ca. 305-240 B.C.
Greek poet and scholar
Callimachus was one of the most prolific poets of the Hellenistic* period. A scholar as well as a poet, he is said to have produced 800 volumes of verse. In so doing, Callimachus helped develop a new literary style that combined elegance, wit, and scholarship. Callimachus’s style greatly influenced the work of the Roman poets Catullus, Ovid, and Propertius.
* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.
Callimachus (originally called Battiades) was born in North Africa. He traveled to the city of Alexandria, Egypt, during the reign of Ptolemy II (ruled 285-246 B.C.) and was commissioned by the king to catalog the famous collection in the Alexandria library. The completed catalog comprised 120 volumes. While at the library, Callimachus began to write prose works on such diverse subjects as the wonders of the world, foreign customs, rivers, birds, and poetry. The prose works did not survive, but 6 hymns and 64 epigrams* remain. The hymns—often dealing with gods or mythological figures—were meant to be recited or read by an educated audience.
It was as a writer of epigrams that Callimachus was best known, however. These short, personal poems usually dealt with an emotional topic, such as the troubles of a lover or the death of a friend. They evolved from the brief verse inscriptions carved on grave stones. Callimachus transformed them into literature. In his epigram on the death of Heraclitus (“They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead”), Callimachus addresses the dead man in a touching personal style that is both direct and eloquent.
The remainder of Callimachus’s poetry exists in fragments and consists of lyric* and elegiac* poems. The most famous of the elegiac poems is the 7,000-line Aetia (Origins). In it, Callimachus described a dream in which the Muses instructed him in the origins of the history of Greek myths, customs, and religious rites. Often criticized for not writing an epic poem, Callimachus defended his short poems as more attractive than epic poems. In his words, “a big book was a big evil.” (See also Epigrams; Poetry, Greek and Hellenistic.)
* epigram short poem dealing pointedly, and sometimes satirically, with a single thought
* lyric poem expressing personal feelings, often similar in form to a song
* elegiac sad and mournful poem