ancient scholarship

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In one sense of the term, scholarship began when literature became a central element of education and the prescribed texts had to be explained and interpreted to pupils in a class. An early reflex of this activity is the reported invention by Theagenes of Rhegium (late 6th cent. bc) of the allegorical method of interpretation, which could be used to deny the literal meaning of supposedly objectionable passages of Homer. But scholarship, like literary criticism, was slow to develop in the Classical period. In the Peripatetic school Aristotle and his disciples were not primarily concerned with literature or history, but their discussions of Homer and concern with the chronology of Athenian dramatic festivals was a step forward. Recognizably scholarly work, including the composition of books or pamphlets about literary texts, began early in the 3rd cent. bc in Alexandria under the patronage of the Ptolemies (see ptolemy 1). The Museum became a centre where literary topics were discussed regularly; acc. to one report, a record was kept of the discussions. The Library acquired a virtually complete collection of books written in Greek, to which Callimachus 2 wrote an enormous bibliographical guide, and it looks as if copies of the classics, such as Homer, which reflected the results of work done in the Museum, came to be regarded as standard. Between c.285 and 145 a series of Alexandrian scholars, who variously combined one or more of the professions of poet, tutor to the children of the royal family, and librarian of the Museum, brought scholarship to a high level. They edited texts by comparing different exemplars, commented on them by writing either notes on difficult passages or extended running commentaries, and composed innumerable treatises on individual problems, some of them historical and antiquarian rather than literary. Questions of authenticity also had to be addressed. The leading figures in this process were Zenodotus, Callimachus, Eratosthenes, Aristophanes of Byzantium, and Aristarchus 2. Not all their decisions about puzzles in Homer win the approval of a modern reader, and they seem to have been too prone to reject lines as being unworthy of Homer or inconsistent with the context; but luckily they did not remove such lines from the texts in circulation.


During the 2nd cent. bc a ‘great flock’ of learned men came to Rome from Greece. By the end of the 2nd cent. and the start of the 1st not only was there substantial learning displayed in the Didascalica of Accius and the satires of Luclius 1, but Aelius had developed what would be the three main foci of Roman scholarship: ‘antiquities’, treating the institutions and beliefs of Rome and her neighbours; literary studies, including questions of authenticity and literary history (but little that we would recognize as ‘literary criticism’); and the more or less systematic study of language, esp. (in this early period) etymology and semantics. Aelius, Rome's first true scholar, in turn influenced Varro, Rome's greatest scholar, whose antiquarian research (‘Antiquities Human and Divine’), study of Latinity (‘On the Latin Language’), and investigations of literary history (‘On Poets’) provided a model and a resource for all other scholars (e.g. Cornelius Nepos, Verrius Flaccus) and some authors of imaginative literature (e.g. Ovid).


Subjects: Classical Studies.

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