Scholarship in antiquity

I know I have at least a few people reading this journal who know a bit about this topic. 🙂

Scholars in the ancient world: what exactly did they do? What sorts of things did they write? “Commentaries,” according to the references in the things I’ve read, but what exactly was the content and purpose of those things? What other kinds of works did they produce?

What sparked this question was thinking about the Library of Alexandria and the scholars who used it, but I’m also interested in answers from other parts of the world (since the purpose to which I’d be putting this is not historical fiction). Ancient Confucian scholarship, ancient Vedic scholarship, those and more would all be interesting to know about, too.

4 Responses to “Scholarship in antiquity”

  1. Elias Eells

    Some quick thoughts:
    The Homeric scholia have a lot of grammatical notes, since the Greek was already weird and hard for the Alexandrians, but it isn’t only about the language of the text. There are mythological scholia, places where the scholars note variant traditions, things like that. A lot of our knowledge of Greek mythology can be found in the scholia to Pindar because his poems were so weird, hard, and densely allusive. But the phenomenon of linking your own arguments to a response to an earlier text is not limited to literary criticism. Galen, for example, mostly wrote commentaries on Hippocratic texts. The form of the commentary and its formalisms are mattered most, not necessarily the relevance. I remember some manuscripts with only a few lines of text and the rest of the page is all commentary. Eleanor Dickie’s Ancient Greek Scholarship is the premier work on the topic and is a really useful book. I’d be happy to gather more thoughts if you’d like; this is just briefly what’s coming immediately to mind. Looking forward to seeing some other comments, especially from beyond the Mediterranean!

    • swantower

      Two people have now pointed me at Dickey’s book, so I will definitely put that in the research queue — thanks!

  2. Elowen Edwards

    Not sure how much you know about Ancient Iraq, and I’m at most an amateur Assyriologist, but the Ancient Sumerians and Babylonian scholars were scribes, diviners, priests, mathematicians, astronomers… They made endless lists of things, omens, animals, magical incantations, etc ordered by association as much as category.

    • swantower

      I did a fair bit of research into that for Turning Darkness Into Light, but there I was more focused on the actual mechanics of cuneiform and clay tablets, translation, preservation, etc. — not as much on the scholarly culture that produced such things. I’m reading a book on daily life in ancient Mesopotamia right now, though!

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