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«Temple Of Muses», John Roberts

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Chapter I

I have never been among those who think that it is better to be dead than to leave Rome. In fact, I have fled Rome many times in order to preserve my life. For me, however, life away from Rome is usually a sort of living death, a trans-Styxian suspension of the processes of living and a sense that everything important is happening far away. But there are exceptions to this. One of them is Alexandria.

I remember my first sight of the city as though it were yesterday, except that I remember nothing at all about yesterday. Of course, when you approached Alexandria by sea, you did not see the city first. You saw the Pharos.

It appeared as a smudge on the horizon while we were still a good twenty miles out to sea. We had cut straight across the sea like fools, rather than hugging the coast like sensible men. To compound the folly, we weren't in a broad-beamed merchantman that could ride out a storm at sea, but rather in a splendid war galley that carried enough paint and gilding to sink a lesser ship. On its bows, just above the ram, were a pair of bronze crocodiles that appeared to be foaming through their toothy jaws as the flashing oars propelled us over the waves.

"That's Alexandria," said the sailing master, a weather-beaten Cypriote in Roman uniform.

"We've made good time," grunted my high-placed kinsman, Metellus Creticus. Like most Romans, we both loathed the sea and anything having to do with sea travel. That was why we had chosen the most dangerous way to travel to Egypt. It was the quickest. There is nothing afloat swifter than a Roman trireme under all oars, and we had kept the rowers sweating since leaving Massilia. We had been on a tedious embassy to a pack of disaffected Gauls, trying to persuade them not to join the Helvetii. I detested Gaul, and was overjoyed when Creticus received a special commission from the Senate sending him to the Egyptian embassy.

The galley had a delightful miniature castle erected before the mast, and I climbed to its fighting platform for a better view. Within minutes the smudge became a definite column of smoke, and before much longer the tower was visible. From so far out there was nothing to give the thing scale, and it was hard to believe that this was one of the wonders of the world.

"You mean that's the famous lighthouse?" This from my slave Hermes. He had climbed after me, unsteadily. He was even more wretchedly seasick than was I, a matter of some satisfaction to me.

"I hear that it is more impressive up close," I assured him. It looked at first like a slender column, dazzling white in the noon sunlight. As we drew nearer, I could see that the slender shaft sat atop a stouter one, and that one on one broader still. Then we saw the island itself, and I began to get an idea of how huge the lighthouse was, for it dominated utterly the island of Pharos, which was itself large enough to conceal from view the entire great city of Alexandria.

The Pharos sat upon the eastern extremity of the island, and it was toward that cape that we steered, for we were bound for the Great Harbor. Around the western end of the island lay the Eunostos Harbor, the Harbor of Safe Return, where ships could enter the canal that connected the city to the Nile, or could proceed on to Lake Mareotis to the south. Hence the Eunostos was the favored commercial harbor. But we were on a government mission and therefore were to be received at the Palace, which was situated on the Great Harbor.

As we rounded the eastern end of the island, Hermes craned his neck to look up at the lighthouse. It was capped by a round kiosk from which smoke and flame billowed to the prevailing breeze.

"It is pretty tall," he admitted.

"More than four hundred feet, it's said," I affirmed. The old Successor Kings who followed Alexander built on a scale rivaling the Pharaohs. Their monster tombs and temples and statues weren't good for much, but they were impressive, which was the main idea. We Romans could understand that. It is important to impress people. Of course, we preferred useful things like roads and aqueducts and bridges. At least the Pharos was a truly useful structure, if a bit outsized.

When we passed between the Pharos and Cape Lochias, we came into view of the city, and it was breathtaking. Alexandria was situated on a strip of land separating Lake Mareotis and the sea, just to the west of the Nile Delta. Alexander had chosen the spot so that his new capital would be a part of the Greek world, rather than of priest-besotted old Egypt. It had been a wise move. The whole city was built of white stone and the effect was astonishing. It was like some idealized model of a city, rather than the real thing. Rome is not a beautiful city, although it has some beautiful buildings. Alexandria was incomparably beautiful. Its population was greater than that of Rome, but it had none of Rome's crowded, jumbled aspect. It had not just grown there like most cities. Instead it had been planned, laid out and built as a great city. On its flat spit of land, all the greater buildings were clearly visible from the harbor, from the huge Temple of Serapis in the western quarter to the strange artificial hill and temple of the Paneum in the east.

The greatest complex of buildings was the Palace, which stretched from the Moon Gate eastward along the sickle curve of Cape Lochias. There was even an Island Palace in the harbor, and a royal harbor attached to the Palace complex. The Ptolemies liked to live in style.

I went down to the deck and sent Hermes to fetch my best toga. The marines on deck were polishing their armor, but our mission was diplomatic, so Creticus and I would not be wearing military uniform.

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