Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


More than twenty towns have borne the name of Alexandria, all built by Alexander and his captains, who became so many kings. These towns are so many monuments of glory, far superior to the statues which servility afterwards erected to power; but the only one of them which attracted the attention of the world by its greatness and its wealth was that which became the capital of Egypt. This is now but a heap of ruins; for it is well known that one half of the city has been rebuilt on another site, near the sea. The lighthouse, formerly one of the wonders of the world, has also ceased to exist.

The city was always flourishing under the Ptolemies and the Romans. It did not decline under the Arabs, nor did the Mamelukes or the Turks, who successively conquered it, together with the rest of Egypt, suffer it to go to decay. It preserved some portion of its greatness until the passage of the Cape of Good Hope opened a new route to the Indies, and once more gave a new direction to the commerce of the world, which Alexander had previously changed, and which had been changed several times before Alexander.

The Alexandrians were remarkable, under all their successive dominations, for industry united with levity; for love of novelty, accompanied by a close application to commerce, and to all the arts that make commerce flourish; and for a contentious and quarrelsome spirit, joined to cowardice, superstition, and debauchery — all which never changed. The city was peopled with Egyptians, Jews, and Turks, all of whom, though poor at first, enriched themselves by traffic. Opulence introduced the cultivation of the fine arts, with a taste for literature, and consequently for disputation.

The Jews built a magnificent temple, and translated their books into Greek, which had become the language of the country. So great were the animosities among the native Egyptians, the Greeks, the Jews, and the Christians, that they were continually accusing one another to the governor, to the no small advantage of his revenue. There were even frequent and bloody seditions, in one of which, in the reign of Caligula, the Jews, who exaggerate everything, assert that religious and commercial jealousy, united, cost them fifty thousand men, whom the Alexandrians murdered.

Christianity, which the Origens, Clements, and others had established and rendered admirable by their lives, degenerated into a mere spirit of party. The Christians adopted the manners of the Egyptians; religion yielded to the desire of gain; and all the inhabitants, divided in everything else, were unanimous only in the love of money. This it was which produced that famous letter from the Emperor Adrian to the Consul Servianus, which Vopiscus gives us as follows:

Adriani Epistola, ex Libris Phlegontis ejus prodita.
Adrianus Augustus Serviano Cos. Vo.

Ægyptum, quam mihi laudabas, Serviane carissime, totam didici, levem, pendulam, et ad omnia famæ monumenta volitantem. Illi qui Serapin colunt Christiani sunt, et devoti sunt Serapi qui se Christi episcopus dicunt. Nemo illic Archisynagogus Judæorum, nemo Semarites, nemo Christianorum presbyter, non mathematicus, non aruspex, non aliptes. Ipse ille Patriarcha, quum Ægyptum venerit, ab aliis Serapidem adorare, ab aliis cogitur Christum. Genus hominis seditiosissimum, injuriosissimum. Civitas opulenta, dives, fecunda, in qua nemo vivat otiosus. Alii vitrum constant, ab aliis charta conficitur; omnes certe lymphiones cujuscunque artis et videntur et habentur. Podagrosi quod agant habent, cæci quod faciant; ne chiragri quidem apud cos otiosi vivunt. Unus illis deus est; hunc Christiani, hunc Judæi, hunc homnes venerantur et gentes.

Which may be rendered thus:

“My dear Servian: I have seen that Egypt of which you have spoken so highly; I know it thoroughly. It is a light, uncertain, fickle nation. The worshippers of Serapis turn Christians, and they who are at the head of the religion of Christ devote themselves to Serapis. There is no chief of the rabbis, no Samaritan, no Christian priest who is not an astrologer, a diviner, a pander. When the Greek patriarch comes into Egypt, some press him to worship Serapis, others to adore Christ. They are very seditious, very vain, and very quarrelsome. The city is commercial, opulent, and populous. No one is idle. Some make glass; others manufacture paper; they seem to be, and indeed are, of all trades; not even the gout in their feet and hands can reduce them to entire inactivity; even the blind work. Money is a god which the Christians, Jews, and all men adore alike.”

This letter of an emperor, whose discernment was as great as his valor, sufficiently proves that the Christians, as well as others, had become corrupted in this abode of luxury and controversy; but the manners of the primitive Christians had not degenerated everywhere; and although they had the misfortune to be for a long time divided into different sects, which detested and accused one another, the most violent enemies of Christianity were obliged to acknowledge that the purest and the greatest souls were to be found among its proselytes. Such is the case even at the present day in cities wherein the degree of folly and frenzy exceeds that of ancient Alexandria.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25