Sunday, March 15, 2015


Massimo Giuseppetti, L'isola esile: studi sull'Inno a Delo di Callimaco. Quaderni dei Seminari romani di cultura greca, 16. Roma: Edizioni Quasar, 2013. Pp. 306. ISBN 9788871405339. €31.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Michael Brumbaugh, Tulane University (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Over the last three decades Kallimachos' Hymn to Delos, the longest of his six hymns, has been the focus of more monographs than any other Greek hymn.1 While this poem is exceptional in many ways, two features have made it particularly attractive for scholars of Hellenistic literature. First, the poem's narrative details the saga of Apollo's birth, ground covered at length in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo. Since both texts are extant, this offers a unique opportunity to examine a Hellenistic author's engagement with an earlier work in the same genre. Second, of all Kallimachos' hymns, the Hymn to Delos includes explicit commentary on contemporary political events in the form of the unborn Apollo's encomiastic prophecy detailing the accomplishments of Ptolemy Philadelphos. Consequently, Kallimachos' fourth hymn is an ideal locus for examining literary and historical issues of interest to scholars who work on Hellenistic poetry.

Massimo Giuseppetti's recent contribution to the study of this hymn, L'Isola Esile, is a welcome addition, not only because its insightful and interesting observations add to our understanding of many aspects of the poem, but also because it is among the first treatments to situate the hymn at the crossroads of the Greek literary tradition and its contemporary historical context. The book consists in a brief introduction followed by six chapters, each of which can be read as a self-contained piece. The first, "Un canto per Delo" (pp. 9-43), examines Delos as an ideal focus for Kallimachos' encomiastic project because it is a place charged with cultural prestige (both in terms of cult and the poetic tradition) and a site of contemporary political interest for the Ptolemies. Lacunae in the historical record regarding Ptolemaic involvement with the League of Islanders, the early Delian Ptolemaieia, and the hymn's date of composition make it extremely difficult to construe the relationship between the poem and Ptolemaic activities on Delos, yet Giuseppetti's discussion is immensely helpful in bringing to life significant political and religious associations that would have been automatic for third-century audiences. The second, "'Le primizie delle Muse'" (pp. 45-83), argues that metapoetic references in the hymn create a self-reflexive valence, which in turn invites a meditation on Kallimachean innovation within the genre of the hexameter hymn. Giuseppetti follows this discussion with several observations about this poem's place within the poetry book and more generally about Kallimachos' arrangement of the Hymns. This final section identifies interesting new structural patterns within the collection, building on the work of Hopkins and Ukleja,2 but it might have given attention to important issues associated with the highly likely claim that Kallimachos himself was responsible for the book's organization. For instance, Giuseppetti's arguments could have been even stronger had he addressed underlying issues such as the circumstances of the poems' composition, the extent to which poems may have been reworked for the collection, or when the book was published in its present form. Third, "Nel laboratorio di Callimaco" (pp. 85-121) treats Kallimachos' engagement with earlier extant narratives of Apollo's birth, a topic that has already enjoyed significant attention from scholars. Yet even on such a well-worn path, Giuseppetti manages to make numerous original contributions. Chief among these is surely his novel argument about the hymn's relationship to the Prometheus Bound (pp. 110-121). In the fourth chapter, "Apollo profeta" (pp. 123-164), Giuseppetti examines Apollo's two pre-natal prophecies in terms of the poem's participation in a strictly Hellenic geopolitical discourse. Giuseppetti sees Kallimachos' characterization of Ptolemaic dominion over the oikoumene as totalizing, à la Theokritos, and engaged in dialogue with the pan-Hellenizing, anti-Persian rhetoric of the fifth century and the slogan of Greek freedom at the center of much early Hellenistic political ideology. The fifth chapter, "Aspetti dello stile" (pp. 165-206), is concerned with various issues of style, vocabulary, and poetic technique. The sixth and final chapter, "La metamorfosi di Delo" (pp. 207-243), treats the rhetoric of praise for Delos in connection with the poem and the praise strategies deployed in the Homeric Hymns.

There is undoubtedly a nexus of topics that the reader notices across these six chapters, but Giuseppetti does not impose on his project a thematic or methodological uniformity. He admits to focusing on issues that have been heavily debated or essentially ignored in earlier scholarship.3 His introduction provides a valuable sketch of recent trends in scholarship over the last several decades, but does not set a clear agenda for the book, and the six chapters that follow might have appeared as separate articles. This book makes important contributions to the study of this hymn in relationship to its poetic antecedents and to contemporary Ptolemaic politics. More synthesis might have allowed Giuseppetti to make further persuasive arguments regarding his views on the place Kallimachos' carves out for himself in the overlapping literary and political spheres emerging at the epicenter of the Ptolemaic kingdom.

As the study of Hellenistic poetry becomes increasingly multi-focal, we will require new work that re-evaluates individual poems, poetry books, authors, and Hellenistic literature in toto with an eye to the confluence of the literary and the historical.4 Giuseppetti's contribution to this larger project is both admirable and valuable. He delivers brilliantly on the promise of combining literary and political-historical analysis in a way that adds a valuable dimension to how we read the hymn to Delos and points the way for further work in Hellenistic poetry.


1.   Mineur, W. H. 1984. Callimachus: Hymn to Delos. Leiden; Bing, P. 1988. The Well-Read Muse: Present and Past in the Hellenistic Poets. Göttingen.; Ukleja, K. 2005. Der Delos-Hymnus des Kallimachos innerhalb seines Hymnensextetts. Münster.
2.   Hopkinson, N. 1984. Callimachus: Hymn to Demeter. Cambridge. p. 13; Ukleja 2005. especially pp. 89-107.
3.   "Ho creduto opportuno selezionare alcuni nuclei tematici che affrontino aspetti dibattuti oppure non adeguatamente valutati dalla critica" (pp. 7-8).
4.   A sampling of recent work in this vein includes: Stephens, S. A. 2003. Seeing Double: Intercultural Poetics in Ptolemaic Alexandria. Berkeley; Fantuzzi, M., and Hunter, R. L. 2004. Tradition and Innovation in Hellenistic Poetry. Cambridge; Thalmann, W. G. 2011. Apollonius of Rhodes and the Spaces of Hellenism. Oxford; Acosta-Hughes, B., and Stephens, S. 2012. Callimachus in Context: From Plato to the Augustan Poets. Cambridge; Clayman, D. L. 2014. Berenice II and the Golden Age of Ptolemaic Egypt. Oxford.

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