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Which Came First: Intentional Anachronism in Callimachus' Iambus 1

Laura Marshall

Penn State

This paper will argue that Callimachus intentionally confuses the geometric discoveries of Thales, Pythagoras, and Euphorbus in Iambus 1 in order to force the audience into the role he wants them to play: scholars arguing over preeminence.

            Previous scholars have been puzzled by the way that Thales is found in Iambus 1 drawing figures that Euphorbus first discovered (lines 59-60). Euphorbus is a way of referencing Pythagoras, since Pythagoras claimed that he was a reincarnated form of the Trojan hero Euphorbus (Diogenes Laertius 1.24, Diodorus Siculus 10.6.4). If, however, this diagram was first discovered by Pythagoras, why is Thales (who lived earlier) pictured drawing it?

            Scholars have attempted to solve this problem in a variety of ways that are unsatisfying. Pfeiffer argues that it was actually Euphorbus (not Pythagoras) who first discovered this theorem (Pfeiffer 168 on line 59), and Pythagoras knew of it from his later reincarnation. Burkert nuances Pfeiffer’s argument with the idea that “Pythagoras made his discoveries in an earlier incarnation,” implying that it might not necessarily be his incarnation as Euphorbus (Burkert, 420). White considers the “notion of a Trojan mathematician is patently absurd” and argues that Thales must have made the discovery but it was not recorded (White 13), so Pythagoras later got credit for it. White and Konstan (who takes Pfeiffer’s view), gesture toward reading these lines in light of the larger theme of Iambus 1 (Hipponax’s injunction not to argue over preeminence), but neither recognizes the ways in which the poem forces just that reaction (White 13, Konstan 137). By introducing an intentional anachronism, the narrator ensures that his audience will be scholars arguing over who discovered something first: Euphorbus, Thales, or Pythagoras.

            There is some evidence that this debate over priority in geometry was contemporary with Callimachus. According to Eudemus of Rhodes (c. 370-300 BCE), it is Thales who first brought geometry from Egypt and Pythagoras was a late-comer to the study (Wehrli fr. 133). A fragment of Hermesianax (early 3rd c. BCE) states that Pythagoras discovered geometric ideas that sound similar to what is described in Iambus 1 (ἑλίκων κομψὰ γεωμετρίης / εὑρόμενον, 7.86-7). Iambus 1 has generally been read as an injunction to scholars arguing over their own priority in discoveries, but scholarly battles are often fought by proxy in arguments about the work of others.

            This is not to say that Callimachus himself is uninterested in who gets credit for their work. According to Diogenes Laertius, Callimachus states that Pythagoras did not author a work on astronomy (Diogenes Laertius 9.22-23, Pf. 442), and Callimachus’ Pinakes project necessarily involves attributing works to certain authors. However, the Pinakes are a different endeavor than iambic poetry, and the narrator of Iambus 1 is Hipponax, the iambic poet. As Acosta-Hughes points out, “almost every syllable in the first two lines [of Iambus 1] serves to deceive the audience” (37). The second-person address, choliambic meter, and other features make the audience expect a more typical iambic poem, but the third and fourth lines change this expectation. I argue that this manipulation of the audience is not abandoned after the opening lines but continues into the heart of the poem and the discussion of the seven sages.

            While scholars argue over who invented these geometric discoveries first, Callimachus’ Hipponax presents the seven sages (and Thales in particular) as interested in the knowledge itself rather than who gets credit for it. By introducing this intentional anachronism, the narrator forces the audience into the role he assigns them at the beginning and ensures that the poem will have resonance far beyond ancient Alexandria. The readers will always be ὦνδρεϲ οἳ νῦν (the men of today, line 6).

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Hellenistic Poetry

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