Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.01.19

Gideon Nisbet, Greek Epigram in the Roman Empire: Martial's Forgotten Rivals.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2003.  Pp. 237.  ISBN 0-19-926377-X.  £53.00.  

Reviewed by Kathryn Gutzwiller, University of Cincinnati (
Word count: 2594 words

As part of the new wave of interest in Greek epigrams, Nisbet provides a study of skoptic epigrams, which are concentrated in Book 11 of the Palatine Anthology. This subgenre of epigram, which poked fun at an individual or a character type, flourished from the late Julio-Claudian era through the second century A.D. and so provides a Greek parallel for Martial's epigrams. Nisbet offers extended discussion of the major practitioners -- Loukillios, whom he considers the "father figure" for the type, Nikarkhos (although the new epigrams on P.Oxy. 3725 and 4501-2 are omitted), Ammianos, and Loukianos (whom Nisbet thinks is probably "the" Lucian) -- with less discussion of more minor figures: Pollianos, Apollinarios (two epigrams), Trajan (only one epigram), Gaetulicus, Piso, and Leonides of Alexandria. Since there is no modern commentary on any of these epigrammatists (they are absent from Gow-Page, The Greek Anthology: The Garland of Philip [Cambridge, 1968], because they were not included in Philip's anthology), this study, though treating only a randomly selected "bunch of poems" (p. xv), is a welcome addition.

Nisbet recognizes that these epigrams are jokes, which work through paradox, puns, and surreal hyperbole. He worries, as he should, about how to do a scholarly study of "short, funny poems" (p. xv) and settles on a hybrid approach. On the one hand, he often employs a casual (British) colloquial style designed to mimic the general tone of his material and to give the reader quick pleasure. On the other hand, he argues repeatedly that skoptic epigram deserves more scholarly attention than it has received because its humor is often layered, yielding additional jokes or hidden objects for its satire on repeated readings. His attempt to deal with these levels of meaning by providing interpretations in the form of rereadings is often, however, in conflict with the casual conciseness of his style and tends to deaden the reader's reception of the fun in these additional layers. Nisbet also struggles with his own modern distaste for humor at the expense of disadvantaged types (old women, scrawny men, etc.), while recognizing that much of our own popular humor (stand-up comics, late night talk shows) exploits the politically incorrect, with its ever-shifting taboos. His answer is to analyze the epigrams from a cultural distance, as written for a male environment (the symposium) where poking fun at women, physically limited persons, and certain professional types (compare modern lawyer jokes with epigrams about doctors, seers, and athletes) was a means of creating social solidarity; he also promises some sort of benefit from the distastefulness of this personalized humor by the process of "reading against the grain" (although not much such reading occurs).

Despite his initially promising approach, Nisbet's readings yield surprisingly little in the way of convincing original readings. Many of the jokes are easily accessible to modern readers and require little explication, while others are quickly explained by notes in editions. Loukillios' breezy couplet satirizing a certain skinny Marcus because he could poke his head right into the center of an Epicurean atom (11.93) is a good example; discussing it as "a mockery of Epicurean physics" (p. 51) is excessive and misguided. The joke is on this generic Marcus, not Epicurus. Nisbet's discussions of the athlete epigrams, which send up the old genre of inscriptions commemorating victors (pp. 47-50) or the joke about Nikylla who is innocent of dying her hair because it's really a wig (pp. 50-51) are better because less contrived. In other cases, however, where the jokes require specialized historical or cultural knowledge, extended analysis is certainly appropriate. But Nisbet has a curious approach to biographical or historical material. He repeatedly excoriates earlier scholars for seeking after biographical information rather than interpreting the poems for their own sake (note pp. 107-12 on Loukillios' name and identity). Yet he himself exhaustively analyzes any possible clue to biography, even when insufficient evidence exists to support the discussion. An admittedly extreme example occurs in his discussion of Loukillios' city of residence. He points out that L. Robert conjectured Naples while promising a discussion of the evidence that he never produced. Nisbet comments (p. 105): "All the same, Naples is a plausible candidate, if only by default.... The city has a strong Neronian connection already; the Emperor seems to have visited whenever he could. We might want to bear Robert's conjecture in mind, even if there isn't a shred of proof to back it up. Can anyone do better?" So the syllogism is: Loukillios mentions Nero, Nero often visited Naples, and so Loukillios might be from Naples. Whether the reader has a positivist bent or not, this type of argument is just the sort of waste of time that Nisbet complains about.

In other cases, however, identification of historical references leads to some of the better interpretations in the book. I found the discussion of Ammianos' cycle of poems satirizing the Smyrnaean rhetor Antonius Polemon well reasoned; it suggests the type of topical matter that probably produced cycles and thematic coherence in the original epigram books and a likely center of residence for this poet. But the attempt to cast Loukillios as a satirist of Nero is less successful, involving a number of misreadings. Nisbet's long discussion of the proem to Loukillios' second book (9.572) is so focused on analyzing the final reference to Nero as a cutting joke that it misses the internal logic of the epigram (pp. 37-47). Loukillios' initial quotation of the first words in the Theogony, Iliad, and Odyssey as already-used poetic openings is revisited in the final couplet where his own address to the Muses (now called daughters of Zeus = Nero) introduces a play on himself as the new "epic hero" saved by a contemporary "god," namely Nero, who got him through the lean times associated with his first book by giving him financial support. Nisbet insists that χαλκὸν ἔδοκε, rendered as "bunged me some coppers," is a hit at the emperor as a cheapskate, but his own translation of the same expression in 11.388.6 ("you've got money in your pocket," p. 77) shows that it can simply mean "gave money" (a possibility denied on p. 46, n. 21). The object of satire here is not the emperor (if it had been, a third book, conjectured by Nisbet, p. 130, would have been highly unlikely), but Loukillios himself, who programmatically sets up his "low" genre with a self-satirical reference to the poor sales of his first volume. The repeated addresses to "Caesar" in Loukillios' epigrams should be understood, not as clues to a hidden satire, but as reminders that Nero is the primary addressee of the book. So in 11.185 it is unwarranted to identify the bad singer Hegelokhos with Nero simply because "Lord Caesar" is addressed in the poem (perhaps it's now Vespasian, Nisbet proposes). The context for the epigram in the Palatine Anthology, which, as Nisbet recognizes, probably derives from Loukillios' own epigram book or an ancient anthology by Diogenianus, shows that Hegelokhos is just one of a series of bad singers and actors satirized by Loukillios and his followers. Likewise, Nisbet's interpretation of 11.247 as referring to Nero's attempt to murder his mother by sinking her boat is undercut by the AP context, where it is the last in a series of three epigrams by Loukillios on leaky boats, preceded by an anonymous epigram on a poorly functioning boiler (11.244; cf. Nikakhos 11.331-32 and the new epigram on P.Oxy. 4501). The address to Caesar in the last couplet, warning him to defend himself against Dionysius whose boat leaks so much water that he is the new master of the sea (θαλασσοκρατεῖν), is hyperbolic ribbing directed at the unfortunate captain. If the reader is reminded of the matricidal incident, the epigram can be even be taken as a defense of Nero ("Look how irresponsible these boat captains are!").

One of the exciting opportunities offered by the study of skoptic epigram is to improve our understanding of the intertextual matrix of genres linking Hellenic and Roman literary culture in the early imperial period. Nisbet emphasizes that his Greek epigrammatists are not isolated from Roman culture, and he demonstrates this in a number of ways. His discussion of puns as combinations of Latin and Greek words in Ammianos' poetry is useful and, if not always convincing, at least an indicator of how interactive the two cultures were at a certain level. But Nisbet oddly finds the literary roots of skoptic epigram primarily in classical Greek literature and ignores much of the Hellenistic and early imperial development of epigram as well as the Roman tradition of satire and invective. He points repeatedly to Greek comedy, primarily Aristophanes and secondarily Menander, as the source of the epigrammatists' comic techniques and often for (doubtful) intertextual allusions. While paradox, surrealism, and hyperbole are certainly common to Aristophanic comedy as well as satirical epigram, it seems unlikely that poets of the first century A.D., such as Loukillios and Nikarkhos, had to return directly to Aristophanes to rediscover these elements. As Nisbet argues, skoptic epigram surely had a presence in popular culture, and oral circulation probably explains the tendency toward ridiculous hyperbole, since striving after ever greater variation produces ever greater exaggeration. But he largely ignores other intervening literary models, including the late Hellenistic phenomenon of epigram variation, which took place in both oral and book contexts. So, for instance, Nisbet finds the source of Loukillios' invective against women in Semonides, while the closer parallels in Hellenistic epigrams, such as Leonidas of Tarentum 7.455 or Meleager 5.204, are basically ignored. Although Hellenistic satirical epigrams do not survive in great numbers (probably because Meleager did not care to anthologize them), Jerker Blomqvist, in an essay not cited by Nisbet, identifies quite a few surviving examples from the fourth through first centuries B.C. ("The Development of the Satirical Epigram in the Hellenistic Period," in Genre in Hellenistic Poetry, edited by M. A. Harder, R. F. Regtuit, and G. C. Wakker [Groningen, 1998] 45-60). Hedylus of the third-century B. C. apparently devoted a section of his epigram book to skoptic epigrams on parasites (Athenaeus 8.344f-45a), and this is exactly the type of thematic series on a character type that Nisbet posits for his imperial poets. Also unmentioned is Catullus, who combines the form of Hellenistic epigram with the more informal tradition of Roman invective; his extensive influence on Martial is well known. One of the disappointments of the book is that Nisbet fails to discuss parallels between his epigrammatists and Martial, although he is aware of their existence (see p. 34). Even his emphasis on the symposium as the primary site for these epigrams is oddly denuded of its historical background. The Attic practice of likening a fellow symposiast to an animal or god has that element of making a quick joke at another's expense basic to the skoptic form. Nisbet follows Alan Cameron's argument for the symposium as the setting for exchange of epigrams in the Hellenistic period (The Greek Anthology [Oxford, 1993]) but omits any reference to the foundational work of R. Reitzenstein (Epigramm und Skolion [Giessen, 1893]), who details the classical evidence for symposium joking. For Nisbet, "skoptic epigram comes from nowhere" (p. 209), as the invention of Loukillios in the Neronian age. The truth is much more interesting, since it points to important, but poorly understood cultural/literary interaction between Greeks and Romans.

Nisbet introduces ample evidence to prove that these epigrams survive because they were published in single-authored poetry books. The proem for Loukillios' second book survives (9.572), sequences of Nikarkhan epigrams have recently been found on papyri, the thematic focus of Ammianos' epigrams on Smryna and Antonios Polemon strongly suggests book publication, and a proem for Lucian's/Loukianos' epigram collection is preserved in Photius (although Nisbet discounts authenticity, pp. 166-67; but cf. the similar P.Oxy. 3726 = AP 9.434, which surely introduced a book of Theocritus' poetry). He considers these editions not to have been "'literary' books, to be read at a sitting" (p. 35), but cheap copies produced as a source of jokes for those going to a symposium (but cf. the Priapea as dirty poems that found a home in poetry books). He cites thematic organization in the Nikarkhos papyrus (though it's unclear to me what the theme is, since a variety of titles for the poems are inserted) as proof of the casual or utilitarian nature of these collections. "Martial's heavily-advertised 'variety' (variatio)" he views as a mark of literariness, and therefore "a significant move away from the practice of his immediate Greek models" (p. 35). It should be pointed out, however, that P.Oxy. 4501-2 almost certainly constitutes a private copy, since the epigrams are written on the verso of papyri containing documentary texts (see P. Parsons ad loc.), and so tell us nothing about the production quality or even the order of bookseller's copies of Nikarkhan epigrams. Nisbet recognizes that different contexts produce different aesthetic objects, but he still believes the scholar should be seeking the "real poem" and the "intended context" (p. 21). I fail to understand how Loukillios' epigrams, once they have been placed in a poetry book (and one labeled Volume II with a sophisticated proem), cease to be "real poems" or are removed from their "intended context." In all likelihood, such epigrams were recited orally and commonly contributed to the fun at symposia, but that doesn't prevent them from having a more formalized literary existence in poetry books. Some epigrams like Loukillios' proem were clearly written for a position in a book, and we cannot assume that none of the other epigrams was composed with a book context in mind. Although the new Milan papyrus attributed to Posidippus is organized in topical sections, as skoptic books may have been, scholars are now discovering a thematic organization that is directed to promoting meaning across sections of epigrams, and there is no reason to assume that variatio was the only aesthetic principle on which ancient poetry books were built (see A. Barchiesi in K. Gutzwiller, ed., The New Posidippus [Oxford, forthcoming 2005]). In the proem to his Cycle of the Justinian age (AP 4.3) Agathias thematizes the symposium as the metaphorical site of his poetry book, and his epigrams are offered as choice tidbits of food to the "dining" reader. Nisbet's focus only on the individual epigram, as symposium chatter, as opposed to the epigrams in their collected state, has consequences for interpretation of individual poems as well. A conspicuous example is his persistent reading of Loukillios' addresses to Caesar as a key to hidden digs at Nero instead of their more likely purpose of naming the emperor as the primary recipient of his epigram collection.

Nisbet's study will raise awareness of a significant body of epigrams that have in the past fallen beneath the notice of most scholars. Just as skoptic humor played an important role in the social and political life of classical Athens, both in the private setting of the symposium and the civic one of Old Comedy, so too in the imperial age the genres of satire and skoptic epigram met some of the same kinds of social needs, although now these genres were adapted to the more repressive political situation. The similarities between these two phenomena have been brought to our attention by Nisbet, and for that his book is worth our attention. Unfortunately, his lack of awareness of the development of epigram as a literary genre and his limited attention to parallel Latin genres and authors (Catullus, Martial, the Priapea) has produced a book less useful than one might have expected.

Read Latest
Index for 2005
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:29:48, Friday, 03 April 2009