

FANTHAM: Well, as you know, if you've read your Shakespeare, both Antony and Cleopatra, after their huge naval defeat by Octavian fled back to Alexandria and committed suicide and died together nobly. And Octavian made Egypt not a province of Rome, but the private property of the dynasty that he was in the process of creating. But you know, if in some way- it isn't independent, inevitably it loses its glamour and we know evidence that there was the same extraordinarily rich cultural life that Alexandria had in its first century.

KAST: Elaine Fantham is professor emerita of classics at Princeton University. She spoke with us from the studios of the CBC in Toronto.

Thanks, Elaine.

FANTHAM: Thank you very much, Sheilah. It's been a pleasure.

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