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Hellenistic Egypt: the Alexandria Museum

The Greek word mouseion means a shrine to the Muses, the female personifications of dance, music and literature.

The Museum attached to the Lyceum of Aristotle at Athens seems to mark a major innovation for the Greek world: its religious purpose as a place for the cult of the Muses is combined with the development of teaching and debate. The most illustrious successor to the Athenian Lyceum was the Museum at Alexandria. This is thought to have been installed in the new city for Ptolemy I with the participation of Demetrius of Phaleron, philosopher-statesman and a pupil of Aristotle; however, the evidence is slight. This Hellenistic Museum was linked to one object category only, the book, and was concerned with study of its contents, rather than public display. A description of the Museum at Alexandria was given under the early Roman Imperial Period by Strabo (Geography, Book 17, 1, 8):

'The Museum is also part of the Royal Quarters, having a public walk (peripaton), seating chamber (exedra), and a large building containing the dining-hall of the men of learning (philologon andron) who participate in the Museum. This group of men have common property as well as a priest in charge of the Museum, appointed in former times by the kings, and nowadays by the Emperor.'

There is astonishingly little additional information on the layout and workings of the Museum, and even the precise subjects studied there and the activities of the members remain a mystery. In sum, our knowledge of the character of the Alexandria Museum may be presented in three points:

  1. collegiate
  2. religious - place of cult of the Muses, governed by a priest
  3. combined philosophy and literary study (?)

The later history of the Alexandria Museum is equally little known. In the Roman Period in Egypt, members of the Museum are identified in documents and inscriptions as being ton en toi mouseioi sitoumenon atelon 'of those fed in the Museum and exempt from taxation'. Suetonius records that the emperor Claudius expanded the institution, and it seems to have been functioning as late as the fourth century AD, but it is not known if it continued in operation under Byzantine rule. It may then not have outlived the Houses of Life attached to some Egyptian temples.





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