Alexandrian School, a name given to various groups of persons engaged in artistic and intellectual activities in Alexandria, Egypt, during the Hellenistic and Roman eras. Subject to common influences, members of each group tended to show similarity in their style, attitudes, or methods. Such groups produced work of a unique character in sculpture, literature, science, philosophy, and theology.
From about 300 B.C., when the Alexandrian Museum and its library were created, for some 600 years Alexandria was the intellectual capital of the ancient world. While its origins were Macedonian-Greek, as were its royal house (the Ptolemies) and its ruling class of citizens until the Roman conquest, the city absorbed much of the Egyptian tradition. The population, cosmopolitan in character, included Jews, Syrians, and other Middle Easterners who brought with them ideas and customs foreign to Greek and Roman culture. The blending of Western and Eastern knowledge and thought was the distinguishing feature of the schools.
The Alexandrian school of sculpture was one of the three Hellenistic styles of the third century B.C. It was a naturalistic style, but one in which some detail was suggested rather than delineated. The individuality and human quality of the subjects were stressed, with touches of humor such as the classic Greek sculptors had never shown. Allegorical figures were an innovation, as were realistic portraits of old people and children.
Literature of the Alexandrian school was based on scholarship rather than on originality. The writers working in the Museum and library catalogued, analyzed, and edited more than they wrote. When they composed poetry, it was usually in studied imitation of older forms. Callimachus introduced the epyllion, a short epic poem, and his pupil Apollonius of Rhodes revived the long epic. Theocritus, however, created an original variety of verse, the pastoral poem, for which the Alexandrian school of literature is chiefly remembered.
The mathematician Euclid came to Alexandria about the time the Museum and library were founded. His teaching and writing were the foundation for 600 years of invention and discovery in mathematics, astronomy, and physics.
Apollonius of Perga (third century B.C.) founded the study of conic sections, and Hipparchus (second century B.C.) originated plane and spherical trigonometry. In the third century A.D. Diophantus invented algebraic symbols, and Pappus laid the foundations for analytical geometry.
In the third century B.C. Eratosthenes of Cyrene used astronomy to form geographical conclusions, and Aristarchus of Samos theorized that the earth revolves about the sun. Ptolemy (second century A.D.) made major contributions to trigonometry and to astronomy but supported the theory that the sun revolves about the earth.
Ctesibius (second century B.C.) experimented with water pressure and air pressure. In the early Christian Era Hero operated devices with water, air, and steam—including a forerunner of the jet engine.
Egypt had long been a leader in medical knowledge when the Hellenistic era began. Alexandria quickly became the medical center of the Mediterranean world. Among the major physicians and their fields of discovery were Herophilus of Chalcedon, anatomy, and Erasistratus, physiology (third century B.C.); Marinus, skull surgery (late first century A.D.); and Soranus, gynecology (second century). There were, in fact, few notable advances in surgery from the Alexandrian era to the 19th century.
During the pre-Christian era, Athens retained supremacy over Alexandria as the center of philosophy. When an Alexandrian school of philosophy developed, it reflected the mysticism found throughout the Middle East. About 100 B.C. there originated in Alexandria a new philosophy, Neopythagoreanism, in which Pythagorean doctrines were given a mystical interpretation. Renunciation of worldly things and recognition of one supreme deity were emphasized.
As the Christian Era began, the Alexandrian Jew Philo, combining Jewish religious ideas with Greek philosophy, emphasized the mystical quality of man's relationship to God. Philo influenced two late-second-century Greek Fathers of the Church, Clement of Alexandria and his pupil Origen. These two in turn headed Alexandria's catechetical (Christian religious) school, where both Christian and pagan (Greek) writings were studied and where the philosophy later known as Neoplatonism evolved.
Plotinus (third century), who probably attended the school, formulated the doctrines of Neoplatonism, in which the soul was glorified and the physical senses ignored, and carried them to Rome. Although Neoplatonism was a pagan philosophy and Origen, after his death, was disowned by the Church as a heretic, much of the mysticism of the Alexandrian school of theology was absorbed into Christian thinking.