Greek Literature after Alexander the Great

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Greek Literature after Alexander the Great

A Changed World.

When Alexander the Great died in Babylon in 323 b.c.e. he left the Greek world irrevocably changed. The centers of Greek culture moved away from the old city-states of Greece to the capitals of the new Hellenistic kingdoms that were centers of wealth and power. Athens held its own in the field of culture, but it was an exception. Egypt emerged as a magnet for the Greeks. On Alexander's death, one of his shrewder generals, Ptolemy, secured Egypt as his province and established himself at Alexandria. Alexander's young son was killed in 310 b.c.e., and in 305 b.c.e., after there was no longer any pretense of unity in the empire Alexander had conquered, Ptolemy declared himself king. Ptolemy wanted to make Alexandria a hub of Greek culture, for the Greeks lived side-by-side with native Egyptians who had an ancient culture of their own, and there was remarkably little cross-fertilization. At some point before he died, Ptolemy started the Great Library of Alexandria, and his son, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who ruled 285–247 b.c.e., continued the work. The kingdom of Pergamum, which was founded in Asia Minor in 263 b.c.e., also established a library, and Alexandria did not look kindly on this rival; the Ptolemies cut off Pergamum's supplies of papyrus but Pergamum developed parchment as a substitute. Alexandria never surrendered its supremacy to the Pergamene library, which was neglected after Rome acquired Pergamum in 133 b.c.e., and terminated when Mark Antony gave its collection to Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolemies, for the Alexandrian library in the period 40–33 b.c.e. The dynastic capitals of Antioch in Syria and Pella in Macedon also boasted substantial libraries.

The Alexandrians.

Alexandria took the lead in literary development. It fostered a hothouse culture with no roots in the native Egyptian way of life. The literature produced there was not intended for the masses, for the masses did not speak Greek. There was some attempt at crossover between Greek and Egyptian traditions; an Egyptian priest, Manetho, in the reign of Ptolemy I wrote a history of Egypt in Greek, using Egyptian records, but it was not widely read. Alexandrian poetry was written for an elite Greek-speaking public, and it was meant to be read, not performed. Much learning was prized, and didactic poetry—that is, poetry written to instruct—was in vogue. One poet, Aratus of Soloi, enjoyed tremendous acclaim for writing a book on astronomy in verse. His information is all second-hand, for he was not an astronomer himself, and his work has little appeal for a modern reader. Another didactic poet of the same sort was Nicander of Colophon, who wrote a poetic work on venomous reptiles and insects, and another on poisons and their antidotes. Poets liked learned and obscure references. A good example is Lycophron, who belonged to the Pleias, a group of seven poets named after the Pleides constellation. Although none of the tragic dramas written by the Pleias survived, one poem by Lycophron, the Alexandra, did. It purports to be a long prophecy of Priam of Troy's daughter Alexandra, better known as Cassandra, who was fated to foresee the future and be disbelieved when she foretold it. Lycophron's Greek is peppered with words that are found nowhere else in surviving Greek literature.

Great Library at Alexandria

The library at Alexandria, the capital of the kingdom founded by Ptolemy in Egypt, was a legendary institution in ancient times. Estimates of the size of its collection varied wildly—between 70,000 and 700,000 books—but any number within that range is impressive in a time when all books had to be copied by hand. Though it was not the first public library nor the only one, it was for about two centuries the most influential literary and scientific center in the Hellenistic Age.

Ptolemy I first founded the Museum (Mouseion) of Alexandria in 280 b.c.e. The English word "museum" is not an accurate translation of the Greek mouseion, which means a "home for the Muses" who were worshipped in the Museum of Alexandria. The Museum was part of the royal palace, and it was a gathering place for scholars, literary figures, scientists, and artists, with a common dining room and apparently living quarters. Attached to the Museum was the Great Library or Palace Library, which may also have been founded by Ptolemy I, but his son Ptolemy II can take credit for expanding the collection. Literary texts of the classical authors were edited there, and standard texts produced; one author who benefited from this scholarly work was Homer, whose Iliad and Odyssey were edited by the Alexandrian scholar Aristarchus of Samos, whose text is the one that has survived to modern times.

The question of what happened to the Library is a controversial one. Julius Caesar, who spent the winter of 48–47 b.c.e. in Alexandria with the young princess Cleopatra, got involved in the power struggle between her and her brother, and in the process books in the harbor region of the city were burned. Some scholars date the end of the Library to this time. But once Cleopatra became queen of Egypt, she continued to collect books; her lover Mark Antony gave her the collection from the old royal library of Pergamum which once was the second largest library in the Mediterranean world. Certainly the palace library continued to survive long into Roman times, and there is no reliable evidence for the date of its destruction. The emperors Caracalla (198–217 c.e.), Aurelian (270–275 c.e.) and Diocletian (284–305 c.e.) all did significant damage in Alexandria and some lay the blame on one or other of them for the library's downfall. A late legend says that the Arabs burned the collection when they captured Alexandria in 642 c.e. However, what destroyed the library was probably neglect. Papyrus scrolls grew old and brittle. In late antiquity, worn-out scrolls should have been replaced by codices—volumes bound like modern books—but there was no money to defray the costs. The greatest enemy of the collection in the old Palace Library was probably the natural decaying process.

Greek Poetic Influence.

Alexandria produced three poets who influenced Latin literature: Callimachus, Apollonius of Rhodes, and Theocritus. Callimachus was a librarian at the Alexandrian library and wrote a catalogue of books for it. He wrote a variety of poetry, including six surviving hymns written in iambics in imitation of Hipponax of Colophon, who lived in the mid-sixth century b.c.e. He also wrote a poem titled the "Aitiai" (Origins), which sets forth the origins of a series of local customs, and a short narrative poem titled the "Hekale" which modern scholars have called an "epyllion" or "little epic"; the word is not found in antiquity. Callimachus believed that the long narrative poem was dead. There was no place for long epic poems anymore in the Hellenistic world. Apollonius was the second chief librarian at Alexandria, after Zenodotus, who was the first; if that information is accurate, it must have exacerbated his rivalry with Callimachus who seems to have been passed over for promotion in favor of a man who was about five years younger. Apollonius set out to prove Callimachus' stricture on epic poetry wrong, and wrote an epic in four books, the Argonautica, on the quest of Jason and the Argonauts for the Golden Fleece. It is not entirely successful. Jason is less than heroic. Medea, the princess of Colchis who helps Jason obtain the Golden Fleece, is the prototype of the romantic heroine who meets challenges that daunt men. She was to have many descendants in literature, including Dido in Vergil's Aeneid, and Scarlett O'Hara in Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. Theocritus has two claims to fame as a poet. First, he revived the mime as a poetic form. These were short dramatic dialogues on subjects taken from everyday life. The genre originated in Syracuse, which was Theocritus' hometown. Second, he was the inventor of pastoral poetry that purports to be poetry of the countryside—songs sung by shepherds as they watched their flocks. He wrote first in Syracuse, but he got little encouragement or patronage from the tyrant of Syracuse, Hiero II, and he moved to the island of Cos and then to Alexandria, which proved more profitable. His Idylls were short mimes that gave a snapshot of contemporary life. They are sometimes shepherds or herdsmen who converse or dispute—hence the name "pastoral" from the Latin word pastor for "shepherd"—or a girl who tries to recall her lover with a love charm, or two housewives of Alexandria who visit the royal palace that has been opened to the public for the festival of Adonis. He was to have a host of imitators both in ancient and modern times.

Greek Literature under the Roman Empire.

Greek authors continued to write after the Roman Empire conquered the eastern Mediterranean, though the Hellenistic kings who had patronized them no longer existed. The historian and geographer Strabo, of partly Asian descent, born about 63 b.c.e., wrote a work called Historical Sketches which is lost, and Geography which has survived. It describes the known world starting in the west with Gaul and Britain, moving eastwards until it reaches the Orient and India, and concluding with Africa. In historical writing, the Hellenistic age produced one historian of first rank, Polybius of Megalopolis, who was taken to Rome as a hostage in 167 b.c.e. He used his enforced stay to study Rome's language, customs, and history. He wrote a Universal History in forty books on the period 220–144 b.c.e. The first five books have survived complete, dealing with the Second Carthaginian War, when Rome encountered a general of genius, Hannibal. Of the remainder of Polybius' history we have only fragments. In the next century, another Greek, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, came to Rome about 30 b.c.e., taught rhetoric there some 22 years, and wrote a history of Rome called the Roman Antiquities. As might be expected, his history is rhetorical and not a great deal of use as a reliable source for Rome's past. In the reign of the emperor Augustus, another Greek, Diodorus of Sicily, attempted a universal history, beginning with the Trojan War and bringing his world history to 59 b.c.e. The writer who enjoyed the greatest fame in the modern world is Plutarch of Chaeronaea, born about 46 c.e. and living on until 120 c.e. He wrote a large number of essays collected under the general title, the Moralia, but his claim to fame is his Parallel Lives, which placed biographies of famous Greeks side-by-side with that of famous Romans. Plutarch had many admirers in the modern period. Among writers who have mined him for raw material was William Shakespeare, who used him for Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus.


Luciano Canfora, The Vanished Library (London, England: Hutchinson Radius, 1989).

Andrew Erskine, "Culture and Power in Hellenistic Egypt: The Museum and Library of Alexandria," Greece and Rome 42 (1995): 38–48.

John Ferguson, Callimachus (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980).

C. B. R. Pelling, Plutarch and History: Eighteen Studies (London, England: Duckworth, 2002).

Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, The Green Cabinet; Theocritus and the European Pastoral Lyric (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969).

Philip A. Stadter, Plutarch and the Historical Tradition (London, England; New York: Routledge, 1992).

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Greek Literature after Alexander the Great

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