The Greek poet Callimachus (ca. 310-240 B.C.) is regarded as the most characteristic representative of Alexandrian poetry. Learning, polish, and contemporaneity characterize his work, which had enormous influence on the Roman elegiac poets.

Very little is known about the life of Callimachus. What is known comes primarily from the 10th-century encyclopedist Suidas, not all of which is reliable, and from other, limited references in ancient sources. Callimachus was born in Cyrene; he apparently claimed descent from Battus, the founder of Cyrene, and lived during the time of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (reigned 285-247 B.C.) and survived into the reign of Ptolemy III Euergetes (reigned 246-221 B.C.).

Prior to his introduction into the Ptolemaic court, Callimachus, who many scholars argue had been poor, taught school in the Alexandrian suburb of Eleusis. Among Callimachus's more famous pupils were Eratosthenes of Cyrene, Aristophanes of Byzantium, and Apollonius of Rhodes. Callimachus is most often mentioned in connection with Apollonius because of a literary quarrel that eventually led to a personal feud. Apollonius believed in the viability of the Homeric tradition (in modified form) for epic poetry, whereas Callimachus argued for a learned modernized poetry, attuned to Alexandrian times, that was short and highly polished. From this quarrel resulted the poem of invective Ibis, after which Ovid modeled his own poem of the same name, and there is no doubt that it is Apollonius who is being castigated and viewed as a traitor.

Callimachus was also the librarian of the great library at Alexandria and is often said to have succeeded Zenodotus. Callimachus is credited with having compiled the first scientific literary history, the Pinakes (Tablets), an annotated catalog in 120 volumes of all the books in the library, from Homeric manuscripts to the latest cookbooks—a feat of no mean accomplishment.

Suidas reports that Callimachus wrote some 800 works and mentions a wealth of titles, including satyric dramas, tragedies, comedies, and lyrics. Only a few hymns and epigrams have survived.


Style and Influence

At one point early in his career Callimachus had apparently been criticized for not writing anything of great length. He countered this criticism by producing the Hecale, a sizable work cited frequently by Greek and Roman authors but now lost. It narrated, with unusual digressions, Theseus's encounter with the Marathonian bull. However, it is clear that Callimachus was not primarily interested in bulk but in perfection of poetic form, refinement and purity of style, innovative ways of expressing the familiar, and graceful descriptions. Certainly one of the most influential figures in later ancient times, Callimachus outdistanced all contemporary poets in prestige and popularity, was quoted frequently by grammarians, metricians, and lexicographers, as well as scholiasts, and was studied by the Byzantines.

Callimachus's poetry seems to have survived till the time of the Fourth Crusade (1205). Modern critics have rediscovered Callimachus and have found true poetic genius in his works, even though he may not actually have been the most popular or most important poet as far as his contemporaries were concerned.

His Works

Since only a small portion of Callimachus's writings has survived, it is difficult for the modern reader to appreciate what a prodigious author he was. The six extant hymns are not necessarily his best work or even the most representative, but they do give an idea of his interests and range, dealing with Zeus's birth, raising, and might; a festival in Apollo's honor in Cyrene; Artemis; Delos, including the story of Apollo's birth, mythology, and Ptolemy's Gallic encounter; the bath of Pallas and how Tiresias saw her bathing and was struck blind; and Demeter's search for her daughter Kore and the punishment of Erysichthon.

The elegiac Aitia, in four books, also survives in fragments and deals with legendary origins of various localities and rites; it was much cited in antiquity. The Lock of Berenice survives in a Latin rendition by Catullus.

In Callimachus's hands the epigram emerges as a literary genre. Even though some of his epigrams are tomb inscriptions, the epigram now becomes a literary vehicle for real emotions, including love.


Further Reading on Callimachus

There are two Loeb Library editions of Callimachus: Callimachus and Lycophron, translated by A. W. Mair (1921), and Aetia, Iambic, Lyric Poems, Hecale, Minor Epic and Elegiac Poems, translated with notes by C. A. Trypanis (1958). Accounts of Callimachus in English are extremely limited and sometimes contradictory. The standard work, in Latin, is undoubtedly R. Pfeiffer's two volume study, Callimachus (1949, 1953). Georg Luck, The Latin Love Elegy (1959), is indispensable for students of Latin elegiac poetry; Luck includes a discussion of Callimachus as the Romans saw him.