Text #9250"Callimachus", in .
Callimachus (310/305–240 BC) was a native of the Greek colony of Cyrene, Libya. He was a noted poet, critic and scholar at the Library of Alexandria and enjoyed the patronage of the Egyptian–Greek Pharaohs Ptolemy II Philadelphus and Ptolemy III Euergetes. Although he was never made chief librarian, he was responsible for producing a bibliographic survey based upon the contents of the Library. This, his Pinakes, 120 volumes long, provided the foundation for later work on the history of Greek literature. As one of the earliest critic-poets, he typifies Hellenistic scholarship.
Elitist and erudite, claiming to “abhor all common things,” Callimachus is best known for his short poems and epigrams. During the Hellenistic period, a major trend in Greek-language poetry was to reject epics modelled after Homer. Instead, Callimachus urged poets to “drive their wagons on untrodden fields,” rather than following in the well worn tracks of Homer, idealizing a form of poetry that was brief, yet carefully formed and worded, a style at which he excelled. In the prologue to his Aetia, he claims that Apollo visited him and admonished him to “fatten his flocks, but to keep his muse slender,” a clear indication of his choice of carefully crafted and allusive material. “Big book, big evil” (μέγα βιβλίον μέγα κακόν, mega biblion, mega kakon) is another of his verses, attacking long, old-fashioned poetry using the very style Callimachus proposed to replace it. Callimachus also wrote poems in praise of his royal patron and a wide variety of other poetic styles, as well as prose and criticism.
Due to Callimachus’ strong stance against the epic, he and his younger student Apollonius of Rhodes, who favored epic and wrote the Argonautica, had a long and bitter feud, trading barbed comments, insults, and ad hominem attacks for over thirty years. It is now known, through a papyrus fragment from Oxyrhynchus listing the earliest chief librarians of the Library of Alexandria that Ptolemy II never offered the post to Callimachus, but passed him over for Apollonius Rhodius. Some classicists, including Peter Green, speculate that this contributed to the poets’ long feud.
Though Callimachus was an opponent of “big books”, the Suda puts his number of works at (a possibly exaggerated) 800, suggesting that he found large quantities of small works more acceptable. Of these, only six hymns, sixty-four epigrams, and some fragments are extant; a considerable fragment of the Hecale, one of Callimachus’ few longer poems treating epic material, has also been discovered in the Rainer papyri. His Aetia (Αἴτια, “Causes”), another rare longer work surviving only in tattered papyrus fragments and quotations in later authors, was a collection of elegiac poems in four books, dealing with the foundation of cities, obscure religious ceremonies, unique local traditions apparently chosen for their oddity, and other customs, throughout the Hellenic world In the first three books at least, the formula appears to ask a question of the Muse, of the form, “Why, on Paros, do worshippers of the Charites use neither flutes nor crowns?” “Why, at Argos is a month named for ‘lambs’?” “Why, at Leucas, does the image of Artemis have a mortar on its head?” A series of questions can be reconstituted from the fragments. One passage of the Aetia, the so-called Coma Berenices, has been reconstructed from papyrus remains and the celebrated Latin adaptation of Catullus (Catullus 66).
The extant hymns are extremely learned, and written in a style that some have criticised as labored and artificial. The epigrams are more widely respected, and several have been incorporated into the Greek Anthology.
According to Quintilian (10.1.58) he was the chief of the elegiac poets; his elegies were highly esteemed by the Romans (see Neoterics), and imitated by Ovid, Catullus, and especially Sextus Propertius. Many modern classicists hold Callimachus in high regard for his major influence on Latin poetry.
Callimachus’ most famous prose work is the Pinakes (Lists), a bibliographical survey of authors of the works held in the Library of Alexandria. The Pinakes was one of the first known documents that lists, identifies, and categorizes a library’s holdings. By consulting the Pinakes, a library patron could find out if the library contained a work by a particular author, how it was categorized, and where it might be found. It is important to note that Callimachus did not seem to have any models for his pinakes, and invented this system on his own.