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.

What else does the ancient record tell us about him? He married, but any erotic content in his surviving work concentrates on the elusive charm, rapaciousness and cruelty of attractive boys. He had the huge job, which he carried out in exemplary fashion, of creating, virtually ex nihilo, a catalogue raisonné, known as the Pinakes (‘registers’), of the library’s already extensive literary holdings. As a writer, he experimented with various poetic metres, and also wrote a great deal in prose, on such varied topics as ‘winds, barbarian customs, birds, nymphs, islands and rivers’, his total output allegedly reaching eight hundred ‘books’ (i.e. papyrus rolls). This contrasts nicely with his best-known aphorism, ‘big book, big mistake’ (‘mega biblion, mega kakon’): clearly his objection was to stylistic prolixity rather than to a proliferation of titles. In his own work he stresses brevity, originality and refinement as the prime desideranda, his main objections being to the trite, the popular, the thematically obsolete and the over-long (this last meaning traditional epic). We should not be surprised to find ancient sources claiming that he had a literary falling-out with Apollonius Rhodius, author of the epic Argonautica. Modern scholars reject these assertions, though the lavishly endowed library and museum, where, as Timon of Phlius noted, ‘many now find pasturage as endowed scribblers, endlessly quarrelling in the Muses’ birdcage,’ would naturally foster such literary battles.[*]

The general picture that can be deduced from the evidence is both consistent and plausible. It is the story of a well-connected but perhaps impecunious provincial intellectual who set out, very successfully, to climb the ladder of literary and scholastic achievement in the only place accessible to him where such aspirations mattered and could be solidly rewarded: the royal court of Alexandria. Despite the hazards presented by his provenance, he negotiated the pitfalls of patronage with notable success, becoming a famous scholar-poet and literary arbiter elegantiae in this newly established Greek cultural centre – by Egypt, as was often said, but not of it – where he and his déraciné colleagues worked hard to recover, classify and preserve the literary and social heritage of old Greece, and from that heritage establish antecedents and guidelines for their own future. In this context the group’s to us odd obsession with interpreting old local Hellenic customs, religious or civic, becomes understandable. Alexandria was a city without a past; the old world, and of that world Athens’s Periclean age above all, was used to underpin the new colonial Hellas. In this venture the royally patronised scholars of the library played a crucial role.

That Callimachus achieved the position of chief librarian (which Apollonius certainly held) is often denied, but not impossible. That he was taken seriously, at least by an intellectual minority, there can be no doubt. Homer apart, no other writer is more quoted by ancient grammarians, philologists, critics, metricians, editors or lexicographers. As I wrote long ago in Alexander to Actium (1993) – this gives a hint of the main reason he has so far failed to catch on with today’s reading public – ‘nothing shows better how far, beginning in the fourth century, literature moved away from the public arena, to become the property of a private, very often subsidised, intellectual minority, than the pervasive educated taste for Callimachus throughout the Hellenistic period.’

Direct knowledge of Callimachus’ works was crippled by the Fourth Crusade of 1204. During the sack of Constantinople the crusaders destroyed the Imperial Library, substantially reducing our surviving literary legacy from the ancient world, especially among those more recherché works that had not found a permanent place in the educational repertoire. Among the titles lost were three of what antiquity had regarded as Callimachus’ most important achievements: his Hecale, his Iambi and, above all, the Aetia, generally regarded as his masterpiece. What survived intact, because they were in collections, were more than sixty epigrams and half a dozen hymns. Neither category was included in antiquity among his more significant achievements. Nevertheless, both – because the texts were available – received close scrutiny from post-Renaissance scholars. His prose corpus had vanished, while the Aetia and his other lost poetic works could be studied, until comparatively recently, only in the tantalising short passages or snippets excerpted by anthologists and grammarians. Any real advance had to wait for the 20th-century advent of papyrology as a serious discipline, which made possible the study of thousands of tattered, fragmentary texts recovered from the dry sands of Egypt.

A surprising number of these (confirming his ancient reputation) turned out to be from, or about, Callimachus. One of the most fascinating essays in Brill’s Companion is the one by Luigi Lehnus chronicling this process of rediscovery. Yet when he claims that papyri ‘allowed 20th-century scholars from Wilamowitz to Pfeiffer and beyond to reconstruct full sections of Aetia, Iambi and the Hecale’, he is, understandably, being rather more upbeat than the situation warrants. The giveaway term is ‘reconstruct’. The text of the Aetia, despite papyrus supplements, still amounts to less than a quarter of the poem’s original known length. Further, as Annette Harder’s meticulous editing and translation make all too clear, every fragment, almost every sentence, is mutilated, broken, ambiguous, full of gaps and illegibilities. Even with background knowledge (gleaned especially from the so-called diegeseis, or prose summaries on papyrus of the contents of the Aetia’s four books) it is often impossible to be certain just where a fragment should be placed. On top of all this, Callimachus tends to be at least as intellectually obscure and allusive as Eliot in the final section of The Waste Land or Pound in the Cantos.

All this would present difficulties enough; but as though deliberately to raise the barrier still further, the Aetia, as its name implies, is a ‘catalogue poem’ that contains arcane aetiological questions not as incidentals, but as its more or less exclusive theme. Why do Thessalians worship Peleus, or Parians sacrifice to the Graces without garlands or flutes? Why at Lindos do they combine offerings to Heracles with curses? Why on Leukas is Artemis’ crown replaced with a mortar? What is a bandage doing on Athena’s statue at Teuthis? Even when we find a comparatively familiar myth, the catasterism of the vanished tress of Berenice – it became the constellation Coma Berenices – almost every phrase needs complex glossing, often without resolution. How can the non-specialist appreciate a fragmentary text much of which still baffles professional classicists?

To follow a rational thread through this reconstructed maze is singularly hard work. How are the dots to be joined up? That Harder’s dazzlingly learned commentary is more than a thousand pages long should not surprise us. What becomes apparent as one pursues the complex speculations of Acosta-Hughes, Stephens, Harder, Lehnus and the various contributors to Brill’s Companion – a pursuit that, as a lifelong devotee of ciphers, acrostics, codebreaking and similar intellectual exercises, I found totally absorbing – is that the tougher the problem, the more, quite evidently, they enjoy it. This is a well-known characteristic of papyrologists, but I’ve seldom seen it so generously displayed. No accident, I feel, that in this Companion general essays on the hymns and the epigrams, both textually intact, are conspicuous by their absence. (The Hymn to Apollo gets a discussion of its religious content; there is also an essay on the hardly central theme of polyphony in the hymns. References to the epigrams are few, and scattered.) Perhaps they were felt to be too easy, too obvious. What I found in these pages was a kind of private market where Callimacheans of every stripe could exchange their views: absorbing for the specialist but a tough slog (where not a closed book) for the hopeful general reader.

There is a striking Einklang, a real psychological congruence, between Callimachus and his latter-day interpreters. Be his allusions never so obscure, they relish hunting them down. Apollo’s elitist commands in the prologue to the Aetia may, now as then, find ready listeners: keep your Muse slender, avoid well-trodden roads, imitate the fine voice of the cicada rather than the braying ass. In a famous epigram Callimachus hammers away at the same theme: ‘I hate the cyclic poem, no path gives me any pleasure/that’s trodden by many, to and fro – I loath, too, a gadabout lover; not from the common fountain/do I drink: I abhor all public things.’ In the ‘Hymn to Apollo’ the watchword is purity: a thin trickle of water from a sacred spring, not the filth-ridden tide of the Euphrates. All this is suggestive: it looks back – as Callimachus in Context makes very clear – to the aristocratic code of Theognis and Pindar, to the privileged Athenian pederasty of Plato’s Symposium or Charmides. Whatever Callimachus may have been yearning for, it wasn’t democracy.

What modern Callimachean scholarship is devoting its very considerable learning to is the recovery, and explication, of a literature that imported the best of old Greece’s legacy as a base for the future, but was forced to develop it within an intellectual programme formulated by one of Alexander’s former marshals, who both held the purse strings and saw its purpose as a justification and enhancement of his new brand of royal dynastic colonialism. As Gregor Weber’s article ‘Poet and Court’ in Brill’s Companion reminds us, there was no genuine aristocracy in the early Ptolemaic regime, but ‘a new, artificially created elite, which like the king was a foreign imposition on a conquered land’. No surprise, then, that we learn so little about the court as such in comparison with its sovereign, or that in the ‘Hymn to Zeus’ Ptolemy should be lauded in terms that skirt divine omniscience, a reminder of Disraeli’s advice that when flattering royalty (especially, one might think, the self-created variety) one should lay it on really thick. And what about covert intellectual objections to the royal paymaster’s taste for vulgar publicity? Could ‘big book, big mistake’ have been a carefully coded attack, not just on prolix poets, but also on the far from elegant Ptolemaic cult of gigantism in ships, statues and parades? It seems at least possible.

When Callimachus can tear himself away from arcane civic or religious guessing games, from displays of erudition, from whacking the malignant gnomes who sneer at him for not undertaking a serious long poem about mythical kings, he can sometimes turn out passages that are both new and striking, as in this nicely observed description from the Hecale of

the frost-rimed first dawn, when footpads’ hands are no longer
hunting their victims, already the morning lamps are aflicker,
and somewhere a water-drawer is chanting his well-song,
and those who dwell close to the highway are shot from their sleep
by the sound of axles screeching under wagons,
while blacksmiths firing up their forges deafen the neighbours.

Yet even the Hecale, a thousand-line mini-epic allegedly written to show he could play this game if he wanted (it describes an incident in the story of Theseus and the bull of Marathon), spends much of its time on the entertainment of Theseus, on the eve of his venture, by a poor old woman, Hecale herself, in her humble hut. What did they talk about? From the few surviving fragments it may well have been (you guessed it) aetiologies.

The only area of Callimachus’ work where we can really get away from his overriding obsessions are the epigrams, and the suspicion arises that this may be primarily on account of their length. A good many of them, too, were obviously commissioned pieces, whether dedicatory or epitaphic (even this has been denied by some scholars, who would like to see all of them as imaginary creations). They are elegant, packed, beautifully structured and superbly concise. Best known (through a sentimentalised version) is the apostrophe to his long-dead friend Heraclitus, encapsulating the principle that literature is the one true immortality; Heraclitus’ nightingales (perhaps the title of a volume of his poems) do well against the conventional afterlife and dreams of reincarnation, relentlessly demolished in this graveyard conversation:

‘Does Charidas lie beneath you?’ ‘If it’s the son of Arimmas
of Cyrene you mean, yes, he does.’
‘What’s it like down there, Charidas?’
   ‘Gloomy.’ ‘What of returning?’
‘Lies.’ ‘And Pluto?’ ‘A myth.’ ‘Then we’re undone!’
‘What I tell you is true, but if you just want a nice story,
beef in Hades is really dirt cheap.’

It would be good if we could hear more of this Callimachus and let the aetiologies, the literary quarrels (real or invented) and the pursuit of restrained stylistic perfection in a world run, and paid for, by Macedonian colonial warlords rest for a while.

[*] 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.