Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.06.21 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.06.21

Francis Cairns, Hellenistic Epigram: Contexts of Exploration.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2016.  Pp. xviii, 516.  ISBN 9781107168503.  $120.00.  

Reviewed by Alexander Sens, Georgetown University (


In part due to their small scale, but also because they so often play with voice and perspective, Hellenistic epigrams require readers to reconstruct their imagined setting and context. Whereas inscribed epigrams work in conjunction with their physical setting to clarify their meaning, poems separated from a material environment and received on the written page regularly invite, even demand, speculation about the identity of the speaking voice, about the nature of the situation envisioned, and about the context for which the work was composed. As its subtitle suggests, Francis Cairns’ new book reads a wide variety of epigrams in a series of ‘contexts,’ some physical and others intellectual. The range is welcome: there are individual chapters devoted to discussions of medical and philosophical language and ideas, of questions of literary polemics, and of language, dialect and style; others treat poems that refer to local geographical features, and aspects of religious and cult practice.

In each section of the book, Cairns offers readings of a series of individual epigrams connected more or less closely to the theme or context under discussion. As is to be expected from his long history of scholarship, Cairns’ discussions are learned and offer some nuanced and interesting interpretations of particulars. At the same time, however, I find many arguments frustrating for the way they pile speculation upon speculation to reach a conclusion asserted with positivist certainty.

A central assumption that runs through the book is that many Hellenistic epigrams, including many that have usually been understood as purely ‘fictive,’ were in the first instance intended for inscription in some sense. Scholars have long debated whether individual funerary and dedicatory poems preserved in the Greek Anthology were composed for a monument or only for a ‘literary’ context, whether the written page or performance in a social context. (In an obvious sense, the majority of Hellenistic epigrams that survive are in either case ultimately literary, inasmuch as, whatever their genesis, they were quickly thereafter included in books of poetry, some likely organized by individual authors. 1) The question of whether any given poem was designed as (inter alia) a real epitaph, dedication, or label or as a literary fiction designed for a reading or listening audience is a delicate one in part because Hellenistic epigrammatists knew the conventions of their inscriptional models well, and were perfectly capable of composing poems that resembled them. In recent years, indeed, the appropriation and reconfiguration of the features of inscriptional epigrams by poets like Callimachus have been well studied. 2

It is thus often very difficult to decide whether a particular epigram was originally composed for inscription or not, and scholars may reasonably differ in their principles and reach different conclusions at the margins. While it is clear that some of the poems we have could have been composed on commission, it is also certain that many extant Hellenistic epigrams were never intended for a monument, and that reality places a substantial burden on claims that a given poem was originally epigraphic. For Cairns, however, the burden tends to rest with the opposite position. He regularly treats conventional elements, even in unusual poems, as firm evidence that a poem was inscriptional, and then sets out to reconstruct the social, religious, or historical context in which the poem was commissioned. This positivism can be stimulating, but sometimes pushes on the boundaries of plausibility, requiring complicated explanations of features that would make easier sense if a poem were designed as a literary artifact. The discussion (45–50, 52–60) of Callimachus AP 7.524 may serve as a paradigmatic example. The poem takes the form of a dialogue in which the speaker interrogates a certain Charidas, son of Arimmas of Cyrene, about conditions in the Underworld, only to be told that it is nothing but inescapable darkness. Cairns asserts that the ‘epigraphic context’ of the poem is ‘fairly evident,’ as it contains the ‘hallmarks’ of an inscribed epitaph, including the name of the dead man and that of his father along with the ethnic of the latter, all of which are disclosed over the dialogue. This inherently circular argument is bolstered by onomastic evidence, which shows that name of the father, Arimmas, is exclusively attested in the Cyrenaica. Such onomastic concerns are of course relevant, but they are hardly dispositive (it is perfectly reasonable to believe that Callimachus could—and would—have used a geographically appropriate name even in a fictive poem) and at the very least do not justify the claim that it is ‘pointless’ to imagine that the poem is a literary ‘jeu d’esprit’ (52). That the poem engages with questions about truth and fiction in the mythological tradition—issues that arise abundantly elsewhere in Callimachus’ poetry—or that it contains a joke playing on the metaphorical and literal uses of ἀπωλόμεθα —‘we are dead’ but also ‘we’re done for’—does not figure in his reading. Instead, Cairns makes a lengthy and elaborate attempt to explain the oddness of the epigram, with its bleak message about the afterlife, as a real inscription, canvassing, on the basis of the fact that there were Jews called Arimmas in Cyrene, the possibility that Charidas and Arimmas were members of the Jewish community there. In the end, however, he abandons that idea because Arimmas must ‘obviously’ have had elite status to commission a poem by Callimachus and no evidence shows that Jews had citizenship in Cyrene in the 3rd century; and he goes on to conclude that nothing in the poem is ‘inconsistent with the idea of Jewish influence.’ All of this is contorted: if one does not insist on identifying a real-life commissioner of an epitaph with an anomalous message, a far more plausible and economical explanation stands at hand.

Similarly, Callimachus AP 7.271 begins with an evocation of Euripides’ Medea (as Cairns notes) that links the invention of ships in the mythical past to the present, ongoing mourning of the community for a man lost at sea. Thus, at the heart of the poem—but not considered fully by Cairns—is an interest in an etiological linking of past and present of the sort that one finds running throughout the Callimachean corpus and in Hellenistic poetry more generally. These realities do not necessarily mean that the poem was purely fictional, but they surely complicate the simple assertion that it ‘shows every sign of being a real epitaph for Sopolis’ cenotaph,’ a claim that then leads to the further conclusion that, because Sopolis’ ethnic is not mentioned, the poem must have been erected in his hometown and that the first-person plural ἐστένομεν suggests that that place was Callimachus’ own native Cyrene (269).

In some places, the interpretive principles at stake seem inconsistent or arbitrary. While it is surely possible that Callimachus AP 7.523, an elegant but not overtly unusual distich, was composed on commission—if, as Cairns believes, the poem makes a learned point about the semantic equivalence of παρέρπω and παρέρχομαι (though the use of ἕρπω in its originally Doric sense ‘go’ is not particularly marked by the Hellenistic period)—that is an odd ground for concluding that either the deceased or his father was a Homeric scholar (429): the same, after all, could be said for many other poems. And more to the point, why, if a gloss is at issue, is the lexical play not sufficient ground for at least considering whether the poem might be fictive?

The search for real-life pragmatic functions extends to non-funerary poems as well. Poems like Asclepiades or Posidippus AP 5.209 (Cleandrus falls in love with Nico as she swims off of Aphrodite’s shore) and Dioscorides AP 6.620 (a Gallus encounters a lion and ultimately dedicates his kettledrum), it is suggested, were commissioned as advertisements for local cult sites of Aphrodite at Palaepaphos and of Cybele on the road between Pessinous and Sardis, respectively, whether the poems were intended for inscription or not. A mock epitaph for a beached dolphin (Anyte AP 7.215) is held to be designed as a label for a picture or mosaic depicting such a scene while a poem on a dead grasshopper is imagined perhaps to have been commissioned to accompany a sentimental portrait of a girl and her dead pet (418–20). Perhaps, but the possibility, even likelihood, that such poems were designed as book poetry deserves fuller airing.

It would be unfair to this wide-ranging book to suggest that it is wholly devoted to the construction of original pragmatic functions or inscriptional contexts. In the two chapters on literary polemics, Cairns is inclined to think of ‘camps’ with Callimacheans and anti-Callimacheans arrayed against one another, and if there is room for more discussion of the potentially contingent, generically specific nature of supposedly anti-Callimachean poems, the discussion of the way some later epigrams appropriate and distort Callimachean language and imagery is excellent. Similarly, the treatments of individual erotic poems, of narrative voice, of generic considerations, and of the ways individual lexical items reflect Hellenistic scholarly debates all advance our understanding of the dynamics of Hellenistic epigram.

As will be clear from what precedes, I am not persuaded by many of Cairns’ methodological premises and by a number of his arguments about the pragmatic functions of the epigrams in the Greek Anthology. He has, however, produced a learned volume whose broader assumptions readers of Hellenistic poetry will need to consider carefully, and whose treatment of individual epigrams they will have to consult.


1.   Cf. K. Gutzwiller, Poetic Garlands. Hellenistic Epigrams in Context, Berkeley, 1998.
2.   Cf. D. Meyer, Inszeniertes Lesevergnügen. Das inschriftliche Epigramm und seine Rezeption bei Kallimachos, Stuttgart, 2005; T. A. Schmitz, ‘Epigrammatic Communication in Callimachus’ Epigrams’, GRBS 50 (2010) 370–390. Neither is cited in Cairns’s generally full bibliography.

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