Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.10.43

Luigi Spina, La forma breve del dolore: ricerche sugli epigrammi funerari greci.   Amsterdam:  Adolf M. Hakkert, 2000.  Pp. 101.  ISBN 90-256-1145-1.  

Reviewed by Alexander Sens, Georgetown University (
Word count: 889 words

This short monograph consists of three essays on ancient literary and inscriptional epitaphs. In general, Spina is interested in the dynamics of a form whose brevity both imposes limitations and simultaneously creates possibilities for the poet, but each of the chapters is essentially an independent piece with little connection to the others. Of the three chapters, the third is new; the first two were published previously (in Vichiana 18 [1989] 12-39 and in G. Arrighetti and F. Montanari, edd., Atti del Convegno "La componente autobiografica nella poesia greca e latina fra realtà e artificio letterario" [Pisa, 1993] 163-78), and these are reprinted here without change to the text but with occasional supplementation to the notes and brief appendixes discussing work appearing subsequent to their original publication.

The first chapter contains a discussion of Callimachus' epigram on the suicide of Cleombrotus, who is said to have killed himself after having read Plato's work on the soul (i.e. the Phaedo) and of that poem's reception by Cicero, by the translator of the Epigrammata Bobiensia, and by later Greek authors. Spina's starting point is the observation that the subject of the epigram shares the name of one of the two students of Socrates said at Pl. Phaed. 59c to have been away during their teacher's last hours. Spina rejects the possibility that Callimachus means us to understand that Cleombrotus killed himself out of shame at his absence or that another man of the same name is at issue and argues instead that Callimachus' use of the name of an absent student forms part of an ironic critique of the internal contradictions within the dialogue (which denounces suicide while glorifying the soul's freedom from the body). Here greater clarity on the precise dynamics of the irony would be welcome. Indeed the opposition which, as Spina notes, the poem draws between speaking and reading is suggestive if we suppose the Callimachean Cleombrotus to be the very man absent from Socrates' death: does his misconception have anything to do with the written word's failure to convey what Cleombrotus' teacher could have expressed unambiguously had he only been present? In any case, the identification of the subject of the epigram with Socrates' student is complicated by the Latin indirect tradition, which universally transmits Theombrotus rather than Kleombrotus, and much of the balance of the chapter consists of a stimulating and speculative examination of this tradition, reflected most prominently in two references to the epigram in Cicero and the translation of the Epigrammata Bobiensia. Spina suggests that the form in Th- could have been introduced in the course of the composition or publication of Pro Scauro 4, perhaps under the influence of the immediately preceding reference to Themistocles, and that Cicero could then have reproduced the same mistaken form at Tusc. 1.34.84; the translator of the Epigr. Bob. chose the form in Th- rather than the form transmitted in his text of Callimachus' epigram on the basis of Cicero. Particularly interesting, if necessarily uncertain, are Spina's remarks on the final, corrupt pentameter of the translation in Epigrammata Bobiensia. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the subsequent reception of the Cleombrotus story and is followed by an appendix discussing subsequent studies of the poem.

The second essay treats the autobiographical voice in funerary epigrams, exploring briefly the complex relationship between the reader and the often shifting identity of the first-person narrator. The chapter began its life as a conference paper and undoubtedly made better sense as a contribution to a group of essays on a common theme. In the context of this book, the chapter is both the least detailed and to my mind least interesting of the three, except insofar as it reflects an intermediate point in the author's work on epigram, looking as it does both forward to the research on the vocabulary of epitaph subsequently published as chapter 3 of this volume (cf. p. 42) and back to Spina's work on the Cleombrotus poem (p. 43).

The final chapter is perhaps the most broadly useful contribution to the study of epitaph. Here Spina explores the semantics of the verb λείπειν--a crucial word in the Greek vocabulary of death--in funerary epigram. Spina divides the numerous attestations of the verb in epitaph into five types: 1) to leave one's life (in the form of one's soul, body, or the like; 2) to leave one's family, friends, or children; 3) to leave an inheritance; 4) to leave grief or pain to one's loved ones; 5) to leave a place. The large amount of material requires the author to treat individual examples only briefly, but his discussions suggest the complexity of the semantics of the verb and encourage further work on its use in specific poems. The appendix cataloguing the attestations of the verb in the standard epigraphic corpora according to Spina's typology will be particularly useful for those working on literary and inscriptional epitaphs.

Each of the three chapters of Spina's La forma breve del dolore covers a great deal of ground fairly quickly, with the result that they often suggest interesting possibilities that are not explored fully and sometimes left only implicit. Readers looking for unity of theme or methodological approach may find themselves disappointed, but the three essays, different as they are, all make a worthwhile and interesting contribution to the study of funerary epigrams.

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