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This paper argues that Kallimachos’ repudiation of the“Assyrian River” in the closing lines of the Hymn to Apollo constitutes a significant choice that should be read within the political ideology of the hymn and against the backdrop of contemporary Ptolemaic-Seleukid antagonism. This reference to the Euphrates is metonymic for the Seleukid empire and Apollo’s denigration of it is meant to undermine the ideological connection between that dynasty and its patron divinity.

The epilogic ending of Kallimachos’ Hymn to Apollo features Apollo and Phthonos (“Envy”) in a heated debate about poetic tastes. Drawing on a common poetological water metaphor Nünlist (1998), Asper (1997), Phthonos whispers to Apollo that he is not impressed by a poet who does not sing as much as the sea (οὐκ ἄγαμαι τὸν á¼€οιδὸν ὃς οὐδá¾½ á½…σα πÏŒντος á¼€είδει, 107). Kicking away the critic, Apollo indicates his preference for quality over quantity by contrasting a mighty river choked with garbage and a pure trickle of water coming from a sacred spring. One of the most frequently discussed passages in Kallimachos, this scene has been read since antiquity as a statement of Kallimachean aesthetics, eg. Williams (1978), Köhnken (1981), Kahane (1994), Traill (1998). Situating this passage within the context of poetic polemics, Giangrande (1992) sees in this rebuke Kallimachos’ appropriation of Apollo as a champion of his aesthetic. With scholarly attention thus focused on working out Kallimachos’ metaphor, little has been said about Kallimachos’ choice of river.

I begin by demonstrating that Kallimachos’ audience would have readily associated the “Assyrian River” with the Euphratesas indicated in the scholia, (pace Huxley 1971). Already in Herodotos (1.185-186; 1.191) and Xenophon (passim), the Euphrates was a potent symbol in the Assyrian landscape. After the death of Alexander, the important arterial gained further prominence as a geopolitical boundary between emerging Diadoch empires. Finally, during the Third Syrian War (246-241 BCE), the Euphrates became emblematic for the bitter enmity between the Ptolemies and Seleukids, marking the furthest extent of Ptolemy III’s advance on Seleukos II (BCHP 11).

In Kallimachos’ hymn, Apollo maligns the chief river of the Seleukid empire by describing it as full of mud (πολλά λύματα γῆς, 108-109) and refuse (πολὺς συρφετÏŒς, 109). By putting this criticism of the Euphrates in the mouth of Apollo, Kallimachos effectively challenges the well-known Seleukid claim to Apollo’s favor and patronage. Prominent in Seleukid royal iconography and central to the dynasty’s ideological program, Apollo was purported to bethe father of Seleukos and thus founder of the dynasty, Hoover (1996), Erickson (2009).

Kallimachos compounds Apollo’s rejection of the Seleukids by emphasizing the god’s connection to the Ptolemies. The Apollo of Kallimachos’ hymn is the founder and patron of sanctuaries and cities within the Ptolemaic sphere of influence. Neglecting the Seleukid east, most notably Ionia, the poem traces an itinerary of Apolline foundations from Sparta (Ptolemaic ally in the Chremonidian War), to Thera (site of a massive Ptolemaic navel base), to Kyrene (Kallimachos’ native city, reconciled with the Ptolemies c.250). As in the Hymn to Delos, where Apollo makes a show of his deference toPtolemy II Philadelphos (4.160ff.), the Hymnto Apollo cultivates a close connection between Apollo and Ptolemy, linking the interests of the king to those of the god (á½…στις ἐμá¿· βασιλῆι, καὶ ἈπÏŒλλωνι μάχοιτο, 2.27). In this context, Apollo's repudiation of the Euphrates rounds out Kallimachos' appropriation of the god as a champion of Ptolemaic ideology.

This paper offers a further dimension to our understanding of the polemical scene at the end Kallimachos’ Hymn to Apollo by investigating the geopolitical significance of the Euphrates within the framework of the poem’s ideological treatment of Apollo as a political figure linked with the Ptolemies rather than the Seleukids.


  • Asper, M. 1997. Onomata Allotria. Stuttgart.
  • Erickson, K. 2009. The Early Seleucids, their Gods and their Coins. PhD. Exeter.
  • Giangrande, G. 1992. “The Final Line in Callimachus’ Hymn to Apollo.” Habis 23: 53-62.
  • Hoover, O. D. 1996. Kingmaker: A Study in Seleukid Political Imagery. Ontario.
  • Huxley, G. 1971. “Kallimachos, the Assyrian River and the Bees of Demeter.” GRBS 12.2: 211-15.
  • Kahane, A. 1994. “Callimachus, Apollonius, and the Poetics of Mud.” TAPA 124: 121-133.
  • Köhnken, A. 1981. “Apollo’s Retort to Envy’s Criticism (Two Questions of Relevance in Callimachus, Hymn 2, 105ff.).” AJP 102: 411–22.
  • Nünlist, R. 1998. Poetologische Bildersprache in der frühgriechischen Dichtung. Stuttgart.

Traill, D. A. 1998. “Callimachus’ Singing Sea (Hymn 2.106).” CP 93: 215–22.

Williams, F. 1978. Callimachus. Hymn to Apollo: A Commentary. Oxford.

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