In the midst of writing a coming chapter of Four Shards, I realized that 31 BCE, the year of Antony and Cleopatra’s defeat at the Battle of Actium and thus the practical end of the rule of the Ptolemies (if not quite their physical end), was exactly 300 years after the founding of Alexandria by Alexander the Great.
Alas, I don’t think I’ll have the chance to describe what was no doubt a massive party in the city on the tricentennial — the founding was very likely in the first half of the year, a time period I skip to get to the action of the battle in September — but I should be able to make a background reference to it. I’m slipping nifty little facts like this all over the place, though it’s doubtful anyone but me will notice them all. Hell, I’ll probably forget half of them before too long.
Here’s another fun historical coincidence I’m trying to work into the book:
The island of Leucas (modern Lefkada), which lies southwest of Actium, was a great obstacle to Antony and Cleopatra’s plans to escape from Octavian. The wind was blowing north to south on the fateful day of the battle, so in order to raise sail and get away they needed to row all the way past Leucas, which was no small task with Octavian upon them. Anyway, many scholars now believe — and I agree with them — that this island, not the nearby island of Ithaca, is the real “Ithaka” of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey.
And even more fun than that? Alexander’s decision to found Alexandria where he did is said to be the result of a dream he had in which a hoary-locked old man came to him and recited the following lines (in Greek dactylic hexameter originally):
Now there is an island in the surging sea in front of Egypt, and men call it Pharos, distant as far as a hollow ship runs in a whole day when the shrill wind blows fair behind her. Therein is a harbor with good anchorage.
So what was the old man in Alexander’s dream quoting? You guessed it: Homer’s Odyssey (book four, specifically). And the island of Pharos? Why, that’s the island at the front of Alexandria’s harbor on which was built the Great Lighthouse of Pharos, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Want more historical coincidence? The earliest known critical editions of Homer’s Odyssey (and Iliad) — a truly foundational act for the transmission and study of his truly foundational poetry — were executed at the Great Library at Alexandria by its first librarian, Zenodotus, and one of his successors, Aristarchus. It is to their hands, for instance, that we think we owe our current division of Homer’s works into books.
More? One of the most utilized early commentaries on the edition of Aristarchus (“the most historically important critical edition of the Homeric poems”) is from the pen of the polymath Didymus Chalcenterus (Didymus “Bronze Guts”), who was librarian of Alexandria — you’ll just never believe it — in 31 BCE.
And why stop there? Didymus just happened to be a friend of Varro, who had been proscribed by none other than Mark Antony …