Callimachus /

Introduction and notes by Susan Stephens

The Aetia

Callimachus’ Aetia was the most influential of his poems in antiquity, particularly so for Augustan poetry. (For recent discussions see Barchiesi 2011 and Acosta-Hughes and Stephens 2012: 204-269.) It was an elegiac poem consisting of narratives, ranging in length from no more than a few lines (e.g., Busiris) to well over a hundred (e.g., the Victory of BereniceAcontius and Cydippe, the Lock of Berenice). Each of these provided an explanatory account (aition) of an unusual ritual event or object, e.g., why the Lindians use invective in their sacrificial rites to Heracles or why the statue of Leucadian Diana has a mortar on her head in place of a crown. It was four “books” (papyrus rolls) in length and is estimated to have contained about 4,000 to 6,000 lines in total. The Aetia has not survived intact but as fragments of papyrus and parchment. Various ancient synopses and commentaries are of great help in establishing the order and number of the individual Aetia, though these too are fragmentary. Because so much of the interpretation of the Aetia is dependent upon potential textual restorations, the bulk of the scholarship has been concerned with reading and reconstructing the many fragments. This website has been designed to make the poem more accessible to a general Classical audience without distorting its fragmentary and conjectural nature. While it is difficult to generalize about so fragmentary a work, some of its features are apparent. 

(1) However random the subject matter of the individual aitia might appear, they were tightly organized by framing structures—the conversation with the Muses, (possibly) the recounting of tales heard at a symposium, the Berenice poems. Material from the opening recurs in several subsequent aitia. Further, several themes can be detected over the various aitia: the treatment of guests, particularly in the tales connected to Heracles, piety (or impiety) towards the gods often ironically resolved, the series of love stories in Book III, and stories in Book IV that involve treachery and violence. Since Books III–IV are framed by poems to Berenice II, Ptolemy III’s bride, it may not be fanciful to see a deliberate concentration of erotic themes in these latter books, culminating with the erotically charged dedication of the lock of hair for her husband’s safe return from battle. Another organizing strategy that Callimachus used to great effect was parallel tales (e.g., the aition of Phrygius and Pieria; in Book III is a love story that seems to resemble the earlier tale of Acontius and Cydippe; the two separate stories about statues of Hera in book IV).

Callimachus has also framed his Aetia with himself as the narrating “I.” He begins book I as an old man, apparently recounting his youthful encounter with the Muses in a dream; if Book II opens with fr. 178, then a seemingly younger Callimachus is again present, this time in Alexandria, at a symposium; at the opening of Book III, he speaks the poetic praise of Berenice. If the epigram is rightly placed at the end of Book IV, he signs off by claiming that he is moving to new genres (see below). Along with the poet as framing narrator, a rudimentary temporal trajectory is in place, beginning with tales of Heracles and of the Argonauts at the opening of Book I and ending with contemporary events in Alexandria, namely, the dedication of Berenice’s lock in the recently built temple of Aphrodite-Arsinoe, in Book IV. (See Stephens 2011: 199-206.)

(2) Although all of the poems are written in elegiac meter, Callimachus includes material that imitates other genres: the aition on the Tomb of Simonides behaves like a funerary epigram; the Lock of Berenice II expands on the form of the dedicatory epigram; while at least one story, Acontius and Cydippe, is apparently erotic. The Nemean victory of Berenice II is epinician in character; the unplaced fr. 114 Pf. on a statue of Delian Apollo employs dialogue; and many fragments exhibit hymnic or epic characteristics. (See Harder 1998 and 2012:1.23–36.) It is worth considering to what degree Callimachus’ poem succeeded in opening up elegy to permit a greater range of topics than had been attempted previously. Even though the 1992 publication of a fragmentary elegy on the Battle of Platea (P. Oxy. 3965), written by Simonides, indicates that these trends were already present in earlier poetry, the Aetia is notable for its generic variety in an elegiac frame. It even rivals epic in its length (it was probably about the same size as Apollonius’ Argonautica). 

(3) The writing of aitia seems to have absorbed the imaginations of the Hellenistic poets. They exploit aetiology far more than do their literary predecessors as a way of defining the relationship of the past to the present and of making the foreign more accessible. The use of such explanatory tales or mini-origin myths functions to domesticate the unknown, by explaining and/or renaming it in terms of the familiar. In aetiology the past operates both to provide a valorized context for this redefinition, and also as the space into which to retroject such elements in order to control or imagine a place as really one’s own. Thus aitia function to create cultural memory and Callimachus’s Aetia in particular repositions the archaic and classical Greek past to conform to the new realities of Ptolemaic Alexandria. 


The dating of Books I and II is not secure. Books III and IV must fall early in the reign of Ptolemy III Euergetes, because the first poem of Book III commemorates the victory of Berenice II in the four-horse chariot race at the Nemean games (either in 245, 243, or 241 BCE). Berenice II was the daughter of Magas of Cyrene, and married Euergetes in 246 after a long betrothal. The Lock of Berenice, which closes Book IV, must have taken place soon after their marriage, probably on the occasion of Ptolemy’s return from the third Syrian war, certainly no earlier than 245 BCE. Rudolf Pfeiffer and other scholars believed that Apollonius must have known and used Books I-II in his Argonautica, so these books are usually taken to be as much as 25 years earlier, and thus assigned to a date around 270 BCE (Cameron 1995: 247-62). This has led to the thesis (essentially Pfeiffer’s), now commonly accepted, that Callimachus reissued or reedited the Aetia late in his life and added the prologue, now known as Against the Telchines, to the four-book edition. While this is the principle upon which much scholarship has proceeded, it is important to realize that before the second century CE, all literary works would have been circulated in a roll format—usually papyrus, though sometimes leather or parchment. Each of the books of the Aetia would have filled one papyrus roll. So reediting may have meant nothing more than issuing two more book rolls.

Main Sources for the Text

Although the Aetia was very well represented in papyrus fragments (currently the number is 37), some of which are quite substantial (80+ lines), the text in its entirety has not survived. Since papyrus rolls of poetic texts were normally about 1000 lines in length, the original Aetia must have circulated in four or, less likely, two papyrus rolls. It was only when codices came into vogue round the third century CE that all of Callimachus’ poems could have been collected into one edition. These fragmentary sources are described in detail by Annette Harder in her 2012 edition, vol. 1, pp. 63–68. As new papyrus finds from this poem are published, they are inventoried on the following websites: the Leuven Database of Ancient Books (LDAB), Trismegistus and Mertens-Pack3. The most important of the papyrus or parchment finds are as follows (in roughly chronological order):

(1) The Lille papyrus (= Mertens-Pack3 207.3) was copied within a generation of Callimachus’ death. It contains the opening of Book III with interlinear comments.

(2) PSI 9.1092 (= Mertens-Pack3 214) is a first century BCE roll that contained Aetia, Book IV; it is the major source of the Lock of Berenice.

(3) P Oxy 17.2079 + 18.2167 + PSI 11.1217 (= Mertens-Pack3 195) are all fragments from the same second century CE papyrus roll containing the opening of Book I, frr. 1, 7, 17, 18, 115, 117. 

(4) P. Oxy. 2168 + P. Berol. 11629A+B + 13417A+B (= Mertens-Pack3 195) are fragments from a third century CE papyrus codex containing portions of Aetia, Books I, III, lyrics, and the Hecale

(5) P Oxy 7.1011 (= Mertens-Pack3 211.1) is a fourth century CE papyrus codex with parts of Books III–IV and most of the Iambi.

(6) P. Oxy. 20.2258 (= Mertens-Pack3 205.1) is a sixth or seventh century papyrus codex that must have held a collected edition of Callimachus. It contains portions from Hymns 1–4, 6, the Aetia, Books III–IV and various lyrics.


The following is a list of the most important commentaries and epitomes. In addition to these independent texts, it should be noted that majority of the fragments of the Aetia have annotations of some kind attached.

(1) The Florentine scholia or Scholia Florentina (PSI 1219 = Mertens-Pack3 196) is the name given to a second-third century CE papyrus roll containing scholia for Book I. It included information on the sources that Callimachus used for his individual narratives.

(2) The London Scholia (P. Lit. Lond. 181 = Mertens-Pack3 197) contains a commentary on the opening of the poem and covers frr. 1-25 Pf.

(3) The Milan Diegeseis (PRIMI 1.18 = Mertens-Pack3 211) from the first or second century CE are plot summaries of the Aetia and Iambi, beginning with an explanation of why Artemis was invoked in childbirth in Book III. Although broken in many places it provides valuable information about the order and contents of Aetia III–IV. Each summary begins with a “lemma,” that is, the first line of the aition in question. (See now M.-R. Falivene 2011.)

(4) P. Oxy 20.2263 (= Mertens-Pack3 205) is a second-third century BCE roll that contains Diegeseis to Book I.

(5) Berlin Commentary (P. Berol. 11521 = Mertens-Pack3 200) is a third century CE papyrus codex with commentary on Book I.

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Suggested Citation

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