Authors: Callimachus

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Greek poet

Identity: Gay or bisexual

Author Works


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 b.c.e. in the Greek colony of Cyrene, in modern Libya. He came from a prominent family, and his works suggest that he was frankly homosexual. His literary output seems to have been extensive, for ancient literary sources refer to many works by him in both prose and poetry; however, only a few poetic works–some of them fragmentary–exist today. Many of his other works seem to have been scholarly efforts: a catalog of books in the great library at Alexandria, various encyclopedias, and a life of Democritus. He is remembered for championing the shorter literary genres, such as the epyllion, an abbreviated epic treating a single episode in detail. He excelled at composing epigrams on many subjects, and he wrote numerous elegies on topics derived from Greek myths. Probably as a result of his influence, the best extant poems from Alexandria exploit these modes.{$I[AN]9810002004}{$I[A]Callimachus}{$I[geo]EGYPT;Callimachus}{$I[geo]GR EECE;Callimachus}{$I[geo]GAY OR BISEXUAL;Callimachus}{$I[tim]0305 b.c.e.;Callimachus}

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 b.c.e. of the Egyptian general Ptolemy, who annexed Cyrene to his kingdom and became an enthusiastic patron of art and learning. The bustling city had a Jewish quarter, the Greeks had their section, and the Egyptians maintained their original holdings.

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 b.c.e.) and Apollonius of Perge’s theory of conic sections.

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 b.c.e., the little-known Cyrenian poet Philostephanus, who wrote of landscapes, and Euphorion, who continued Callimachus’s devotion to the short poem, may be called followers of Callimachus. The prominent Latin poets Moschus and Parthenius both composed epyllia, and Vergil’s early pastorals may also owe something to Callimachus. The Augustan poets Ovid and Propertius were major disciples: Propertius was even known as “the Roman Callimachus,” while Ovid’s Metamorphoses are epyllia that are often judged Callimachean in spirit.

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.

Further Reading:Blum, Rudolph. Kallimachos: The Alexandrian Library and the Origins of Bibliography. Translated by Hans H. Wellisch. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991. In his study of the Alexandrian Library, Blum argues that Callimachus, the second director of the library, was the inventor of two essential scholarly tools: the library catalog and the biobibliographical reference work.Calame, Claude. “Legendary Narratives and Poetic Procedure in Callimachus’s ‘Hymn to Apollo.’” In Hellenistica Gronigana: Proceedings of the Gröningen Workshops on Hellenistic Poetry, edited by Annette Harder. Gröningen, Germany: Egbert Forster, 1993. An examination of how Callimachus weaves both Greek and Roman mythology and the classical poetic tradition into his verse.Callimachus. Aetia, Iambi, Lyric Poems, Hecale, Minor Epic and Elegiac Poems, and Other Fragments. Translated by C. A. Trypanis. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975. Provides a Greek text, a serviceable prose translation, and excellent notes.Callimachus. The Poems of Callimachus. Translated by Frank Nisetich. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. This translation of Callimachus’s extant works and major fragments includes an introduction that discusses the poet’s life, his achievements, and the difficulties in the way of modern appreciation. Presents fragments as integral parts of the poetry books in which they originally were contained.Cameron, Alan. Callimachus and His Critics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. A wide-ranging survey of Callimachus’s literary reputation over the centuries, noting that his elaborate verbal precision has become his hallmark. Cameron shows how, and to some extent why, Callimachus worked so diligently to achieve that literary effect.De Romilly, Jaqueline. A Short History of Greek Literature. Translated by Lillian Doherty. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. Includes excellent impressionistic accounts of Callimachus and Apollonius. De Romilly doubts that Callimachus shared the “simple faith” of the Homeric hymns.Ferguson, John. Callimachus. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980. A general survey of Callimachus, this work is interesting and thorough. Ferguson pieces together fragments of gossip to make a coherent life of Callimachus, and he includes the fragments of the poems. Callimachus’ social and cultural background is treated. Ferguson compares Callimachus with T. S. Eliot. Contains an excellent bibliography.Fraser, P. M. Ptolemaic Alexandria. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972. Gives an especially useful account of the library and museum and of Alexandrian scholars and science generally, as well as the commercial and social life of the city. Contains a chapter on Callimachus.Gutzwiller, Kathryn. Poetic Garlands: Hellenistic Epigrams in Context. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Although it concentrates most of its attention on Callimachus’s Epigrammata, this work goes beyond that to look at the poetic convention of the epigram in the larger realm of classical literature.Hollis, A. S. Introduction to Callimachus’ “Hecale.” Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1990. The Hecale, Callimachus’s retelling of the story of how the Athenian hero Theseus tamed the bull of Marathon, was the poet’s effort to show that he too was capable of crafting epic verse. Hollis places this key work of Callimachus into both the poet’s canon and the Western poetic tradition, helping to explain its importance and enduring achievements.Kerkhecker, Arnd. Callimachus’ Book of Iambi. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. An extended discussion of Callimachus’s collected Iambi, arguably one of the earliest surviving Greek “books of poetry.”Lane Fox, Robin. “Hellenistic Culture and Literature.” In The Oxford History of the Classical World, edited by John Boardman, Jasper Griffin, and Oswyn Murray. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. An excellent survey of the cultural background, with some interesting comments on Callimachus. Includes a good treatment of literary patronage and comparisons to other Hellenistic figures. Lane Fox compares Callimachus with the Wordsworth of the River Duddon sonnets.Thomas, Richard F. “Callimachus Back in Rome.” In Hellenistica Gronigana: Proceedings of the Gröningen Workshops on Hellenistic Poetry, edited by Annette Harder. Gröningen, Germany: Egbert Forster, 1993. A useful survey of Callimachus’s reputation outside the eastern Mediterranean.Williams, Frederick. “Callimachus and the Supranormal.” In Hellenistica Gronigana: Proceedings of the Gröningen Workshops on Hellenistic Poetry, edited by Annette Harder. Gröningen, Germany: Egbert Forster, 1993. Because Callimachus can be as much noted for his works based on myths and legends as for his lyric poetry, this study provides an interesting and useful review of how the poet deploys the supranormal world and events in his works.
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