COMP 293
The Great Library of Alexandria: Collecting and Connoisseurship in the Ancient World Spring 2015
Division I
Cross-listed CLAS 283 / HIST 325 / ARTH 283 / COMP 293
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Class Details

During the early third century BCE, the Ptolemaic kings of Egypt built the Great Library of Alexandria to serve as a repository for all human knowledge. Such an audacious project of collection has rarely been attempted either before or since. At its height, the Great Library was reputed to house over 700,000 books from across the Greek world, as well as many translations of texts originally written in Latin, Hebrew, Egyptian, and even Sanskrit. Attracted by the vast stores of knowledge, scholars, artists, and poets flocked to the Great Library to create one of the most vibrant intellectual communities the world has ever known. In this course, we will examine the development and influence of the Great Library and its sister institution, the Mouseion (or “Museum”) from a variety of cultural and historical perspectives. We will begin by exploring the political motives of the Ptolemaic kings and their reception of earlier traditions of collecting in the Greek and Near Eastern worlds. We will then turn to the intellectual and artistic activity at the Library itself, with special attention to the development of notions of connoisseurship and canon across various disciplines. Although implicated in the Ptolemies’ political agenda, the scholars living and working in the Great Library were granted extraordinary freedom to pursue new ideas that transformed literature, science, and the arts forever. Readings will include selections from Theocritus’ Idylls, Apollonius’ Argonautica and Eratothenes’ Geography. Finally, we will examine the legacy of the Great Library from the Roman empire to the present day, focusing particularly on how the concept of a universal archive has shaped the collecting practices of everything from modern art museums and Google Books to such governmental entities as the NSA. All readings are in translation.
The Class: Format: lecture
Limit: 30
Expected: 20
Class#: 3366
Grading: yes pass/fail option, yes fifth course option
Requirements/Evaluation: evaluation will be based on classroom performance, three response papers, one 12- to 15-page paper, and a midterm exam
Prerequisites: none
Enrollment Preferences: preference given to majors or prospective majors in Classics, History, and Comparative Literature
Unit Notes: meets Division 1 requirement if registration is under CLAS or COMP; meets Division 2 requirement if registration is under HIST
Distributions: Division I
Notes: This course is cross-listed and the prefixes carry the following divisional credit:
CLAS 283 Division I HIST 325 Division I ARTH 283 Division I COMP 293 Division I
Attributes: HIST Group C Electives - Europe and Russia
HIST Group G Electives - Global History

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