(Greek Museion) Originally, an open-air temple to the muses, usually consisting of a large open space containing statues of the nine, surrounded by a peristyle. For the Greeks, art and science were products of inspiration: Plato's Ion, in its most famous passage, puts the poet at the end of a long chain, analogous to a string of magnets, with the god (Apollo) at one end, the poet at the other, and the muses in the middle. Thus artistic, philosophic, and scientific production were products of a religious chain of devotion, and the Museum, the muses' temple, was meant to foster their devotion and thus knowledge and information. Both Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum had adjacent Musea.
The most famous of these temples was by far the Museum in Alexandria, founded in 285 B.C. under royal patronage. The Ptolemies intended to make their capital the center of the Hellenized world, and funded the collection of all known writing in the Library of Alexandria, and gathered the greatest thinkers of their time to the separate, nearby Museum, the first pure research institution.
Though the exact site is not yet determined (current French archaeology there give great hope), sources attest to a simple construction. A large open-air atrium was lined with theatre-style seating for lectures (in the Platonic style]), surrounded by a great covered walkway for peripatetic discussions (in the Aristotelian style), and attached to a great communal dining hall. The Museum accepted no real students, and lectures were for the benefit of the kings and the paid scholars, for discussion of recent findings. The Ptolemies also periodically funded symposia, in the true sense, drinking parties for philosophical conversation.
The head of the Museum was an appointed priest to the muses, and had to prove himself a great poet as well as an academic. There is a (probably apocryphal) tradition of the contest between the poet Callimachus and Apollonius of Rhodes for the post. According to the tradition, Apollonius composed his great epic, the Argonautica, and Callimachus a much smaller epyllion, uttering the famous proclamation, "A great book is also a great evil"; better to be a cicada than a braying ass. Callimachus won. The major librarians of the museum, in order:
- Zenodotus: the first, whose great contribution was an attempt to create a single, definitive edition of Homer. He is criticized even in the ancient world for his athetizing moralism, rejecting lines of the Iliad based on their moral worth.
- Callimachus: there is some doubt about his position, but he was one of the most important poets and critics of his day, living during the time of Ptolemy II and the early years of Ptolemy III. He championed the epyllion and much smaller works, and the theory that poetry should be an academic as well as aesthetic exercise.
- Apollonius of Rhodes: according to the same tradition mentioned above, the feud drove him to exile. He returned some time later, after Callimachus' death, to gain the post of chief librarian. He championed the anti-Callimachean faction, and thus great epics and the poetic recording of Aristotle's "noble actions".
- Neoptolemus: little survives of his work, though fragments have been recently found, and some still exists in later commentaries. He originated the theory, found in Horace's Ars Poetica (also named the Letter to the Pisos), that all poetry should be analyzed in three aspects: the poetry (the individual elements of diction, grammar, and meter), the poem (the construction of plot, character, and structure), and the poet (the life of the poet himself, and his particular, personal virtues and faults).
- Eratosthenes: the author of the Geographica, a distinguished mathematician and astronomer, and somewhat-skilled literary critic and author of 9 comedies, now lost. He maintained a pedanticly obsessive pursuit of geography, stating that the itinerary of Odysseus would be known only when he had identified the man who made the bag in which Aeacus kept the winds. He defended poetry as an aesthetic art, with the primary purpose of giving pleasure, and thus useless as an instructive tool. The roots of his argument are again found in the Ion, in which Socrates mocks a reciter of poetry for his claim to know all arts, since all have mention in Homer.
- Aristophanes of Byzantium: apparently the inventor of accent marks in Greek; he also created his own edition of Homer, probably as a reaction against Zenodotus. He also wrote a book on analogy, writing rules of grammar attacking the Stoics.
- Aristarchus of Byzantium: his greatest contribution is the demand that the Iliad and Odyssey be interpreted as individual works, and not edited or analyzed under the society and morals of later Greece. In other words, poetry must be understood in relation to the time of the creator. He restored many of the curses and "immoral" actions which previous editors had left out.
Already in the middle of the 2nd century, politics drove many of the scholars away from Alexandria, to found Musea in Pergamum, Rhodes, and Antioch. Though even Cleopatra VII supported the museum in Alexandria and took part in symposia, the museum was already well in decline. Brief resurgences during the time of Augustus and later Roman imperial patronage did little to alleviate the loss of the nearby library, or the diaspora of scholars throughout the Mediterranean. By the time of Theodosius II, under his edicts against magic and the pagan relgion, the museum was probably closed.
It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the Museum of Alexandria in the history of scholarship. Here were developed some of the most important tenets of literary criticism which survive even today. Only in the last hundred years, with T.S. Eliot and Foucault, was Neoptolemus' role of the virtuous poet in composition finally seriously challenged, though his other two pillars still stand. Likewise, here began the first real study of geography, and the mapping of the known world. Even in its decline, the museum was attended by men like Plutarch. And, perhaps most importantly, the great collection of both scholars and texts in Alexandria allowed comparison of the myriad versions, and thus the first real critical editions and standardizations.