Callimachus of Cyrene

Callimachus of Cyrene was the most influential poet of the Hellenistic age. He lived at the moment of transition from the classical world of old Greek city states to the new foundation of Ptolemaic Alexandria in North Africa—a megacity that attracted people of diverse ethnicities from locations throughout the Mediterranean. Facilitated by this new environment, Callimachus appropriated the literary past and positioned himself between poetry as performance in traditional venues and the new possibilities afforded by the text. His poems contain explicit statements on poetic aesthetics, often constructed as responses to his “critics.” Whether these statements were serious and systematic, or playful, and whether his enemies were real, or fictional foils to dramatize his own aesthetics, he was unique in his expression of what constituted excellence in contemporary poetics. His insistence on his own poetics as “new” in combination with his compositions in multiple genres led to frequent imitation among later poets of both Greece and Rome.

In addition to the Aetia, Callimachus wrote hymns; epigrams; iambic poetry (Iambi and Ibis); a hexameter poem of about 1,000 lines on an early exploit of Theseus and the bull of Marathon (Hecale); victory odes; and encomia of kings and queens. He also wrote in prose. The most important of his prose texts was the Pinakes, a comprehensive listing of earlier Greek literature by genre that included biographies of each author, citing their works with initial words or first lines (See Blum 1998: 124-81).Unfortunately only six hymns and around sixty of his epigrams have survived intact. The rest of his poems have been reduced to numerous citations in later Greek lexica and handbooks or, beginning in the late nineteenth century, have been discovered on papyrus. (For the discovery and assembly of his texts from book and papyrus fragments see Lehnus 2011, Pontani 2011, and Massimilla 2011.)

There are few verifiable facts about Callimachus’ life, and much of what the ancient testimonia record is merely inference based on his writings. He seems to have been born around 305 BCE and, judging from his poetic subjects, he seems to have died sometime after 240. He identifies himself as a Cyrenean. Cyrene in Libya was an old Greek city, a Dorian colony, founded in the seventh century BCE. But he lived and wrote much of his poetry in Alexandria, a city that had been founded within a generation of his birth. His was not the city described by Strabo, who was writing at the end of the first century CE, but a city in the process of being built: high levels of immigration, dynamic physical changes, and rapid growth would have persisted during his lifetime. This earlier city had some sort of walls (the first mention of which is in Callimachus’ first Iambus), palace environs, and the Museion and the Library. The Lighthouse was built between 297–85. Within this rapidly expanding civic environment, the Greek community was a diverse mix. To judge from evidence drawn from the rest of Egypt, Greek-speaking groups in Alexandria, in descending order of concentration, would have included Macedonians, Cyreneans, Thracians, Islanders, and Athenians, all groups reflected in the stories in the Aetia. The newness of the city dictated that everyone was an immigrant; therefore, who came, where they came from, and the fact of migration itself constituted an essential dimension of poetic composition as well as reception.

Callimachus did not write in a literary vacuum: Ptolemaic Alexandria was a fertile, thriving poetic environment, in part because royal patronage strove to make it so, in part because the new city provided opportunities in so many different venues, not the least of which was the newly established Library. Although Callimachus himself was never head of the Library, his composition of the Pinakes and the breadth of his poetic and prose intertexts testifies to his active engagement with this new (textual) mode of thinking. His prose works on paradoxography, on rivers, nymphs, birds, and winds, on foundations of islands and cities, and their name changes are all reflected in his Aetia (See Krevans 2004).

Callimachus’ most important poetic contemporaries included Theocritus of Syracuse, the inventor of the bucolic genre of poetry. Associated with Sicily and Cos, Theocritus was among the earliest Hellenistic poets, and his residence in Alexandria most likely belongs between the 280s and the 260s. There are many overlaps between Theocritus’ Idylls and Callimachus’ hymns, though far fewer in the Aetia. Apollonius of Rhodes, author of the epic Argonautica, is thought to have been a native Alexandrian and a slightly younger contemporary of Callimachus. He followed Zenodotus as head of the Alexandrian Library. There are numerous intertextual parallels between Apollonius’ epic and the Aetia. (Harder 2001: 217-223 and Stephens 2011.)

Epigrammatists from a variety of locations also achieved prominence during this period. Their epigrams, often imitating earlier stone inscriptions, were beginning to be collected into poetry books. The most important of these writers were Asclepiades of Samos and Posidippus of Pella. A roll of more than a hundred epigrams of the latter, datable to the late third century BCE, was published in 2001. (The easiest edition to consult is Austin-Bastianini 2002.) The epigrams in this new collection share many features in common with Callimachus’ Aetia, including an interest in the athletic victories of Ptolemaic queen (Fantuzzi 2005).The exact chronology of Callimachus vis-à-vis his contemporaries will continue to be disputed, not least because they evidently wrote in response to each other’s texts. But we know so little about strategies of poetic exchange—whether informal or public—that assertions about allusive priority must be made with extreme caution. The obviously shared subject matter of these poets indicates a rich and very interactive poetic environment, while also suggesting the growing importance of the text as a viable poetic and ideological medium.