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Callimachus (c.305-c.240 BC)


Ancient Greek poet, librarian, and scholar, famous representative of the sophisticated Alexandrian school of poetry. Callimachus' most famous prose work is the Pinakes (Tables), a bibliographical survey of authors of the works held in the Library of Alexandria. It is said to have comprised 120 books. A non-conformist, Callimachus had a radical influence on the course of Greek and Roman poetry. His output purportedly exceeded 800 volumes, but all that is left is six hymns and a collection of fragments and epigrams.

I am the work of the Samian who once in his house
entertained the divine bard. My subject is Eurytos,
his agonies, and blond Ioleia. I am ascribed to Homer.

('Epigram 55', in The Poems of Callimachus, translated by Frank Nisetich, 2001)

Little is known of Callimachus' life. He was born in Cyrene, North Africa, into a prominent family. Callimachus called himself Battiades, "son of Battos," who was the mythical founder of Cyrene. "You're walking by the tomb of Battiades, / Who knew well how to write poetry, and enjoy / Laughter at the right moment, over the wine." ('On Himself,' in The Greek Anthology, 1973, tr. Peter Jay, 1973, p. 150) Callimachus also tells that his grandfather was a general.

After possibly being educated in Athens, he migrated to Alexandria. Ptolemy I, founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty, had decided to make the city a rival of Athens as a centre of culture. A number of sources say that he taught at an elementary school in Eleusis, a village outside the town, but according to Alan Cameron, this is not likely: to call somebody an elementary teacher was actually an insult in both Roman and Greek times. (Callimachus and His Critics by Alan Cameron, 1995, p. 5) A member of an influential Cyrenean family, Callimachus was presented to King Ptolemy II Philadelphus (282-246 BC). He became a "court youth" and later joined the Mouseion. It was a kind of institution of arts and sciences, founded by Ptolemy I (305-282 BC), called the Soter, "the Saviour". Ptolemy was a friend of Alexander the Great, and a historian. He wrote an account of Alexander's campaign of conquest.

The Library of Alexandria, the most important in the whole Hellenistic culture, contained the greatest collection of texts. It is believed that the institution held hundreds of thousands of scrolls at one time, beginning from the authorative manuscripts of the Iliad. Its first director, Zenodotos, began an inventory of the scrolls acquired by the Ptolemies for the Mouseion. Agents were sent to different parts of the Greek world to buy books – everything was good enough for the collections, even a book called Everything Thucydides Left Unsaid, written by the scholar Cratippus.

Whenever a ship unloaded at Alexandria, its books were copied, and the originals went to the library (or sometimes back to the owner). Among the treasures was Aristotle's collection of books. Some ancient sources claim that it was the seed from which the library grew. According to a story, Ptolemy wrote a letter to every king and rules on earth, asking them to sent his library works by "poets and prose-writers, rhetoricians and sophists. doctores and soothsayers,  historians and all the others too." (The Darkenimg Age by Catherine Nixey, 2017, pp. 127-128) The library welcomed scholars, men of letters, poets, and grammarians from from all over the Mediterranean and Sub-Saharan Africa. If there has ever been something like "Black Athens" it was Alexandria.

Not only Callimachis, but many learned librarians working at the Mouseion and the Alexandrian Library during their existence were poets. Archimedes studied there, so too did Euclid, Eratosthenes, Hipparchus, Galen, and many other scientists and philosophers. As a major harbour city, Alexandria was cosmopolitan and had far-reaching international trade links.

The library consisted of two separate sections. The greater, part of the royal palace, was said to house nearly half a million scrolls. The lesser, attached to the Temple of Serapis, stored about forty thousand. The dimensions of a scroll were small, Homer alone took up at least 24 scrolls for the Iliad and the Odyssey. Callimachus separated the longer works by having them copied into several shorter sections.

It has been suggested that Callimachus was in charge of the library after Zenodotus, although Eratosthenes (234-195 BC) is more often mentioned as his successor – Eratosthenes, a mathematician, geographer, and poet, measured the north-south circumference of the Earth with great accuracy. There, at the Museum, Callimachus' major achievement was Pinakes ton en pase paideia dialampsanton kai hon synegrapsan (List of those who distinguished themselves in all branches of learning, and their writings). Facing the task of classifying the scrolls, Callimachus sighed: "Mega biblion, mega kakon" (many writings equals many worries). (Books on Fire by Lucien X. Polarstron. 2007, p. 15) Pinakes is catalogue of Greek authors and their works in alphabetical order, along with biographical and literary information. Moreover, books were classified into the two main genres of verse and prose, added with a miscellaneus section.

Throughout ancient times, "The Tables" was updated constantly but it has not been preserved. Most likely Callimachus did not complete his own part of the gigantic task – cataloging, once it started, has never ended in libraries. The first biobibliography to appear in print dates much later – it was Johannes Trithemius's Liber de scriptoribus ecclesiasticis (1494).

Callimachus' longest poem is the Aitia (Origins or Causes), a narrative elegy in four books, probably composed in 270 BC. This learned work mixed anecdotes, curiosities, and little-known legends. Its avant-garde style offered a model for poets rebelling against the tradition. One of the poems, 'The Lock of Berenice', was later freely adapted into Latin by Catullus (c.84.-c.54 BC). Berenike, the daughter of King Magas of Cyrene, married Ptolomeny III. According to a story she dedicated her beautiful hair to Venus so that her husband might return safely from war. Catullus' work served as the model for Alexander Pope's 'Rape of the Lock'.

Iambi was a collection of 13 short poems. The themes varied, but in several poetic contexts Callimachus used fable and Aesop. In the first Iambus Hipponax comes from Hades to a temple near Alexandria and meets the scholars of the Museum. Iambus 2 closes with the figure of Aesop. In the Ibis Callimachus attacked on his former pupil Apollonius of Rhodes, who may have become the library director. Despite his name, he is thought to have born in Alexandria. Apollonius was the writer of Argonautica. Among Callimachus' other scholarly pupils were Eratosthenes of Cyrene and Aristophanes of Byzantium.

Perhaps Callimachus was half-joking when dismissed long poems bluntly "big book, big bore"  – he wrote longer books than any of his contemporaries. Nevertheless, he criticized writers who produced epics in the ancient manner; Callimaches preferred the short form and his poems were admired for their polished refinement. Apollonius opposed this in Argonautica: "What a pitiful seer is this, that has not the wit to conceive even what children know, how that no maiden will say a word of sweetness or love to a youth when strangers be near. Bygone, sorry prophet, witless one; on thee neither Cypris not the gentle Loves breathe in their kindness." (The Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius, translated by R. C. Seaton, 2014, p. 117)

At the end of 'Hymn to Apollo' Callimachus referred casually to this literary debate, when Envy whispers into the ear of Phoebus (Apollo, byname Phoebus), "I do not admire the singer who does not sing even as much as the the sea." (Callimachus: The Hymns, edited by Susan A. Stephens, 2015, p. 81) The Phoebus kicks Envy with his foot. However, some modern scholars have argued, that the quarrel between Callimachus and Apollonius is a myth. It was not the length of the poem, but its composition and quality that mattered for Callimachus. In Aitia he wrote: "The Telchines, who knew nothing / of poetry and hate the Muses, often / snipe at me, because it's not a monotonous / uninterrupted poem featuring kings / and heroes in thousands of verses / that I've produced, driving my song instead / for little stretches, like a child, / though the tale of my years / is not brief." (The Poems of Callimachus, translated with introduction, notes, and glossary by Frank Nisetich, 2001, p. xxxviii)

In Callimachus' Hymns, five of them were composed in hexameters. In these pieces, Callimachus displays his wide learning. A.W. Mair's translation of  'Hymn to Zeus' do not dampen Callimachus's tendency to help his audience to understand details of the work: "When the nymph, carrying thee, O Father Zeus, toward Cnosus, was leaving Thenae – for Thenae as night to Cnosus – even then, O God, thy navel fell away: hence that plain the Cydonians call the Plain of the Navel." (Delphi Complete Works of Callimachus, translated by A.W. Mair, 2017)  Hecale was a small-scale epic (epyllion), about a thousand lines length written in hexameter. Although Theseus is the hero, who fights the bull of Marathon, a peasant-woman comes in the forefront. Hecale, the old woman, is honored by travelers "for her graciousness: she kept her house unlocked". During a storm, she gives shelter to Theseus on his way to Marathon. Hecale also offers him a meal – bread, "a generous helping of loaves", and ripe and unripe olives" – everything she has. Later he returns with the legendary bull and asks, "Whose tomb have you raised here?" It is Hecale's tomb.

Callimachus spent in Alexandria the larger part of his life. The Suidas, a Byzantine lexicon from the tenth century AD, records that he married a woman from Syracuse and that his nephew wrote hexameter poetry. Callimachus was a prolific author, who also wrote tragedies, comedies, and studies on different fields of knowledge, such as a study of the writings and language of Democritus of Abdera. Some 60 pieces have survived from Callimachus' Epigrams. Ovid translated a poem called The Ibis, but the original Greek is lost.

Apparently Callimachus was never appointed director of the library, one of the most prestigious offices in Alexandria. However, in his poems, Callimachus did not forget to express his respect to his royal patron Ptolemy Philadelphus. In 'Hymn to Zeus' he said: "He accomplishes by dusk what he thinks of at dawn – / the monumental by dusk, the minor in a trice – / while the projects of others drag on for years, / their programs curtailed by your executive order." (Callimachus: Hymns, Epigrams, Select Fragments, translated, with an introduction and notes, by Stanley Lombardo and Diane Rayor, with a foreword  by D.S. Carne-Ross, 1987) Callimachus died c.240 BC. Some say that Apollonius was buried next to him.

For generations of later scholars, Pinakes was one the major source of the lives and works of authors of the archaic, classical and early Hellenistic periods. Callimachus divided Greek writers into tables (pinakoi), arranged in several classes – rhetoric, law, epic, tragedy, comedy, lyric poetry, history, medicine, mathematics, natural science and miscellanea. The names were arranged in alphabetical order, a cataloguing device that  gradually became commonplace. After a biographical sketch the entry offered a list of the author's works in alphabetical order. Callimachus quoted openings and at least for the dramas he gave plot summaries.

For further reading: Callimachus by Richard Rawles (2019); Callimachus Revisited: New Perspectives in Callimachean Scholarship, edited by J.J.H. Klooster, M.A. Harder, R.F. Regtuit, G.C. Wakker (2019); Callimachus in Context: from Plato to the Augustan Poets by Benjamin Acosta-Hughes, Susan A. Stephens (2011); Callimachus II  by Annette Harder, Remco F. Regtuit, G. C. Wakker (2004); Polyeideia: The Iambi of Callimachus and the Archaic Iambic Tradition by Benjamin Acosta-Hughes (2002); Libraries in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson (2001); Callimachus' Book of Iambi by Arnd Kerkhecker (1999); Callimachus and His Critics by Alan Cameron (1995); Callimachus, ed. Annette Harder, Remco F. Regtuit, Gerry C. Wakker (1993); Kallimachos: The Alexandrian Library and the Origins of Bibliography by Rudolf Blum (1991); Callimachus by John Ferguson (1980); Kallimachos und die Literaturverzeichung bei den Griechen by R. Blum (1977); Da Mimnermo a Callimacho by B. Lavagnini (1976); Kallimachos, ed. A.D. Skiadas (1972); Callimaco by G. Capovilla (1967); The Iambi of Callimachus by C.M. Dawson (1950); Theokrit und Kallimachos by G. Schlatter (1941); Alexandrian Poetry Under the First Three Ptolemies by Auguste H. Couat (1931); Callimaque et son oeuvre poétique by E. Cahen (1929); Kallimachos und Homer by H. Herter (1929); Hellenistic Poetry by Alfred Körte (1929)


  • Callimachi Cyrenæi Hymni (cum suis scholiis græcis) & Epigrammata, 1577
  • The Hymns of Callimachus, 1755 (tr. William Dodd)
  • The Works of Callimachus, 1793 (by H.W. Tytler)
  • Orphica. Procli Hymni, Mvsaei Carmen de Hero et Leandro, Callimachi Hymni et Epigrammata, 1824?
  • The Works of Hesiod, Callimachus, and Theognis, 1856 (tr. Rev. J. Banks, with metrical translations of Elton, Tytler, and Frere)
  • Callimachus, Hymns and Epigrams, 1921 (tr. A.W. Mair)
  • Callimaque: Hymnes, Épigrammes, fragments choisis (Budé ed.), 1922 (by E.Cahen)
  • Poems of Callimachus, Four Hymns and the Epigrams, 1931
  • The Epigrams of Callimachus, 1934 (tr. Gerard Mackworth Young)
  • Hymns of Callimachus, with the Hymn of Kleanthes, in English verse, 1934 (by Arthur S. Way)
  • Callimachus, i: Fragmenta, 1949 (ed. R. Pfeiffer)
  • Callimachus, ii: Hymni et Epigrammata, 1953 (ed. R. Pfeiffer)
  • Callimachus: Aetia, Iambi, Hecale, and Other Fragments, 1958 (by C.A. Trypanis)
  • Callimachi Hymnus in Dianam, 1968 (by F. Bornmann)
  • Callimachus, Hymn to Zeus, 1977 (introduction and commentary by G. R. McLennan)
  • Callimachus: Hymn to Apollo, a Commentary, 1978 (by Frederick Williams)
  • Hymn to Demeter, 1984 (ed. N. Hopkinson)
  • The Fifth Hymn 1985 (ed. with introduction and commentary by A.W. Bulloch)
  • Callimachus: Hymns, Epigrams, Select Fragments, 1988 (tr. Stanley Lombardo and Diane Rayor; with a foreword by D.S. Carne-Ross)
  • Callimachus: Hecale, 1990 (edited with introduction and commentary by A.S. Hollis)
  • The Poems of Callimachus, 2001 (tr. Frank Nisetich)
  • Aetia: Introduction, Text, Translation, and Commentary, 2012 (edited by Annette Harder)
  • Callimachus: the Hymns, 2015 (edited with introduction, translation, and commentary by Susan A. Stephens)

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