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Callimachus (first half third century BCE): Greek poet and scholar, born in Cyrene, living in Alexandria.

Ptolemy II Philadelphus. Bust from the Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum
Ptolemy II Philadelphus. Bust from the Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum

Callimachus was born in Cyrene in c.310, and moved to Alexandria, where he lived at the court of the Ptolemaic king Ptolemy II Philadelphus, a great patron of the arts, and, later, queen Berenice II, wife of Ptolemy III Euergetes. In Alexandria, Callimachus innovated poetry, and it is not much exaggerated to state that it was at Alexandria that literature as we know it was invented: quite useless but entertaining.

Callimachus' contribution consisted of no less than 800 books, but almost everything is lost, including his Pinakes, a classification of Greek literature in 120 books. However, we can reconstruct his Aetia ("Causes", the origins of several religious rituals, including a famous poem on Berenice's hair tresses), Iambic poems, a short epic called Hecale, and six Hymns to several gods. In these works, Callimachus presents himself as a scholar who delights in surprising his reader with unexpected turns, learned literary allusions, technical refinement, and sophistication. He also prepared editions of classical texts, like the speeches of Demosthenes.

Although his poetry was probably meant as art pour l'art, no artist lives in isolation, and we can recognize Callimachus' personal concerns. His poetry connects Egypt with Greece and must have helped to construct some sort of identity for the Greeks overseas.

Among his students were Apollonius of Rhodes and Eratosthenes of Cyrene.





About Callimachus

This page was created in 2005; last modified on 3 April 2018.