Callimachus Biography

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(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)


Callimachus (kuh-LIHM-uh-kuhs) of Cyrene was educated in Athens and traveled to Alexandria, where he worked in the Alexandrian library. He cataloged its works, producing a catalog so detailed that it provides a full literary history of the Hellenic world.

Callimachus wrote prose and criticism, but his poetry had the most influence on later generations of writers. The most famous of his works is Aitiōn (c. 270 b.c.e.; Aetia, 1958), a four-volume elegy retelling a number of Greek legends and myths. The structure of Aetia, a series of short episodes connected by a shared theme, influenced the works of most major Greek and Roman poets, including Vergil, Ovid, and Catullus. Callimachus’s estimated eight hundred works of poetry established learnedness, brevity, wit, and polish as hallmarks of Alexandrian poetry.


Callimachus provided historians with an insight into Hellenic literature with his catalog of the Alexandrian library. His poetry was so influential that only Homer is quoted more frequently by Hellenic grammarians.

Further Reading:

Blum, Rudolph. Kallimachos: The Alexandrian Library and the Origins of Bibliography. Translated by Hans H. Wellisch. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991. In his study of the Alexandrian Library, Blum argues that Callimachus, the second director of the library, was the inventor of two essential scholarly tools: the library catalog and the biobibliographical reference work.

Calame, Claude. “Legendary Narratives and Poetic Procedure in Callimachus’s ‘Hymn to Apollo.’” In Hellenistica Gronigana: Proceedings of the Gröningen Workshops on Hellenistic Poetry, edited by Annette Harder. Gröningen, Germany: Egbert Forster, 1993. An examination of how Callimachus weaves both Greek and Roman mythology and the classical poetic tradition into his verse.

Callimachus. Aetia, Iambi, Lyric Poems, Hecale, Minor Epic and Elegiac Poems, and Other Fragments. Translated by C. A. Trypanis. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975. Provides a Greek text, a serviceable prose translation, and excellent notes.

Callimachus. The Poems of Callimachus. Translated by Frank Nisetich. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. This translation of Callimachus’s extant works and major fragments includes an introduction that discusses the poet’s life, his achievements, and the difficulties in the way of modern appreciation. Presents fragments as integral parts of the poetry books in which they originally were contained.

Cameron, Alan. Callimachus and His Critics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. A wide-ranging survey of Callimachus’s literary reputation over the centuries, noting that his elaborate verbal precision has become his hallmark. Cameron shows how, and to some extent why, Callimachus worked so diligently to achieve that literary effect.

De Romilly, Jaqueline. A Short History of Greek Literature. Translated by Lillian Doherty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. Includes excellent impressionistic accounts of Callimachus and Apollonius. De Romilly doubts that Callimachus shared the “simple faith” of the Homeric hymns.

Ferguson, John. Callimachus. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980. A general survey of Callimachus, this work is interesting and thorough. Ferguson pieces together fragments of gossip to make a coherent life of Callimachus, and he includes the fragments of the poems. Callimachus’ social and cultural background is treated. Ferguson compares Callimachus with T. S. Eliot. Contains an excellent bibliography.

Fraser, P. M. Ptolemaic Alexandria. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972. Gives an especially useful account of the library and museum and of Alexandrian scholars and science generally, as well as the commercial and social life of the city. Contains a chapter on Callimachus.

Gutzwiller, Kathryn. Poetic Garlands: Hellenistic Epigrams in Context. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Although it concentrates most of its attention on Callimachus’s Epigrammata, this work goes beyond that to look at the poetic convention of the epigram in the larger realm of classical literature.

Hollis, A. S. Introduction to Callimachus’ “Hecale.” Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1990. The Hecale, Callimachus’s retelling of the story of how the Athenian hero Theseus tamed the bull of Marathon, was the poet’s effort to show that he too was capable of crafting epic verse. Hollis places this key work of Callimachus into both the poet’s canon and the Western poetic tradition, helping to explain its importance and enduring achievements.

Kerkhecker, Arnd. Callimachus’ Book of Iambi. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. An extended discussion of Callimachus’s collected Iambi, arguably one of the earliest surviving Greek “books of poetry.”

Lane Fox, Robin. “Hellenistic Culture and Literature.” In The Oxford History of the Classical World, edited by John Boardman, Jasper Griffin, and Oswyn Murray. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. An excellent survey of the cultural background, with some interesting comments on Callimachus. Includes a good treatment of literary patronage and comparisons to other Hellenistic figures. Lane Fox compares Callimachus with the Wordsworth of the River Duddon sonnets.

Thomas, Richard F. “Callimachus Back in Rome.” In Hellenistica Gronigana: Proceedings of the Gröningen Workshops on Hellenistic Poetry, edited by Annette Harder. Gröningen, Germany: Egbert Forster, 1993. A useful survey of Callimachus’s reputation outside the eastern Mediterranean.

Williams, Frederick. “Callimachus and the Supranormal.” In Hellenistica Gronigana: Proceedings of the Gröningen Workshops on Hellenistic Poetry, edited by Annette Harder. Gröningen, Germany: Egbert Forster, 1993. Because Callimachus can be as much noted for his works based on myths and legends as for his lyric poetry, this study provides an interesting and useful review of how the poet deploys the supranormal world and events in his works.