[I]n populous Egypt they fatten up many bookish pedants who quarrel unceasingly in the Muses’ birdcage.”
—Timon of Phlius, 230 B.C.
For almost as long as there have been literary works, there have been literary canons, largely established by bookish pedants who do, indeed, “quarrel unceasingly.” The quarreling began early in the third century B.C. and continues today. The “birdcage” to which Timon refers was the great Library of Alexandria, part of a larger temple complex known in the ancient world as the Museum of Alexandria, established by Ptolemy II. Ptolemy, and his father before him, were literary kings who sought to spread the influence of Greek cultural achievements and who founded their museum for precisely that purpose. It was in Alexandria that what we call Hellenism was born.
To be fair, most of the scholars whom the Ptolemies patronized were more than mere pedants; among them were historians of note, natural philosophers like Archimedes, and poets like Apollonius of Rhodes, author of The Argonautica. However, for present purposes, it may be that the greatest achievement of those men, many of whom lived rather monkish lives as permanent members of the museum community, was their preservation of the Greek texts which we study today as part of our “classical” heritage. That we are able to read the Iliad;...