Alexander Polyhistor

Lucius Cornelius Alexander Polyhistor was a Greek scholar who was enslaved by the Romans during the Mithridatic War and taken to Rome as a tutor. After his release, he continued to live in Italy as a Roman citizen. He was so productive a writer that he earned the surname polyhistor. The majority of his writings are now lost, but the fragments that remain shed valuable light on antiquarian and eastern Mediterranean subjects.


Alexander flourished around 70 BC, and was probably born at Miletus or Myndus in Caria. According to the Suda, Cornelius was a native of Ephesus and a pupil of Crates, and was taken prisoner by in Greece by Lucius Cornelius Sulla, thereafter being sold as a slave to Cornelius Lentulus, who took him to Rome and made him the paedagogus of his children. Afterwards Lentulus restored him to freedom. From the Suda it would seem as if he had received the name Cornelius from Lentulus, while Servius says that he received the Roman franchise from Sulla. He died at Laurentum in a fire which consumed his house, and as soon as his wife heard of the calamity, she hung herself. The statement in the Suda that he was a native of Ephesus is contradicted by Stephanus of Byzantium, who says that he was a native of Cotiaeum in Lesser Phrygia, and a son of Asclepiades, and who is borne out by the Etymologicum Magnum, where Alexander is called Kotiaeus.


Alexander's most important treatise consisted of forty-two books of historical and geographical accounts of nearly all the countries of the ancient world. His other notable work is about the Jews (Müller, Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum, iii); it reproduces in paraphrase relevant excerpts from Jewish writers, of whom otherwise nothing would be known. One of Alexander’s students was Gaius Julius Hyginus, Latin author, scholar and friend of Ovid, who was appointed by Augustus to be superintendent of the Palatine library. As a philosopher, Alexander Polyhistor wrote Successions of Philosophers, mentioned several times by Diogenes Laertius in his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. From what Laertius describes or paraphrases in his work, Alexander recorded various thoughts on contradictions, fate, life, soul and its parts, perfect figures, and different curiosities, such as advice not to eat beans.

His Chaldæan History was based on Sibylline oracles, Book III, especially for the account of the Tower of Babel.


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