Callimachus /

Introduction and notes by Susan Stephens

The Organization of the Aetia


The first book begins with Callimachus defending himself against his critics, whom he labels Telchines. Here he articulates the privileged status of the poet as one who is favored by Apollo and the Muses, setting out guidelines for the composition of poetry in a series of oppositions—the untrodden path vs. the public thoroughfare, delicacy vs. bombast, thin Muses vs. fat sheep, the cicada vs. the braying ass. Issues of length (long poetry vs. short) and register (high vs. low) also seem to be implicit. This opening fragment is of great critical importance for the development of Roman poetics. Roman writers frequently refer to this text,1 with the result that the prologue is often reconstructed on the basis of their remarks or adaptations, which often focus on choice of a poetic genre. It is important to distinguish between what can be legitimately derived from the fragments themselves and what is inferentially based on Roman imitators.

The exact relationship of Against the Telchines to what follows has never been satisfactorily resolved. The poet says “his decades are not few,” with the result that scholars have assumed the Aetia itself, or at the very least this opening section, must have been written in Callimachus’ old age. But is the poet’s old age a genuine biographical detail or merely a poetic persona constructed to contrast with the youthful Callimachus of the following section? Further, it is open to question whether this section was really an independent prologue that was appended to the whole when the third and fourth books were added (so Pfeiffer, Parsons) or whether it was simply the first part of the following section (Cameron 1995: 114-32).

The Dream

Against the Telchines is followed by a dream (sometimes referred to as the Somnium) in which Callimachus as a young man dreams of an encounter with the Muses on Helicon. This is a deliberate reminiscence of Hesiod’s poetic initiation in the Theogony. The Scholia Florentina provide the outline for this section: in his dream Callimachus engages in conversation with the Muses who answer his questions about various phenomena and events. The accounts of the Muses, frequently interlaced with Callimachus’ own observations, make up the Aetia of the first two books.

In Books I–II three Muses are mentioned by name: Clio (Florentine scholia on fr. 4 Pf., fr. 43 Pf.), Calliope (fr. 7.22 Pf.) and Erato (fr. 238 SH); and Muses as a group occur in fr. 253b SH. Since the first aition begins with Clio and she is again named in a later aition (fr. 43.56 Pf.), it is plausible that there were at least 18 Aetia in the first two books, spoken by each of the Muses in sequence. A tenth Muse was identified as Arsinoe in the London scholia. This has stimulated the suggestion that Arsinoe, Ptolemy II’s second wife, may have been included in this part of the poem, or even that the first two books may have been dedicated to her as Books III–IV appear to have been dedicated to Ptolemy III’s queen Berenice II (See Cameron 1995: 141-2).

The following discrete narratives can be located in Book I:

(1) Callimachus begins by asking the Muses for an explanation of a Parian custom of sacrificing to the Graces without garlands or flutes. The answer recounts Minos in the act of sacrificing to the Graces learning about the death of his son Androgeos. This causes him to abandon the celebratory garlands and music. According to the Florentine scholia this aition included a discussion of the various traditions concerning the birth of the Graces. A fragment from this section (fr. 7. 14–15 Pf.) asks the Graces to “wipe your shining hands upon my elegies so that they will remain for many years.” (The thought is echoed in Catullus 1.10: plus uno maneat perenne saeclo.) It was followed by two aitia describing rituals that included the apotropaic use of blasphemy or obscenity:

(2) A rather long aition about the return of the Argonauts and the rites to Apollo Aegletes celebrated on the island of Anaphe. A similar aition ends Apollonius’ Argonautica (4.1717–30). In fact, Apollonius’ poem ends where Callimachus begins (Stephens 2011: 199–207).

(3) A sacrifice to Heracles at Lindos. Heracles apparently killed and ate a bull being used for plowing. The following aition is a doublet.

(4) The fourth aition included a discussion of Heracles’ killing of Theiodamas, who refused him a bull to feed his hungry son. Theiodamas was the father of Hylas. This material also occurs in the Argonautica (1.1213 ff.).

(5) This is a very fragmentary tale that treated the death of Linus and the Argive festival that originated in honor of him. Although we might expect that this is a story about the more famous Linus who was a musician, in fact this Linus was the infant son of Psamathe and Apollo. She gave birth in secret and hid her son among the lambs. Linus was later torn apart by dogs. Coroebus figures as the hero who avenged Linus’ and his mother’s death. 

(6) This is an account of a statue of Artemis at Leucas and why she had a mortar on her head in place of a crown. How much is missing from the end of the book is not known.

Most scholars have held that book II continues the scheme of interrogation of the Muses and response that organized Book I, but it is the most fragmentary book and only two sequences can be securely located:

(1) A very long discussion between Callimachus and the Muses on the foundation of various Sicilian cities (fr. 43 Pf.), in which Clio is mentioned in this fragment as “speaking again.” The stories include one on Camarina; another on the death of Minos, killed by the daughters of Cocalus; Zankle, named for the sickle used by Kronos to castrate Uranos; and Boeotian Haliartus. (This section was used by Vergil in the listing of Sicilian cities in Aeneid 3.692-714. See Geymonat 1993.)

(2) An account of the bronze bull of Phalaris. This section begins with a mention of Busiris, the legendary king of Egypt who sacrificed foreigners and was subsequently killed by Heracles. The coupling of Busiris and Phalaris by Ovid in Ars Amatoria 1.647–56 suggests that Callimachus was Ovid’s model. 

There have been a number of recent conjectures about the order of Book II:

(1) Consensus now tends to follow J. Zetzel’s argument that the unplaced fr. 178 Pf. could begin book II (Zetzel 1981 and Harder 2012.2: 303). This fragment contains a description of a symposium held at the house of an Athenian named Pollis, who was a resident in Egypt (presumably Alexandria), but who nevertheless celebrated Attic festivals. The occasion was the festival of the Aiora. Since the one securely placed fragment (fr. 43 Pf.) portrays Callimachus as repeating to the Muses what he heard at a symposium (lines 12–17), Zetzel has extrapolated the following organizing principle of Book II: Callimachus is now recollecting a series of stories that he heard at Pollis’ symposium as part of his conversation with the Muses. (For the links between elegy and symposium, see Bowie 1986.)

(2) A. Harder (2012: 2.945–46) has suggested that fr. 253 SH = 137m Harder, which contains language reminiscent of the opening of Book I and mentions something ceasing (either a dream or the voices of the Muses) should be located at the close of Book II.

(3) Peter Knox (1985 and 1993) suggested that fr. 112 Pf., which has been taken to be an epilogue to the whole of the Aetia, is more likely to have ended Books I-II, which probably appeared several years if not decades before the last two books. Cameron (1995: 143-60) combines Harder’s and Knox’s suggestions to locate fr. 253 SH and fr. 112 Pf. as the close of Book II.

Books III–IV

P. J. Parsons (1977) reconstructed the opening of Book III based on the publication of the Lille papyrus in 1976, suggesting that Books III–IV were framed by poems dedicated to Berenice II, the wife of Ptolemy III Euergetes. In the main the order of Aetia in Books III and IV is known from the Diegeseis, though there are a number missing at the beginning of the Diegeseis. Consensus now holds Book III to open with the Victory of Berenice and book IV to end with the Lock of Berenice. Probably both of these poems were separately written and included in the Aetia at a later stage of publication. Beyond the framing, the organizing principle of these books is not known, though Callimachus appears to have abandoned his earlier framing device of cross-questioning the Muses.

Book III contains the following:

(1) Book III began with a poem celebrating Berenice’s victory at the Nemean games, now named the Victory of Berenice. It included a story of Heracles, the founder of the games, and his slaying of the Nemean lion. In telling the story, however, Callimachus appears to have shifted the focus from the heroic to the details of Heracles’ encounter with a peasant named Molorchus, with whom Heracles took shelter, and much of the poem is taken up with Heracles’ conversation with Molorchus. This bears a strong resemblance to the Hecale, in which Callimachus foregrounds not Theseus’ encounter with the bull of Marathon, but Theseus’ reception into the hut of the old lady Hecale and her life story (Ambühl 2004). E. Livrea (1979) connected what had been thought of as a separate aition, the “Mousetrap” (fr. 177 Pf.) to this poem, arguing that Molorchus’ slaying of the mice who were eating him out of house and home was a tale within the larger aition and functioned as a humorous parallel to Heracles’ slaying of the Nemean lion.

Other known Aetia are:

(2) A very mutilated fragment on the Attic Thesmophoria that seems to involve the anger of Demeter 

(3) A tale placed in the mouth of Simonides, who speaks about the removal of his tomb in Acragas. It recalls the destruction of the house of the Scopadae, who once dishonored the poet. Theocritus Id. 16. 35–40 also alludes to Simonides and the Scopadae in the context of honoring poets.

(4) An elegy on the fountains of Argos, which were said to have been discovered by the Danaids, who provided irrigation for the once arid land. Like the opening of the Victory of Berenice it links Argos and Egypt.

(5) The story of Acontius and Cydippe. Aristaenetus, a fifth century CE grammarian, summarized this tale in his so-called erotic epistles (1.10, printed in Harder 2012: 2.242–46 as fr. 75b). One of the best preserved fragments, this aition’s ostensible purpose is to explain the peculiar marriage ritual of having the bride sleep her prenuptial night with a freeborn youth both of whose parents were still alive. However, the bulk of the narrative is a love story. It recounts how Acontius from Ceos fell in love with Cydippe from Naxos when he caught sight of her during a Delian festival. He tricked her by throwing an apple in her path inscribed with the words “I swear by Artemis to marry Acontius.” When she read out the inscription, she was then bound by her unwitting oath. When her father, Ceyx, subsequently attempted to arrange a suitable marriage for her, she became sick before the wedding day. After this happened for the third time, Ceyx consulted the oracle of Apollo and was advised to marry his daughter to Acontius instead. Callimachus also provides the source for his story, the Cean historian, Xenomedes. He concludes the whole with a précis of Xenomedes’ work, particularly, the fact that he recounted the death of the Telchines and Demonax who foolishly disregarded the gods. Callimachus uses a phrase here (fr. 75.66: γέρων ἐνεθήκατο δέλτ[οις) that returns us to the Prologue, in which Callimachus as an old man reminisces about first placing the tablets on his knees (fr. 1.21).  

Acontius and Cydippe is often cited in discussions of the history of the so-called love elegy, particularly on the question of the originality of Latin poetry and/or its dependence on Greek models. It is also obvious that the basic story—boy meets girl at festival, falls in love at first sight, which became a staple of later Greek novels like Heliodorus’ Aethiopica or Xenophon of Ephesus’ Ephesian Tale—was already part of the Greek literary repertory in the third century BCE. It is important to also to consider that the Aetia begins with the enmity of Athens and Crete, and Acontius and Cydippe are respectively the descendants of Codrus (of Athens) and Minos (of Crete). Is their love the “resolution” of the political quarrel? If so, it might be intended to foreshadow the Lock of Berenice, in which the political tensions between Cyrene and Egypt were resolved by the marriage of Berenice II (of Cyrene) and Ptolemy III.

(6) The next aition continues with an account of nuptial rites of the Eleans. After Heracles destroyed Elis, he forced the widows of the Elean soldiers to sleep with his own men to repopulate the region. Afterwards he founded the Olympian games.

(7) This provides an explanation of why Isindians were excluded from Ionian sacrifices, namely, because once upon a time an Isindian had killed a guest. The killing of guests is a theme also in Sicilian Cities and in the tale of Busiris and Phalaris.

(8) An account of why women invoke Artemis in childbirth. 

(9) A love story about Phrygius and Pieria. From two warring cities, like Acontius and Cydippe, they meet and fall in love at a festival. Their union put an end to the fighting. This story is also summarized in Aristaenetus' so-called erotic epistles (1.15, printed in Harder 2012: 2.242–46 as fr. 75b).

(10) This is a story about dishonoring a statue of the Olympic victor, Euthycles the Locrian, and the consequences of the action. It bears some resemblance to dishonoring the tomb of Simonides. It also belongs to a series of aitia that relate stories about athletic events.

Book IV

The majority of these stories are now very fragmentary, though their general outline and order is guaranteed by the Diegeseis. They often involve treachery and betrayal, scapegoating, and ironic denouements.

(1) An account of the Delphic festival celebrating Apollo’s slaying of the serpent. At the festival the youthful participants wore garlands of bay, hence the sacrifice was called the Daphnephoria. It may have been parallel to the opening of Book III, with its aition of the Nemean games, but almost nothing survives.

(2) An account of the death of Ino’s son Melicertes. When Ino, driven mad by Hera, jumped into the sea with her son Melicertes, his body was washed up on the shores of Tenedos, where an altar was placed in his honor. The story of Ino and Melecertes is part of the prehistory of the Argonauts.

(3) A story about the pledge to Apollo by the Liparians to sacrifice their most courageous warrior after the battle. This was Theudotus, who bears the speaking name of “given to the god.” 

(4) The subject is Limonis, the daughter of Hippomenes of Athens. What Callimachus related is not known, though two myths are known from elsewhere: when her father discovered that she had been seduced, he closed her up in a stall with a horse who killed her; alternatively, he killed the man who seduced her by tying him to a horse. 

(5) A hunter, boasting of his skill, dedicated the head of a boar he had killed to himself instead of to Artemis. He fell asleep under his dedication, which then fell down and killed him. 

(6) Not much more than the subject is known about this aition, which recounted the building of the Pelasgian walls at Athens. 

(7) This is another story about an athletic victor: Euthymus, the Olympic boxing champion, who put an end to a custom of the Temessans. One of Odysseus’ crew, who had been left on their shore, was subsequently killed. It seems that his ghost terrorized the region and they appeased him by annually leaving a virgin and a bed on the shore for the ghost. When the girl’s parents collected her the next day she was no longer a virgin. Euthymus is said to have put an end to the practice.

(8-9) Paired aitia about venerable statues of Hera at Samos. The older was aniconic, not even carved into human form, while the other had a vine in her hair and a lion skin, said to be spoils from Dionysus and Heracles. 

(10) A story about Pasicles of Ephesus who was killed when his mother, hearing a fight, brought a light and inadvertently aided those attacking her son.

(11) Nothing is known of this story beyond its subject, Androgeos, the son of Minos, who protected the stern of ships. Minos learning about the death of Androgeos was featured in the first aition in Book I. 

(12) Apparently a tale about the confrontation between Parians and Thracians at Thasos. The subject is the Thracian Oesydres. After the Parians killed him they were apparently required to pay reparations to the Thracian Bisalti. 

(13) The “syrma” of Antigone, the place where Antigone was said to have dragged the body of Eteocles onto the pyre of Polyneices. Ashes from the pyre were said to have divided into two heaps, indicating that even in death the brothers could not be reconciled.

(14) A story about a Roman named Gaius, who when wounded in a battle and, after complaining of his limp, was admonished by his mother to behave with greater fortitude. The aition applies a story told both about Spartans and about Alexander to a Roman. This is the earliest mention of Rome in a Greek text.

(15) A story about the anchor stone of the Argo left at Cyzicus and subsequently dedicated to Athene. A version of the story occurs in the Argonautica (1.953–60).

(16) The Lock of Berenice apparently closed Book IV. The poem recounts how Berenice II dedicated a lock of her hair in the temple of Arsinoe Aphrodite at Cape Zephyrium upon the safe return of her husband, Ptolemy III from the Third Syrian War. Subsequently the court astronomer, Conon, announced that the lock had disappeared from the temple and had taken its place in the heavens as a new constellation. Although a considerable portion of the Greek text has survived, the poem is partially reconstructed on the basis of Catullus 66, which is translation of the Lock into Latin. Catullus’ translation is not exact, however, and should be used with caution (Bing 1997).

Epilogue P. Oxy. 1011 = fr. 112 Pf. is a papyrus codex that contains the end of the Aetia and the beginning of the Iambi. (Line 90 of the papyrus closes the Aetia with the title:  Καλλιμάχου [Αἰτί]ων Δ.) The last five lines of the Aetia repeat the opening: “. . .to whom the Muses told many stories as he tended his sheep by the footprint of the fiery horse. Farewell and return with greater prosperity. Hail greatly to you, Zeus, and may you preserve the whole house of our masters. But I shall go on to the prose (?) pasture of the Muses.”2 This is generally taken to have been the epilogue to the collected four books of Aetia, and to have functioned as an introduction to his new poetic production, the Iambi. At the time Callimachus wrote, of course, these lines could only have stood at the end of a roll, and thus could have only signaled a change in poetic interests. Only with the later introduction of the codex could the lines have served as a transition between two different generic collections. There is a further problem: the whole of the Aetia must have belonged to the end of Callimachus’ very long career (about 240 BCE) while the Iambi are likely to have been written much earlier. See above for P. Knox’s suggestion that this epilogue originally belonged to the first two books only. It would have been relocated by copyists or editors at the end of the four books at a later date.

Unplaced Fragments

There are several unplaced fragments, the most important of which include fr. 178 Pf., discussed in connection with Book II above. Two others take as their subjects the statue of Apollo at Delphi (fr. 114 Pf.) and the Hyperboreans (fr. 186 Pf.). The latter seems to have elements in common with Callimachus’ Hymn to Delos, 275-99, which recreates the first offerings brought to Delian Apollo by the Hyperboreans. 


1 For example, Vergil, Eclogues 6.3-5 or Propertius 3.1-24. For a varying views of these programmatic passages in Latin poetics and their relationship to Callimachus, see Clausen 1964, Hutchinson 1988: 77-84, 277-354, and Cameron 1995: 454-83.

2 The Greek is πεζὸν νόμον. There is debate as to whether this means “prose pasture,” referring to Callimachus’ (prose) scholarly writings, or whether it refers to the Iambi, in which case the sense is “prosaic pasture,” a reference to a less elevated genre of poetry.

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Suggested Citation

Stephens, Susan. Callimachus: Aetia. Dickinson College Commentaries (2016).