BMCR 2007.07.51

The Shadow of Callimachus. Studies in the Reception of Hellenistic Poetry at Rome

, The shadow of Callimachus : studies in the reception of Hellenistic poetry at Rome. Roman literature and its contexts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xi, 162 pages ; 20 cm.. ISBN 9780521871181. $29.99 (pb).

The Shadow of Callimachus. Studies in the reception of Hellenistic poetry at Rome is the latest volume, the twelfth to be precise, in the series Roman Literature and its Contexts, founded and edited by Denis Feeney and (my colleague) Stephen Hinds, and scores another resounding success for both the author and the editors. While I was reading the book, the thought occurred to me again and again as I reflected on the breadth of information and depth of insight contained within this deceptively slim monograph that literary studies in Classics are at a particularly happy place in time. The remarkable advances in our understanding of the intersection of Hellenistic and Roman poetry can be ascribed to so many scholars, both past and especially currently active in our field, too many to acknowledge here. Yet I do not think that even Phthonos would take notice of my saying that Hunter, Feeney and Hinds in their many and influential publications, numerous papers delivered world-wide, and the new generations of students whom they see through to successful careers are among the leaders in shaping how we think about Greco-Roman literature.

The Shadow of Callimachus consists of a brief Introduction, four chapters, and a correspondingly brief Afterward. Hunter begins in the Introduction by exposing a simplistic generalization that has long been cherished about Hellenistic poets; namely, that their work marked a radical break with the past. As he notes, the poetry of Callimachus, his contemporaries, and their successors is largely a recreation of archaic poetic forms: “Hellenistic poetry attempts recuperation, at least as much as it glories in difference” (p. 4). He pushes this critique even further in the Afterward, questioning whether Roman writers actually experienced Hellenistic poets as chronologically different from their Archaic and Classical forebears. For instance, did Catullus, as translator of Sappho and Callimachus, “distinguish between them as great poets from different ‘periods’, or just as different ‘classical Greek’ poets?” (p. 142). What further complicates this question is our lack of much of the Greek poetry that was written between the high Hellenistic age of the third century BC and the late Republic/Augustan era.

In the first chapter, “In the grove,” Hunter explores scenes of poetic investiture and their association with Callimachean verse. The central texts explored are Propertius 3.1, Vergil Eclogue 6.64-73, and Ovid Amores 3.1. In all three poems, the inaugurated poet is featured in a grove; the word nemus is present in either its nominal or adjectival forms in each case. For Propertius, Callimachus and Philitas, who had entered their respective groves as worshippers, have now become the objects of cult: “The grove is full of (the memory of) shades and shadows, for the cult of individual poets is subsumed into a larger tradition of poetic succession in which the worshipper eventually becomes the worshipped, the pupil becomes in his own turn the master” (p. 15). In Vergil’s portrayal of Gallus’ inauguration in Ec. 6, Hunter observes that we encounter the same place names and characters associated with the grove of the Muses near Ascra, including most intriguingly the figures of Linus and Orpheus. The passage suggests a poetic genealogy: Linus, Orpheus, Hesiod, Callimachus, Euphorion, Gallus, Vergil. As Hunter points out, the shadow in which the Roman poets write was cast by a long line of writers stretching back to the beginning of Greek literature. Hunter’s take on Ovid’s rendition of the grove theme in Amores 3.1 is brilliant. He reads the figures of Elegia and Tragoedia, modeled on Vice (Kakia) and Virtue (Arete) from the celebrated conversation they held with Heracles as told by Prodicus, in the light of Callimachean poetics and aptly finds in Elegia “an indissoluble link between poetic style and ‘lifestyle'” (p. 36). As Hunter shows, the revealingly clad ( vestis tenuissima) Elegia offers up a delightful inversion of various Callimachean motifs.

In reading this chapter, I was reminded of the fact that the Propertian and Ovidian nemus passages occur at the opening of the third in a sequence of books belonging to a multi-volume collection of poems. As Richard Thomas observed long ago, the first poem of the third book of Callimachus’s Aetia seems to have piqued the interest of poets in Rome.1 For instance, Vergil at the opening of Georgics 3 and Statius in Silvae 3.1 mention Molorchus (lines 19 and 29, respectively), a key figure in the Callimachean account of the origin of the Nemean Games with which the third book begins. Interestingly, the word for grove ( nemus) also occurs in both passages (lines 45 and 56, respectively). Of special note, Silvae 3.1 alludes to both Orpheus (the ability to move inanimate objects, 16-17) and Linus (Hercules’ unlikely musical accompaniment of Calliope recalls his ill-fortuned music lessons, 49-51). Of course, Propertius Book 3 may actually have been Book 4, since Book 2 appears to contain two separate books. It has been suggested that the programmatic 2.13 headed Propertius’ third book, a notion supported by reference to a group of three libelli at line 25.2 As Hunter notes (pp. 22-23), this poem, similar to the Eclogue passage, includes references to Linus and Orpheus in the context of the Hesiodic nemus; Hunter’s suspicion of a Callimachean background looks very promising.

Two points emerge. First, I argued recently that Eclogue 6 was configured as a miniature Aetia, complete with prologue, four-part song sung by a (previously) sleeping poet (Silenus), and epilogue.3 What I identified as the third part of Silenus’ song—lines 61-73—celebrates Gallus’ investiture as a Hesiodic-Callimachean poet by virtue of his aetion of the Grynean nemus. The presence of so many nemora in third movements of poetic works invites speculation. We can be fairly confident that the opening of Georgics 3 and Silvae 3.1 look to the Victoria Berenices with which the third book of the Aetia begins. That Ec. 6.61-73 might be associated with this Nemean pair is supported, as I argued, not only by its Callimachean imagery and relative position in Silenus’ song, but also by the fact that Gallus is crowned with wild celery ( apio), the plant used in the wreath offered to victors at the Nemean Games. If I am correct in ascribing a tertiary position to Vergil’s celebration of Gallus’ investiture, the combination of the Ascrean nemus, Linus, and Orpheus in both Eclogue 6 and Propertius 2.13 might then support the case for the latter having stood at the head of a third book. Attenuated evidence indeed, but such is the nature of Roman Alexandrianism. On a related note, I have to wonder if the choice of the word nemus in these contexts reflected a play on or response to the toponym Nemea, a sanctuary famous for its grove (which, incidentally, was replanted in modern times by the excavation team led by Stephen Miller of the University of California, Berkeley).

Second, if Ovid in Amores 3.1 can be included in this ordinal game and Callimachus’ Nemean aetiology is in the background, the adaptation of Prodicus’ allegory is even more pointed when one considers the central role that Heracles plays in the Hellenistic model. As it happens, Heracles also figures heavily in the opening of Georgics 3 (Eurystheus, Busiris, and Hylas, in addition to Molorchus, are mentioned) and Statius Silvae 3.1 (the poem celebrates the creation of a sanctuary to Hercules).

In the second chapter, “In the grip of the god,” Hunter examines the degree to which Roman poets, looking to Dionysus, “created some of their most provoking fusions of Greek and Roman, east and west,” and in such a way that religion and politics were intimately linked (p. 43). The main texts surveyed are Horace C. 1.37, Tibullus 1.7, and Propertius 3.17. The presence of Dionysus in Roman Alexandrian verse is surprising, as Hunter notes, given the fact that this god played so small a role in the poetry of Callimachus’ day, that Dionysus was a divinity associated with the grand style, and, what is more, that his cult was open to all.

Hunter explains the unexpected sympathy that the Horatian ode evokes for Cleopatra by looking beyond its most obvious model—Alcaeus fr. 332 Voigt, in which the poet celebrates the death of a tyrant—to Euripides’ Bacchae. Cleopatra, being a Ptolemy, was closely associated with Dionysus. Once one introduces the Euripidean intertext, however, her various actions link her both with the triumphant god and his tragic victim. The other side of this poetic coin is equally interesting: Augustus is not only the liberator whose great achievement allows drinking, but, by opposing the Dionysian queen and her consort, he too calls Pentheus to mind. Dionysus in his Egyptian manifestation as Osiris features in Tibullus’ celebration of Messalla in 1.7. Central to the poem are his roles as civilizer and world conqueror, aspects of his divinity that, absent from the high poetry of third century Alexandria, can be paralleled in more humble verse, such as an hexametric Isis hymn from Andros. The point where the religious and political aspects of the poem merge lies in the triumphant world conquest of Osiris-Dionysus: divinely inspired expansion of boundaries assures safety; in the case of Tibullus 1.7, safety for Rome. Propertius 3.17 provides Hunter with the basis for exploring the metonymic use of the name of Dionysus/Bacchus when used to represent wine. Not only is such usage associated with high epic and lyric, but it happens not to be common in Hellenistic poetry of the high period. The use of such metonymy in Greek verse does not occur with any frequency until the first century BC (e.g., the Isis hymn noted above). Clearly, as Hunter points out, the absence of a significant body of late Hellenistic literature puts us at a disadvantage in our understanding of literary developments in Rome.

In “Nothing like this before,” the title of Chapter 3, Hunter explores the deployment of similes in Hellenistic and late Republic/Augustan poetry. Given the fact that similes are quintessentially poetic, as Aristotle noted long ago, they provide opportunities for establishing literary territory, like the young dog that marks the suburban landscape in the hope of making his presence in the neighborhood known and appreciated by his more established canine competitors, so to speak. As Hunter states: “rivalry, imitation, and difference—these are the themes which glitter in the prism of the simile and analogous structures” (p. 87). Case in point: Vergil Eclogue 5, which contains a reworking of analogies in Theocritus Idyll 1 and an imitation of the elaborate simile at Catullus 68.57-66, itself focused on its relation to Greek poetry, probably Theocritus.

Similes, according to the ancient critics, were supposed to help explain the unknown by means of the known. Hunter argues on the basis of comments made by several of these critics that they linked Callimachus with those who did not follow the best practice and he proceeds to show how this was so. For instance, in the Hymn to Delos, Callimachus compares an Olympian divinity (Iris) to another Olympian’s animals (Artemis’ hunting dogs)! Hunter lays out for us other telling examples of how the poet pushes the limits of literary similitude and how his Roman admirers followed suit. For instance, at Georgics 4.170-78, Vergil compares the activity of bees in a hive to that of the Cyclopes under Mt. Etna, effectively reversing the expected comparison. At Catullus 64.100-11, an allusion to the capture of the Marathonian bull as described by Callimachus in the Hecale (fr. 165 Hollis = 64.111), itself following an extended simile comparing the killing of the Minotaur to the toppling of tree on Mt. Taurus, links one victory by Theseus over a bull with another. In his discussion of the simile at Catullus 68.51-66 (tears that resemble a river), Hunter compares the Homeric simile that likens Penelope’s and Odysseus’ weeping to that of sailors who see land after a shipwreck at Odyssey 23.231-40. His argument demonstrates convincingly that Penelope, who enters the poem through the simile, turns out to be a crucial figure in the elegy. Given that the river of the Catullan simile is specifically located in a public place (” per medium densi transit iter populi“) in a poem that begins non possum reticere, I found the lack of comment on these and other notable inversions of Callimachean imagery in the poem surprising. In fact, Hunter proceeds to read Horace’s imitation of Callimachus’ paratactic simile at AP 12.102 in Satire 1.2.101-10 as such an inversion: Callimachus prefers a discerning lover; Horace urges a policy of “any port in a storm.” The degree to which Callimachus’ words and imagery are turned upside down suggests that Roman poets enjoyed a healthy, at times lighthearted, relationship with one of their most influential and demanding literary precursors.

In the fourth and final chapter, “The shadows lengthen,” Hunter turns to Vergilian pastoral, an elegant choice of topic with which to conclude given the fact that poetic affiliation and succession are hallmarks of the genre and that pastoral poets frequently sing about the end of bucolic verse. Similar to what Hunter has shown throughout the book, what characterizes Vergil’s take on Theocritus is “difference amidst the suspicion of sameness” (p. 116), an approach heralded in the opening poem of the Eclogues wherein Vergil transformed a cordial exchange of mutual compliments in Idyll 1 into an edgy conversation focused on a stark contrast of fates. Moreover, for Theocritus herding was the context within which shepherds sang; Vergil replaces this in the first Eclogue with social status and secure land rights: “Perhaps then we should see in Meliboeus’ fate the passage of pastoral verse-making from Greece to Rome (i.e., from Theocritus to Virgil) troped as ‘dispossession,’ as loss of the traditional land ( κλῆρος); rights over that land are now very clearly controlled from Rome, and it is ‘others’ who will now exploit the products of Meliboeus’ planting and agricultural labour (vv. 72-3)” (p. 120). Hunter aptly compares the designation of these others as barbari by Meliboeus to Horace’s famous characterization of Rome as the ferus victor. Tityrus, on the other hand, by virtue of his new found otium receives the ability to practice “Greek ars,” but also “the moral ambivalence which comes with it” (p. 124).

Central features of the pastoral fiction include the centrality of the master singer over his song, the emergence of a new singer, and the understanding that bucolic poetry consists of non-literate songs, all of which are instantiated in Theocritus’ first Idyll. Hunter’s reading of Eclogue 9 explores how Vergil deployed these themes poignantly in the context of the land confiscations. In this poem, the political disruption of the Triumviral period brings about the absence of the current favorite Menalcas; his admirers, Moeris and Lycidas, struggle to recall his verses, suggesting that this time there will be no successor. Allusion to Callimachus Epigram 2 at lines 51-53 brings home the loss experienced under the circumstances, as Hunter demonstrates: whereas Heraclitus’ songs will live on after his death, Moeris cannot even remember the songs of his youth. What Hunter says about Moeris—”In declaring that he has ‘forgotten so many songs’, Moeris of course displays exquisite poetic technique” (p. 133)—can be applied to the entire poem: although it luxuriates in the death of song, the eclogue succeeds not only in its remarkable adaptation of the pastoral theme of the exquisite beauty of sadness (e.g., Thyrsis’s song in Idyll 1), but also in its enduring power to move readers two millennia later.

The Shadow of Callimachus offers a nuanced and provocative reading of Roman poetry as it struggled to find its own voice amidst the din of so many Greek masterpieces. Through his magisterial command of ancient literature and modern scholarship, everywhere in evidence in his latest book, Hunter has enhanced our appreciation of the lengths to which poets in the Late Republic and Augustan era went to emerge from the shadow and bask in a light now fully their own.


1. R.F. Thomas, “Callimachus the Victoria Berenices, and Roman Poetry,” CQ 33 (1983), 92-113.

2. For a convenient summary of the argument, see G. P. Gould (ed.), Propertius Elegies (Cambridge MA, 1999), 13-15.

3. J.J. Clauss, “Vergil’s Sixth Eclogue: The Aetia in Rome,” in M. A. Harder, R. F. Regtuit, and G. C. Wakker (eds.), Callimachus II (Leuven, 2004), 71-93.