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  • The Poetry Machine: How the Alexandrian Avant-Garde Created a Library

This essay suggests that the Library of Alexandria emerged from poetry. The poetry of the Alexandrian avant-garde influenced the reference tool of the library, known as the Pinakes. I argue by looking at the structure of the Pinakes as a new tool—a new muse—providing artistic inspiration. Furthermore, I contend that the entries in the Pinakes also possessed poetic qualities. I conclude that the Hellenistic library in Alexandria was in fact a poetry machine, both as being poetry itself and as the means to produce poetry.

When it comes to cataloging, a poem is a far cry from a card index.1


The historical origins of storing and retrieving of literature can be traced back to the Library of Alexandria. Within the walls of this library, complex knowledge organizational techniques and practices arose in regards to classification and retrieval of text.2 Such practices had been at play in human culture before,3 but the level of literacy and the organizational qualities this literacy brought about reached a new height in ancient Alexandria.4 [End Page 304]

It is normally assumed that the Alexandrian Library developed its organization skills for purely practical and intellectual purposes; examples follow below. This assumption, however, is questionable. This essay argues that the Alexandrian library was conceived not as a practical tool to store and retrieve literature but as a sort of poetry machine, in the sense that it was poetry itself—and a vehicle to produce even more poetry.

One of the most remarkable poets at the Ptolemaic court—and library—in Hellenistic Alexandria was Callimachus of Cyrene (305–240 B.C.E.). Besides his poetry, he also composed the most important reference tool in the library, the Πίνακες τῶν ἐν πάσῃ παιδείᾳ διαλαμψάντων [Tables of those who distinguished themselves in all branches of learning] in the Pinakes, which served as the catalogue of the library.

I argue that Callimachus’s Pinakes was influenced by his poetry and the way he produced this poetry. If a close intellectual link between Callimachus’s poetry and scholarly works existed, then the processes of storing and retrieving literature were not conducted merely to facilitate those processes in the best possible way. The functional features that these processes possessed were nothing but side effects to their actual purpose: being poetry, and being part of the creation of even more poetry.

Unfortunately the Pinakes in its entirety is lost. However, enough fragments have been preserved to allow us to engage in dialogue about its constitution and purpose.5 In Kallimachos Rudolf Blum identifies the roots of bibliographic discipline in the Pinakes. Blum tries to distinguish between Callimachus as a poet and as a scholar:

His scholarly works, however, which were used by several later authors, are lost, and we can only get a vague idea about some of them from quotations. The poems of Kallimachos have often been dealt with, and they have been duly appreciated as masterpieces of Alexandrian literature; for those, I therefore refer the reader to the relevant literature. My investigation does not deal with the poet Kallimachos but with his achievements as a scholar.

(KAB, p. 125)

The distinction between Callimachus as a poet and a scholar can be challenged. Actually the distinction seems to distort the very logic of how the organization of the Alexandrian library emerged. Blum was trained as a classicist, but he was the library director of the Deutsche Bibliothek in Frankfurt, Germany. He expressed and represented a scientific approach to the library and information that colleagues in his [End Page 305] original field, classics, did not share. The classicist Rudolf Pfeiffer argues in his History of Classical Scholarship (HCS, p. 124) that the connections between Callimachus’s Pinakes and his poetry can’t be ignored. Several other researchers in classics also share this point of view.6

This paper will argue that Callimachus’s scholarly works and poetic works were connected, and therefore, that the organization of the Alexandria Library derived from poetry. Indeed, the emergence of complex library organization must be perceived not as a practical invention for the storage of literature but as poetic machinery.

Below, I will briefly describe the literary avant-garde in Hellenistic Alexandria. An understanding of this literary movement is necessary to grasp my overall argument.


The Greeks that landed on North Africa’s shores to inhabit the newly founded city of Alexandria were immigrants. Their homes were the mainland, shores, and islands of the southern Balkans and Asia Minor, on the other side of the sea that they had crossed. The new Alexandrians were on foreign soil. This both attracted and repulsed them. They were living the dream of Alexander the Great to unite different cultures: yes, Greek (Koine) was the lingua franca, but Alexandria was also inhabited by Jews, Egyptians, and Indians, and their culture stimulated the art and thinking produced in the city.

At the same time, the city exhibited a longing and celebration of the Hellas that was gone: gone as place, because it was located on the other side of the sea, and gone in time, because a great and illustrious era in the Greek-speaking world had ended. The new, power-political realities of the Hellenistic kingdoms were the order of the day. The sentiment of the time, the Zeitgeist of the Alexandrians, was that they felt they lived in the last of days.

Egypt was also the land of papyrus. It grew there. For the Greeks this opened up a much larger consumption of it than before. Papyrus was no longer an object only accessible through trading with foreigners, and that accessibility changed Greek media culture. In Alexandria, for the first time in the Western world, poets began to write for a reading audience. Oral literature, which in the classic era had found itself in crisis and was even excluded from the ideal state by Plato,7 declined even further in the eyes of the educated. It remained popular as entertainment in society in general, but the muscular epic originating with Homer had long lost its aesthetic momentum. [End Page 306]

Now, everything was written down. The Alexandrians sensed that the culture and the time gone by could be caught on papyrus. Writing brought them back home. On the basis of this change in geography and media reality, a new poetry arose. It was an avant-garde poetry, new and different, a shortened, compressed poetry, far more subtle than the oral poetry hitherto performed. In this new poetry, the time that had passed became the past: cultural continuation stopped.

Only rarely would the Hellenistic poets quote directly from Greek stories of the past. This longing for the past was different; the new Alexandrian poetry was an allusion to the Greek past (WRM, p. 83)—allusion in the sense that the poet brought a story out of a common cultural history presumed familiar to the reader. The Alexandrian poets brought the poets of the past back to life by letting them and their stories into their own Alexandrian poetry as figures and themes. It was a necrophile avant-garde. Death, the tombstone, the hereafter, and the resuscitation constituted both the leitmotiv and the purpose of the poets: it was a longing after the Greek culture that they knew had vanished forever.

Callimachus was the third generation of this Alexandrian avant-garde. Before him Zenodotus of Ephesus (330–260 B.C.E.) and before him, Philitas of Cos (c. 340–285 B.C.E.) had initiated this poetry that Callimachus composed with such talent. Below, I will analyze the Pinakes by Callimachus. In some surprising and some obvious ways, this catalogue of the library seems to be connected with—presumably even part of—the poetry of the Alexandrian avant-garde. My examination begins with a section on the structure of the Pinakes, and then the entries within it.


Blum writes on the structure of the Pinakes: “It will be easier to understand the main work of Kallimachos, the compilation of the Pinakes of Greek authors, if we conclude from his hypomnemata that he was capable to peruse and utilize large masses of literature, and that he has mastered the techniques of collection and classification of scientific material” (KAB, p. 137).

The process of taking personal notes in antiquity was called hypomnemata. This can be translated as “memory support” and refers to notes taken during lectures and speeches that arose in the schools of Athens. The notes were not like notes of our era, which normally just have a few keywords, the title of a book, some associations, and so on. No, these students noted everything the teacher said, while listening to his voice. [End Page 307] Later, these notes could be reread, again and again, so students could learn them by heart.8 A well-known example is in the Phaedrus dialogue by Plato: Socrates gets quite upset when he discovers that Phaedrus tried to recite an entire speech given by Lysias with the help of a hidden hypomnemata rather than directly from memory.

Back to Callimachus. His hypomnemata were different; they were quotations from literature. Instead of writing down speeches, he wrote fragments of writings by others who had written down speeches. To a modern-day person, this seems normal. But those days were the first years of what became known as the Hellenistic era. In this context, such hypomnemata were like exponential script; they were different, new. Callimachus’s personal notes were extracts of an existing body of literature.

Blum claims that these deeply original hypomnemata were not just amassed in a great mess, but in a clear and well-organized structure; that Callimachus wanted to be able to navigate them with ease. Their function considered, this effort was not unreasonable. The hypomnemata were a central tool for Callimachus when he composed poetry. He had to have his sources at hand when he wrote. Only via these notes could he grasp the culture of the past. Although Callimachus must be considered original in his ways of working, the habit of composing poetry on the basis of small, functional reference tools was not something he invented. The Hellenistic poet and scholar Philitas of Cos—mentioned above, also part of the avant-garde—created this habit with his Aτακτοι γλωσσαι (Ataktoi glossai). Though not systematic, this was a list of dialect expressions, technical terms, and Homeric vocabulary. Callimachus is considered a student of Philitas, as he praises him in his Aetia (HCS, pp. 90–91; fr. I. 9–12).

Having the organized hypomnemata at hand permitted Callimachus both to describe the past and escape it. This tool devoted to the making of poetry was a structure that Callimachus would both expand and refine in his Pinakes. By organizing his notes, he had actually already created a system of classification to keep literature in a controlled structure.

The intimate relation between the writing poet—in Hellenistic times an entirely new type of artist—and his or her personal notes concerning literature of earlier times became the source of inspiration. With the Pinakes, this relationship existed between the writing poet and the entire library. Not only were the personal notes the song of the muses, no, the entire library became this song. The meaning of the Pinakes, it [End Page 308] seems, was not really about storing and retrieving literature but about producing it. The library was in fact a machine to produce poetry.

The point about the library as the muse is also presented by Peter Bing in The Well-Read Muse. In his book, Bing unfolds the media reality of the Hellenistic era by its poets’ odes to their muse. He makes clear that the Hellenistic muse is a different one than in classic times: It does not remember its stories from memory, it does not sing. It remembers its stories from script. It is a reading and writing muse. In Bing’s analysis, one understands the depth of the fact that Alexandrians placed their library in the Mouseion. Nothing less than the raw, ancient power of poetic inspiration was concealed within its walls (WRM, pp. 144–46). The Pinakes was given a structure to produce poetry.


The section above deals with the structure of the Pinakes, where it came from, what it meant. In the present section, my focus will be on the entries in it. They must have been somewhat similar to the epigrams Callimachus also ingeniously composed. Frank Nisetich, among others, has made this claim, writing in his preface to his translation of Callimachean poetry: “This massive scholarly enterprise makes itself felt in the poetry of Callimachus. It does not, however, fall upon the page with a thud or make the poet a bore. Epigram 55, for example, which could almost be taken for an entry in the Pinakes, is anything but stuffy.”9

The epigram was, in the classic era, a brief inscription carved in stone, both tombstones and monuments, or on tables, called pinax.10 In the plural form these are called pinakes, just like the title of Callimachus’s work. The epigrams commemorated those in the past and their wording was rather simple. This changed in the Hellenistic era. Though they remained short, their language became much more delicate, complex, and dense. The medium also changed. Some epigrams were written on papyrus in the classic era; this now became the norm. The change in medium also marked the beginning of a new literary trick: poets began to play with the epigram as genre. Epigrams were supposed to be engraved on monuments, but the monument and its setting in the landscape were obviously lost on the flat, bare surface of the papyrus. This surface presented a possibility, the imagining of a literary landscape, where characters’ roles could be changed and famous stories turned upside down on tombstones and monuments only perceivable to the inner eye. [End Page 309]

In Hellenistic times, many poets began commemorating great cultural figures of the past like Homer, Hesiod, and Pindar by composing epigrams in their honor.11 The change in medium meant that these epigrams written on papyrus were actually a remediated poetic heritage from engraved stone. The poets were building monuments to their ancestors. They erected fictional tombs and statues because the real ones were too far away to reach, on the other side of the sea. The Alexandrian poets were rebuilding their cultural past, and papyrus became the soil that permitted them to conquer and shape its landscape.

Did the epigrams have any functional resemblance to the entries in the Pinakes? Even though sepulchral epigrams were to become more refined in the Hellenistic era, their basic features remained in the epigrams of the Alexandrian avant-garde. The genre would simply have been lost without them. Bing describes the traditional, sepulchral epigram in the following way: “The dead man is named, his ancestry and homeland established, his profession characterized and his achievements praised” (WRM, p. 59).

Monica Berti and Virgilio Costa write about Callimachus’s entries in his Pinakes: “1) he divided Greek authors into classes and—if necessary—into sub-classes; 2) within the classes and sub-classes, he arranged them alphabetically; 3) whenever possible, he added brief biographical data to the names; 4) under an author’s name he listed the titles of his works, arranging them in categories; 5) he cited the first words of each work and its extent, i.e., its number of lines.”12

The entries in the Pinakes would name the author, including his origins, which were evident in the name (e.g., Aristophanes of Byzantium); and praise the author’s achievements, first in a short biography, then by listing his/her works in a bibliography, with incipit and stichometric sum (point 5). Besides this final point following the biography, the epigrams and Pinakes entries are similar. In fact, even if Callimachus was actually given the task of writing the Pinakes—legend has it that the Ptolemies commissioned him to produce it—that does not explain why he wrote it the way he did. And as can be easily ascertained, the same information is shared both in an epigram and in an entry in the Pinakes. Nevertheless, in almost all library history, the Pinakes is regarded as the invention of both library catalogues and bibliography, as if Callimachus invented it out of the blue (GL, p. 67). But Callimachus did not “invent” a “bio-bibliography” that also served as a catalogue. It was not a steam engine, not a flashy new thing built on the basis of a sudden, ingenious thought, no; it was the product of a scholar who for a long time had [End Page 310] already described many thinkers and poets in his own poetry, before taking on this task. Callimachus must have kept on writing, changing, evolving, and refining his ways. The Pinakes was not an invention alien to everything else he had written. Nor were the entries epigrams, of course; they merely possessed remarkable, functional similarities with epigrams.

Another link between the Pinakes and epigrams lies in the word pinax, as briefly mentioned above. Pinakes were tables hung on walls with small epigrams written on them. In the epigrams by Callimachus, it is difficult to judge which epigrams were in fact fictional and which were written on monuments or pinax. The reader must remember that all that is left are fragments on papyrus. But how many were “real”? It is known with certainty that Callimachus composed epigrams on pinax, but his artistic originality makes it impossible to categorize the epigrams as fictional or not (QT, p. 30). Nevertheless, some are with certainty “real.” The same goes for the entries in the Pinakes. In fact, Callimachus named his enormous list of writers Pinakes because it consisted of small tables. The Pinakes was not only a work of one hundred twenty scrolls: these pinakes were hung on the shelves of the library, close to the writers they described.13

But were these entries in the Pinakes written on pinax placed all over the library like epigrams? At the very least, they had quite striking functional similarities. Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636 C.E.) provided evidence for this in the latest part of the history of antiquity. He is a very late example to use in this context; eight hundred years had passed since Callimachus worked in Alexandria. But Isidore is relevant. He is considered among the church fathers who saved and stored the literature of antiquity. He may have also preserved the organizational principles of the storing of literature. Isidore had epigrams written on the front of the cupboards that contained his library in the cathedral of Seville14 along with a portrait of the writer whose works were in each cupboard. This is the epigram on Augustine of Hippo (354–430 C.E.), painted on cupboard 7:

VII. Augustine He lies who says he has read you entirely. What reader could possess your complete works? For you, Augustine, glow with a thousand volumes. Your own books bear witness to what I say. However pleasing may be the wisdom of books by many authors, If Augustine is there, he himself will suffice you.

(EIS, p. 17) [End Page 311]

These epigrams mimic the function of pinax in the library of Hellenistic Alexandria. But was this function a feature inherited from the library? Possibly, since Isidore reported detailed knowledge about that library in his works and the armarium [cupboard] used to store books (EIS, pp. 138–39, 310). He even composed epigrams to the cupboards that compared the poets contained within. Here is the epigram on cupboard 11, beginning with the claim of the artistic supremacy of Prudentius:

XI. Prudentius, Avitus, Juvencus, Sedulius If Maro, if Flaccus, if Naso and Persius raise a shudder, If Lucan and Papinius disgust you, Sweet Prudentius of distinguished speech is at hand; With his various poems this noble one is enough. Read through the learned poem of eloquent Avitus. Behold—Juvencus is there with you, and Sedulius, Both equal in tongue, both flourishing in verse. They bear large cups from the gospel fountain. Leave off, therefore, waiting on pagan poets— While you can have such good things, what is Callirhoe to you?

(EIS, p. 17)

Such comparisons are also found in Hellenistic epigrams; for example, in poems by Dioscorides (at the end of the third century C.E.) examined below. One has to ask if Isidore was alone with his idea and use of such epigrams, or if he carried on a tradition not only by preserving the literature of the past but also by preserving the preservation itself. Could it be that he maintained the organizational features from the library in Alexandria? Were the entries in Callimachus’s Pinakes also small, bedazzling descriptions of authors, trying to evoke in scholars a thirst for more, either when consulting the scrolls of the Pinakes or strolling around the library and looking at the pinakes on the shelves? The only evidence that has reached us suggests that it is possible. Annette Harder comments on the catalogue of Sicilian cities composed by Callimachus and embedded in his Aetia (Causes). She writes:

Apart from these more or less explicit references to sources, there are also other hints about the consultation of sources, which may even involve suggesting that the reader goes to read the sources for himself if he wants to know more. . . . As Callimachus’ descriptions of the various towns and their foundations are very brief and often somewhat cryptic (such as, e.g., [End Page 312] fr. 43.48–49, “I know of Cretan Minoa, where the daughters of Cocalus poured boiling water on the son of Europa”), the passage seems to invite the readers to go and read these works for themselves.15

It seems unlikely that Callimachus, demonstrating his knowledge of this trick to engage scholars in reading by enigmatic cataloging in the Aetia, would not have used the same trick in the Pinakes. It was, after all, the key to the library. Of course, the biographic descriptions in the Pinakes must have been more or less refined; indeed they must have varied a lot, depending on Callimachus’s judgment of the author. In some cases he would give biographies epigrammatic qualities, to honor those authors, and in some cases kept the descriptions simpler. Such is also the nature of Isidore’s epigrams viewed in their totality. Nevertheless, the real question seems to be why Callimachus would not—at least in some cases—have repeated the characteristics of the catalogue in the Aetia. This, more than any vague argument about the nature of his lost Pinakes, is the evidence we have of how he actually catalogued. The entries in the Pinakes—the best of them, at least—were small pieces of avant-garde poetry.


Above, I have analyzed the structure of, and entries in, the Pinakes. In the context of the Alexandrian avant-garde, could it be that this close relation between the Pinakes and poetry, composed by the scholars it guided, somehow expressed the aesthetics of these scholars? In what follows, I develop a deeper and wider perspective as to why the Pinakes came into being. I will argue that the Pinakes expresses the logic of a central element in the literary movement that was the Alexandrian avant-garde: the Ergänzungsspiel.

Peter Bing coined the term Ergänzungsspiel to describe the Alexandrian avant-garde. Even though he writes in English, he prefers this German term over concretization.16 The English term does not to the same extent express the element of self-imagining, dream-away game in what is going on: an element is taken out of its context, and by scanty indications one has to reestablish this context. In Hellenistic times, the epigrams were occasionally such Ergänzungsspiel, though not all epigrams were Ergänzungsspiel (SM, p. 91). The context—a landscape or urban space—that had once by its mere presence explained all the inexplicable of the engraving in a monument, was gone. Only the text [End Page 313] was left, alone, far away from its now-just-dawning totality. How it feels to read such an epigram is best experienced simply by reading one written by Callimachus:

Artemis, for you Phileratis here set up this offering. Accept it, lady, and keep her safe.

(SM, p. 91: Epigram 33 Pf.)

Who is Phileratis? What offering has she set up for Artemis, in the hope that she will receive it and keep her safe? We have no answer. We cannot get any answers; the context of the epigram is unknown. And yet, we begin to imagine. The context is dawning in us, as it was in the minds of the readers of this poem in Hellenistic Alexandria. We imagine Phileratis, the offering, the surroundings, the reaction of Artemis. We begin to play an Ergänzungsspiel.

The question is, now, did the search for the now-lost context of the epigrams have anything to do with the entries in the Pinakes? Callimachus’s somewhat cryptic catalogue seems to be written with such an enigmatic intention. But the connection also seems to be grounded in more concrete, overlapping features. For example, in Greek antiquity, the collected works of an author were often considered to be equivalent to a tombstone.17 But could such authorship replace the tombstone with an epigram? Could it be the lost context? Yes. Callimachus actually refers to this phenomenon in one of his epigrams:

Astakides the Cretan, the goatherd, was abducted by a nymph from the mountain, so now it’s sacred Astakides. No longer beneath Diktaean oaks, no longer of Daphnis will we herdsman sing, but evermore of Astakides.

(SM, pp. 102–3: Epigram 22 Pf.)

This epigram is an ironic comment about the poet Theocritus of Syracuse (c. 310–250 B.C.E.). He won great fame for his bucolic poems depicting the lives of goatherds, one of them involving Daphnis. What Callimachus basically does is to allude to the distinct particularities of bucolic poetry, saying: wouldn’t it be time for something new? (SM, pp. 103–5).

Callimachus also composed epigrams in which the Ergänzungsspiel consisted of connections to other epigrams. For example, he wrote an epigram on his father and himself: [End Page 314]

Whoever you are who bends your step past my tomb, know that I   am both child and father of Callimachus the Cyrenaean. You are sure to know them both. The one led his country(?)   troops, the other sang beyond the reach of envy . . .

You bend your step past the tomb of Battus’ son, well skilled   in song, well able to raise a welcome laugh over wine.

(SM, p. 99: Epigram 21 and 35 Pf.)

Note especially the extra metrum play: the names occur, but not on the fictional tombstone, where they should have been placed, above the epigram. No, they are mentioned within the epigram that commemorates the other person. As such, they constitute a small web, referring to each other, and only by these references do they reveal the identity of the bespoken person. Some epigrams both depict authorships and refer to each other. These epigrams are by the poet Dioscorides (end of third century B.C.E.), briefly mentioned above due to his similarity with Isidore:

This is the tomb of Sophocles, friend, whom the Muses     entrusted   a sacred pledge to my consecrated hands. It was he who, when I was still treading the rude threshing     sledge   in Phlius, adapted me to the golden show and dressed me in delicate purple. But now that he’s dead   I have stayed here the foot that danced so well . . .

I too, Frisky the red-beard, stand guard at a tomb, the tomb     of Sositheos,   just as one of my brothers in town stands guard over Sophocles. For Sositheos carried the ivy crown,   a man worthy—yes, by the chorus—of satyrs from Phlius. And me, who had already been nurtured in modern ways,     he made me   recall my homeland by reverting to archaic practice . . .

(WRM, p. 40: AP VII 37 + 707)

These are not poems by Callimachus, but they belong to the Alexandrian avant-garde. They describe tombstones, erected for writers, and as such they glorify the past, not by mimicking it but by bringing [End Page 315] it alive in a new aesthetic expression. They might not be as complex or mysterious as at least some of Callimachus’s epigrams, but they are still fictional. The statues tell a shared story, though placed miles away in the landscape: Sophocles was buried within Athens and Sositheos outside. Dioscorides composed his epigrams to claim the equality of the poetry of the immediate past and the poetry long judged worthy of admiration. Bing writes about these epigrams:

No real tomb, statue or inscription need come into play any more: . . . [it] is nothing less than the entire transformation of the world into an interior, literary landscape. Thus, not just the poet’s life . . . but also their works offer a clear sign that these poets existed in a world of books. Is it not significant, then, that that world itself was situated, as it seems, in the Muses’ domain, that is their shrine, the Museum of Alexandria? The implications of the “reading” Muse, namely that the goddess’ inspiration and the written record could become very nearly the same, are made the more substantial through the coincidence of the Muses’ domain and the book-world of the poet. Together, they strongly suggest that the books have become the vehicle, at least, of poetic inspiration, if not its equivalent.

(WRM, p. 40)

According to Bing the literature opens up an imaginary landscape, composed of elements from the real world but organized with a logic of its own. These elements are tombstones, statues, and monuments all carrying inscriptions, with potentially endless crisscross connections, unburdened by the geography of the true world. These epigrams talk to and about each other, over great distances and on different subjects. They constitute a series of portraits of authors and a structure. It is a landscape of an almost divine nature, representing a sort of machine— “the vehicle,” as Bing puts it—to produce poetry. It seems likely that it has even become the muse itself.

Bing’s analysis of epigrams does not aim at depicting the functionality of the library in Hellenistic Alexandria. He writes merely about epigrams, about their aesthetics and ways of working. But what he concludes indeed seems to mirror the way the Pinakes worked. Like this landscape of literature, praised and structured in epigrams, the Pinakes was also a mental constellation of writers placed in a well-organized totality. And is it not remarkable that at the same time the epigrams themselves are vehicles for poetic production and poetry? This vehicle feature in the epigrams resembles, from all the evidence given, how one would describe the Pinakes. The Pinakes also contained a sort of imaginary landscape. [End Page 316] Its landscape was the library, the scrolls kept within the Mouseion. Even the entries in the Pinakes were placed on the furniture of the library, just as epigrams on tombstones. They both enlightened and tempted the reader passing by the cupboards and shelves, just as in the library of Isidore of Seville.


The Hellenistic era was a bookish one; writing for the first time really became the focal point of all intellectual activity. The Alexandrian poets and scholars wrote. To see poetry written, and not only hearing it, provoked entirely new aesthetic expressions—expressions that were compressed and yet tied to the tales of the past, now written down.

Ultimately, the library of Alexandria was the materialized vision of the avant-garde poets that built it. Its functionality of containing the past and giving access to it—thus enabling the production of new poetry— expressed the poetics of this literary wave.

The Library of Alexandria was placed within the Mouseion: the library became the muse, and written text was now the inspiration needed to compose poetry. In fact, being structured in the form and logic of the newest avant-garde poetry, it was poetry. Let us consider the library an enigmatic piece of mechanics, an ode to itself and the culture it contained; a constant, reciprocal action between the forever lost, the momentarily resurrected, and the possibility of the new, the unknown. This library was a poetry machine, sparklingly beckoning scholars from all over the known world to try their luck in Alexander’s city of dreams.

Ole Olesen-Bagneux
Copenhagen, Denmark


1. Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 90.

2. Rudolf Blum, Kallimachos: The Alexandrian Library and the Origins of Bibliography (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), hereafter abbreviated KAB; Heather Phillips, “The Great Library of Alexandria?” Library Philosophy and Practice (2010): 1–13; Konstantinos Staikos, The Great Libraries: From Antiquity to the Renaissance (New Castle: Oak Knoll Press, 2000), hereafter abbreviated GL; Yun Lee Too, The Idea of the Library in the Ancient World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); J. Tønsberg, Offentlige biblioteker i Romerriget. i det 2. århundrede e. Chr. (Copenhagen: Danmarks Biblioteksskole, 1976). [End Page 317]

3. Denise Schmandt-Besserat, How Writing Came About (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996).

4. Rudolf Pfeiffer, History of Classical Scholarship: From the Beginnings to the End of the Hellenistic Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968); hereafter abbreviated HCS.

5. Francis J. Witty, “The Pinakes of Callimachus,” Library Quarterly 28 (1958): 132–38.

6. Peter Bing, The Well-Read Muse: Present and Past in Callimachus and the Hellenistic Poets (Ann Arbor: Michigan Classical Press, 2008); hereafter abbreviated WRM.

7. Eric A. Havelock, The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986).

8. Michel Foucault, l’Herméneutique du sujet : Cours au Collège de France, 1981–1982 (Paris: Seuil, 2001).

9. Frank Nisetich, The Poems of Callimachus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. xxiii.

10. Claude Meillier, Callimaque et son temps (Lille: Publications de Université de Lille, 1979); hereafter abbreviated QT.

11. Benjamin Acosta-Hughes, “The Poem Remembers: Conceptualization of Memory in the Poetry of Callimachus and Cavafy,” Classical and Modern Literature 23 (2003): 19–36.

12. Monica Berti and Virgilio Costa, “The Ancient Library of Alexandria: A Model for Classical Scholarship in the Age of Million Book Libraries,” paper presented at the International Symposium on the Scaife Digital Library, Lexington, Kentucky, 2009.

13. Edward Alexander Parsons, The Alexandrian Library: Glory of the Hellenic World (London: Cleaver-Hume Press Ltd., 1952).

14. Stephen A. Barney et al., eds., The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 16; hereafter abbreviated EIS.

15. M. A. Harder, “From Text to Text: The Impact of the Alexandrian Library on the Work of Hellenistic Poets,” in Ancient Libraries, ed. J. König, K. Oikonomopoulou, and G. Woolf (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 96–108 (102).

16. Peter Bing, The Scroll and the Marble: Studies in Reading and Reception in Hellenistic Poetry (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009), p. 86; hereafter abbreviated SM.

17. Jenö Platthy, Sources on the Earliest Greek Libraries with the Testimonia (Amsterdam: A. M. Hakkert, 1968), p. 96. [End Page 318]

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