Callimachus Hellenistic Bibliography Page

The influence of Hellenistic Greek poetry on Roman poetry can hardly be overestimated. Latin poetry is from its beginnings based on scholarly appreciation of the literary production of the Greeks, and it was from the perspective of the literary and scholarly activity of the Hellenistic period that the Romans viewed Greek literature as a whole. The fragmentary nature of early Latin poetry means that the first stages of the reception of Hellenistic poetry at Rome remain obscure. When, however, Ennius in his Annals proclaims his originality, presents himself as a student of language proud of his stylistic superiority over his predecessors, and describes his poetic initiation, he has in mind Callimachus' (2) Aetia.

For Catullus and a few like‐minded contemporaries (Cicero's ‘new poets’ or ‘neoterics’), the ideal of Hellenistic elegance and style was represented by Callimachus. They cultivate a studied elegance in vocabulary, word order, metre, and narrative form with the aim of bringing Callimachean refinement to Latin poetry. Epic and drama give way to polymetric experiments in lyric and iambic poetry, to epigram and narrative elegy, and to the epyllion. After the neoterics came the Augustans. Virgil, Horace, Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid all owe much to Hellenistic models and the Callimachean aesthetic. But there is more to Hellenistic poetry at Rome than Callimachus. Philitas, Theocritus, Aratus, Apollonius (1) Rhodius, and the epigrammatists collected in the Garland of Meleager were all read and imitated.


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Callimachus, (born c. 305 bce, Cyrene, North Africa [now Shaḥḥāt, Libya]—died c. 240), Greek poet and scholar, the most representative poet of the erudite and sophisticated Alexandrian school.

Callimachus migrated to Alexandria, where King Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt gave him employment in the Library of Alexandria, the most important such institution in the Hellenistic world. Of Callimachus’s voluminous writings, only 6 hymns, about 60 epigrams, and fragments survive, many of them discovered in the 20th century. His most famous poetic work, illustrative of his antiquarian interests, was the Aitia (Causes), probably produced between 270 and 245 bce. This work is a narrative elegy in four books, containing a medley of recondite tales from Greek mythology and history by which the author seeks to explain the legendary origin of obscure customs, festivals, and names. The structure of the poem, with its short episodes loosely connected by a common theme, became the model for the Fasti and Metamorphoses of the Roman poet Ovid. Of his elegies for special occasions, the best known is the Lock of Berenice (itself included in the Aitia as the last episode of the collection), a polished piece of court poetry later freely adapted into Latin by Catullus.

Callimachus’s other works include the Iambi, 13 short poems on occasional themes, and the Hecale, a small-scale epic, or epyllion, which set a new poetic fashion for concise, miniaturistic detail. Callimachus himself insisted on the exercise of consummate literary craftsmanship and virtuosity within poems of relatively short length. He raised the hexameter to new heights of order and euphony, and his poetry may well be considered the peak of refinement of Greek verse of the period. In the Hymns, Callimachus adapted the traditional religious form of the Homeric Hymns to an original and purely literary use. The Epigrams treat a variety of personal themes with consummate artistry. Of his prolific prose works, certainly the most famous was the Pinakes (“Tables of Those Who Have Distinguished Themselves in Every Form of Culture and of What They Wrote”) in 120 books. This work consisted of an elaborate critical and biographical catalog of the authors of the works held in the Library of Alexandria.

Discoveries in the 19th and 20th centuries of ancient Egyptian papyruses confirm the fame and popularity of Callimachus. No other Greek poet except Homer is so often quoted by the grammarians of late antiquity. He was taken as a model by many Roman poets, notably Catullus and Propertius, and by the most sophisticated Greek poets, from Euphorion, Nicander, and Parthenius to Nonnus and his followers in the 5th century ce.

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