THE importance of Alexandria as a centre of trade and commerce throughout antiquity is well known, and needs no emphasis.1 The writers of the Ptolemaic period do not often stress the volume of its trade because they lacked the inevitable contrast with Rome which writers of the Imperial period felt and expressed. Strabo, at the beginning of the Roman period, emphasizes the commercial importance of the city in two passages at the beginning of Book xvii, which form a good introduction to the topic. In the first he says:2

The advantages of the city's position are manifold, for, first, the site is washed by two seas, on the north by the so-called Egyptian Sea and on the south by Lake Marcia, or Marcotis. This is filled by many canals from the Nile, both from above [i.e. the south] and from the flanks, and the imports to the city by way of the canals greatly exceed those by sea, so that the lake harbour was far richer than that on the sea; and here the exports from Alexandria also are larger than the imports; as anyone might judge, if he were at either Alexandria or Dicacarchia, and saw the merchant-vessels on their arrival and at their departure, how much heavier they sailed thither or thence. And, in addition to the great value of the things brought down from both directions, both into the harbour on the sea and into that on the lake, the healthy air is also worthy of remark.

He then goes on to speak of the climate, of which he presents a favourable picture.3

The second passage runs as folloWS:4

Among the fortunate advantages of the city the greatest is the fact that it is the only place in all Egypt which is by nature well situated with reference both to commerce by sea, on account of the good harbours, and to commerce by land, because the river easily conveys and brings together everything into a place so situated--which is the greatest trading-centre of the inhabited world.

He then goes on to describe the prosperity of the present trade as compared with that of a generation earlier, in a passage which we shall study in another context.5


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Ptolemaic Alexandria


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