Jewel on the Nile

Philo's Alexandria
August 16, 1996

It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of the city of Alexandria in the first century of our era. Ancient testimony assures us that its streets and buildings were breathtakingly beautiful; for commerce, industry and trade it was surely the single most important city in the Mediterranean world, through which most of the eastern luxury goods destined for the markets of the Roman empire were routed. Finally, even if the heyday of Alexandrian scholarship was under the Ptolemaic regime, Roman Alexandria long remained the most important centre for the study of science and philosophy.

The most distinguished and important of the Alexandrian philosophers in the first century ad was Philo, a member of a leading family of the large and influential Jewish community, a man with an immense range of philosophical and scholarly interests and a deep interest in explaining the Old Testament (which he knew principally in its Greek Septuagint version) within the context of the Greek philosophical tradition. Philo is the most important figure in the history of Platonism in the first century ad, but not only that. He is a vital link in the history of exegesis and theology that forms the background to the emergence of Christian ideas and doctrine in the second century ad, most clearly visible to us only after the virtual annihilation of the Alexandrian Jewish community in the great revolt of ad 116-17.

The combination of Philo as a figure of social and intellectual history and Alexandria as a great metropolis has a powerful attraction, fully evident in the pages of Dorothy Sly's book. Enthusiasm for the subject is pervasive, and vividly expressed in a style that seems to owe a good deal to the direct form of address to a lecture audience. Modern parallels are employed and contemporary scholars will find themselves quoted in an idiom that is familiar and colloquial. Sly ranges over the history of Ptolemaic as well as Roman Alexandria, its social history (particularly the hostility between the Greeks and Jews in the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius in which Philo was himself deeply involved), Egyptian religion, Messianism, medicine and a host of other topics.

The subject bristles with difficulties. Our knowledge of Alexandria's physical development is extremely tenuous and almost every modern map or topographical description of the ancient city can be challenged on virtually every major point. As for the complex Philo, an immense bibliography exists in several European languages that suggests, among other things, that there is perhaps room for a more nuanced discussion of the extent to which his various writings can be taken to illustrate the realities of Alexandrian life in the first century. Nonetheless, Sly has amassed much that is thought-provoking and informative for historians of religion and culture, even if her attempt to show what Alexandria was really like in the Philo's time tends to adopt a more positive stance than much of the evidence justifies.

Alan K. Bowman is a lecturer in ancient history, University of Oxford.

Philo's Alexandria

Author - Dorothy I. Sly
ISBN - 0 415 09679 0
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £35.00
Pages - 200

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