They are also known as the Alexandrian School, a broader term that includes the work of scientists, doctors, and philosophers. Centered around Alexandria, the Alexandrian School was a blend of Greek and Asian influences. The poetry written during this period was epic, lyric, or elegiac, mainly.
Definition of Alexandrianism
Alexandrianism is the collective style of Greek poets during the Hellenistic period. This period is defined as the time between the death of Alexander the Great and the rise of Roman as a dominant force. The works created during this period had a wide array of influences. Times were changing, and authors were penning important versions of historical myths, exploring science in the form of epic poems, and creating epigrams, lyric poems, and more.
Greek Epics and Alexandrianism
During this period, many writers created epics. These were long poems, sometimes many hundreds or thousands of lines long, that dealt with well-known myths. They were filled with allusions and, for some scholars, written in a less-than-ideal style. Some of the epics are classified today as “didactic epics.” They were very commonly written and depended on the writer’s specialized knowledge. Sometimes that spoke on lesser-known myths and religious topics while others explored the realm of science. These didactic epics are less like recognized poetry today. For example, some of the best-known epics were created by Nicander of Colophon, who wrote about poison and venomous bites. However, no matter what writers of this period investigated, they did so with a clarity of purpose and with an emphasis on research.
Theatre and Alexandrianism
During the Hellenistic period, theatrical performances of old tragedies were revitalized, and a new theatrical form, “New Comedy,” began. This genre of writing featured comedic skits based on the everyday lives of Greek men and women, a stark contrast from the traditional tragedies of the previous period. Meander is the best-known writer in this new genre. He wrote 108 known comedies and was awarded numerous awards for his style and skill. Unfortunately, his work was lost during the Middle Ages and only survives in fragments today, except for one play, “Dyskolos.” The title translates to “The Grouch” or “The Misanthrope.” It won him the first-place prize at the Lenaian Festival after it was written.
Examples of Alexandrianism
Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes
‘Argonautica’ is one of the best examples of Greek epic poetry from the Hellenistic period. This epic poem focuses on the story of Jason and the Argonauts. The group, ordered by King Pelias, set out to find the golden fleece. With Medea’s help, they get the fleece. Apollonius of Rhodes’ version is one of the only pieces of epic literature to have surged from the period. Virgil used the four books that make up the ‘Argonautica’ as inspiration.
It’s clear throughout this piece that Homer’s stories inspired Apollonius of Rhodes, but he took his work in a different direction. His poem is significantly shorter, 6,000 lines long, and features a humanized version of Jason, rather than an over-the-top, heroic and god-like version. In addition, he changed a few aspects of the myth, seemingly to make it slightly tamer, and the gods are kept at a distance from the action. Depending on the critic, some believe ‘Argonautica’ is an incredible work of Hellenistic literature, while others describe it as mediocre and weak. It’s only been in recent years that his contribution to Greek literature has been fully recognized, especially his influence on other poets.
The Harvest Feast by Theocritus
‘The Harvest Feast’ is one of several idyll poems the poet created. They were bucolic in nature, with this specific poem taking place in the isle of Kos. The poet uses a first-person speaker, who is meant to be himself. But he uses a nickname, Simichidas. He also includes a variety of other poets in the text. They include Astacides and Asclepiades of Samos. He also mentions Nicias, a physician, and Aratus, the author of Phenomena.
The poem discusses the poet’s own fame, that of the other writers he mentioned, and details how his songs have been brought to Zeus’ own ear. He praises some of the other poets and criticizes others.
Aetia by Callimachus
Callimachus, a teacher of Apollonius of Rhodes, is remembered for his stance against epics and any long works. Throughout his life, he’s thought to have written more than 800 pieces of literature, the vast majority of which are lost. The Aetia, which dates somewhere between 270-240 BC, is an etiological poem, or a poem that discusses an origin myth. In this case, it’s separated into four books of elegiac couplets. It is the earliest source for most of the myths it discusses. It was widely read throughout the period in which it was written and later, providing inspiration for poets to come.
The work disappeared for centuries before it was discovered again as part of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Some of the stories in the book feature Linus and Coroebus and the voyage of the Argonauts. There is also the love story of Acontius and Cydippe in the third and fourth books.
Hellenism is thought to be a blend of Egyptian, Persian, and Indian influences. It’s important to also consider the lasting historical influence of prior Greek culture as well. It’s due to this array of influences that Alexandrianism is so varied.
Alexandrian science is the science that developed during the Hellenistic period. Callimachus of Bithynia and Apollodorus of Alexandria were important thinkers of the period, working on botany, toxicology, and pharmacology.
The Hellenistic period lasted from 323 B.C.E. to 31 B.C.E. It is marked by the death of Alexander the Great in 323 and the rise of Augustus and Rome in 31.
Alexandria, in Egypt, was the most influential city in Hellenistic Greek culture. The city was founded by Alexander the Great around 331 BCE. It eventually became the center of commerce and industry.
The characteristics of Alexandrianism as a whole were varied. Writers were interested in scholarship, telling origin stories, exploring science, and more. The cultural influences were numerous, coming from India, Persia, and more.
Related Literary Terms
- Alazon: one of the three traditional characters in Greek comedy. They have an inflated sense of worth and often boast.
- Parrhesia: the use of direct, emotionally honest language in one’s discussion of a topic. It has its roots in Ancient Greece.
- Allegory: a narrative found in verse and prose in which a character or event is used to speak about a broader theme.
- Prose: a written and spoken language form that does not make use of a metrical pattern or rhyme scheme.
- Canto: a subsection of a long narrative or epic poem. It is made up of at least five lines, but it normally much longer.
- Epic Poetry: a long narrative poem that tells the story of heroic deeds, normally accomplished by more-than-human characters.
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