Callimachus and the exchange of cultural capital at court

Evans, Brett, Classics - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Petrovic, Ivana, AS-Classics, University of Virginia

This dissertation examines the social status of poets and the value of poetry as a cultural capital in Hellenistic court society through an investigation of the work of Callimachus. Long considered l’art pour l’art, Callimachus’ poetry has been shown by more recent scholars to play important roles in its social, historical, and religious contexts, and it is argued that Callimachus was a fully-fledged member of the Ptolemaic court society. Little attention, however, has yet been paid to the key questions that arise from this social context: what was the function of poetry at the Ptolemaic court, and what was its value compared to that of rival courtiers’ inventions, military triumphs, wide-ranging political connections, and financial assets? I analyze Callimachus’ Hymns and Aetia 3-4 and argue that he positions his poetry as an invaluable gift to his kings and queens in their struggle for preeminence among rival courts and Greek cities. In so doing, Callimachus portrays himself as worthy of the most distinguished position at court.

I conceptualize Callimachus’ competition with a wide range of courtiers for royal favor at court using Bourdieu’s ideas of cultural capital and the struggle for distinction. I then apply this sociological theory to the case of Callimachus in Ptolemaic Alexandria by making use of inscriptions, documentary papyri, coins, archaeological evidence, contemporary literature, and later historical tradition. These different sources have been quartered off in distinct sub-fields of Classics and Ancient History, and as a result literary scholars rarely consider them together. My approach makes the literary interpretation of Callimachus significant and accessible to those outside the sub-field of Hellenistic poetry and even of Classics at large, especially scholars of court societies, patronage, and the politics of culture.

Chapter One sketches the structure of Hellenistic court society and the place of poets therein, focusing on Callimachus’ Alexandria. Hellenistic courts were hierarchical, hypercompetitive social networks surrounding kings whose high-ranking members were called his philoi, ‘friends’; courtiership was thus a long-term relationship of philia maintained by the reciprocal exchange of gifts. Historical sources indicate that some poets were considered royal philoi, and my analyses of Theocritus Idyll 17 and Posidippus Anathematika 37 AB show that poets presented themselves as philoi vying against a range of courtiers for their patrons’ favor. Moreover, the Ptolemies positioned themselves as the legitimate arbiters of cultural production, allowing them to judge the value of poets accurately. I then argue that the state dinners served to poets at the Alexandrian Museum were a highly valuable symbolic capital comparable to civic sitesis and honorary portions of sacrificial meat. In the language of civic honors, the Museum dinners placed poets on a par with other public benefactors in the court society. I then demonstrate the significance of the royal symposium as a crucial site for the consumption of poets’ cultural capital by the court at large. The chapter concludes by considering the evidence for Callimachus’ long and distinguished career at the Ptolemaic court, both of which make him an ideal case study for how a poet might win and maintain a distinguished position at court.

Chapters Two, Three, and Four examine Callimachus’ Hymns, a collection of six poems in honor of traditional Greek divinities, as a valuable cultural capital which contributes to the Ptolemies’ religious and political aims. Chapter Two begins by reviewing recent arguments in favor of the hymns’ original performances and argues that the collection of Hymns functions as a textual automaton reperforming its splendid Ptolemaic festivals throughout the oikoumene. I then compare Callimachus’ strategy of aligning the Ptolemies with the Olympian gods with the contemporary religious phenomenon of deifying the Ptolemies as synnaoi theoi (‘temple-dwelling gods’) with pre-existing divinities. I both cult and Callimachus’ Hymns the Ptolemies are not only assimilated to the Olympians, but also the Olympians to the Ptolemies. I argue that Callimachus’ presentation of the Olympian court society in the Hymns offers a valuable ‘charter myth’ legitimizing their exercise of power at court. I then demonstrate that the court which Zeus establishes on Olympus in the first hymn is shot through with realia from the courts of Alexander and the Ptolemies, anchoring their historical innovations with an Olympian precedent. In the hymn to Apollo, I show that Apollo’s patronage is analogous to Ptolemaic patronage as attested in numismatic, papyrological, and historical evidence. I argue that the hymn’s celebration of Apollo’s epiphany in Cyrene paves the way for the city’s embrace of Ptolemaic rule. In both hymns, then, Callimachus positions himself as an invaluable ambassador for the Ptolemaic court.

Chapter Three examines Callimachus’ self-portrayal as an agent of deification in the third and fourth hymns to Artemis and Delos. I first compare the series of exchanges by which Artemis attains Olympian prominence to the various ways in which new members of the Ptolemaic house gained status and power at court, including negotiations for honors, performance of rituals, and participation in high-status social engagements. I then compare the gluttony of the deified Heracles, whom Artemis meets on Olympus, to Ptolemaic tryphe and argue that Callimachus hereby makes room for his patrons at the Olympian court. In exchange for his hymn’s gift of divinity, I demonstrate that Callimachus angles for his divine patron’s life-long, preferential philia. I then discuss the hymn to Delos in tandem with the Nicouria Decree, which records the divine honors voted by the League of Islanders to Ptolemy I Soter. I show that Callimachus positions himself in the proem as a poet of the Ptolemaic Museum offering Delos the gift of Ptolemaic cultural capital owed to her as a result of her divinization of Apollo. Callimachus thus positions himself as a crucial intermediary between the Ptolemies and the wider world. In exchange, I argue that he presents himself as worthy of public honors from both Delos and Ptolemy II Philadelphus.

Chapter Four discusses the final hymns to Athena and Demeter as warnings to those who would transgress against the Olympians and Callimachus’ divine Ptolemaic patrons. In the hymn to Athena, the Cronian Law which demands Athena to punish Teiresias for seeing her against her will echoes the prohibition of the first king in Greek imagination, the Median king Deioces, that no one see the king. I argue that Callimachus offers a divine Greek precedent for Athena’s and his patrons’ exercise of power through court ceremonial, and I discuss how Athena’s gifts of compensation to Teiresias transform him into an analogy for a court poet. I then discuss the court politics of feasting in the hymn to Demeter. I argue that Erysichthon’s wish to cut down wood from Demeter’s grove for a dining room in which to feast his friends ceaselessly sets him up as a rival to the divine Ptolemaic kings.

Chapter Five analyzes how Callimachus positions himself towards his patron Berenice II in Aetia 3-4, two books framed by elegies in her honor. Discussing the meaning of ἕδνον at the beginning of the Victoria Berenices, I argue that Callimachus harnesses a Pindaric metaphor of the epinician poem as a ‘bride-price’ to pose as a suitor competing for Berenice’s hand in marriage. I then discuss the resonance of this bridal metaphor for patronage in the Victoria’s remaining fragments, ‘Acontius and Cydippe,’ and the Coma Berenices. I argue that Callimachus offers Berenice the ‘bride-price’ of a public image as an eternal bride.

Hellenistic court poetry has long been considered ivory tower and consumed only by a privileged few. My dissertation shows instead that Callimachus’ poetry aimed to disseminate powerful images of their courts far beyond the royal center. His cultural capital had immense value at court in large part because of its wide ambit and social relevance. In return, Callimachus laid claim to nothing less than the most distinguished position in his patrons’ court society.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Callimachus, Hellenistic Poetry, Ptolemaic Alexandria, Court Society, Cultural Capital, Bourdieu, Hymns, Aetia, Exchange, Gift Exchange
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