For other people named Callimachus, see Callimachus (disambiguation).
Native name Καλλίμαχος
Born 310/305 BC
Cyrene, Ancient Libya
Died 240 BC
Occupation poet, critic and scholar

Callimachus (/kæˈlɪməkəs/; Greek: Καλλίμαχος, Kallimachos; 310/305–240 BC[1]) was a native of the Greek colony of Cyrene, Libya.[2] He was a noted poet, critic and scholar at the Library of Alexandria and enjoyed the patronage of the EgyptianGreek Pharaohs Ptolemy II Philadelphus[3] 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,[4] provided the foundation for later work on the history of Greek literature. As one of the earliest critic-poets, he typifies Hellenistic scholarship.

Family and early life

Callimachus was of Libyan Greek origin. He was born ca. 310/305 BC and raised in Cyrene, as member of a distinguished family, his parents being Mesatme (or Mesatma) and Battus, supposed descendant of the first Greek king of Cyrene, Battus I, through whom Callimachus claimed to be a descendant of the Battiad dynasty, the Libyan Greek monarchs that ruled Cyrenaica for eight generations and the first Greek Royal family to have reigned in Africa. He was named after his grandfather, an "elder" Callimachus, who was highly regarded by the Cyrenaean citizens and had served as a general.

Callimachus married the daughter of a Greek man called Euphrates who came from Syracuse. However, it is unknown if they had children. He also had a sister called Megatime but very little is known about her: she married a Cyrenaean man called Stasenorus or Stasenor to whom she bore a son, Callimachus (so called "the Younger" as to distinguish him from his maternal uncle), who also became a poet, author of "The Island".

In later years, he was educated in Athens. When he returned to North Africa, he moved to Alexandria.


P.Oxy. XI 1362
A papyrus of Callimachus' Aetia (Pfeiffer fr. 178 = P.Oxy. XI 1362 fr. 1 col. i, 1st century AD)

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,"[5] 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 saying attributed to him,[6] often thought to be attacking long, old-fashioned poetry. Callimachus also wrote poems in praise of his royal patrons (such as Ptolemy II Philadelphus),[7] 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 personal 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 [8] 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"),[9] 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,[10] 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?"[11] "Why, at Argos is a month named for 'lambs'?"[12] "Why, at Leucas, does the image of Artemis have a mortar on its head?"[13] A series of questions can be reconstituted from the fragments.[14] 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.[15]

Critical editions (Ancient Greek texts)



Criticism and history

See also


  1. Hopkinson 1988: 83 gives the birth year as "c. 305"; Mair 1955: 2 offers: "The most probable date on the whole for the birth of Callimachus is circ. 310 b.c. We learn from Vit. Arat. i. that Callimachus, both in his epigrams and also ἐν τοῖς πρὸς Πραξιφάνην, referred to Aratus as older than himself. But as they were fellow-students at Athens the difference of age is not likely to have been considerable: we may put the birth of Aratus in 315, that of Callimachus in 310."
  2. Hopkinson 1988: 83
  3. Hutchinson 1988: 38.
  4. Hopkinson 1988: 83.
  5. Aetia 1, frag. 1.
  6. See fr. 465 Pfeiffer.
  7. See, e.g., Hymn to Zeus vv. 85-90, Hymn to Delos vv. 165ff.
  8. P.Oxy. 1241.
  9. The Greek word αἴτιον, aition means "cause" and here refers to a story type popular in Greek myth and history. The founding myth is a common example of an aition. The plural of αἴτιον, αἴτια (aitia), is most often rendered via the Latinized transliteration Aetia when referring to this poem.
  10. Noel Robertson, "Callimachus' Tale of Sicyon ('SH' 238)" Phoenix 53.1/2 (Spring 1999:57–79), p. 58
  11. Aetia 1, frag. 3.
  12. Aetia 1, frags. 26–31a.
  13. Aetia 1, frags. 31b–e.
  14. Robertson 1999:58f, note 5.
  15. Blum 1991, p. 236, cited in Phillips, Heather A. (August 2010). "The Great Library of Alexandria?". Library Philosophy and Practice. ISSN 1522-0222.


External links

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