Eratosthenes, A ‘Second Rate’ Man

J.E. Sandys, A History of Classical Scholarship Vol. 1

“Eratosthenes (c. 276 — c. 196-4 b.c.) spent some years in Athens, whence he was recalled to Alexandria by Ptolemy Euergetes (c. 235 B.C.), and placed at the head of the Library). He remained in that important position during the reigns of Ptolemy Euergetes (d. 222 B.C.), and Philopator (222-205). ‘The tastes of the former were scientific, those of the latter literary and aesthetic. Philopator was not only the author of a tragedy, but also honoured the memory of Homer by building a temple which was adorned with a seated statue of the poet, surrounded by statues of the cities which claimed his birth. The building of this temple has been regarded as an indication of a change of attitude towards Homer. While Zenodotus had allowed his personal caprice to introduce fanciful alterations into the poet’s text, the influence of Callimachus and Eratosthenes inspired a feeling of greater reverence for Homer as the Father of Greek poetry, and also led to a more sober treatment of his text by Aristophanes and Aristarchus, as well as to a careful imitation of his manner in the epic poems of Rhianus.

Eratosthenes bore among the members of the Museum the singular designation of βῆτα, which is supposed to be due either to some physical peculiarity (such as the bowed back of old age) or (far more probably) to his attaining the second place in many lines of study. The more complimentary designation of πένταθλος implied his high attainments in more than one kind of mental gymnastics, while (like the second sense of βῆτα) it suggested that he was inferior to those who confined themselves to a single line of study. We can easily imagine each of the specialists of the Museum proudly conscious of his supremacy in his own department, and enviously depreciating his widely accomplished and versatile colleague, who was really ‘good all round’, as a ‘second-rate’ man. But it is only in his minor epics and elegiacs and in his philosophical dialogues that he seems actually to have deserved a place lower than the very highest. In other respects he attained the foremost rank among the most versatile scholars of all time. It was this wide and varied learning that prompted him to be the first to claim the honourable title of φιλόλογος.”

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