Don’t be a braying ass

Peter Green

Recent comparisons of the Hellenistic Age with our own fragmented culture may have persuaded at least some curious readers to dip into Theocritus, Polybius or Apollonius Rhodius. Yet how many have so much as heard of Callimachus? The books discussed here are by serious scholars; they require, between them, an investment of some £450, and comprise a total of more than two thousand pages – at a generous estimate, one page for every intact surviving line of the author they discuss. Who, then, was the man who induced such largesse, and what might justify the evident devotion he here receives?

Callimachus was probably born in the last decade of the fourth century BCE. One source gives his floruit (formally assigned to the age of 40) as 268, and 308 is as likely a birth-date as any. Other references suggest that he may still have been writing after 240. But as Benjamin Acosta-Hughes and Susan Stephens write in Callimachus in Context, it is clear at least that he ‘lived the majority of his adulthood during the reign of the second Ptolemy (282-46), the period when the Ptolemaic empire was at its height’. He was born in Cyrene, a coastal city more than five hundred miles west of the Ptolemaic capital of Alexandria; it was the capital of Cyrenaica, a wealthy independent kingdom ruled until the mid-fifth century by the Battiad dynasty, from which, in a surviving epigram, Callimachus proudly claims descent. In his ‘Hymn to Apollo’ he speaks of ‘my city’ and ‘our kings’. After the fall of the Battiads, Cyrenaica had become a republic, and – as so often in antiquity – a battleground between oligarchs and democrats. This drew the attention of Ptolemy I, for whom so rich a potential colonial outpost presented considerable attraction. After providing some initial anti-democratic assistance to the oligarchs, in 301 he sent in his stepson Magas as military governor; in 275 Magas rebelled, and ruled as the self-appointed king of Cyrenaica from 275 to 250.

We well may wonder how such a démarche affected Callimachus. A citizen of Cyrene with a government-sponsored job in Ptolemaic Egypt clearly had to watch his step, and not solely on account of intermittent hostilities. His career was directly dependent on the appointment he held at the Library of Alexandria, which Ptolemy I had created and endowed with the intention of making Alexandria the new capital and intellectual centre of the Hellenic diaspora opened up by the conquests of his old commander, Alexander. Callimachus was the grandson of a distinguished Cyrenean general as well as a blood relative of the former royal house. The 12th-century Byzantine poet and scholar John Tzetzes made the reasonable claim that, as a young man, and long before Magas’ breakaway, Callimachus had an entrée to the Ptolemaic court. Prior to this, however, we hear of him teaching at a school in an Alexandrian suburb, and complaining of poverty. He would not be the first well-connected youth whose income failed to live up to his ancestry; but the anecdote suggests he may have been dependent financially throughout his subsequent career on Ptolemaic patronage, and any assessment of his poetry needs to bear this possibility in mind.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] In A History of Classical Scholarship from the Beginnings to the Hellenistic Age (1968), Rudolph Pfeiffer points out that ‘free meals, high salaries, no taxes to pay, very pleasant surroundings, good lodgings and servants’ provided ‘plenty of opportunity for quarrelling with one another’. Modern parallels suggest themselves.