Hellenistic Scholarship: Scientific and Literary Inquiry

This page is authored by Kathryn Steed, Carleton College
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This material was developed as part of the Carleton Teaching Activity Collection and is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


In this assignment, students will write about and/or engage in one of the areas of scholarship that flourished in Ptolemaic Alexandria. Through exploration of Hellenistic scholarship, students will explain how ancient scientists reached their conclusions and will identify and explain the strengths and weaknesses of those conclusions.

We will explore the development of the library and museum at Alexandria in class and will discuss specific areas of research, but this assignment will require students to gather outside information and engage in greater depth with one or a small set of scholars. They will choose a paper topic and a theory or mechanism to explore, learn about it in detail, compare it with modern parallels, and discuss its place in the history of science and technology.

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Learning Goals

The goal of the assignment is for students to gain an understanding of the ways in which Hellenistic Greeks thought about the world around them and mastery over one area of scientific inquiry. They will learn about the types of resources available to (and accepted as authoritative by) the Hellenistic scholarly community and about the scientific limitations of that community. They will also gain particular knowledge of Hellenistic concepts of astronomy, physics, medicine, or engineering.

Context for Use

This assignment is designed for use in a course on the history and/or culture of the Hellenistic World at a liberal arts college, but it should be easily adaptable to other settings at the college level. It is an independent student project that requires no special equipment to complete, though the astronomy and biology options in particular could be tailored for courses with a more observational component.

To complete the assignment, students will need to have a basic understanding of the equipment available in the ancient world and either an overview of Hellenistic scholarship or some knowledge of the specific areas being explored. Students will also need time to complete research on Hellenistic and Modern models and to write up their conclusions.

Description and Teaching Materials

Materials include an assignment sheet outlining the options for completing the assignment and a brief bibliography to help students get started in their research.

Paper Topic Sheet (Microsoft Word 31kB Dec14 10)

Teaching Notes and Tips

The research for this assignment will most likely cause students some confusion, since it deals with a foreign set of scientific principles and methods. I anticipate the need for more targeted reading lists and perhaps tutorials on notation and other technical aspects of the scholarship students are discussing.


Assessment will be based on a student's ability to explain their chosen scientific theories accurately in English prose and to assess the origins and merits of those theories. In addition to demonstrating knowledge of particular theories, they must show an understanding of the circumstances under which Hellenistic scholars worked and how those circumstances shaped conclusions about the natural world.

References and Resources