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In 92 AD Alexandria Egypt is the unchallenged pinnacle of intellectual achievement. A melting pot of Egyptians, Greeks, Jews, and Romans, it frequently boils over into violence. Marco, a young man from Corinth, is caught between the Romans and the Free Egypt rebel forces when he helps invent the most powerful weapon in the world. The rebels obtain it and threaten to overthrow the hated Roman occupiers.
In 92 AD, the imperial city of Rome rules Western civilization, but the city of Alexandria Egypt is the unchallenged pinnacle of Western intellectual achievement. Its prestigious Museum and Library are magnets that draw the world’s most important philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, physicians and geographers. Alexandria also draws a young man named Marco from Corinth, who joins a small team of brilliant engineers working on secret projects. Titus, the Roman Prefect of Egypt, knew Marco’s father so he sponsors the young man, who then promptly falls in love with Titus’ daughter Paula.
Populated by native Egyptians, colonized by Greeks, settled by Jewish immigrants, and ruled by the Romans, the huge city of Alexandria is a cultural melting pot that frequently boils over. At least once a month, highly organized insurgents emerge to harass the Roman Army occupation forces and then quickly disappear back into the alleys and apartments.
Titus orders Marco’s team to find a new weapon to help defeat the rebels. They create a shockingly powerful device, but before they can deliver it to Titus, the rebels obtain it and begin murdering the engineers to keep the device secret from the Romans.
A mysterious woman named Nebit, young, beautiful, and wealthy, befriends Marco, but he tries to stay faithful to Paula. He also questions her true intentions because of her past history and her belief that she is the reincarnation of Egypt’s last Pharaoh, Queen Cleopatra. Suddenly cut off from Paula and from Roman protection, Marco goes into hiding at Nebit’s estate, not knowing she is the widow of the former head of the rebel forces.
The rebels, who have spies even in the Roman administration, kidnap Paula and commence full-scale production of the new weapons, planning to overthrow the Romans on the very day that Emperor Domitian comes to visit.
Marco, desperate to save Paula and prevent the rebels from using the new weapons, finally gains access to Titus. Together they discover the rebels’ hiding place, but it’s too late. They now know the power of the weapons, but not how and when the rebels will use them.
Prologue – The Nile Delta, 331 BC
The most powerful man in the world was surrounded by his entourage, a dozen generals and advisors. But rather than leading his men into battle, Alexander knelt and dug his hands in the damp soil as if testing it for mineral content. He looked up and stared intently at the ocean, feeling its cooling breeze on his sunburned face. The men stood by attentively, wondering what was on his mind and feeling awkward about standing while their commander knelt.
One of the generals, Ptolemy, was Alexander’s half-brother and life-long friend. Ptolemy was in awe of the 24-year-old warrior who had led their army of 40,000 men across the vastness of Asia. From their home in Macedonia they had swept through southern Greece, across the sea to Phrygia, over the Tarsus Mountains into Syria, defeating every army in their path. Now they were in Egypt. They had wrested the ancient kingdom away from the control of the hated Persians without a battle. Ptolemy felt flush from the incredible welcome they had received from the Egyptians, whose ancestors had built a thriving civilization over 3,000 years earlier.
Alexander’s innovative use of cavalry had driven his success. Every other army was based on foot-soldiers, but the speed of their horses had allowed the Macedonians to outflank their enemies. The weight of the horses gave their riders momentum. The added height gave the riders protection. Merely the sight of the advancing cavalry put the enemy soldiers at a psychological disadvantage.
Yet Alexander, perhaps the greatest military genius the world had ever known, was on his knees studying dirt!
Finally he stood, brushed the mud and sand from his bare legs, and announced,
“This is where we will build our capital city, which will be more wondrous than any other city in the world. We will have access to the Mediterranean Ocean, Lake Mareotis, and the Nile River.”
Alexander pointed dramatically to the ocean in the north, the lake in the south, and the river on the east as the men followed his gaze.
“As you see, there are already two small towns here, Rhakotis on the west and Neapolis on the east. They are not much to look at now, but they give us a base from which to build the new capital.”
Ptolemy spoke up.
“Sir, Egypt already has a capital, Memphis. It is in the center of Egypt and located on the Nile. Why build a new one?”
“My new city will be not merely the capital of Egypt but the capital of my empire! It is not enough that our army is invincible on land. We are Greeks, a sea-faring people, and we must also be invincible on the water. This stretch of beach is perfect for a port and a naval base. As for trade, this is the logical connection between the Mediterranean Sea and the Nile River and from there to the Red Sea. We only need to add a few short canals to connect them.”
Alexander drew his sword and used it to draw patterns in the soil, calling out the city’s main points. Ptolemy could see that the man was caught up in a vision. It was as if none of them were there with him.
“The city will stretch from the beach to the lake, about one and a half miles, and be as wide as the lake, about six miles. Most cities are utterly disorganized, evolving from villages chaotically, weaving around obstacles, the streets going off in all directions following old cart paths. My capital will be laid out in a grid of streets, with every street either parallel or perpendicular to every other street. Pharos, the island out there, called to me last night in a dream. We will build a causeway to it, and on Pharos we will build a lighthouse to guide ships here from all over the world.”
He sheathed the sword and looked at his men, making sure they understood and agreed.
“Bring the surveyors!”
A runner sprinted off to the main camp and returned with eight technicians, robes flapping in the ocean breeze, arms clenching the tools of their trade: knotted ropes for measuring distance, triangular frames with plumb bobs for leveling, gnomon poles for establishing the orientation of the sun and for sighting, and rolls of blank papyrus for making notes and geometric calculations.
Alexander showed the technicians the basic pattern of the city that he had carved into the sand and ordered them to draw it life-size, emphasizing that it must be mathematically precise.
“Did any of you bring white chalk powder?”
“No, your highness. We are trying to obtain some but it is rare in Egypt.”
“How do you propose to mark the lines without chalk?” Alexander thundered.
“We could use some kind of grain,” speculated the technician in a quivering voice.
“Do it!” ordered Alexander.
A junior soldier from the quartermaster’s company was brought forward leading a horse pulling a wagon filled with bags of barley meal. The surveyors used their sighting tools and measuring rope to mark out a main highway parallel to the ocean for six miles through the middle of the area and another one perpendicular to it, running from the ocean to the lake. All other streets would be parallel to one of these two highways. As each portion was approved by the master surveyor, the soldiers carrying the barley poured it into the ruts in the soil. The contrast between the light meal and the dark soil made the plan more visible. Alexander strode around the plan making adjustments with his sword.
The generals heard a rushing noise and turned toward it staring. A flock of birds – at least 100 of them – rose out of the lake, circled above the design as if studying it, and then fluttered down, alighting gracefully onto the soil. Alexander clapped his hands at the birds, but unlike the people of all the lands he had conquered, the birds were not frightened by him. They hopped along the lines of barley, scooping the meal into their beaks. Within 15 minutes the birds were gone, the barley was gone, and with it Alexander’s grand design. Alexander gave his men a worried look. It was a terrible omen.
“Bring Aristander here!”
Alexander’s personal seer arrived and listened to the tale of woe.
“Are the gods warning me not to build this city?” demanded Alexander, who did not conquer the world by heeding the warnings of gods or men.
Aristander knelt in the sand like his master had done earlier. He cupped some sand in his hands and brought it to his nose, making a portentous ceremony out of the simple movement. He took his time smelling the sand and then let it sift through his fingers, watching which direction the wind blew it. Then he stood up.
“The birds are a sign of the gods’ favor, my lord. You are using grain to design a city. At this moment the city’s grain is feeding birds, but it is a symbol that when the city is built it will feed the world.”
This pleased Alexander greatly. He knew the birds would eventually be full and go away. All that he needed to do meanwhile was order dozens of soldiers to keep pouring the grain in the grooves and shoo away the birds.
That done, he gathered his entourage together again.
“We leave in two days for the east. We’re going to cross the Euphrates River into Mesopotamia and perhaps travel as far as India.”
The men hid their stunned disbelief. India? It was on the other side of the world!
Later, Alexander and Ptolemy walked along the ocean’s edge.
“Sir, what about this city? Who will build it if we leave?”
“Frankly, Ptolemy, I would like you to stay here and be in charge. I trust you to understand what I want the city to become.”
“Thank you, my friend, and I will do whatever you ask. But I would prefer to stay at your side, leading the army.”
“I would prefer that as well. Who else is there? Cleomenes?”
“He is an excellent administrator, and not much of a warrior. I sometimes question his honesty.”
“Let’s try it anyway. Deinocrates will supervise the construction and we can trust him to report to us about Cleomenes.”
They walked in silence as the waves crashed and the seagulls squawked.
“One other thing, Ptolemy. I want a library in the middle of the city, with a school attached.”
“Of course. All Greek cities have libraries.”
“Not just an ordinary library, though. Just as this city, Alexandria, will be the greatest city the world has ever known, its library and school will be so wonderful that scholars will come here to study from all over the world.”
Ptolemy thought about it. Alexander was a scholar himself, tutored at the feet of Aristotle. As a boy he had learned a deep reverence for knowledge. What was it Aristotle had said? “The educated differ from the uneducated as much as the living from the dead. The fate of empires depends on the education of youth.”
It would be nine years before Ptolemy returned to Alexandria, and then it was as its ruler. Alexander had died suddenly and his empire was divided into three parts. Ptolemy chose Egypt for his part and became Pharaoh. Cleomenes had proven to be corrupt indeed and Ptolemy promptly executed him. The city was not yet finished, but it was magnificent to behold. The Library was on its way to becoming the largest in the world, already housing thousands of manuscripts. The “school” that Alexander had asked for was now called the Museum. It housed dozens of workshops spread among gardens filled with sculptures and fountains. There were eating rooms, living quarters, a medical center, and a zoo. The causeway to Pharos Island was complete and construction had begun on a lighthouse tall enough to beckon ships from many miles out at sea.
At daybreak, Marco stood at the bow of the ship, feeling the sun warm his back and enjoying the solitude while most of the passengers still slept. His legs were spread and his arms gripped the rail as the wooden deck rose and fell twice his height with each rolling wave of the ocean. When they had set out from Corinth three weeks ago he would have been doubled up with nausea from such rough seas, but his body had finally adapted to the constant three-dimensional motion. His mind still resented the boredom – day after day surrounded by nothing but heaving ocean and salty breeze, the monotony broken all too infrequently. Events were few: the winds died and the rowers took over; the crew hauled up the nets and fish spilled all over the deck of the ship, and each morning and evening the meager rations of fish, bread, and vegetables were dispensed and eaten. The only real excitement was when the freighter stopped at a port, giving the passengers a chance to visit a new city, eat more varied meals, and talk to people other than the ship’s crew and fellow travelers.
The young man’s home town of Corinth sat on a narrow isthmus connecting the Peloponnesian peninsula with mainland Greece, surrounded by ocean. Its west faced the Corinthian Gulf and the port of Lechaeum, while on the eastern shore lay the Saronic Gulf and the port of Cenchreae. Marco’s ship had departed from Cenchreae and wound its way eastwards, threading its way through dozens of islands. The first stop was the island of Rhodes, where the ship dropped off pallets of goods and picked up other cargo, along with food and water for the next leg of the journey. Marco stared at the broken hunks of the Colossus, a statue that used to stand over 100 feet high whose mighty legs once spanned the harbor. From Rhodes they sailed to Crete, the island home of the legendary Minotaur, and then on to Antioch. Next the freighter rode the trade winds due south along the coast of Syria and Palestine, stopping briefly in Tyre and Caesarea. Last week the ship had swung westwards, running along the Sinai Desert and then crossing the Egyptian border.
Now Marco saw a village where a river poured into the ocean, a clue that they had reached the near edge of the vast Nile Delta. If so, they were only hours away from Alexandria. He went below the deck to pack his luggage and returned to the railing with a roll of parchment. In Athens he had been able to copy two fairly detailed maps: one of the province of Egypt and the other of its capital city Alexandria. Now he spread out the Egypt map against the rail. The mighty Nile River, having run northward for thousands of miles, poured into the Mediterranean Sea not as a single river but as seven tributaries in the shape of a triangular fan, creating a Delta that spread along 150 miles of coastline. The ship slowly cruised past each of these tributaries. It was May, so he knew the Nile was at its lowest level. Egypt was midway through the four-month season of Shemu, the Harvest. In three months, the Inundation Season, Akhet, would begin, and the Nile would rise by 15 feet, flooding the flat country. It would recede only in December as Peret, the Growing Season, started.
By the middle of the day, Marco noted the mouth of the sixth tributary, the Canopic, alongside the two renowned cities of Canopus and Herakleion. A shout went out and Marco looked at the horizon. There it was! Just above the ocean was a twinkling light contrasting against the pale blue western sky. The captain announced that it was a reflection off the top of the Pharos Lighthouse, still thirty miles away but visible because the structure stood almost 400 feet above the ocean. Marco had studied the design of the Lighthouse in his architecture classes. It was a miracle of engineering, every bit as magnificent as the new Coliseum in Rome, and he was determined to explore Pharos as soon as he unpacked. He could hardly wait to explore Alexandria, but the ship seemed to be slowing to a crawl, as if approaching a dangerous animal.
All morning the sea had been more vigorous than normal. It was his first sea voyage, and Marco had been grateful that the sea had been so calm, both in the ports they visited and on the deep sea with no land in sight. Now, however, Marco felt the wind quicken, and then the deck beneath him shuddered as if the ship was balanced on the back of an untamed horse. Water spilled over the rail onto the deck. His feet slipped and only his hands on the rail prevented him from falling. Other passengers were not so lucky, and they slid randomly into piles of rope and barrels of supplies. He saw an elderly Egyptian woman slip and fall. Her name was Woserit, and he’d gotten to know her during the trip. The tiny lady had told him once that her name meant “mighty woman” and then flexed her bony biceps and said she did not feel so mighty these days. Marco gauged the tempo of the ship’s rise and fall, and then spider-walked to where Woserit lay. Kneeling down, he helped her sit up, slid an arm around her thin waist and pulled her over to the rail. She smiled shakily at him, thanked him, and he suggested she stay at his side until they were safely at the dock.
Two immense breakwaters curved out into the ocean, like arms reaching out to embrace the ship. The breakwater on the right ended at the towering Lighthouse, while the left one stretched off as a base for the Royal Palace. He knew from his research that the bay lying between these two arms, the Grand Harbor, was over a mile wide. The bay was filled with dozens of ships of all sizes, and he could make out the tiny figures of people on the breakwaters and the far shoreline, and beyond the shore a jagged silhouette of buildings.
The architects and engineers of Alexandria had built these breakwaters to create a calm harbor in which ships could safely dock, and the passage between them was relatively narrow. Once inside, the ship and its passengers would be out of harm's way, but Marco could see the crew was having a very difficult time maneuvering the bucking ship into the opening without crashing against the rocks. The waves grew more violent as the ship neared the port’s entry. Walls of water crashed over the rocky peninsulas and the roaring winds sprayed the salty water across the sides of the ship. All the passengers were thoroughly soaked and shivering despite the bright sun overhead.
Sailors wrestled the single giant sail down from its mast and steered toward the opening with oars and the rudder, but to Marco it looked like the ship was ignoring their efforts and had its own plan. The bow suddenly lifted up so high that he lost sight of the entire metropolis except for the giant Lighthouse. He’d heard it was the tallest structure in the world, and from his vantage point, the Lighthouse seemed to be leaning over the ship, ready to crush it like an insect.
The ship stood on its stern for an instant and when it descended again there was the ear-splitting shriek of wood ripping apart. The ship had bashed into the breakwater and demolished its figurehead, a brightly painted fifteen-foot-high wooden sculpture of some mythical sea monster with eyes the height of a man. The next wave pushed the ship back out into ocean, minus the monster head, and Marco found himself up to his knees in seawater. He smiled at Woserit to reassure her. They huddled in the front of the boat, the part that was slowly sinking, and he helped her walk up toward higher ground. Handing her over to another man, he skated down to the bow again to pull other women and their children to safety.
Meanwhile, smaller boats drew near and men threw lines to Marco’s ship in order to stabilize it and pull it through the opening. Men on shore also threw ropes at the foundering ship. As Marco rescued more passengers, he was reminded of a spectacle in Corinth. He’d seen an elephant on display which was spooked by the crowds. The massive animal looked right and left in desperation, seeking an escape from the noise, threatening to crash its way through the spectators. The elephant’s handlers tossed ropes around the beast, trying to keep it from moving, which only resulted in frightening it further. A few of the men holding the ropes were actually lifted into the air or dragged along the ground. The crowd began to scream and more men joined the fray. Eventually the elephant was imprisoned by so many ropes that it lay whimpering.
Like the elephant, the ship tossed around, restrained somewhat by a dozen ropes gripped by men and anchored to smaller boats. The force of the ship lifted a few of the boats partly out of the water, tossing their sailors into the sea. But more men and ships joined in, and the broken ship had no choice but to succumb. The little boats pulled the ship into the shelter of the Great Harbor to the first place where it was able to dock. The crew rushed women and children off the ship, swinging each passenger onto the concrete abutment.
Now only the men were left, standing on the roof of the cabin, and the sinking of the ship had left a gap of ocean between the roof and the pier. The space on the roof was rapidly shrinking and the men dove into the water to swim to safety.
Marco hesitated. He had 30 pounds of gold coins strapped to his waist under his robes. He was already tired from shuttling the other passengers to safety, and was unsure if he had the strength to swim across to dry land. He took a deep breath and dove. Completely submerged and dropping toward the bottom of the ocean, he found his efforts to swim meant nothing to the water. His ears popped with the pressure. He prayed to Jesus to save him like he had saved Peter in the lake at Galilee. Just as he began to loosen the gold from his waist, his feet touched the rocky foundation of the pier. Marco’s lungs were bursting as he stumbled uphill beneath the water. His head surfaced, and he gasped for air. A wave struck him from behind, bashing his head into the ragged concrete pier. Stunned, he crawled onto the pier like a wounded dog.
The crew salvaged as much of the luggage as they could, throwing the bags ashore, but finally the ship gave a groan and disappeared from sight. Marco shook his head. The ship was huge. Countless times he had walked from one end to the other, averaging 70 paces. Perhaps divers would be able to salvage much of the ship and its cargo. The good news was that none of the roughly 200 travelers had died.
He and the other passengers were soaked to the bone, leaving puddles of seawater as they walked to and fro searching for their bags. The lucky ones dragged their luggage down the pier toward the city, slogging along dispiritedly. Marco was ecstatic to be on dry land. The warm sun would dry him and his clothes in less than an hour. And that was good, because his luggage was nowhere to be found.
In the pandemonium of the shipwreck, Marco had concentrated on simply getting on top of the Lochias pier. Now that he was standing on it he marveled at how utterly foreign the scene was. A kaleidoscope of color swirled around him – clothing in all hues of a rainbow, umbrellas of ostrich plumes, and all manner of brightly painted vehicles.
People, baggage, and products were being hauled to and fro in wagons, chariots, and litter coaches. He heard enough languages to rival the legendary Tower of Babel. Through the shouting of people, the rattling of vehicles, and the noises of beasts, he heard music. A trio of children played a harp, a drum and a flute. Why they had chosen a busy pier was a mystery.
And then he saw the weirdest sight of all – a parade of four camels. Only in books had he seen the hump-backed creatures of the desert! They were tethered together, laden with luggage and led by a man whose robes completely covered his skin, except for the face, which was so black Marco could not make out its features. Marco had been told that Egypt was wondrous and unforgettable. Well, it certainly was living up to its reputation, he thought as he walked along the pier toward the city itself.
His plan was to proceed straight from the ship to the Royal Palace and ask to see the Roman Prefect of Egypt, the top official. His mother had said that the current Prefect would remember his famous father from Rome and might help him get situated in Alexandria. But he was far too disheveled to enter the Palace. His chiton garment and long hair were dripping water and he noticed his forehead was dripping blood. He picked up the hem of his chiton and patted his head. The seawater stung the open wound, but the gash did not appear deep enough to require a doctor.
He decided to get a room in the city’s Jewish Quarter, hoping to find a welcome there. He was a Christian, and most Alexandrian Christians lived and worked among the Jews. If Alexandria was anything like Corinth or Rome, it was filled with thieves who would pounce on an unsuspecting traveler. He should be able to trust the followers of Jesus Christ.
His parchment maps were dissolving somewhere in the depths of the Grand Harbor, but Marco had memorized the general geography of Alexandria. From the breakwater he walked past the Royal Palace and continued south along the Lochias peninsula, all the while marveling at the magnificent, richly decorated architecture and well-kept gardens. To his right, he saw a tiny island, Antirrhodus, with its own miniature harbor, and then he walked through the towering Gate of the Moon into the city itself. To his left was the first block of the Jewish sector, judging from the undecipherable Hebrew signs.
Judaea was Egypt’s neighbor to the northeast, so there was frequent travel between the two countries. The Jewish neighborhood of Alexandria was said to be over 300 years old. Legend had it that it may have been to this very district that Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus when they fled to Egypt to escape from King Herod almost 100 years ago. It was only 40 years ago that one of the Twelve, Mark, preached here and became the first Patriarch of the Church of Alexandria.
By now the intense heat of the afternoon had dried his clothes, but Marco was uncomfortably sticky with salt and he longed for a bath and fresh clothing. With his gold, he could buy a room for the night and whatever else he needed. He asked in the shops for directions to a Christian Church. He had been assured back home that Greek was the most common language in Alexandria, even in the Jewish Quarter, though he assumed many of the shopkeepers were also fluent in Hebrew.
Alexandria’s reputation was one of political and religious tolerance. Christians and Jews were allowed to practice their faiths openly, unlike the climate of persecution in Rome which had chased Marco’s family out of the Imperial Capital 28 years ago. It only took him four inquiries to find a Christian church. It was a small and humble house on a dark narrow street with nothing to identify it..
Marco knocked and waited, fidgeting as his clothes stuck to his shoulders and back. His long hair and beard felt stiff with saltwater. He tried to comb the hair out with his fingers, but it was too matted. It must look like something you’d mop the floor with, he thought with a grimace. After a few minutes he knocked a bit harder, finally rousing a young man who opened the door with a quizzical look on his face and a small cross hanging around his neck.
“Greetings,” said Marco, “I see you are a Christian, as am I. Is this the church?”
“Welcome! It is indeed where we worship, though I am the only one here at the moment. I take care of the building in return for room and board. My name is Andrew. Can I help you?”
“I am Marco of the church of Corinth, and I have just arrived by ship. The trip was many hundreds of miles in length, but the last portion was a swim in the harbor because our ship ran aground. My luggage was lost so I have only the clothes on my back and some money. I need a room to stay for the night and hope you can recommend lodging that would be safe. I would also appreciate directions to a clothing shop and a restaurant.”
“I would be happy to help you, Marco. There is not much going on here at the moment. Please come in.”
Andrew led Marco to a padded chair and then went into another room to get some water and bread. Marco had not eaten since morning and he gratefully accepted the light meal.
“There are so many visitors to Alexandria, and have been for so many years, that the hotel industry is well-established. The most luxurious inns tend to be close to the Library, which is west of here. I have heard that the best inns have private baths with hot and cold water, and offer rooms for exercise and massages. Do you seek a room for just a few days or indefinitely?”
“Probably for just a few days until I get better acquainted with the city.”
“There is an inn here in the Quarter that is only five minutes away. It’s where we normally send our visitors. Not fancy, but clean, and the manager can be trusted. We can walk over there and see if they have room for you. As for dinner, I am hungry myself. May I join you?”
An hour later, having secured a small room and a temporary stock of garments for Marco, the two men sat outdoors at a table that overlooked a busy street. After weeks aboard ship, Marco was delighted to be eating fresh food, let alone this sumptuous meal of fish, beans, dates, grapes, bread, and white wine.
“This is quite a feast, Andrew. Is this a typical meal in Alexandria?”
“It’s typical for the whole country, at least for the middle and upper classes. You probably know that the Nile River blesses our land with unusually fertile soil. It flows northwards through Egypt, from the Nubian border to the Delta, creating a beltway of rich land. A few miles on either side of this belt, all is barren desert.”
“All I heard about Egyptian agriculture was the wheat that Egypt ships to Rome.”
“That is the most important export, but our crops include fruits and vegetables like lettuce, peas, lentils, cucumbers, leeks, onions, beets, radishes, what else? Oh, dates, melons, figs, grapes, raisins, watermelon. Our farmers raise herbs for medicine, flax for fibers and clothes, and papyrus for writing. There’s plenty of fish in the river including catfish, mullet, and perch. Hunters capture ducks and other birds. Some raise geese and pigeons for food, and of course chickens, cattle, and sheep.”
“The Nile certainly helps, but other countries in the Empire have rivers and lakes to irrigate crops. Yet they often lack sufficient food.”
“Don’t let a Roman hear this treasonous opinion, but our civilization is the most advanced in the world,” Andrew said with a grin. “The Egyptians have been a functioning society for over 3,000 years, governed by a single ruler who made sure individual inventions benefited the entire nation. We were building roads, dams, palaces, and pyramids when the rest of the world consisted of small tribes living in straw huts. They spent their days fighting with the neighboring tribes. Meanwhile we were discovering the rules of mathematics, geography, astronomy, and philosophy and writing them down, before other countries even had a written language.”
Marco, a native of Greece with Roman parents, was skeptical. If Egypt was so superior, why was it conquered by younger empires, first by the Persians, then the Greeks, and now the Romans? But it would be rude to argue with his gracious host.
“So your agriculture is extremely efficient. Well in any case, this meal was wonderful. Thanks for choosing the restaurant and the menu.”
“You’re welcome. And now I must return to the church. Is there anything else you need?”
“Not for now. Is there a regular schedule for the liturgy? A certain day or time of day? I have not participated in the Eucharist since I left Corinth.”
“It’s unpredictable, I’m afraid. But when I hear of the next one, I will leave a message for you at the inn.”
As they parted, Andrew pointed Marco in the direction of a bath house which was on the route to the inn.
“As in Rome, and I assume also in Corinth, Alexandria has many public baths. And, while not as marvelous as the engineering of Roman aqueducts, we have plenty of fresh water pumped into the city from the Nile through underground pipes. I suspect you will want to clean off the seawater before you go to bed.”
After the first real bath in weeks, Marco returned to the inn through darkened streets lit by occasional torches. As he passed by blocks of apartments, he overheard the residents talking through the open windows. He understood the Greek conversations but not those in Hebrew and Aramaic. Regardless of the language, it was easy to tell who were praying, who were arguing, and who were merely discussing the latest gossip. He heard sobbing from one window, and it touched him that someone was in pain. Raucous laughter poured from another home, and a whoop of surprise further along the road. A man scowled with suspicion at Marco, through his window. Later, a little girl peeked over the window sill at him with a charming smile, quickly disappeared from view, and then popped up again as if to startle him.
Hundreds of families, all with differing feelings and activities and histories, though most had one thing in common – they were not alone tonight. Marco entered the inn, greeted the innkeeper, who was serving food to his guests, obtained his key, and walked down a hall to his room, where he now sat in the dim candlelight. It was his first night alone since waving goodbye to his mother and sisters at the harbor in Greece. It was too early to sleep and too late to explore the city. His books were lost in the harbor. He had looked forward to his first day in Alexandria for so long, yet now he wondered if he had made a colossal mistake coming here.
The next morning Marco toured the Jewish Quarter, which he remembered as measuring roughly a mile square. He had an analytical mind and liked to first observe something in its totality, and then study deeply the aspects that were most interesting, allowing him to understand those aspects when viewed in their context. After a small breakfast of tea, biscuits and grapes, he set out to circle the Jewish Quarter. He passed by homes, shops, restaurants, and temples, constantly dodging crowds of people, horses, and wagons. One of his goals was to buy supplies to replenish the most essential contents of his lost luggage. He found a rucksack to hold everything, and then added toiletry articles, a packet of papyrus with pens and a bottle of ink, a spare pair of sandals, and more clothes. He found a scroll that depicted the layout of Alexandria to replace the map that had drowned.
After a few minutes he arrived at the intersection of what had to be Canopic Way, one of the city’s two main highways. According to his map, the street ran east and west for about four miles across the entire city of Alexandria.
Looking west he could see the street disappearing into the distance, lined by marble columns interspersed with palm trees, each perfectly aligned, creating a geometric pattern that decreased in size into the distance. On either side of the highway were shining buildings of all sizes and shapes. Perhaps up close there would be grime and trash like in normal cities, but at least from here, it was a city of the gods!
Today he’d write home to tell his family he had arrived safely and of course he would describe Alexandria to them. But how? There was nothing he could compare it to. Certainly no sight in Athens where he attended the university, and perhaps not even in Rome. He had never visited Rome, but his mother and father had described it well enough that he felt like he’d lived there. Alexandria was very different. Is this what it is like to be in heaven?
Using the scroll as a guide, he followed a street south until it ended at the Lake Harbor, which smelled strongly of fish. Here he exited the city walls, following the shores of Lake Mareotis, which separated Alexandria from the rest of Egypt. Swinging northeast, he eventually reached the Canopic Gate and the Hippodrome, where he saw a sign advertising the next chariot race. Shortly he glimpsed the ocean, and along the beach were three attractions: the Columbarium, the Tomb of Stratonice, and the Grove of Nemesis.
Stratonice was the name of several women in Greek mythology as well as the name of a few actual historical women, and Marco had no idea which one was honored in the tomb. Whoever she was the Alexandrians must have been impressed, for the monument was large and ornate. But he was the only visitor this morning and the flowers were all as dead as Stratonice. The Columbarium was another monument to the dead, a mausoleum of sorts. It was also impressive in architecture, but he was not in a mood to dwell on dead people. The Grove of Nemesis was another matter. Marco had heard of Nemesis of course, the Greek goddess of retribution and the underworld. Though it was only a myth, he enjoyed the common wisdom that she brought terrible punishment to those evil-doers who were afflicted with hubris. He was not being Christian, he mused, to admire revenge, but he was being human. He wandered through the grove and found a marble statue of an avenging angel, larger than life, her face dark with bad intent.
He finished his quick tour with a walk along the beach, ending up at Lochias, the peninsula from which he had disembarked the day before. The day was growing hot and Marco stopped at a food stall to drink a cup of cool water. From here he could observe both sides of Lochias: the calm waters of the Grand Harbor on the west and the waves crashing violently onto shore on the east. The breeze from the ocean refreshed him and he marveled at the bustling activity in the harbor.
At least a hundred men filled the part of the pier where the ship had crashed yesterday. Leather chests and amphora casks were piled up. Divers were hauling up the ship’s cargo and luggage. Perhaps some of his stuff would be retrieved after all, though the most precious belongings, his books, would be ruined.
Glancing back and forth between his new map and the magnificent vista, he spotted the Lighthouse, the Island of Pharos, and the causeway connecting Pharos to Alexandria, called the Heptastadium because it was seven times the length of an athletic stadium, making the causeway almost a mile long.
This structure – an island at the end of a causeway – was reflected in a small way by the Timonium, reaching out into the bay just past Antirhodus Island. Marco had read that the Timonium was a monument to an Athenian named Timon. This poor guy had been so wronged by his friends that he came to hate all mankind. The Roman Mark Antony had built the Timonium in a fit of self-pity because he identified with Timon when all his Roman friends deserted him.
It was indeed a charming city, Marco thought, remembering all the stories he had heard at his college in Athens, stories that had seduced him into coming to Alexandria to spend a year studying at the most prestigious center of learning in the entire world.
He walked through Lochias, searching for the main entrance to the Royal Palace, which was far larger than any structure in Corinth. Nervously he ascended a wide stairway and approached a Roman centurion dressed in full uniform from helmet and sword to leather skirt and strapped leather sandals, standing guard in front of an open door.
“How do I make an appointment with the Prefect?” Marco asked, speaking Latin.
“You must see his secretary.” The centurion turned to face inside and beckoned. Another soldier came out and escorted Marco inside, watching him carefully out of the corner of his eye. It was cool inside, and so dark after the bright light outside that Marco was glad to have the escort to show him the way. They arrived at a desk manned by an elderly man who looked inquiringly at Marco.
“I would like to make an appointment to see the Prefect,” said Marco, again in Latin.
The man looked Marco up and down, seeing a poorly-dressed and wind-blown visitor barely older than a school boy. But the youth spoke Latin, setting him apart from the majority of the native Greeks and Egyptians who lined up each day to attempt to see the Prefect about one grievance or another.
“And what is your business with his Excellency?”
“Titus Cornelius knew my father in Rome. I have come to Alexandria to study and wanted to meet him if he has the time.”
“What is the name of your father?”
“Rusticus. He was Secretary to Emperor Nero when Titus Cornelius was in charge of the Mars Prison in Rome.”
The old man stared at Marco. “Rusticus? Jupiter! You are his son? Even I have heard of your father. Please wait here.”
Marco continued standing, glowing with pride and wishing his father were here to know his fame reached all the way to this outpost of the Roman Empire, even 28 years after the Great Fire. He glanced at the soldier, who was still guarding him, but now with a more rigid posture. The smirk had disappeared from his face.
When the old man returned, he was accompanied by a large man wearing a formal toga. Marco’s guard gave a crisp salute, which the large man returned casually, and then he smiled and extended his hand to Marco.
“Good morning! I am Titus Cornelius. You are the son of Rusticus?”
“Yes sir. My name is Marco and my mother told me you might be willing to meet with me.”
“Your mother was correct. Please come with me, young man.”
They sat on upholstered chairs with curved wooden legs in a vast office which looked out onto the harbor. Titus had refreshments brought to them, a yellow drink that tasted like apples, but which Marco thought was probably a fruit called persea, and some thin biscuits baked into the shape of Roman eagles.
“When did you arrive, Marco?”
“Yesterday afternoon, sir.”
“Gods! Were you on the shipwreck?”
“Yes sir. Fortunately no one drowned, but I imagine a lot of cargo and luggage was ruined, including my own.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Is that how you got the cut on your forehead?”
“Yes, but it seems to be healing nicely.”
“Such wrecks are very rare. Fortuna must have been asleep when you arrived. I guess the goddess is called Tyche by the Greeks.”
Marco did not believe in the goddess by either name. He believed in only one God, but thought it best not to mention that he was Christian.
“Luckily I was wearing my money around my waist, so I will be able to replace my lost luggage.”
“That’s good. Let me know if I can be of assistance as you get settled here.”
“Very kind of you, sir, but I wouldn’t want to bother the Prefect of Egypt with my petty needs.”
“No, feel free to ask. I am very excited to meet you. How is your father?”
“He died three years ago after a short illness, something with the lungs. But he passed away very peacefully.” Because he knew he was leaving this world to go to a far better one, joined with Jesus Christ, Marco added silently.
“I’m sorry to hear that he’s gone, Marco.”
“I was very close to him. We were able to spend a lot of time together as I grew up in Corinth.”
“Corinth. So that’s where he ended up. The last time I saw him was just before he left Rome. He sure caused Nero a lot of trouble that year. Did you hear much about it?”
“I’m sure I heard most of the story. Father, Mother, and my two older sisters fled Rome in the dark of night and did not think it would be safe to return while Nero was alive. By the time Nero killed himself, they were all so happy with their lives in Corinth that they had no desire to go back home. How did you know my father, if I may ask?”
“Well, you know about the Great Fire and that Nero asked Rusticus to find out if the Christians started it. Then he found the three murdered senators…”
“Yes, actually my mother found the first one and came to my father about it. They fell in love and she helped him investigate the murders.”
“Really? But there was no proof that the Christians were involved, so Nero became angry and ordered Rusticus to stop looking into the murders and focus on the Fire. Rusticus came to me at the Mars Prison, which I was in charge of at the time. The Christians were being rounded up and held there. Rusticus said Nero wanted him to make sure the Christians were not being mistreated. I was only 30 years old and was very impressed to meet Nero’s top official. I gave him a tour of the whole place. We treated the prisoners as humanely as we could given the fact that we had crammed 400 of them into a facility designed for half that many.”
“And that was it?”
“Oh no, the best was yet to come. A few days later your father was back, this time asking to see three specific Christian prisoners, a woman, her father, and her daughter, and he had a written pardon for all three, signed by Nero himself. I escorted Rusticus to their cell and it was obvious that he loved the woman, even though she was a Christian.”
“She was Camilia, my mother, arrested along with my grandfather Thaddeus and my step-sister Serena.”
“Well, I left your father with them and a guard and went back to my office. I found another of Nero’s top people sitting there, my superior Tigellinus. We all hated the man. He was in charge of my unit, the Praetorian Guard, though he had no experience himself with the police or the military. He was a murderous power-hungry bastard who had ingratiated himself with Nero and was constantly arresting innocent people and stealing their fortunes for himself. So as soon as I saw him I knew there would be trouble.
“Tigellinus sent me off on an errand and said he would take over my duties for a while. When I returned, my office was a mess. My men told me what had happened. Your father had come in to give me the written pardon and get his friends released. But Tigellinus was there instead and he refused to free the three prisoners. Rusticus then attacked him, so the guards beat your father unconscious and threw him into the same cell with your mother. But the good part was that Rusticus had beaten the holy Hades out of Tigellinus in just a few seconds before he was restrained.”
“He was a gladiator when he was a young man.”
“Not just any gladiator. Your father was the most famous gladiator in Rome. People jammed the stadium when he was fighting. And he saved Nero’s life in a chariot race. Your father was a true hero.”
“He never said too much about that.”
“He had the reputation of being a very humble person, despite his fame. Anyway, by the time I got there, this monster Tigellinus had cuts and bruises all over his face and his jaw was broken. He had lost a lot of blood and he was screaming like the Furies were after him. I loved it. They carted him away and I heard he was in agony for weeks.”
“Was that the last time you saw my father?”
“Yes, but the whole city eventually heard what happened next. He and a bunch of Christians were taken across the Tiber River to Nero’s Gardens to be killed. I couldn’t bring myself to watch it, but thousands of others circled the place to see the leopards eat the people. I swear, we Romans are a bloodthirsty lot! But once again, Rusticus was the hero. A spectator gave him a sword and he cut a hole in the fence and helped the Christians escape. About half of them were caught the next day, but no one ever saw your father or his friends again. The police searched the city high and low for months, but they had vanished.”
“My grandfather died that night from wounds, but Father and Mother and both my step-sisters – Serena and Julia – made it out of the city and all the way to Corinth where my parents were married. I was born six years later, which was a surprise I guess, since mother was 40 years old by then, and my sisters were already 14. “
“Marco, I only knew your father briefly but I have admired him greatly all these years. He may not have realized the impact he had on the empire, but we saw it after he escaped. There were many senators who knew the whole story – how Tigellinus had been responsible for the murders of the three senators, and had killed Rusticus’ first wife earlier, not to mention many other innocent people. Tigellinus had discovered a huge gold deposit on the Oppian Hill and this had led to the second fire and the murders. Nero was furious that he found out about it from Rusticus and not Tigellinus. The end result was that although the Christians continued to be persecuted, your father convinced the senators that Nero had to be deposed. It took four more years, but it might not have happened without Rusticus. He also exposed Tigellinus, so Nero cut that bastard’s power way back.”
The two were silent for a while, eating the biscuits and drinking the juice, eyes on the ships in the harbor but minds back in the past. Titus was back three decades, when he was only a little older than this young man was today. Marco was back only one decade, thinking of how much he had loved spending time with his father. Rusticus may have been a hero to the Romans, but the important thing was that he was a hero to Marco. The ex-gladiator, a giant compared to his 12-year-old son, his shirtless chest covered with battle scars, taught him to fight with wooden swords.
“You should never need to use a real sword,” Rusticus had said. “I pray that you will not. There are no winners in a fight – only losers. But it’s smart to practice fighting, just in case you need to defend yourself or your family. And it is good exercise. God gave you your body, and you have an obligation to keep it in good condition.”
Suddenly the Prefect’s secretary rushed in.
“Sir, the guards need you right away. There is a disturbance.”
Titus glanced at the secretary and gestured toward Marco as if to say he was busy talking.
“Sir, I am sorry, but it is quite urgent.”
Marco jumped to his feet, as did Titus.
“Marco, I better handle this. Can you join us for dinner tonight?”
Marco nodded his thanks and the Prefect rushed off.