Secrets of the Great Library of Alexandria: New Sources of the Roman Enlightenment

10 Oct 2016 The Roman Enlightenment is synonymous with the birth of Latin literature in 240 BCE. However, the only texts to survive complete from its earliest period are the 27 stage comedies of Plautus (254–184 BCE) and Terence (194/84–160 BCE), it is impossible to contextualize the audiences who came to watch them. Paradoxically, therefore, Rome’s “Enlightenment” is now dominated by darkness! In this lecture, I discuss that audiences of Roman comedy knew of some literary activities at the Ancient Library of Alexandria during the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285–246 BCE). Drawing on Vitruvius and fragmentary Greek poetry, I suggest that Plautus’ The Braggart Soldier and Terence’s The Eunuch allude to (1) Ptolemy’s marriage to his sister, (2) the imprisonment of the poet Sotades, and (3) the appointment of Aristophanes of Byzantium as Head Librarian c. 194 BCE. If I am correct, we will have to abandon a famous myth about the history of free speech in Rome, and rewrite the history of Alexandria’s cultural influence on Rome. Michael Fontaine
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