Forces of Nature and History: The City in the Ancient World

Damned Alexandria, land suited to treachery – Sextus Propertius 

Writing has many challenges, but properly conveying a sense of setting has its unique problems, particularly when the place is so different, as it often is in a historical novel. This issue is compounded when the places you’re writing about are in various states of decay or nonexistence. So while not exhaustive, I thought I’d talk a little about some of the cities that come up in The God’s Wife to fill out some of what I describe within the story, to give all of you a better idea of physical space. 

Starting at the beginning, we have Alexandria, the coastal capital of Ptolemaic Egypt. Situated at the northern base of the Nile river delta, there had been several native settlements in this vicinity off and on throughout Egyptian history. One of these was Rhakotis, which would eventually be incorporated into Greek Alexandria as the westernmost district of the city and included the island of Pharos located in the city’s harbor. Now, whether Rhakotis was a village, a full-fledged city, or simply a base of operations for the royal shipyard is a matter of archeological debate, but Alexandria was not the first settlement in the area. Rhakotis was also the part of Alexandria that would maintain the bulk of the city’s Egyptian population. 

For Alexander the Great, the environs of the area and the island of Pharos were the major attractions of the site. Alexandria’s harbor was deep enough to admit sea-going vessels and the freshwater tributaries of the Nile could be easily diverted into canals to supply water to a large city. Egyptian dynasties generally preferred inland capitals in cities like Memphis or Thebes, the Egyptian midlands, because much of their trade and foreign interaction occurred with their African neighbors and the Arabian Peninsula. But Alexander was Greek with a vast empire centered farther north in Macedonia, so he was looking for an Egyptian capital with more communications capability with the rest of the Mediterranean than perhaps was the case with his predecessors. 

Additionally, Plutarch claims that Alexander was drawn to Pharos as the supposed kingdom of Proteus mentioned by Homer in the Odyssey and the lure of a mythic past, though Plutarch is often apocryphal. Incidentally, Virgil believes that Proteus’ kingdom is located on Carpathos, an island between Crete and Rhodes. However, he still chose an island that was as close to Pharos geographically as possible. 

But here in these several rather simple maps, one can see the basic layout of Alexandria as it would have been in Arsinoë’s time. Though obviously with the second map, the sites marked as Christian churches would not have existed yet, nor some landmarks like the Arab Wall. And that is one of the other potential issues when writing about many of these places and that is the inevitable overlap of history. Cities, particularly ancient cities, were usually placed in areas of strategic importance in regards to natural resources, climate, and military defense, and those features often remain static over time. So if a site is attractive in 2020 BC, unless things change, it’s likely to still be in demand in 2020 AD. Alexandria is a perfect example of this. We only have the sketchiest ideas of what the Lighthouse of Pharos even looked like, despite it being one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and we have no physical description of the famous Library of Alexandrian (no one in the ancient world thought we’d reach a point where people didn’t know what it looked like, so they never bothered to say).

Contemporary coinage shows the lighthouse, but detail is wanting.
Maybe something like this?

Because there isn’t only one Alexandria. There’s the Egyptian Rhakotis, the Ptolemaic Alexandria, the Roman Alexandria, the Arab-Islamic Alexandria, the quasi-British Alexandria, and most recently the modern Egyptian city you could go visit right this moment if there wasn’t a global pandemic. This creates layers and layers of archeological detritus that must be sifted and reconstructed to determine what was where, when. And that is on top of enough geographic change that requires much of Alexandria’s excavations to be conducted underwater, which is where you’ll find much of Arsinoë’s Alexandria these days, both from encroaching sea erosion and from centuries of silt deposits brought by the Nile on its journey. The nutrient-rich dark mud that gives the Black Land its name. 

Glug, glug…

But what happens when ancient cities get built in spite of location, or the geography changes too much? That, dear readers, brings us to two other cities Arsinoë encounters on her journey – Antioch and Ephesus. 

Prior to the 300s BC, there had been several small Persian and Greek settlements in the environs of Antioch, but the city itself was founded by Seleucus, who we met in the last entry when we were hashing out the Hellenistic kingdoms formed from Alexander the Great’s empire after his death. As we discussed, Seleucus’ portion covered vast swaths of western Asia, but his capital was Antioch in southeastern Turkey. The city is nestled in a bend of the Orontes River in the shadow of two mountains, Silpius and Staurinus. 

The Orontes

So far, everything seems to be coming up roses for Antioch: they have a water source, a good climate, protective moutains at their back. Plus, Antioch enjoyed an enviable position for trade between the east and west, which made the city rich, and a center for high-quality luxury goods and the artisans who produced them. It wasn’t called Antioch the Golden for nothing. 

But all is not quite as it seems for this modish city. This region of Turkey frequently experiences devastating earthquakes that leveled Antioch many times just within its recorded history. Antioch was beautiful, and probably in part because it was so often new. No matter how rich a city is, having to constantly rebuild and repair it takes its toll, and that occasionally led to political instability in the bargain. Also, the protection afforded by the surrounding mountains was largely illusory. Silpius and Staurinus were of an imposing enough height that watchtowers and citadels dotted their ridges, but both were riddled with pleasant, easily-breached passes that were a gift to invading armies. In short, Antioch was extremely difficult to defend from enemies – a scandal for a city founded by one of Alexander the Great’s most successful generals. And Seleucus knew this; that’s why he vacillated between Antioch and his more defensible hubs on the Turkish coast as his capitals. But he could never quite relinquish his golden city altogether. But all of this would eventually catch up with Antioch; it would continue to be an important place up through the Crusades, but particularly its post-Roman history is largely one of repeated capture and periodic environmental disaster until it became little more than a village of a few hundred inhabitants. Its grandeur reduced to a handful of stunning archeological discoveries. 

Ephesus, on the other hand, is a perfect example of how geographic change can influence the rise and fall of ancient cities. It was founded in the 10th century BC by Athenian colonists, though the city traced its legendary foundations supposedly to the mythic Amazons, perhaps as a nod to their particular devotion to the virginal hunting goddess, Artemis.

She’s a little more baller this far east.

At first glance, Ephesus appears to sit directly on the Aegean Sea, but in fact the city was situated a bit further inland, where the hills could provided a protective alcove for the inhabitants. But sea trade was vitally important to the Ephesians, so why would they put their city away from the coast? The answer is the Kaystros River was deep enough to connect the city to the sea and provide a usable inland harbor.

Far older than the other places we’ve been talking about, Ephesus was well-established as an important trading city by the time Alexander the Great liberated it from Persian control after his defeat of the regional satrapies in 334 BC. When Alexander died, the Diadochi who received Ephesus was his general, Lysimachus. By this time, the harbinger of Ephesus’ ultimate doom had already begun to make its appearance. The Kaystros brought large quantities of silt downriver with it and silt deposits had begun to accumulate at its mouth, causing both economic difficulty and breeding disease.  Lysimachus promptly forced everyone to move another mile inland and renamed the city for his wife (the daughter of his Diadochi colleague, Ptolemy). And that’s how Ephesus briefly became Arsinoëa – Arsinoë’s City.  

And no, the Ptolemies, as discussed, were not trailblazers when it came to family names. There’s barely half a dozen names for all of them. 

The name change lasted as long as Lysimachus, and the citizenry changed it back as soon as he was dead. When Seleucus’ descendants took over the city, and later the Ptolemies of Egypt stole it from them, they wisely left Ephesus as it was.  

Ephesus would change hands a few more times, moving amongst Diadochi kingdoms and Greek city-states, until their last ruler died without an heir and willed the city to the Roman Republic. It would remain an important eastern outpost of the Roman Empire until its fall, and its history after that is remarkably similar in many ways to Antioch, where the city would bounce between sides in the Crusades before finally being abandoned in the 15th century AD. But unlike Antioch, Ephesus’ main problem wasn’t invasion, it was that pesky river silt. The city fought a constant and eventually fruitless battle to drain its inland waterways and harbor, but nature won out, and without that vital link to the Mediterranean sea trade, Ephesus’ fortunes went into a precipitous decline. Late crusaders were surprised to find it already largely abandoned by their time, and the Temple of Artemis (another Wonder of the Ancient World), a ruin. 

Pictured: A Wonder of the World

Lastly, I know I’m not mentioning the obvious elephant (eagle?) in the room: Rome fits into this pattern as well. Like Alexandria, it is a continuously-inhabited city where archeology and daily life collide into a layered, multicultural past-present; its fabled Seven Hills provided scant defensive protection like Antioch’s mountains; and it had a serious trading port drainage problem in its suburb of Ostia like what brought down Ephesus. And like all of the ancient cities that came before it, its fortunes have risen and fallen through the centuries, but the Eternal City is another reminder that the world of The God’s Wife might be a little less distant from us than we imagine. You just might have to dig a little deeper to uncover it.  

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