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Poets of The Alexandrian Age

by Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition

The Alexandrian Age.—The study of the Greek classics begins with the school of Alexandria. Under the rule of Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-247B.C.), learning found a home in the Alexandrian Museum and in the great Alexandrian Library. The first four librarians were Zenodotus, Eratosthenes, Aristophanes of Byzantium, and Aristarchus. Zenodotus produced before 274 the first scientific edition of the Iliad and Odyssey, an edition in which spurious lines were marked, at the beginning, with a short horizontal dash called an obelus (—). He also drew up select lists of epic and lyric poets. Soon afterwards a classified catalogue of dramatists, epic and lyric poets, legislators, philosophers, historians, orators and rhetoricians, and miscellaneous writers, with a brief biography of each, was produced by the scholar and poet Callimachus (fl. 260). Among the pupils of Callimachus was Eratosthenes who, in 234, succeeded Zenodotus as librarian. Apart from his special interest in the history of the Old Attic comedy, he was a man of vast and varied learning; the founder of astronomical geography and of scientific chronology; and the first to assume the name of φιλ?λογος. The greatest philologist of antiquity was, however, his successor, Aristophanes of Byzantium (195), who reduced accentuation and punctuation to a definite system, and used a variety of critical symbols in his recension of the Iliad and Odyssey. He also edited Hesiod and Pindar, Euripides and Aristophanes, besides composing brief introductions to the several plays, parts of which are still extant. Lastly, he established a scientific system of lexicography and drew up lists of the “best authors.” Two critical editions of the Iliad and Odyssey were produced by his successor, Aristarchus, who was librarian until 146 B.C. and was the founder of scientific scholarship. His distinguished pupil, Dionysius Thrax (born c. 166 B.C.), drew up a Greek grammar which continued in use for more than thirteen centuries. The most industrious of the successors of Aristarchus was Didymus (c. 65 B.C.-A.D.10), who, in his work on the Homeric poems, aimed at restoring the lost recensions of Aristarchus. He also composed commentaries on the lyric and comic poets and on Thucydides and Demosthenes; part of his commentary on this last author was first published in 1904. He was a teacher in Alexandria (and perhaps also in Rome); and his death, about A.D. 10, marks the close of the Alexandrian age. He is the industrious compiler who gathered up the remnants of the learning of his predecessors and transmitted them to posterity. The poets of that age, including Callimachus and Theocritus, were subsequently expounded by Theon, who flourished under Tiberius, and has been well described as “the Didymus of the Alexandrian poets.”

The Alexandrian canon of the Greek classics, which probably had its origin in the lists drawn up by Callimachus, Aristophanes of Byzantium and Aristarchus, included the following authors:—

Epic poets (5): Homer, Hesiod, Peisander, Panyasis, Antimachus.

Iambic poets (3): Simonides of Amorgos, Archilochus, Hipponax.

Tragic poets (5): Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Ion, Achaeus.

Comic poets, Old (7): Epicharmus, Cratinus, Eupolis, Aristophanes, Pherecrates, Crates, Plato. Middle (2): Antiphanes, Alexis. New (5): Menander, Philippides, Diphilus, Philemon, Apollodorus.

Elegiac poets (4): Callinus, Mimnermus, Philetas, Callimachus.

Lyric poets (9): Alcman, Alcaeus, Sappho, Stesichorus, Pindar, Bacchylides, Ibycus, Anacreon, Simonides of Ceos.

Orators (10): Demosthenes, Lysias, Hypereides, Isocrates, Aeschines, Lycurgus, Isaeus, Antiphon, Ándocides, Deinarchus.

Historians (10): Thucydides, Herodotus, Xenophon, Philistius, Theopompus, Ephorus, Anaximenes, Callisthenes, Hellanicus, Polybius.


The latest name in the above list is that of Polybius, who died about 123 B.C. Apollonius Rhodius, Aratus and Theocritus were subsequently added to the “epic” poets. Philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, were possibly classed in a separate “canon.”

While the scholars of Alexandria were mainly interested in the verbal criticism of the Greek poets, a wider variety of studies was the characteristic of the school of Pergamum, the literary rival of Alexandria. Pergamum was a home of learning for a large part of the 150 years of the Attalid dynasty, 283-133 B.C.

The grammar of the Stoics, gradually elaborated by Zeno, Cleanthes and Chrysippus, supplied a terminology which, in words such as “genitive,” “accusative” and “aorist,” has become a permanent part of the grammarian’s vocabulary; and the study of this grammar found its earliest home in Pergamum.

From about 168 B.C. the head of the Pergamene school was Crates of Mallus, who (like the Stoics) was an adherent of the principle of “anomaly” in grammar, and was thus opposed to Aristarchus of Alexandria, the champion of “analogy.” He also opposed Aristarchus, and supported the Stoics, by insisting on an allegorical interpretation of Homer. He is credited with having drawn up the classified lists of the best authors for the Pergamene library. His mission as an envoy to the Roman senate, “shortly after the death of Ennius” in 169 B.C., had a remarkable influence on literary studies in Rome. Meeting with an accident while he was wandering on the Palatine, and being detained in Rome, he passed part of his enforced leisure in giving lectures (possibly on Homer, his favourite author), and thus succeeded in arousing among the Romans a taste for the scholarly study of literature. The example set by Crates led to the production of a new edition of the epic poem of Naevius, and to the public recitation of the Annals of Ennius, and (two generations later) the Satires of Lucilius.

Book: Reflection on the Important Things