Overview

Callimachus

(fl. c. 280—245 bc)


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Of Cyrene, Greek poet and scholar. He flourished under Ptolemy 1 II (285–246bc) and continued into the reign of Ptolemy III. He was credited with more than 800 books, but, apart from six hymns and some 60 epigrams, only fragments survive.

Works

1. Aetia (‘Origins’), in four books: a miscellany of elegiac pieces. The common subject is the origins in myth or history of Greek cults, festivals, cities, and the like. In the ‘prologue’ the poet answers the critics who complain that he does not compose a ‘continuous poem’ on the deeds of kings or heroes: poetry should be judged by art, not quantity; Apollo recommended the slender Muse, the untrodden paths; better be the cicada than the braying mule. Like Hesiod, he had met the Muses, in a dream, and they related the Aetia to him.2. Iambi: thirteen poems, written in iambic metres (see metre, greek, 4(a) ). In the first, the 6th‐cent. poet Hipponax speaks, returned from the dead; in the last, the poet names Hipponax as the exemplar of the genre. Personal invective, and the fable, play their part, as in the traditional iambus (see iambic poetry, greek). But these poems range much wider. The framing poems continue literary polemic.3. Hecalē, a hexameter narrative (see metre, greek, 4(b) of something over 1,000 lines. Theseus leaves Athens secretly to face the bull of Marathon; a storm breaks; he takes shelter in the cottage of the aged Hecale; he leaves at dawn and subdues the bull; he returns to Hecale, finds her dead, and founds the deme Hecale and the sanctuary of Zeus Hekaleios in her memory. This heroic (but not Homeric) material was deviously elaborated, with Hecale rather than Theseus at the centre. The scene of rustic hospitality became famous.4. The Hymns reanimate the traditional (Homeric) form (see hymns), but with no view to performance. The hymns to Zeus, Artemis, and Delos elaborate the god's birth and virtues with quizzical learning and virtuoso invention. Those to Apollo, Athena, and Demeter are framed as dramas, in which the narrator‐celebrant draws the hearer into an imagined ritual.5. The Epigrams (a selection preserved in Meleager' (2) anthology) cover the full range of literary, erotic, dedicatory, and sepulchral themes.6. Callimachus wrote many and various prose works. He was among the founders of lexicography and paradoxography (the collection of marvels). The Pinakes (‘Tables of Those who have Distinguished themselves in Every Form of Culture and of What they Wrote’) presented, in 120 books, a bibliography of Greek literature and a catalogue of the Alexandrian Library, arranged by subject (‘rhetoric’, ‘laws’, ‘miscellaneous prose’); they included some biographical notes, and cited the first line of each work, and the number of lines.Callimachus often states his preferences in poetry and among poets. He defends shorter (and discontinuous) poems, the small drop from the pure spring; diversity of genre; ‘a big book equals a big evil’. This ‘new’ aesthetic (which might seem less novel if we had the poetry of the 4th cent.) quotes the example of past poets. Callimachus invokes Hesiod, and condemns the Epic Cycle; Homer is all‐present, but formal emulation and verbal pastiche are rigorously avoided. Of contemporaries, Callimachus commends Aratus.

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Subjects: Classical Studies.


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