Art Civilisations Historic Accomplishments Literature

Role of Ancient Africa in Defining Literary Critique and Plagiarism

Plagiarism is defined as the “wrongful appropriation” and “stealing and publication” of another author’s “language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions” and the representation of them as one’s own original work. It is one of the most frowned upon practices in writing and is often akin to a crime in the field of research. However, this was not always the case. Plagiarism wasn’t always viewed as a malpractice and in some cases was actually actively revered. An example of this is written about in a legend by the Roman writer Vitruvius. According to the legend the Egyptian Pharaoh, Ptolemy III Euergetes, around the year 200 BC, held a poetry competition in his royal court. He appointed 7 judges for the same, one of whom was Aristophanes of Byzantium (lived c. 257–c. 180 BC). The poets presented their works, all of which were presented as their own. At the end of the competition 6 of the judges favoured one of the competitors to win, while Aristophanes favoured the one who no one, not even the audience had preferred. Aristophanes explained that the competitor he chose was the only one who created original work, and the others had presented plagiarised content. The audience still preferred the “winning” candidate, however the Pharaoh allowed Aristophanes to prove his case. Aristophanes was able to locate the originals of all the other works in the Library of Alexandria, simply by memory. Impressed by his memory and values, the Pharaoh assigned Aristophanes as the head librarian of Alexandria. This is the first recorded case in history when plagiarism was actively seeked out and admonished.

Aristophanes (source); artist impression

Under Aristophanes’ reign as the head librarian, the Library of Alexandria entered a phase of literary maturity. During this phase in the library’s history, its scholarly output came to be dominated by literary critique. Aristophanes wasn’t known for his creative outpouring, but was very well respected in the scholarly writing world for his various works. They include his invention of the system of Greek diacritics, writing important works on lexicography, and introducing a series of signs for textual criticism. He also wrote introductions to many plays, some of which have survived in partially rewritten forms. Under his guidance plagiarism was heavily criticised and authors who plagiarised were ostracised.

Considering the position of influence commanded by the Library of Alexandria in the ancient scholarly world, soon every major library in the world followed suit. The creation of a unified system for literary review meant that every major library in the world could enforce a check on the works they collected, and authors weren’t able to simply switch libraries to get their plagiarised content accepted. All this was started because of Aristophanes’s work.

He was succeeded in the position of head librarian by Apollonius, who is known by the epithet Greek: ὁ εἰδογράφος. One late lexicographical source explains this epithet as referring to the classification of poetry on the basis of musical forms. The fifth head librarian was an obscure individual, whose only major contribution to the scholarly world was the aforementioned classification.

The Great Library of Alexandria (source); modern artist impression

The legendary work of Aristophanes was eventually carried forward by his successor, Aristarchus of Samothrace (lived c. 216–c. 145 BC). He was the sixth head librarian. His appointment was initially under a lot of contest, as he hadn’t made a significant scholarly contribution until then. However, the Pharaoh at the time, Ptolemy VII Neos Philopator, appointed him to the position because Aristarchus was openly in support of him as the ruler of Egypt. Since this was a time of instability for Ptolemaic power, the word of a highly respected individual, such as the head librarian of the Library of Alexandria earned Ptolemy VII a lot of support. Aristarchus soon proved his scholarly prowess as well.

Aristarchus of Samothrace(source); artist impression

Upon his appointment, he started to continue the work of Aristophanes in rooting out plagiarism and refining the system for literary review. While pursuing such editing feats he also was creating his own works of poems which were widely regarded as the revival of classic Greek literature.

He soon earned a reputation as a greatest among classical scholars and produced not only texts of classic poems and works of prose, but full hypomnemata, or long, free-standing commentaries, on his own works and those under his care. These commentaries would typically cite a passage of a classical text, explain its meaning, define any unusual words used in it, and comment on whether the words in the passage were really those used by the original author or if they were later interpolations added by scribes. Since until then no one had really looked at existing texts, these commentaries enabled later historians to accurately classify the words as the ones by the author or the scribes, furthering the cause against plagiarism.

He also made significant contributions to a variety of reviews and commentaries on classic works, particularly the Homeric poems. His editorial opinions are widely quoted by ancient authors as authoritative.

These two African scholars are credited as being the driving force behind history’s acceptance of the fact that plagiarism is to be avoided and is a malpractice. However, this has only been brought to light quite recently. As previously mentioned plagiarism was an accepted practice for most of human history. Unfortunately, the effects that these two legendary scholars had on the world of literary review was severely hindered and even partially reversed when the Library of Alexandria was razed to the ground by the forces of the Roman Emperor Aurelian in the 272 AD. Before this the status of the Great Library had been on the constant decline due to the power struggle between the Egyptian and Roman empires. Due to the strategic position of the city of Alexandria, it more often than not became contested grounds for the warring forces, forcing more and more scholars away from the city. After its annexation by the Romans, the status of Alexandria as a city fell sharply. The only known head librarian from the Roman Era was a man named Tiberius Claudius Balbilus, who lived in the middle of the first century AD and was a politician, administrator, and military officer with no record of substantial scholarly achievements. This provides a valuable insight into the severe deterioration of the quality of the Library.

Since the Romans were intent on destroying as much of Egyptian and by extension African culture they could, they either destroyed or plagiarised most of the works inside the Great Library. This led to the abandonment of the system of review created by Aristophanes. This is the major reason why Africa was thought of the “Dark” continent by its conquerors for so long. The conquering forces, in a bid to destroy or loot their territories, simply plagiarised all the important and valuable works, and attributed them to European authors, leaving the original author in absolute obscurity.

This is why the role that the head librarians, Aristophanes and Aristarchus, played in the ostracizing of plagiarism is so important. It was aimed at preventing the loss of culture and art to brute force and to attribute it to its original creators instead of the people who were the last to conquer the library storing the pieces. In the recent era, as more and more of these ancient works are understood and uncovered, the original authors are being recognized for their contributions to the human society.

Meanwhile the modern world, taking a leaf from the pages of these African scholars, has outlawed all plagiarism, correctly understanding the importance of honouring the value of original work. Granted it is mostly because of the monetary impact plagiarism can have on an author, it is still very important to recognize the work and effort it takes to create original material. The fact that these laws exist shows us how much foresight the legendary scholars had.


Casson, Lionel (2001), Libraries in the Ancient World, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, ISBN 978-0-300-09721-4

Dickey, Eleanor (2007), Ancient Greek Scholarship: A Guide to Finding, Reading, and Understanding Scholia, Commentaries, Lexica, and Grammatical Treatises from Their Beginnings to the Byzantine Period, Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-531293-5

Watts, Edward J. (2008) [2006], City and School in Late Antique Athens and Alexandria, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, ISBN 978-05-2025-816-7


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