BMCR 2021.06.21

Callimachus revisited: new perspectives in Callimachean scholarship

, Callimachus revisited: new perspectives in Callimachean scholarship. Hellenistica Groningana, 24. Leuven; Paris: Peeters, 2019. Pp. vi, 394. ISBN 9789042938502

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

The flowering of studies on Callimachus (and Hellenistic poetry more broadly) in recent decades has largely to do with the diversity of approaches now brought to bear on the rich and complex corpus. Whereas that complexity once stood as an imposing barrier, it now admits an ever-expanding array of approaches. Indeed, this transformation is in no small part the legacy of the Groningen Workshop and its founder, M. Annette Harder, whose important career as both scholar and convener of these biennial meetings is central to the volume under review here.

The Groningen Workshop on Hellenistic Poetry was inaugurated in 1992 and its thirteenth meeting was a celebratory affair that coincided with Harder’s retirement and her Valedictory Lecture to the Groningen faculty. Fittingly, the theme for the workshop was Callimachus, the focus of the first and sixth workshops as well as the topic of much of Harder’s own scholarship, most notably her landmark Oxford edition of the Aitia. In a departure from the series’ typical practice, there was no call for papers and instead speakers were friends of the series invited from the impressive roster of past workshops. The number and prestige of the attendees (speakers, respondents, and audience) was testament to the importance of the Groningen workshop and to the stature of Harder herself within the field of Hellenistic poetry. Indeed, I heard several participants remark that the bibliography of the papers came to life in the room as many of the world’s leading Callimacheans engaged in productive, insightful, and friendly dialogue stemming from the pre-circulated papers. The present volume includes fifteen of the papers presented there along with Harder’s Valedictory Lecture and a paper by Alex Hardie that was not a part of the workshop.[1] Limitations of space preclude a full and careful review of all the papers in the present volume and much that is praiseworthy will go unmentioned here. Insofar as the volume’s title emphasizes “new perspectives,” I instead offer some general discussion of the contents as well as more specific treatment of arguments that I found especially novel or interesting. Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.

While not entirely ignored, Callimachus’ Epigrams have yet to have their day in the sun. Indeed, few may have even expected such a day to come, but Richard Hunter’s brilliant article “Reading and Citing the Epigrams of Callimachus” will surely make everyone sit up and take notice of these gems hidden in plain sight. With characteristic learning and a most readable style, Hunter offers a synoptic analysis of the epigrams and their early reception that vividly demonstrates how ancient scholars and poets (and scholar-poets?) saw them not just as aesthetically significant miniatures but also as important witnesses to the intellectual networks and products of Callimachus’ own era. Hunter’s invigorating account allows the once-niche field of study to become both vast and profound. Some positivists may object to the degree of speculation required, but the greater imaginative license Hunter models and thus authorizes will embolden future scholars to be creative in overcoming the prosopographical lacunae that have stymied many contextually minded scholars. With epigrammatic appetite so whetted, readers of the volume will also learn much from the tightly focused investigations in Hardie’s “Callimachus Ep. 32 Pf. (Ap 12.148) and Menippus of Gadara” and Sens’ “Some Aspects of Closure in Callimachus’ Epigrams.”

Callimachus exists indelibly in our scholarly imagination as the poeta doctus avant la lettre, and yet the scholar-poet’s great scholarly works are all but imaginary to those of us who wistfully pour over the titles (dubiously?) reported in the Suda. Precious few have considered the scattered fragments and testimonia of these works to be fertile ground for research, but Jan Kwapisz and Katarzyna Pietruczuk mount a heroic and effective campaign for their scholarly fortunes in “Your Own Personal Library of Alexandria: Callimachus’ Scholarly Works and their Readers.” As in Hunter’s treatment of the Epigrams, Kwapisz and Pietruczuk imbue these fragments with newfound vibrancy by bringing to life the contexts to which they belong. In this case, the authors demonstrate how Callimachean works such as the Pinakes and Thaumasia/Paradoxa (fr. 407 Pf.) might be imagined alongside technological wonders such as the Antikythera mechanism as bold, cutting-edge efforts to encapsulate the kosmos rather than the idiosyncratic, antiquarian endeavors of an esoteric pedant. Rich in its own right, this discussion leaves the reader eager for more – a craving partially sated by extensive bibliography and yet still tantalized by hints at forthcoming work.

Several contributions to the volume make use of methodologies and theoretical apparatuses common in other fields but less frequently applied to the study of the Graeco-Roman literature. Jackie Murray applies a blend of feminist and queer theory in “Poetically Erect: The Female Oriented Humor in Callimachus’ Hymn to Demeter” to identify a “transgendered subjectivity” in the tale of Erysichthon that merits a qualified pass on the Bechdel-Wallace test. In “Denarrating the Narratable in the Aetia: A Postmodern Take on Callimachean Aesthetics,” Evina Sistakou channels Callimachus’ avant-garde sensibilities by offering an unabashedly anachronistic reading of the poet’s most celebrated work that challenges readers to see new affinities between the poem’s narrative, epistemological, and ontological dimensions. Further narratological considerations come to the fore in Robert Kirstein’s “New Borders of Diction? Callimachean Aetiology as a Narrative Device in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.” In his piece, Kirstein emphasizes the Aetia as foundational for fiction writing, taking special interest in how Ovid develops Callimachus’ techniques of (un)reliable narration.

 Well-trodden paths also prove ripe for re-appraisal as Ivana Petrovic demonstrates in her important case study focusing on famous passages in Iambus 12 and the epilogue of the Apollo hymn, “Poetry for the New Goddess: A Gift that Keeps on Giving.” Long seen as programmatic, these metapoetic reflections on the value and status of poetry form the basis of a new kind of Callimachean program – one that Petrovic argues implicates poet and poetry in the influence trafficking of court elites who sought to cultivate transactional relationships with Ptolemaic rulers. Drawing on analogies from the sphere of religious dedication whereby a hymn might be seen as the functional equivalent of material agalmata, Petrovic maps the charis dynamics long seen to obtain between the praise poet and his divine honorand onto the emerging royal cults that came to redefine both religious and political life in the Ptolemaic sphere of influence. This illuminating argument should be read closely with the contributions by Benjamin Acosta-Hughes and Susan Stephens, who train their attention on examples of the poet’s explicit praises of the Ptolemies and their powerful allies.

Allusion and intertext have for some time been the bread and butter of scholarship on Hellenistic poetry and they are well represented here in several chapters to varying effect. Bing, Bowie, Gutzwiller, Kirstein, and Overduin present an array of lexical, thematic, and structural similarities that link Callimachus with later authors, while Clauss and Harder seek to identify such resonances from much earlier authors and traditions in Callimachus’ own work. The most successful of these efforts are those that make clear how such intertexts bind the works together and fundamentally reorient our understanding of one or both texts. Harder’s paper “From Scamander to Demeter: Allusions to Homer in the Sixth Hymn of Callimachus” meticulously collects and analyzes the Demeter hymn’s allusions to the final books of the Iliad that juxtapose the young prince Erysichthon with both Achilles and Antilochus. The Homeric backdrop for this rather ‘un-Homeric’ hymn is, she argues, more than mere cheek; it invites rather than commands the reader “to think about issues of leadership, the sociology of intellectual life in Alexandria and metapoetics.”  While Harder’s discussion does not engage with theoretical treatments of the opera aperta or reader-response theory, her paper acknowledges crucial methodological questions that often go unaddressed in arguments that rely on the reader to recognize the breadcrumbs leading her/him back to the referent text. With so many authors deploying this heuristic tool, it seems a lost opportunity that a greater synergy does not emerge from the volume to add depth and nuance to a methodology for understanding this most Callimachean of practices. Too often, the reader is left to ponder the significance of these observations without sufficient guidance from the author.

This volume is a fitting Festschrift for Harder in that it boasts a star-studded cast of experts in Hellenistic poetry, the majority of whose impressive careers stretch back beyond Harder’s inaugural Callimachus Workshop in 1992. That the volume skews so senior and contains relatively few new voices is perhaps not in keeping with the best traditions of the series. These workshops began as a place where scholars at all stages of their career could test out novel approaches to Hellenistic poetry and receive generous feedback from colleagues. The environment at these gatherings has always been marked by egalitarianism and an openness to new ideas, characteristics that provided respite from the overly doctrinaire approaches of old and have helped the field of Hellenistic poetry to thrive. The young upstarts are now the venerable gatekeepers and many of their neoteric experiments have become the revered mainstays of our bibliographies. The true test of the Workshop’s legacy at this moment of transition will be whether it remains interested in stirring the pot, making waves, and seeking out new voices from beyond the fold to challenge the orthodoxies the participants themselves have established. If it does, it will continue to provide an indispensable launchpad for important new research on Hellenistic poetry.

As I hope to have demonstrated, there is much of interest in this volume for scholars of Hellenistic poetry as well as related fields. While it seems that the Workshop has traditionally relied on a very light editorial touch, organizers might profit from reconsidering their role. For one, more engagement with contributors might have spurred certain papers on to greater nuance and tighter argumentation. More importantly, a rigorous and detailed introduction would have made this volume all the more powerful and useful by contextualizing the contributions within the history of Callimachean scholarship, highlighting what is truly exciting and profound in them, and perhaps even pointing out the future avenues for exploration now laid bare by the fruits of the workshop. Participants who make pilgrimage to the Workshop every other year may be happy to sit with the volume and pour over its contents while drawing their own conclusions about such matters, but the circle can grow wider if the uninitiated are equipped with a map and compass from the outset.

Groningen Workshops on Hellenistic Poetry

Callimachus (1992)
Theocritus (1994)
Genre in Hellenistic Poetry (1996)
Apollonius Rhodius (1998)
Hellenistic Epigrams (2000)
Callimachus II (2002)
Beyond the Canon (2004)
Nature and Science in Hellenistic Poetry (2006)
Gods and Religion in Hellenistic Poetry (2008)
Hellenistic Poetry in Context (2010)
Past and Present in Hellenistic Poetry (2013)
Drama and Performance in Hellenistic Poetry (2015)
Callimachus Revisited (2017)

Table of Contents

Jacqueline Klooster – Introduction (pp.1–4)
Benjamin Acosta-Hughes – A Lost Pavane for a Dead Princess. Call. fr. 228 Pf. (pp.5–26)
Peter Bing – Thanks Again to Aristaenetus: The Tale of Phrygius and Pieria in Callimachus’ Aetia (Frs. 80–83b Harder) through the Eyes of a Late-Antique Epistolographer (pp.27–50)
Ewen Bowie – Callimachus and Longus (pp.51–64)
James J. Clauss – The Near Eastern Background of Aetological Wordplay in Callimachus (pp.65–96)
Kathryn Gutzwiller – The Reception of Callimachus in Meleager (pp.97–120)
Annette Harder – From Scamander to Demeter: Allusions to Homer in the Sixth Hymn of Callimachus (pp.121–46)
Alex Hardie – Callimachus Ep. 32 Pf. (Ap 12.148) and Menippus of Gadara (pp.147–70)
Richard Hunter – Reading and Citing the Epigrams of Callimachus (pp.171–92)
Robert Kirstein – New Borders of Diction? Callimachean Aetiology as a Narrative Device in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (pp.193–220)
Jan Kwapisz & Katarzyna Pietruczuk – Your Own Personal Library of Alexandria: Callimachus’ Scholarly Works and their Readers (pp.221–48)
Jackie Murray – Poetically Erect: The Female Oriented Humor in Callimachus’ Hymn to Demeter (pp.249–64)
Floris Overduin – The Didactic Callimachus and the Homeric Nicander: Reading the Aetia Through the Theriaca? (pp.265–84)
Ivana Petrovic – Poetry for the New Goddess: A Gift that Keeps on Giving (pp.285–304)
Alexander Sens – Some Aspects of Closure in Callimachus’ Epigrams (pp.305–28)
Evina Sistakou – Denarrating the Narratable in the Aetia: A Postmodern Take on Callimachean Aesthetics (pp.329–50)
Susan Stephens – Celebrating the Games (pp.351–68)
Frederick Williams – Did Erysichthon Eat the Cat? Some Reflections on Call. H.6.110 (pp.369–84)
Index rerum et nominum (pp.385–90)
Index locorum (pp.391–94)


[1] Regrettably, Damien Nelis’ excellent paper on Callimachus’ Aetia and Vergil’s Georgics from the workshop is not included here.