Casting Off Shadows: Hellenistic Poetry Beyond Callimachean Aesthetics

Casting Off Shadows

Hellenistic Poetry Beyond Callimachean Aesthetics


Third-century Alexandria is often conceptualised as a remarkable site of literary innovation and lauded as the pinnacle of Hellenistic Greek culture. The Ptolemies' cultural programme, drawing the heritage of the Greek mainland to their peripheral capital, figured Alexandria as a cultural crucible. Scholars of Hellenistic literature have capitalised on this Ptolemaic context to unlock multiple literary significances, from the Library's archival influence to the cross-pollination of Greek and non-Greek traditions. Callimachus, in particular, has gained from this contextualisation. The readings of his work have been so productive that he has come to represent the period’s literary habits: Hellenistic poetry slides into ‘Alexandrian’ poetry, which often simply becomes ‘Callimacheanism’. The Augustan fixation on Callimachus subsequently validates this vision; the ‘Roman’ Callimachus becomes the paradigmatic Hellenistic poet.

In this conference, we want to shift our focus away from third-century Alexandria and its ‘Callimachean poetry’ and to challenge this privileging of a ‘Golden Age Poetics’, an idea entangled with issues of colonialism, elitism and empire, both ancient and modern. Importantly, Callimachus’ third-century Alexandria was never the only site of literary production in the Hellenistic period. We want to illuminate what has been obscured by Callimachus’ enduring shadow and to redirect attention to the plurality of poetic styles and traditions throughout the Hellenistic world, with all their synchronic and diachronic diversity. At the same time, by highlighting the range of alternatives to, and interpretations of, ‘Callimachean’ poetics within the variegated world of Hellenistic poetry, we might gain a clearer appreciation of what (if anything) is distinctive about Alexandria and its most famous author. We are particularly interested in alternative traditions after Callimachus: the post-, non- and anti-Callimachean strands of Hellenistic poetry.

The key issues we want to tackle include, but are in no way limited to:

  • Was Callimachus read the same way by all subsequent poets, as the archetype of a Hellenistic aesthetics? How was he received by his immediate and later successors? Do any later authors (Greek or Roman) derive non-Callimachean aesthetic programmes from other Hellenistic sources?
  • How (and how successfully) did other Hellenistic kingdoms foster poetic production and its potential alignment with political interests? How similar was it to Callimachus' poetry?
  • How did hymns inscribed at prominent Hellenistic sanctuaries engage with Greeks on a religious level and how different was this ‘cultic’ poetics?
  • What might a focus on Jewish Hellenistic poetry tell us about how transferable Greek poetic language and forms were to other ethnic and religious contexts?
  • To what extent could a focus on mime fragments extend our appreciation of a non-elite poetics?
  • What were the readerly expectations of more private works, such as verse funerary inscriptions, both in terms of their contexts of encounter and literary awareness?
  • In what way did literary epigram continue to influence its inscribed counterpart, and vice versa? And how did the later epigrammatic tradition understand and reflect upon its ‘literariness’ and status as poetry?

Specific authors and genres which we believe deserve special attention include:

  • Phanocles, Hermesianax, Euphorion, Alexander Aetolus, Rhianus, Lycophron, Parthenius
  • Timon of Phlius, Phoenix, Cercidas, Machon, Rhinthon
  • Inscribed epigram
  • Inscribed Hymns: e.g. Maiistas, Isidorus
  • ‘Didactic’ poetry: e.g. Nicander, Eratosthenes, Cleanthes, Numenius
  • Geographic poetry: Dionysius Calliphontis, Ps.-Scymnus
  • Later Epigrammatists: e.g. Antipater of Sidon, Philodemus
  • Mime fragments
  • Bucolic poetry
  • Hellenistic tragedy
  • Hellenistic Jewish poetry: e.g. Ezekiel’s Exagoge, Philo Historicus, Theodotus
  • Roman poets and their receptions of non-Callimachean poetics

The way we choose to answer these questions and understand these authors has important ramifications for reconstructing the poetic and aesthetic landscape of three centuries, and their influence on the later tradition. More importantly, by approaching afresh this rich, yet under-studied, group of texts, we can continue to reconfigure our ways of analysing Hellenistic poetry; shifting it from the ‘recondite’ and ‘bookish’ preserve of the elite, to works variously and dynamically embedded in the cultural lives of Hellenistic Greeks. For us, the looming presence of Callimachus has cast shadows over the subsequent literary tradition and our understanding of it. This conference aims to cast off those shadows.

Confirmed speakers include Alexander Sens (Georgetown University), Floris Overduin (Radboud Universiteit), Richard Hunter (University of Cambridge), Silvia Barbantani (Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore).