Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.02.43 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.02.43

Benjamin Acosta-Hughes, Susan A. Stephens, Callimachus in Context: From Plato to the Augustan Poets.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2012.  Pp. xvi, 328.  ISBN 9781107008571.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by S. J. Heyworth, Wadham College, Oxford (

This is a varied and challenging new book on Callimachus, marked by thoughtful synopses throughout as episodes are introduced for discussion. It thus might serve well as an introduction to the poet, but after an excellent first chapter tries too hard to push uncertain arguments.

Chapter 1 (‘Literary quarrels’) explores the importance of Plato for Callimachus. It aptly takes as its starting point the epigram on the suicide of Cleombrotus, uncritical reader of the Phaedo (and elegantly returns to this with new insight on pages 80 and 271). But when they go on to argue that the Phaedo is the most important intertext of the Aetia prologue, they force the evidence (35): Plato does not there attribute Socrates’ dream to Apollo, nor does Callimachus present the Telchines as themselves poets (n.b. v. 2), unlike Evenus in the Phaedo. Better established are the links with the cicadas of Phaedrus and Ion’s investigation of τέχνη, but even here the reader needs to be on the look out for looseness and inaccuracy, e.g. in the claim (44) that in the Frogs ‘Aeschylus wins because his lines are by far the heavier’ (Dionysus is still explicitly undecided at 1433, after the weighing scene; the final decision seems to be based on nothing more than the opportunity for a joke using Euripides’ words against him). Ion leads us on to Iambus 13, mimesis and Callimachus’s variety of genre; and 13 in turn to discussion of Iambus 1. This brings Protagoras into play, moving from the shared concern with the Seven Sages to the philosophically and aesthetically important approval of βραχυλογία, nicely illustrated from epigrams 8 and 1 Pf. Hipponax, the iambist given a voice by his successor, is seen as analogous to Socrates, ventriloquized by Plato; and the story that he tells, the cup of Bathycles, is a model of generous behaviour, and morally educational — the goal sought in the Protagoras. Further Platonic details are teased out in the fragments of Iambi 3, 5, 10 (following Kerkhecker), and Aetia fr. 178, where, just as in the Symposium, intellectual dialogue takes the place of heavy drinking, or listening to a singer, and just as in the Laws, the protagonists are three strangers, of whom one shares his name, Pollis, with the purchaser of Plato when Dionysius of Syracuse sold him into slavery. In each case Callimachus can be seen as responding to a critique of poetry. Not every point is new or well made, but the overall argument is illuminating and important: Plato has become a ‘central and significant intertext within Callimachus’ poetic heritage’ (82).

Chapter 2 (‘Performing the text’) begins with a clear statement of the duality of Hellenistic poetry: poets wrote in awareness of the growing importance of textuality, but also of performance. What follows is less impressive, a discursive catalogue of the performable genres Callimachus might have composed, including some indecisive pages on drama, finding positive pointers in the number of epigrams on tragedy and in the fact that Ovid produced a Medea (95): ‘no one would credit Ovid with a tragedy on this theme without independent corroboration of its existence.’ This is not a valid claim; true, we would not know the title without external evidence, but we do have the fragments and the testimonia of Seneca and Quintilian (contrast the six or more unnamed plays attributed to Callimachus — but only by the Suda), while Amores 2.18, 3.1, 3.15 and (especially) Tristia 2.553-4 are strong internal evidence for Ovid’s composition of tragedy, matched by nothing extant for his predecessor. Horace is adduced in similar terms (105), as if the evidence for the performance of the carmen saeculare came purely from the inscription, when we may note the unusual lack of reference to performance within the hymn itself, and the separate account of the event that the poet gives at Odes 4.6.29-44. Of course the lack of evidence does not indicate that Callimachus’ poems were not performed; but he should not be treated as analogous to a poet for whom such evidence does exist, and the internal references to textuality and performance deserve more attention than such speculations. The vivid fr. 227.1-2 (‘Apollo is in the chorus. I hear the lyre …’) is cited on 111, but elicits no comment; contrast the lively readings of individual hymns as recreation of ritual events that have been offered by Hopkinson or Bing.1 Moreover, the concentration on performance is such that the Callimachean concern with textuality appears only in passing. Theocritus’ Idyll 15 is poorly served too: Gorgo and Praxinoa hardly encourage the assumption that it is a ‘select public’ (88) which enters the palace for the Adonia, and it is not easy to imagine the poem was performed as a formal part of the festival. Even the stronger sections, such as 96-7, linking Epigram 28 Pf. Ἐχθαίρω τὸ ποίημα τὸ κυκλικόν to Theognidea 579-82 Ἐχθαίρω κακὸν ἄνδρα, are weakened by their subordination to the uncertain thrust of the chapter as a whole. Moreover, loaded diction still infects what follows, e.g. when ‘the importance that accrues to performed poetry’ is set in contrast to ‘a mimesis of performance, … belated and nostalgic’ (157).

We begin again in Chapter 3 (‘Changing Places’) from the birth of Zeus and his omphalos, relocated in Hymn 1 from Delphi to Crete, and thus closer to the centre of a Greek world that looks south to Egypt and east to the conquests of Alexander: this is made emblematic for the geographical movements figured in the works of Callimachus and his contemporaries. Africa, Egypt, Alexandria are shown to be focuses of geographical attention across the corpus. Even when the 13th Iambus expresses criticism of the iambist who has not been to Ephesus, it is because Ephesus has come to him: Hipponax is present as a roll in the Library. Another significant theme is brought out from the Aetia: sea power, symbolized by the prominence of Minos and his conflicts with Athens, a successor naval state, as well as through the recurrence of Argonautic episodes. Quite a lot is built here on passing references, but given the fragmentary state of the poem and the complexity manifest in the poet’s work, clever speculation is appropriate. However, scholars who repeatedly warn against using Latin imitations as sources for Callimachean details should be more circumspect than to treat A.P. 7.42 as firm evidence that the poet’s dream explicitly began in Libya, at least if they do not follow Harder (on T6.5-6) in citing Ovid’s similarly phrased address to his Muse Tristia 4.10.119-20. The closing section ‘Attica viewed from Alexandria’, discusses the Hecale, set in a rustic corner of Attica; it reads the poem well as an epic re-working of tragic material, but in a minor key, and makes some moves at last to problematize the view that stories and places are chosen by Callimachus to glorify the Ptolemies or their women; odd, then, and unfortunate, that the closing paragraph (201-2) makes claims about thalassocracy as a key aspect of the poem, before turning to a more plausible notion, that hospitality is the ‘glue’ that holds Greeks together. That might be expressed more generally: the corpus is a distillation of Greek literature and culture, the things that make Greeks Greek (including the Hellenic interest in what lies beyond the strictly Greek world), but one produced by the personal pen of a man from Cyrene working for the Ptolemies in Alexandria.

The final major chapter begins with polemic against the standard evaluation of Roman ‘Callimachus’, primarily based on ‘a discrete collection of his texts’ and ignoring the papyrus discoveries of the last century, and promises ‘a Hellenocentric response to distinctive moments in the creation of this Roman Callimachus’. This is of course a well- trodden path, taken by Wilamowitz, Hutchinson and Hunter, for example, and in its emphases and biases it follows a conventional line. There are some nice observations along the way, such as the suggestion (254, n. 125) that Propertius’ Callimachi manes at 3.1.1 evokes his Greek predecessor’s use of the ghost of Hipponax (Simonides too, perhaps?), and intriguing explorations of the presence of Sappho in the Coma Berenices and of the meaning of Epigram 51 Pf. (though I find it hard to see Berenice as symbolizing book 4 of the Aetia, which she ends, and not book 3, which she starts). There are, however, rather too many unfounded assertions and oddities of text and translation, such as the multiple citations of Catullus 116 in which the end of the first line is rendered ‘searching for words’ despite their printing of uenante, not Palmer’s uerba ante, while in the final couplet the ecthlipsis is marked as is traditional in dabi’ supplicium, but not in the conjectured euitabimu’ missa in the hexameter. We are told (220) that the ‘rough elision … evokes Ennius and the less refined language of Roman as opposed to Greek poetry’; evocation of Ennius is not in doubt, but it is hard to see why such imitation of an old master should be set in opposition to Callimachus, who uses Homeric style in a similar way. Nor should memorem at Propertius 2.34.31 be translated ‘dear’, ποτεπλάσθη described as a participle (224), or the Fasti dated to before AD 8 (257-8).

Equally troubling is a series of unjustified generalizations: ‘Virgil continues to replace Egypt with Greece’ (242) is presented as the key to the notably Egyptian bugonia of Georgics 4; ‘apart from Virgil in the Georgics … [Roman poets] were not much interested in Hesiodic material’ (254) comes without reference to the chapters on Roman reception in R.L. Hunter, The Hesiodic Catalogue of Women (Cambridge, 2005); and ‘much of Callimachus’ geopolitical agenda was ignored by his Roman imitators’ (273) simply puzzles — they are aware that they belong to an empire of even greater extent than the Ptolemies’, and their evocation of geography reflects this, sometimes with specific reference to Cyrene (Catullus 7) or Alexandria (Propertius 2.1, 3.7, 3.11, e.g.). Propertius proves a particular disappointment (the self-referential word ‘shopworn’ turns up on p. 258); thus half a page of discussion of 4.6 leads to the conclusion that the poem reduces Callimachus to a ‘brand name destined to become what his new masters choose to make of him’. In a sense this is true, as it would be of any such reference to an earlier author; but a variety of scholars have read the poem as a far more thoughtful engagement with its Callimachean models than that. Part of the problem may be the ordering — Propertius is treated after Vergil and Horace as if always their successor, not their contemporary; and the criteria for imitation must be rather more severe when the authors claim that ‘the extent and variety of Propertius’ allusions to Callimachus are fairly limited’ (253) than when arguing that Iambus 4 is a model for Amores 3.1. What reason have they to neglect allusions such as 1.1.15/Hymn 3.215; 1.3.14 + 1.16.42/epig. 42 Pf.; 1.13.30/epig. 51; 2.13.8/fr. 26 (Linus et Coroebus); 2.13.40/Hymn 3.131-2; 2.18.9-10/Hymn 5.5-12; 3.10.5-8/Hymn 2.17-24; 3.13.51-4/Hymn 4.171-85; 3.14.17-20/Hymn 5.23-30; 3.19.22/Hecale fr. 90 Hollis; 4.9.57-8/Hymn 5.101-2?2 Demonstrable reworking of the Aetia remains limited in Propertius, as in most other Latin texts; but of course many of the Aetia fragments are too broken for us to be able to spot verbal reminiscence with any confidence; the point is even stronger in the case of Philitas, taken here (255), without any attempt to examine the positive evidence, as a mere ‘trope for Greek elegy’.

The book culminates in a clear and ordered account of the fragments of the Aetia, an intelligent and useful addition to the book, giving students a quick way to taste the variety of the poem and the issues faced by scholars in determining its form.


1.   N. Hopkinson, Callimachus, Hymn to Demeter (Cambridge, 1984), 3-11; P. Bing, The Scroll and the Marble (Ann Arbor, 2009), 33-48 (on Hymn 2).
2.   In some cases references to discussions may be found ad loc. in my Cynthia (Oxford, 2007). For Philitas see esp. on 3.3.

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