THE LITERARY CULTURE OF EARLY ALEXANDRIA
ei kai boukoloi andres hodon diameibete tênde,
What is surprising is that despite the affecting humbleness of its inscribed setting our epigram is suffused with the ethos of "high" Alexandrian poetry, particularly as expressed in two very typical themes. One is the distinction between the sophisticated and the vulgar. Previously, the greatest poetry among the Greeks had been popular poetry: The chief genres of earlier times, epic and drama, were aimed at the broadest of publics and performed at the great civic festivals. Now in the Hellenistic era a different kind of poetry arose, one of learnèd refinement and exquisite polish, meant more for the solitary act of reading than for performance, and intended for connoisseurs. For these, the crowded highway mentioned in our epigram is virtually synonymous with vulgarity: "I take no pleasure in the road that carries multitudes here and there," writes Callimachus, a spokesmen for the new movement (Ep.28.1-4 Pf.). This same poet elsewhere describes how the god of song, Apollo, told him "Do not drive your chariot upon the common tracks of others, nor down a road that's wide, but along untrodden paths, though you'll drive a narrower course" (Aetia fr.1.26-28 Pf.). In keeping with these commands, Callimachus' art appeals to a very special kind of audience: "We sing," he says, "among those who love the clear voice of the cicada, and not the clamor of donkeys" (Aetia fr.1.29-30 Pf.). That élite circle of insiders belongs to his self-definition (and such a reader might well hesitate to pause among the cattle by Aline's tomb). To be sure, poetry of broad appeal continued to thrive in the Hellenistic era; musical contests attested at far-flung festivals are ample proof of that. But alongside it now there was something new: a sophisticated alternative that explicitly set itself off from popular genres.
Aline's epitaph refers to one "nurtured in the Muses' labors". This brings us to the second (and closely related) characteristic of élite Alexandrian artistry that appears in her poem. Poetry is now considered the product of toil, of painstaking skill and learning as much as of inspiration. One prominent poet, Poseidippus, speaks of his soul as "shaped by toil in books" (AP 12.98.3 = 6.3 G-P). Another has a female speaker discriminate - just as in our epigram - between ignorant rustics and those versed in song; the latter stand out precisely by virtue of their laborious, hard-won knowledge: "No ignorant mattock-toting rustic from the mountains will have me..., but someone who knows how to compose verses and who, after much toil (polla mogêsas), is skilled in the way of...words".
The author of this last poem is none other than Philitas of Cos (10, p.92 Powell), whom Ptolemy I Soter made tutor to his son, the future king Ptolemy II Philadelphus, and who stands upon the threshold of the Age as a model for the new figure of the doctus poeta (the learnèd poet). Philitas is the first person described as "simultaneously a poet and a scholar" (Strabo XIV 657). The description is apt because it points to precisely those fields of endeavor that were systematically united under Ptolemaic patronage.
It was a fateful union, in large part fostering that new conception of poetry we have described. It was a union, moreover, that we can localize. For scholarship and poetry came to share common ground through Ptolemy I's establishment of the Alexandrian Museum and its indispensable complement, the Library. These institutions represented the shrewd cultural politics of the Ptolemies. The sovereigns needed first of all to address the isolation of their new city. Founded on alien terrain amidst an impressive indigenous culture, Alexandria could not rely on bonds with a mother city such as normally sustained Greek colonies, providing a rich store of shared traditions - linguistic, religious, political, artistic; this city was nobody's colony in that sense. Rather, it drew its population from every corner of the Greek world. Thus, by creating in the Library a repository of all Greek culture, and by recruiting to their Museum the leading lights in science, philosophy, poetry, etc., the Ptolemies hoped to provide some measure of cultural cement to hold these heterogeneous Greeks. Second, the Ptolemies sought legitimacy in their claim to be the true heirs of Alexander, and of the cultural legacy of Hellas. To this end they had to put their city on the map, making it both a seat of traditional Greek culture, and a well-spring for intellectual and artistic innovation - a center of Greek life, in other words, whose prestige would be acknowledged by the rest of Greece. In fostering these great cultural enterprises, then, the Ptolemies certainly furthered their ends.
These institutions took shape on the model of Aristotle's Lyceum, which was likewise organized as a fellowship honoring the Muses (hence "Museum") and contained the most extensive library of its time. But unlike the Lyceum, the Alexandrian foundation offered a central place to poets. Perhaps these poets had been bookish from the start, perhaps the resources of the Library inspired them, perhaps commissions or appointments obliged them to develop scholarly skills: In any case it is striking how many of these poets were also productive scholars, nurturing their different interests at a single source.
In one of those strange accidents of history, no reference to the Library survives from the first century-and-a-half of Ptolemaic rule. Still one would have to deduce its existence, even in the face of the sources' silence. For it permeates the élite poetry of 3rd cent. B.C. Alexandria. This poetry is obsessively erudite; nothing from earlier times comes close: Poets delight in choosing the rarest word, the most obscure variant of a myth, in evoking antecedent texts through the subtlest of echoes. And they expect readers to be sophisticated enough to enjoy their virtuosity.
Their learning does not stop with the poetic tradition, moreover. Rather, they comb the literature for useful material, finding inspiration also in prose of every sort: historical, biographic, astronomical, philosophical, ethnographic, etc. - an entirely new conception of what constituted suitable material for poetry. Thus Apollonius, second librarian of the Library, and poet of the Argonautica, fills his epic with learnèd details from periegetic and ethnographic sources; Callimachus, author of the Pinakes - "Tables of all those who were eminent in any kind of literature and of their writings, in 120 books", based on the holdings of the Library, - has the Muse cite a local historian as her source in one of his poems (fr.67-75 Pf.). Guided by their scholarly interests, these authors mapped out new poetic terrain - "untrodden paths", as the god commanded in the fragment of Callimachus.
While scholarly activity gave new impulses to contemporary poetry, it also enforced a sense that the towering figures of Greek literature now belonged irrevocably to the past, i.e. that they were classics. Editions and commentaries of their works by the scholar-poets of Alexandria encouraged the creation of a canon. Veneration for the literary past was institutionalized - not just in the Library, but through cult: Ptolemy IV Philopator established a shrine of Homer in Alexandria; his wife, Arsinoe III, endowed a festival of the Muses on Mt. Helicon in honor of Hesiod. Precedents from an idealized past also inspired patronage: Rulers demanded praise that might recall that of Pindar or Simonides for their patrons - but with a difference. Schooled in that same refined sensibility as their poets, the Ptolemies were prepared to accept a subtler, wittier, less direct form of praise.
In his 15th Idyll, for instance, Theocritus let's us witness royal munificence through the eyes of two Syracusan housewives, immigrants to Alexandria, who struggle through the thronged streets of the city to reach the palace to attend a festival of Adonis. While Theocritus no doubt pokes fun at how these women gape in naive wonder at the lavish trappings of the court, he does not thereby belittle the spectacle itself or suggest that this royal show - sponsored by queen Arsinoe II Philadelphus - is anything other than very fine indeed. The same holds true when the Syracusan women bubble with praise for the anonymous woman singer, whose hymn to Adonis is included in the poem and forms the centerpiece of the show. Anticipating a marvelous performance, one of the women acclaims her as "a very learnèd singer" (poluidris aoidos, v.97) - she knows what's in store since she heard her sing last year. And after the song she gushes that "the woman is just the most skillful creature - blest to know so much, most blest to have so sweet a voice!" (to khrêma sophôtaton ha thêleia./ olbia hossa isati, panolbia hôs gluku phônei, vv.145-146). To be sure, it is droll to find terms such as "erudition" and "skill" - qualities championed by the literary élite - coming from the mouths of housewives. But Theocritus is not thereby mocking the singer or her art: Queen Arsinoe could certainly afford something special, and the song itself is an accomplished piece. It is not unreasonable to imagine that a poetess like Aline, with whom we began, might have seen a bit of herself in this portrayal, and would not have been ashamed.