Triumphs From the Ancient World’s First Think Tank
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Lib Inf 1- Introduction to Library Services
Denise K. Fourie, Cuesta College
Reading: Triumphs From the Ancient World's First Think
Smithsonian - June 1985: 158-168
by Lionel Casson
When Pericles and Sophocles were in school in Athens they had the same trouble reading Homer as
modern schoolboys do reading Shakespeare. The Iliad and Odyssey, written some 300 years before
their time, were full of old-fashioned expressions and obsolete words. We turn to a dictionary for
enlightenment. They could not: there was no such thing. And would not be for two more centuries,
not until after 300 BC when scholars, slaving away in far-off Alexandria, took the first steps toward
Invention brings to mind the wheel, the cotton gin, the steam engine, the telegraph. But the
dictionary had to be invented too, as well as the encyclopedia, the textbook, even the grammar book.
These tools of learning are so much a part of life today that it is hard to imagine a time when they
did not exist. But there was—a long time: Thucydides wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War,
Sophocles wrote Oedipus, Euripides Medea, Plato his dialogues, without these simple devices for
storing and retrieving information.
For schoolboy Pericles and schoolboy Sophocles homework did not consist of doing term papers or
anything else that involved research. It meant memorizing passages from the great books—the epics
of Homer and Hesiod, the odes of Pindar, the tragedies of Aeschylus. Research, to be sure, existed—
Thucydides could hardly have written his history without it but it depended upon the collecting of
notes and a well-developed memory, not on a shelf full of reference works.
Then, around 300 BC, a remarkable institution came into being, the great library and museum at
Alexandria. It was the world's first think tank.
With a little help from Plato and Aristotle
Before that, of course, the situation had begun to change. During the fourth century BC, with help
from Plato and Aristotle, philosophy became the Greeks' dominant interest. Aristotle's philosophical
enquiries involved carefully observing and recording nature; he himself wrote treatises on biology
and zoology, and his favorite pupil, Theopllrastus, turned out treatises on botany. Soon the doors of
scholarship were thrown wide open and Greeks busied themselves amassing facts of all sorts.
When Alexander the Great died at Babylon in 323 BC, one of his generals, the canny Ptolemy,
promptly took over as king of Egypt, a land where the fertile Nile valley ensured a full treasury.
Much of it was spent by Ptolemy and his successors on embellishing the capital at Alexandria.
Having somehow got his hands on Alexander's corpse (there were those who claimed he stole it as it