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Saint Catherine of Alexandria (early 300s) is a Christian saint who is not well-known these days, but she was during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Raphael painted her; she spoke to Joan of Arc.

Catherine said she was the daughter of King Costas. She was born rich and had a fine Greek education. She lived alone in palace with her servants.

This was in the time of emperor Maximinus, when the Roman Empire was still trying to wipe out the Christian faith. When Maximinus came to Alexandria he forced Christians to offer sacrifices to the gods. The old stories say it was emperor Maxentius, but it was Maximinus who ruled the east in those days. Since the names are so alike they were probably mixed up.

Many Christians offered sacrifice to the gods out of fear of the emperor.

When Catherine saw this she went to the emperor and tried to reason with him, even though she was only 18. Standing at the doors of a temple, she pointed out that as beautiful as the temple was, it was nothing compared to the beauty of the heavens and the earth. We should worship the god who created those things, not the gods inside a temple which will one day turn to dust.

The emperor could have killed her right there, but he took up her challenge. He would prove to her that Christianity was nothing but a pack of lies.

He tried to do it himself, but soon found that he could not match her education and wit. So he gathered together 50 of the most learned men in the empire and brought them to Alexandria to debate her.

They wondered why they were brought from so far away to do such a simple thing. But she wound up persuading them that she was right! She did it with their own books which they took to be true, like those of Plato and Sibyl.

The emperor threw Catherine into a dark cell for 12 days without food. The queen visited her secretly in the middle of the night. Catherine brought her and the guards over to Christ.

After 12 days the emperor brought Catherine before him. He gave her a simple choice: either offer sacrifice to the gods and be made a queen or be put to death. Her king and master was not the emperor nor the devils that he worshipped as gods, but Jesus Christ. She had no doubt what to do.

They were going to kill her on a breaking wheel, which would cut her to pieces. But she prayed to God and it fell apart. So they cut off her head instead.

They say that when she died milk, not blood, flowed from her body. Then angels carried her body to Mount Sinai, where Moses once talked to God. There is an ancient monastery in her name that stands there to this day.

Feast day: November 25th.

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Origen (185-254) was a Christian intellectual from Alexandria. He influenced Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, Bernard and others. His allegorical interpretation of scripture, though out of favour now, deeply influenced the West in the years from 600 to 1200.

Alexandria of the 200s produced two great thinkers: Origen and the Greek philosopher Plotinus. They produced the two great roads to the truth that men of the Roman Empire followed in the 200s and 300s. Augustine followed both roads in the early 400s and showed how they were the same road.

Origen had a good Greek education. He tried to make Christian and Greek thinking into one system but failed. His mistake was to treat Greek thinking as a set of truths, not as a way of thinking.

It was partly in “De principiis” that Origen tried to make the two systems into one:

  • Eternity of creation: it is without beginning or end. God can create and destroy, but he cannot exist without a creation.
  • Free will: God made angels, stars, demons and men all equal to each other. They became unequal through what they did with their free will.
  • Matter: All spiritual beings have a material nature, even angels. But some, like men, are more material than others.
  • Universal salvation: If you are not saved in this life, your soul will be brought back for another chance. Because the universe lasts for ever even the demons will be saved.

Origen was not a heretic – all this was within the limits of Christian thinking in the Alexandria of his day. But the book got a bad name when heretics later used it to justify teachings that opposed the Church.

The emperor Justinian pushed to have Origen condemned. He had political reasons of his own, but “De principiis” made it easy for the Church to do it. That is why he is not considered to be a saint.

He fell out of favour in the Greek east in the 600s but the Latin west continued to read him. Not “De principiis”, but his books about the Bible. Of the few books that existed then in the West many were by Origen. They stood like a lighthouse to the Bible.

Origen said the entire Bible is true, but not necessarily our interpretation of it. Some passages just have a straight sense, some only have an allegorical sense, where the Bible speaks in figures, and some passages have both senses.

For example, the wood of Noah’s ark stands for the wood of the Cross of Christ. The lamb’s blood the Jews put on their door frames on the night of the first Passover foreshadows the saving blood of Christ. These were real events in history but God used them as figures of what was to come.

Origen’s New Testament included:

  • Acts of Paul
  • 1 Clement
  • Barnabas
  • Didache
  • Shepherd of Hermas

but not:

  • James
  • 2 Peter
  • 2 John
  • 3 John

The books of the New Testament were still not fixed till the 300s.

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Ptolemy

Claudius Ptolemy (about 100-170) of Alexandria is the inventor of the Ptolemaic system, a theory of the heavens that said the stars, sun, moon and planets went round the earth. The earth did not move, it did not even turn. In the early 1600s this was replaced by the theory of Copernicus and Kepler that held that the earth and everything else went round the sun.

Ptolemy also wrote about music, astrology, optics and geography. He was among the first to apply trigonometry to science.

He wrote about his theory of the heavens in the “Almagest” (150) and other works. With it you can get the position of the sun, moon and planets on any given day, past, present or future.

Ptolemy built his theory on 25 years of his own observations and the work of Hipparchus — and probably the work of others (now lost).

The Almagest is a work of genius and beauty that stood for over a thousand years, but it is hardly perfect:

  • We now know some of his observations were made up.
  • It contains arithmetic errors that just happen to let his proofs come out right.
  • It was based on Aristotle’s physics, some of which was easy to prove wrong if anyone took the trouble to check it out against the real world. Someone finally did: Galileo.

Ptolemy takes Aristotle’s physics as a given and then comes up with a theory that fits both Aristotle and his observations.

The root trouble with his theory is not what you think – where he put the earth – but his use of circles.

According to Aristotle heavenly bodies were made up of something called quintessence. Quintessence, being perfect moved in perfect circles. Aristotle said that was the perfect motion.

And so Ptolemy manfully stuck to circles. But to get his circles to match his observations, he needed circles within circles – the dreaded epicycles.

Planets move in stretched-out circles called ellipses, as Kepler later found out. It is not that Ptolemy could not do ellipses – it was just the sort of thing he was good at. It was his physics that held him back.

Copernicus used circles and epicycles too, so he was not that much better. It was not till the work of Galileo, Kepler and Newton that Copernicus’ theory won the day. Galileo proved it true, Kepler made it usable and Newton provided the physics.

Astrology: Ptolemy believed that the movements of the heavens affect us. In his book “Tetrabiblios” he shows how in terms of Aristotle’s physics.

Geography: his book on geography was not known in the West till 1300. In it he gives the latitude and longitude of over 8000 places from Spain to China, making possible a detailed map of the world as it was known in Alexandria in his day. It is from Ptolemy that we get the idea of north being “up.”

Ptolemy-World-Map

Ptolemy’s world map (c. AD 150)

Ptolemy knew the earth was round but thought it was smaller than it really is. That is why Columbus thought that he could easily get to Asia by sailing west across the ocean.

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The Library of Alexandria (-295 to +646) was the largest library of ancient times. It stood for almost a thousand years. In 2002 a new Library of Alexandria was opened.

The ancient library had about 490,000 scrolls. That comes to about 100,000 of our books or, on a computer, 64 gigabytes. For us that would be a small-city library. In its time only the Library of Pergamum (the library that invented parchment) came close. In our time, the Library of Congress, now the largest, did not pass that size till the late 1800s.

The Library was conceived as a universal library: to have a copy of every book ever written. At 490,000 scrolls it probably came close that for Greek books.

It was not a free-standing, public library. It was part of the Museum of Alexandria, which in turn was part of the king’s estate. It was not a museum as we think of it but something like a research institute, which brought together some of the greatest minds of the age. It had labs, an observatory, a botanical garden and a zoo with a polar bear.

The Museum and Library gave us, among other things:

  • putting things in alphabetical order,
  • dividing a work into “books” (= separate scrolls),
  • the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament),
  • the works of Homer as we know them,
  • grammar books in the form we are used to seeing them,
  • punctuation,
  • the first good measurement of how big the earth is,
  • latitude and longitude,
  • heliocentrism.

The Library had a branch in the temple of Serapis. It was about a tenth the size but seems to have been opened to the public.

Ships that came to Alexandria were searched for books. Those that were found were copied: the owner got the copy, the Library kept the original! The Library sent buyers abroad to find the oldest copies of books. The older the better. If it had several old copies of the same book, it would work out what the original must have been. That is how the Library came to have the most trustworthy copies in the world.

It had the stolen originals of the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides and books from the libraries of Aristotle and Theophrastus..

Languages: it had books in at least Greek, Egyptian, Aramaic (Babylonian) and Hebrew..

The Library was (partly) destroyed in:

  • -48 under Julius Caesar, who may have taken some of its books to Rome;
  • 272 under Aurelian to put down an uprising in Alexandria;
  • 295 under Diocletian to put down yet another uprising;
  • 391 under Theodosius when the Serapis branch was destroyed as a temple to idols;
  • 646 when Arabs destroyed what remained.

Of its books, 99% are lost forever. But if it were not for the Library, we would not have much of what do have, through copying and recopying, like the works of Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Thucydides and Herodotus.

Of the physical remains of the actual books that once sat in the Library, all we have are some torn pages.

– Abagond, 2006, 2015.

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