Aitiōn (Aetia, 1958)
Ekalē (Hecale, 1958)
Epigrammata (Epigrams, 1793)
Hymni (Hymns, 1755)
Iamboi (Iambi, 1958)
Lock of Berenice, 1755
Very little is known about the life of Callimachus (kuh-LIHM-uh-kuhs). He was born about 305
Callimachus’s literary career developed not in Cyrene but in Alexandria during the period of that city’s dominance of the Mediterranean world’s intellectual life. Exactly when Callimachus arrived in Alexandria is impossible to say, but he apparently went there in his youth and studied under an Aristotelian philosopher named Praxiphanes. Alexandria enjoyed an extraordinary cultural blossoming in the thirty years or so following the rise to power in 323
The famous museum (the Shrine of the Muses) at Alexandria, begun in 294, expanded into a dominating university resplendent with botanical and zoological gardens and an observatory. The university’s many accomplishments in mathematics, astronomy, engineering, and medicine included both Euclid’s Elements (c. 300
When Callimachus, the young provincial from Cyrene, came upon this scene, he apparently settled there immediately. Some scanty evidence suggests that he may have begun his career as a schoolteacher, but before long he was one of the scholars diligently taking advantage of the Royal Library that flourished under the patronage of Ptolemy II. It was at this congenial institution that Callimachus wrote his poems, carried on his scholarship, and earned his reputation as an outspoken critic.
Two important themes emerge in Callimachus’s work. He is often quoted as saying, broadly, that a big book is a bad book. What he meant by this–if he indeed actually said it–may have been nothing more than an understandable complaint by a librarian about the cumbersome nature of large scrolls. However, the remark probably reflects his well-known contempt for the epic; in one epigram he spits out, “I hate epic poetry.” It is not surprising that Callimachus preferred Hesiod to Homer.
One tradition in scholarship identifies Callimachus as an antagonist (as far as literary theory goes) of his contemporary Apollonius of Rhodes, a supporter of the Homeric style in poetry. Better evidence of his views emerges from his attack in Aetia (or “the sources of the myths”) on the Telchines. The Telchines were mythological people supposedly from Crete and Rhodes and associated with the origins of metalsmithing. Callimachus used their reputation for sorcery to identify them with three of his literary enemies: the Alexandrian poets Asclepiades and Posidippus and the philosopher Praxiphanes of Mitylene. They are the ignorant ones who, he says, “grumble at my poetry, because I did not accomplish one continuous poem of many thousands of lines.” Poems, he concludes, “are far shorter for being sweet.” Another persistent theme, in Aetia and elsewhere, is Callimachus’s rebelliousness–his fierce determination to go his own way and “tread a path which carriages do not trample.” Such a course will be narrow, but it will be fresh and it will be one’s own.
Among other poets flourishing in the last two centuries
Despite their disagreements over Homer’s merits, the Alexandrian poets of Callimachus’s era were generally traditionalists, and the museum and its library enabled them to master much of the ancient world’s learning. They were keen craftsmen, intent on technique, who nevertheless usually followed the old forms. In all of these aspects of his time Callimachus was a consummate Alexandrian.