Founded in 332 B.C. by Alexander the Great, Alexandria was intended to supersede Naucratis (q.v.) as a Greek centre in Egypt, and to be the link between Macedonia and the rich Nile Valley. If such a city was to be on the Egyptian coast, there was only one possible site, behind the screen of the Pharos island and removed from the silt thrown out by Nile mouths.
An Egyptian townlet, Rhacotis, already stood on the shore and was a resort of fishermen and pirates.
Behind it (according to the Alexandrian treatise, known as pseudo-Callisthenes) were five native villages scattered along the strip between Lake Mareotis and the sea. Alexander occupied Pharos, and had a walled city marked out by Deinocrates on the mainland to include Rhacotis.
A few months later he left Egypt for the East and never returned to his city; but his corpse was ultimately entombed there. His viceroy, Cleomenes, continued the creation of Alexandria. The Heptastadium,
however, and the mainland quarters seem to have been mainly Ptolemaic work. Inheriting the trade of ruined Tyre and becoming the centre of the new commerce between Europe and the Arabian and Indian East, the city grew in less than a century to be larger than Carthage; and for some centuries more it had to acknowledge no superior but Rome.
It was a centre not only of Hellenism but of Semitism, and the greatest Jewish city in the world. There the Septuagint was produced.
The early Ptolemies kept it in order and fostered the development of its museum into the leading Greek university; but they were careful to maintain the distinction of its population into three nations, "Macedonian" (i.e. Greek), Jew and Egyptian. From this division arose much of the later turbulence which began to manifest itself under Ptolemy Philopater.
Nominally a free Greek city, Alexandria retained its senate to Roman times; and indeed the judicial functions of that body were restored by Septimius Severus, after temporary abolition by Augustus.
The city passed formally under Roman jurisdiction in 80 B.C., according to the will of Ptolemy Alexander: but it had been under Roman influence for more than a hundred years previously.
There Julius Caesar dallied with Cleopatra in 47 B.C. and was mobbed by the rabble; there his example was followed by Antony, for whose favour the city paid dear to Octavian, who placed over it a prefect from the imperial household. Alexandria seems from this time to have regained its old prosperity, commanding, as it did, an important granary of Rome.
This latter fact, doubtless, was one of the chief reasons which induced Augustus to place it directly under the imperial power.
In A.D. 215 the emperor Caracalla visited the city; and, in order to repay some insulting satires that the inhabitants had made upon him, he commanded his troops to put to death all youths capable of bearing arms. This brutal order seems to have been carried out even beyond the letter, for a general massacre was the result.
Notwithstanding this terrible disaster, Alexandria soon recovered its former splendour, and for some time longer was esteemed the first city of the world after Rome. Even as its main historical importance had formerly sprung from pagan learning, so now it acquired fresh importance as a centre of Christian theology and church government.
There Arianism was formulated and there Athanasius, the great opponent of both heresy and pagan rcaction, worked and triumphed.
As native influences, however, began to reassert themselves in the Nile valley, Alexandria gradually became an alien city, more and more detached from Egypt; and, losing much of its commerce as the peace of the empire broke up during the 3rd century A.D., it declined fast in population and splendour.
The Brucheum, and Jewish quarters were desolate in the 5th century, and the central monuments, the Soma and Museum, fallen to ruin.