Alexandria is one of the great success stories of the ancient world, being founded by Alexander the Great, and then spending the next several centuries as one of the great trading ports of the Mediterranean, as well as a center of learning. So a history of the city has a lot of appeal.

Sadly, this isn’t really a history of the city. It does start with Alexander’s initial choosing of the site, and laying out the basics, and talks a little bit about the initial building. But past that, the book becomes almost entirely dedicated to the great minds that were at (or may have spent time at) the great library of Alexandria. So the bulk of the book is more of a who’s who of ancient philosophy. That still makes for good reading, but the authors are too enthusiastic, and make a number of statements that are problematic or error-prone.

The most startling mistake is a statement that the Julian calendar (correctly identified as being borrowed from Eratosthenes) is accurate to one day in 1,461 years. If that were true, there’d hardly be any need for the Gregorian calendar, as they’d only differ by a day or so, instead of 13 days. They also imply (in the Eratosthenes chapter again) that Columbus would have trouble convincing the King of Spain that the world was round, when the real trouble was convincing the court that he could make it, as the distance was too great for any amount of carried supplies (a conclusion that Columbus would have come to if he’d used Eratosthenes’ figure for the size of the Earth, instead of a much smaller estimate).

On the other hand, there’s an interesting note that an early draft of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus references Aristarchus’ heliocentric theory. Presumably they’re referring to the Commentariolus, and it’s an interesting connection that I hadn’t heard about before. (Though looking it up on Wikipedia shows that the authors perpetuate a translation-induced misconception of Aristarchus’ theory being considered impious at the time.)

This is a lighter, less technical, book than I was expecting, and for the lighter side of non-fiction, fairly well written… as long as you remember some of the wider-ranging pronouncements are problematic.