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The Alexandrian Schools...I...Literature

The general character of the literature of the school appears as the necessary consequence of the state of affairs brought about by the fall of Greek nationality and independence. The great works of the Greek mind had formerly been the products of a fresh life of nature and perfect freedom of thought. All their hymns, epics and histories were bound up with their individuality as a free people. But the Macedonian conquest at Chaeroneia brought about a complete dissolution of this Greek life in all its relations, private and political. The full, genial spirit of Greek thought vanished when freedom, with which it was inseparably united, was lost. A substitute for this originality was found at Alexandria in learned research, extended and multifarious knowledge. Amply provided with means for acquiring information, and under the watchful care of a great monarch, the Alexandrians readily took this new direction in literature. With all the great objects removed which could excite a true spirit of poetry, they devoted themselves to minute researches in all sciences subordinate to literature proper. They studied criticism, grammar, prosody and metre, antiquities and mythology. The results of this study constantly appear in their productions. Their works are never national, never addressed to a people, but to a circle of learned men. Moreover, the very fact of being under the protection and, as it were, in the pay of an absolute monarch was damaging to the character of their literature. There was introduced into it a courtly element, clear traces of which, with all its accompaniments, are found in the extant works of the school. One other fact, not to be forgotten in forming a general estimate of the literary value of their productions, is, that the same writer was frequently or almost always distinguished in several special sciences. The most renowned poets were at the same time men of culture and science, critics, archaeologists, astronomers or physicians. To such writers the poetical form was merely a convenient vehicle for the exposition of science.

The forms of poetical composition chiefly cultivated by the Alexandrians were epic and lyric, or elegiac. Great epics are wanting; but in their place, as might almost have been expected, are found the historical and the didactic or expository epics. The subjects of the historical epics were generally some of the well-known myths, in the exposition of which the writer could exhibit the full extent of his learning and his perfect command of verse. These poems are in a sense valuable as repertoires of antiquities; but their style is on the whole bad, and infinite patience is required to clear up their numerous and obscure allusions. The best extant specimen is the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius; the most characteristic is the Alexandra or Cassandra of Lycophron, the obscurity of which is almost proverbial.

The subjects of didactic epics were very numerous; they seem to have depended on the special knowledge possessed by the writers, who used verse as a form for unfolding their information. Some, e.g. the lost poem of Callimachus, called Atna, were on the origin of myths and religious observances; others were on special sciences. Thus we have two poems of Aratus, who, though not resident at Alexandria, was so thoroughly imbued with the Alexandrian spirit as to be with reason included in the school; the one is an essay on astronomy, the other an account of the signs of the weather. Nicander of Colophon has also left us two epics, one on remedies for poisons, the other on the bites of venomous beasts. Euphorion and Rhianus wrote mythological epics. The spirit of all their productions is the same, that of learned research. They are distinguished by artistic form, purity of expression and strict attention to the laws of metre and prosody, qualities which, however good in
themselves, do not compensate for want of originality, freshness and power.

In their lyric and elegiac poetry there is much worthy of admiration. The specimens we possess are not devoid of talent or of a certain happy art of expression. Yet, for the most part, they either relate to objects thoroughly incapable of poetic treatment, where the writer's endeavour is rather to expound the matter fully than to render it poetically beautiful, or else expend themselves on short isolated subjects, generally myths, and are erotic in character. The earliest of the elegiac poets was Philetas, the sweet singer of Cos. But the most distinguished was Callimachus, undoubtedly the greatest of the Alexandrian poets. Of his numerous works there remain to us only a few hymns, epigrams and fragments of elegies. 1 Other lyric poets were Phanocles, Hermesianax, Alexander of Aetolia and Lycophron.

Some of the best productions of the school were their epigrams. Of these we have several specimens, and the art of composing them seems to have been assiduously cultivated, as might naturally be expected from the court life of the poets, and their constant endeavours after terseness and neatness of expression. Of kindred character were the parodies and satirical poems, of which the best examples were the Silli of Timon and the Cinaedi of Sotades.
1 A considerable fragment of his epic Hecate has been discovered in the Rainer papyrus.

Dramatic poetry appears to have flourished to some extent. There are still extant three or four varying lists of the seven great dramatists who composed the Pleiad of Alexandria. Their works, perhaps not unfortunately, have perished. A ruder kind of drama, the amoebaean verse, or bucolic mime, developed into the only pure stream of genial poetry found in the Alexandrian School, the Idylls of Theocritus. The name of these poems preserves their original idea; they were pictures of fresh country life.

The most interesting fact connected with this Alexandrian poetry is the powerful influence it exercised on Roman literature. That literature, especially in the Augustan age, is not to be thoroughly understood without due appreciation of the character of the Alexandrian school. The historians of this period were numerous and prolific. Many of them, e.g. Cleitarchus, devoted themselves to the life and achievements of Alexander the Great. The best-known names are those of Timaeus and Polybius.

Before the Alexandrians had begun to produce original works, their researches were directed towards the masterpieces of ancient Greek literature. If that literature was to be a power in the world, it must be handed down to posterity in a form capable of being understood. This was the task begun and carried out by the Alexandrian critics. These men did not merely collect works, but sought to arrange them, to subject the texts to criticism, and to explain any allusion or reference in them which at a later date might become obscure. The complete philological examination of any work consisted, according to them, of the following processes: [GWEB01], arrangement of the text; [GWEB02], settlement of accents;[GWEB03], theory of forms, syntax; [GWEB04], explanation either of words or things; and finally, [GWEB05], judgment on the author and his work, including all questions as to authenticity and integrity. To perform their task adequately required from the critics a wide circle of knowledge; and from this requirement sprang the sciences of grammar, prosody, lexicography, mythology and archaeology. The service rendered by these critics is invaluable. To them we owe not merely the possession of the greatest works of Greek intellect, but the possession of them in a readable state. The most celebrated critics were Zenodotus; Aristophanes of Byzantium, to whom We owe the theory of Greek accents; Crates of Mallus; and Arislarchus of Samothrace, confessedly the coryphaeus of criticism. Others were Lycophron, Callima,chus, Eratosthenes and many of a later age, for the critical school long survived the literary. Dionysius Thrax, the author of the first scientific Greek grammar, may also be mentioned. These philological labours were of great indirect importance, for they led immediately to the study of the natural sciences, and in particular to a more accurate knowiedge of geography and history. Considerable attention began to be paid to the ancient history of Greece, and to all the myths relating to the foundation of states and cities. A large collection of such curious information is contained in the Bibliotheca of Apollodorus, a pupil of Aristarchus who flourished in: the 2nd century B.C. Eratosthenes was the first to write on mathematical and physical geography; he also first attempted to draw up a chronological table of the Egyptian kings and of the historical events of Greece. The sciences of mathematics, astronomy and medicine were also cultivated with assiduity and success at Alexandria, but they. can scarcely be said to have their origin there, or in any strict sense to form a part of the peculiarly Alexandrian literature. The founder of the mathematical school was the celebrated Euclid (Eucleides); among its scholars were Archimedes; Apollonius of Perga, author of a treatise on Conic Sections; Eratosthenes, to whom we owe the first measurement of the earth; and Hipparchus, the founder of the epicyclical theory of the heavens, afterwards called the Ptolemaic system, from its most famous expositor, Claudius Ptolemaeus. Alexandria continued to be celebrated as a school of mathematics and science long after the Christian era. The science of medicine had distinguished representatives in Herophilus and Erasistratus, the two first great anatomists.
Alexandrian School
Alexandrian School...II...Philosophy