The Foundation of Alexandria

Daily Diodorus
Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 52 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here

The Headlines
Birth of a City: Alexandria-Outside-Egypt

  • Full interview with Dionocrates inside

The Story
Leaving Siwah, Alexander rode north-east to the Egyptian delta where he founded the city that would become Alexandria-Outside-Egypt.

The Footnotes tell me that Curtius, Diodorus and Justin ‘follow the tradition of Aristobulus… in placing the foundation of Alexandria after Alexander’s visit to Siwah’. Arrian and Plutarch follow Ptolemy who says it was founded before the trip.

Whichever way round it was, Alexander planned the city in such a way that the summer winds would run down the streets and cool the air as they blew in from the sea. He also directed that Alexandria’s walls be ‘exceedingly large and marvellously  strong’. As Alexandria was situated between a marsh (Lake Mareotis) and the Mediterranean Sea and was approachable by only two narrow roads this meant that she would be very difficult to attack.

Diodorus says that Alexandria was shaped like a chlamys (cloak) and was ‘bisected’ by a forty furlong avenue. This avenue, which is not named, was a hundred feet wide and ‘bordered throughout its length with rich façades of houses and temples’.

Alexander also ordered a huge palace to be built. There is no mention, however, of the famous Library. Despite his interest in knowledge – evidenced by the presence of surveyors on his expedition – it seems Alexander did not conceive the idea of a significant repository to contain it. That was left to Ptolemy and his son, Ptolemy Philadelphus.

Once he had finished planning Alexandria, Alexander ‘charged certain of his Friends’ with its construction. Chief among them was the utterly rapacious, Cleomenes of Naucratis who would spend the next eight years using all the means at his disposal to swindle Egyptians out of their money. His avaricious reign came to an end in 323 B.C. when Ptolemy arrived to take up his role as satrap. Cleomenes was executed ostensibly in punishment for his corrupt behaviour but really it was because he was an ally of Ptolemy’s rival, Perdiccas.

With Alexandria taken care of, Alexander settled the rest of his affairs in Egypt. Once that was done, he left for Syria to continue his pursuit of Darius.

I wonder how it can be that Aristobulos and Ptolemy disagree on when Alexandria was founded. They were both there surely they must remember? Well, perhaps they did. Perhaps, as with Diodorus and Gaza, they changed the order of events for literary reasons.

I’m very interested in the fact that it was Ptolemy founded the famous Library. We know too little of his character to say what inspired him, although I’m sure power had a lot to do with it.

Another thing on my mind is – was the Library the first of its kind? Or was it proceeded by any other large libraries? I’m sure it was, though I can’t remember who got there first.

Diodorus notes that successive Ptolemaic rulers ‘enlarged’ the palace ‘with lavish additions’. The city also grew so that in Diodorus’ own day (he refers to the fact that he visited the city) three hundred thousand ‘free residents’ lived there. This growth, Diodorus says, has caused many to say that it is ‘the first city of the civilized world, and… is certainly far ahead of all the rest in elegance and extent and riches and luxury’. Take that, Rome!

Residents for a new city
*Seaside view!
*All new-build homes!
*A chance to meet new races (in their own quarters)!
*A chance to live under a governor even more corrupt than the usual shower!

Categories: Diodorus Siculus | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Post navigation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: