“Deinocrates, an architect who was full of confidence in his own ideas and skill, set out from Macedonia, in the reign of Alexander, to go to the army, being eager to win the approbation of the king.

“He took with him from his country letters from relatives and friends to the principal military men and officers of the court, in order to gain access to them more readily. Being politely received by them, he asked to be presented to Alexander as soon as possible. They promised, but were rather slow, waiting for a suitable opportunity. So Deinocrates, thinking that they were playing with him, relied on his own devices. He was of very lofty stature and pleasing countenance, finely formed, and extremely dignified. Trusting to these natural gifts, then, he undressed himself in his inn, anointed his body with oil, set a chaplet of poplar leaves on his head, draped his left shoulder with a lion’s skin, and holding a club in his right hand stalked forth to set a place in front of the tribunal where the king was administering justice.

“His strange appearance made the people turn round, and this led Alexander to look at him. In astonishment he gave orders to make way for him to draw near and asked who he was. He replied, ‘Deinocrates, a Macedonian architect who brings you ideas and designs worthy of your distinction. I have made a design for the shaping of Mount Athos into the statue of a man, in whose left hand I have represented a very spacious fortified city. In his right hand there is a bowl to receive the water of all the streams which are in that mountain, so that it may pour from the bowl into the sea.’

“Alexander was delighted with the idea of his design and immediately inquired whether there were any fields in the vicinity that could provide grain for the city. On finding that this was impossible without transport from beyond these he said, ‘Deinocrates, I understand that your design is excellent in composition, and I am delighted with it, but I am concerned that anybody who should found a city in that spot would be criticized for bad judgment. For as a newborn babe cannot be nourished without the nurse’s milk, nor conducted to the approaches that lead to growth in life, so a city cannot thrive without fields and the fruits that pour into its walls. Nor can it have a large population without plenty of food, nor maintain its population without a supply of it. Therefore, while I think that your design is praiseworthy, I do not consider the site commendable. However, I would have you stay with me because I would like to make use of your services.’

“From that time, Deinocrates did not leave the king, but followed him into Egypt. There Alexander, observing a harbor rendered safe by nature, an excellent center for trade, grain fields throughout all of Egypt, and the great usefulness of the mighty river Nile, ordered him to build the city of Alexandria, named after the king.

“This was how Deinocrates, recommended only by his good looks and dignified carriage, came to be so famous. But as for me, Emperor, nature has not given me stature, age has marred my face, and my strength is impaired by ill health.”

From Vitruvius on Architecture, ed. Thomas Gordon Smith (New York: Monacelli Press, forthcoming), Book II, preface 1–4.