Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.01.25
Michael Wolfe (trans.), Cut these Words into my Stone: Ancient Greek Epitaphs. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013. Pp. xxviii, 178. ISBN 9781421408040. $24.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Philip J. Smith, McGill University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
[The reviewer apologises for the lateness of this review.]
Wolfe has produced a wonderful short volume on Greek epitaphs which will appeal both to the general reader and the specialist. The temporal range is admirable and the style is vivid. Each of the main sections of the collection—I. Anonymous Epitaphs of No Known Date; II. Late Archaic and Classical Periods, 600-350 BCE; III. Hellenistic Period: Age of Alexander, c. 323-100 BCE; IV. The Millennium: Pagan Roman Empire, 100 BCE-99CE; V. Late Antiquity: Christian Roman Empire, 200-599 CE (although I am puzzled by the missing century of 100-199 CE)—is accompanied by a short introduction, perhaps too short. I would like to have seen these introductions expanded somewhat, providing more information to the reader about the epigrams in the section.
The choice of epigrams is to be commended and does indeed cover a very broad range of individuals,1 and the translations provided keep well to the spirit of the Greek original while conveying to the English reader, for instance, the poignancy, e.g.:
To our towering friendship
I’ve raised this little stone.
Sabinus, I will look for you forever.
If things turn out as people say
And you join the dead,
To drink from the river
That helps men forget,
Please don’t drink the drop
That makes you forget me. (p. 39);
This patch of ground in Asia holds Phillip’s son,
A soldier made tough by iron war.
No painful sickness dragged him down to the
house of darkness.
He died holding his shield over a friend. (p. 103);
Charon, cloaked in darkness,
Before you row death’s ship
Through the reeds to Hades,
Steady the ladder.
Reach out a hand for the son of Cinyras.
Help him aboard.
He is too young to walk well in sandals
And frightened to touch the sand with his
bare feet. (p. 118);
the humour, e.g.:
Drenched with rain by Zeus
And soaked by Bacchus,
No wonder I took a spill and died.
It was two against one,
A man versus the gods. (p. 100);
Yesterday, Dr Markos checked the pulse of Zeus.
Today, though made of marble and king of the
Zeus is being carted to the graveyard. (p. 140);
and the seriousness, e.g.:
Latter-day Greeks, are we not dead
And only seem to be alive,
Having fallen on hard times,
Mistaking a dream for existence?
Or are we alive,
While our way of life has perished? (p. 151)
Zosime was a slave in body only.
Now, she has freed her body too. (p. 160)
Longer biographies of the relevant poets, where possible, would have been useful, especially when linked to the introductions for each section.
The foreword by Richard P. Martin is a masterful introduction to what an epigram is, provides a brief history of the genre, and forms a very helpful reference for readers as they venture into the main portion of the volume. It would have been better if this contribution had been more closely integrated both with the translator’s note and with the collection of epigrams.
My main quibbles with this volume relate more to layout and referencing, which I acknowledge is outside the purview of the author. I find that there is too much blank space on a lot of the pages, which may be for a particular purpose, but could also be viewed by some readers as wasteful. The use of endnotes should be eschewed as they are distracting – it would have been better to locate the notes closer to their points of reference.
That being said, I highly recommend this book as a solid introduction to the reading and translating of Greek epigrams, and as a useful reference for illustrating how poetic translations of ancient Greek can be beautifully rendered for the modern audience while still remaining loyal to the ancient Greek use of language.
1. Pp. 2-3 “…soldiers, sailors, generals, admirals, philosophers, poets, priests, playwrights, paupers, fisherman, farmers, physicians, merchants, elders, infants, teachers, musicians, astronomers, tyrants, virgins, misers, undertakers, drunks, tycoons, crones, slaves, actors, …as well as people of no clear rank or occupation”.