Callimachus Introduction - Essay


Callimachus c. 310/305 B.C.-C. 240 B.C.

Greek poet and scholar.

Callimachus was a poet and scholar of great influence during a major transition in Greek history. After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. the influence of Greek culture began to extend beyond Greece east-ward to Persia and Asia; scholars have typically referred to this as the beginning of the Hellenistic Age. Many classicists have identified Callimachus as one of the forces that helped shape the literature of the age, even going so far, in the case of Bruno Snell, to dub Callimachus the "father of Hellenistic poetry." Callimachus was a highly prolific writer—producing an estimated 800 volumes of poetry and scholarship—and a substantial record of his work survives either in manuscript fragments or in citations by other writers. Scholars have devoted particular attention to his Hymns, all six of which are extant in complete form, most or all of his epigrams, the Iambi, and two of his longer works, the Aitia and Hecale. He is also well known, albeit less often studied, for his scholarship, conducted during his tenure as a cataloguer at the Alexandrian royal library. There he prepared exhaustive bibliographies—Pinakes—of the library's contents.

Biographical Information

Scholars date Callimachus's birth between 310 and 305 B.C.; he was born in Cyrene, a Greek colony situated in the part of North Africa that is now Libya. Callimachus sometimes carries the name Battiades, or "son of Battus", in reference to his father's name and the royal lineage that that name designates: until about 450 B.C., the names of the colony's rulers alternated between Battus and Arcesilaus. His family, however, was probably middle-class. When he was a young man, Callimachus moved to Alexandria, Egypt, then a focal point of Greek culture and the home of the royal family. He initially took a position as a teacher in a suburb of the city, but eventually was offered a place in the royal library maintained by the ruler Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who wanted the volumes in his extensive library catalogued. Scholars still debate the exact nature of the position that Callimachus took on. Whether he was a cataloguer only or also the library director, there is no doubt that the work he did was substantial and significant. The bibliographies of the library's holdings that he created exceeded 120 volumes.

Callimachus's work for the library necessarily exposed him to literary and non-literary works from preceding generations, making him a tremendously learned writer. Critics regularly have noted the influence of this reading in Callimachus's poetry. Although he is not known for producing critical works, Callimachus nonetheless became a voice to be reckoned with in the poetics—or literary conventions—of his day, becoming enmeshed in heated feuds with other scholars and poets. The most significant of these was actually one of his own students, Apollonius Rhodius, who went on to hold the library director position. Evidence of these debates, which were often hostile rather than rational, shows up consistently in Callimachus's poetry. Scholars have found little information about his later years, determining only that he continued to work at the library and that he composed poetry until close to the end of his life.

Major Works

Although the works Callimachus is known to have composed greatly exceed what has survived, there is still a substantial body of his work available for readers and scholars to examine. Because the Hymns are intact they win a good deal of study, as do the Aitia and Hecale, both of which have survived in substantial fragments. The Hymns are six in number, each addressed to a different deity: I to Zeus, 2 to Apollo, 3 to Artemis, 4 to Delos, 5 to Athena, and 6 to Demeter. In structure all closely imitate Homeric Hymns, typically composed for oral presentation at festivals; however, critics concur that Callimachus followed these conventions without ever presenting at such events. Callimachus apparently prepared his work for a small and elite audience, although some critics disagree, noting the dramatic and humorous elements that would seem to appeal to a broader audience, and arguing that seemingly esoteric allusions would in fact be familiar to the average Greek theateror festival-goer. The Hymns were generally shorter compositions and, like Callimachus's other works, incorporated his considerable knowledge of his poetic predecessors while introducing innovative and sometimes parodic elements.

Scholars have had to reconstruct the matter of the other major works from fragments. The Aitia, which translates as "causes", seems to compile and—for Callimachus's contemporaries—update various myths and local legends that the author would have encountered in his extensive reading. The work consists of four books, collected in discrete poems, totalling about 7,000 lines of verse. The last poem, The Lock of Berenice, became famous in its own right, eventually being translated by the Roman poet Catullus and providing the groundwork for Alexander Pope's 1712 mock epic, The Rape of the Lock. The Aitia also gives evidence of Callimachus's involvement in debates on poetics, since his introduction doubles as an Answer to the Telchines—a rebuttal of his literary critics.

One of the debates in which Callimachus engaged concerned the conventions of epic poetry. Callimachus, opposing his student Apollonius, advocated marked changes in the genre, contending that new poems should be shorter than tradition demanded, and more simple and concise. His Hecale, estimated to have totalled about 1,000 lines, put into practice many of his ideas about epic. The poem tells a traditional tale—the story of Theseus's journey to fight the bull at Marathon. Along the way, the young hero encounters a storm that compels him to take refuge in the hut of an old woman named Hecale. Callimachus's rendition of this tale, while using a traditional basis, turned convention on its head by effectively putting Hecale rather than Theseus in the spotlight. The story she tells Theseus of her life—a fall from aristocracy to her present condition—occupies the lion's share of the poem. Furthermore, her death after Theseus's victory at Marathon marks the end of the poem, particularly since Theseus bestows on her a hero's funeral.

While the preceding poems have garnered the bulk of critical attention, fragments of many shorter works have allowed scholars to round out their impression of Callimachus's work as a whole. Thirteen iambi and various lyrics reinforce the image of Callimachus presented in the major works and supplement it with love poems and more satire. He is also acclaimed for the sixty-one epigrams that demonstrate his skill with this form.

Textual History

Although what is available from Callimachus's corpus appears to be only a fraction of the prolific writer's works, it still provides a substantial sample. Many of his works were transmitted through the centuries because they were so broadly admired: writers imitated, quoted, and translated his works for hundreds of years after his death. Consequently, the six Hymns remain fully intact, preserved by their transcription in medieval manuscripts. Scholars assume that the sixty-one epigrams, mostly collected in Byzantine anthologies, represent Callimachus's contribution to the genre. The Aitia, Hecale, Iambi, and various lyrics became available for contemporary readers only in the twentieth century, when fragments of the works came to light with the discovery of papyri manuscripts.

Critical Reception

Since his own age, Callimachus has been an object of critical debate. Typically, his admirers have applauded his innovative twists on convention, the polished concision of his style, and the breadth of his knowledge. His detractors have ranged from those who condemn his break with tradition—particularly because his poetry was too short and because it embraced mundane rather than elevated subject matter—to those who find his allusions too obscure. Callimachus's reputation grew with writers of following ages, who found much to admire and imitate in his innovations: the Romans Catullus, Propertius, and Ovid declared their debt and English poets of recent eras—including Alexander Pope, William Cory, and Lord Byron—have also attested to his influence.

Debate among twentieth-century scholars recreates, to some degree, that original critical divide, with some valuing Callimachus's originality and learnedness and others arguing that that learnedness made his work elitist. Moving beyond these stances, some critics have pursued historical analysis, investigating the influence of political environment and literary heritage on Callimachus's work. Historical studies of Callimachus's immediate circumstances typically stress his relationship to the Alexandrian court—especially his need to win continued patronage from the rulers Ptolemy II and Ptolemy III. Rudolf Pfeiffer's work, one of several studies that looks at the Pinakes as well as the poetry, has explored the breadth of Callimachus's learning. Combined, these approaches emphasize the interrelatedness of all aspects of the poet's life in the creation of his poetry.