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Can the Hellenistic Period be explored through the poetry of Theocritus and Callimachus?
The work of Theocritus and Callimachus represents some part of the product produced by the flourishing Greek literary culture under the patronage of Ptolemies, particularly Philadelphus, at the museum and library of Alexandria. Ptolemy the second provided the conditions, under which they could study, collect and write vast amounts of Greek literature, and so, in return, they praised him in their poetry; it is in the context of this praise that some further light can be cast on the culture and society in Ptolemaic Egypt, but more importantly on the way in which the Ptolemies responded to the demands of Hellenistic Kingship, both in a general sense and with regard to particular circumstances they found in their new country. The mimetic nature of Idylls 2, 14 and 15, which are meant to reflect accurately real life, give a unique insight into the everyday lives and concerns of members of a Hellenistic kingdom and give an impression which is not affected by the demands of royal propaganda, as is the case with Idyll 17 and Callimachus' Hymn to Delos. Therefore poetry is able to show how the Kings wished themselves to be portrayed as well as a small glimpse of how the Greek everyman viewed what they were doing in Egypt. This inevitably means that the study will be confined to this kingdom alone, but it is nevertheless still highly useful. It is fitting to start with the two poems which most obviously praise Ptolemy Philadelphus because it was under him that Alexandrian poetry really began to flourish; these are Theocritus' seventeenth idyll and Callimachus' Hymn to Delos. Hellenistic Kingship theory demanded many things of rulers, but most important was three qualities, martial prowess, generosity and divine associations, all of which are presented with copious detail in Theocritus' encomium; the idyll is an extensive, even verging on sycophantic, piece of royal propaganda. It opens with a double mention of Zeus' name as the most preeminent among the gods, quickly followed by that of Ptolemy, who is comparatively the noblest of men. Theocritus then proceeds to say that his father Ptolemy Soter, now deified, reclines among the gods in close association with both Alexander and Heracles, to whom both kings traced their lineage. Not only does this make Philadelphus the son of a god, but implies that Alexander approves of the Ptolemaic dynasty as his legitimate successor in Egypt and that the Ptolemies are just another branch of the Argead bloodline traced down from Heracles; both important parts of the process of legitimisation that was essential in the early years of the kingdom. He also mentions his mother Berenice, who is said to share temples and holy rights with her husband, and this is an early indication of the establishment of dynastic ruler cult in Egypt by the rulers themselves, as opposed to the spontaneous "bottom up" nature of civic ruler cult which had already been prevalent in the generation before Philadelphus. The theme of divine approval is continued with a further reference to Zeus and makes an appeal of legitimacy to an authority higher even than Alexander; Ptolemy is a favourite of Zeus "the preserver of illustrious kings" who thundered when he was born and gave him treasure and empire on Earth. Over half the encomium is taken up with the divine
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