Geeks and ancient Greeks

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The knowledgeable and obsessive type is not a modern creation. Geeks have always accompanied every age. The classical world had its ancient geeks, peculiar individuals who would insist on a certain topic, activity or way of life, and who would attract the curiosity of those around them.

Ancient geeks were engineers, thinkers but also scholars. As one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the ancient world, Alexandria had its own population of geeks, particularly those zealous weirdos working in its renowned library. Aristarchus of Samothrace, for example, is a prime example of the Hellenistic geek type. A grammarian by background, Aristarchus was a stickler for form and accuracy and obsessed over the little details. It was due to his all-consuming geekly energy that the text of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey was edited to the highest possible critical standard. As the librarian of the Library of Alexandria, Aristarchus trained a whole generation of like-minded geeks.

You had to be a geek like Zenodotus, another Alexandrian librarian, to even conceive tidying up the library collections. I count Zenodotus among the vexed geeks, for despite his lectures on ancient poets and his glosses on Homer, he is remembered far more for his housekeeping efforts, which must really annoy him in aeternum. Zenodotus organised the library books alphabetically by first letter of author name – something we can’t do without today.

We can count the ancient geeks on our fingers. Lonely specimens of compulsive behaviour, they didn’t let go and pursued what to most other people may have appeared to be a poor use of one’s time. But in the end, everyone benefitted from their idiosyncracies.

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