Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.10.17 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.10.17

Evina Sistakou, Antonios Rengakos (ed.), Dialect, Diction, and Style in Greek Literary and Inscribed Epigram. Trends in Classics: Supplementary Volumes, 43.   Berlin, Boston:  De Gruyter, 2016.  Pp. ix, 425.  ISBN 9783110496499.  $154.00.  


Reviewed by Max Leventhal, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (ml649@cam.ac.uk)

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The study of epigram has become big business over the last twenty years. This volume adds to that industry by applying a single methodological approach across a number of questions, contexts, and epigrammatic (sub)genres. As the Editors explain in the Preface (v), epigram is ‘a poetic form whose brevity dramatically increases the power of the word’, and so in turn an analysis is required which makes every word count. The volume’s twenty-one chapters pursue that mode of analysis in a number of areas: dialect and diction, form and design, and style.

The first section on dialect and diction focuses on the specifics of the language used to compose epigrams. The first three consider Late Hellenistic and Imperial (Bowie), Early Hellenistic (Clayman), and Late Hellenistic epigram (Coughlan). The final contribution studies the language of Imperial period skoptic epigrams (Floridi).

The second section considers form and design, which amounts to a concern with the nature of epigram as a genre, with what epigram is and does. Three contributions explore a number of possible hallmarks of epigram: the art of varying earlier epigrams on a given theme (Höschele); the pentameter of epigrammatic couplets (Hutchinson); and the ἀπὸ κοινοῦ construction (Massimilla). Two consider how epigram intersects with the genres of epic (Koukouzika) and of riddle (Kwapisz).

The third and largest section considers style in literary epigram. Naturally quite a broad topic, this is split into sepulchral, philosophical, and pastoral style. The studies on the sepulchral style both, broadly speaking, look at Classical texts: one considers the sepulchral themes in the Theognidean corpus (Bakker), while the other traces the language of dying from Archaic and Classical inscribed epitaphs down to the Hellenistic literary epigram (Tueller). The studies on philosophical style offer three essays considering epigrammatists’ receptions of different philosophers: of Plato (Acosta-Hughes), of Heraclitus (Gutzwiller), and of Epicurus (Hunter). The final two studies of the section look at the pastoral style, tracing the themes of, and responses to, pastoral love on the one hand (Fantuzzi), and theorising modes of pastoral reception in epigram on the other (Krevans).

The final section considers style in inscribed epigram. The section offers: a close reading of epigrams on a Pamphylian sundial (Angiò); a broad analysis of hapax legomena in inscribed epitaphs; a study of the language and imagery of one of the Iliac tablets, the Tabula Albani (Petrain); inscribed – and possibly sung – catalogues of the dead (A. Petrovic); and inscribed, metrical sacred regulations, the so-called Programmata (I. Petrovic).

I single out a few outstanding pieces. Taylor Coughlan presents his paper as a study of Late Hellenistic epigram. However, it in fact traces a whole chain of epigram receptions, moving from the likes of Leonidas of Tarentum, through Antipater of Sidon, down to Archias (probably of Antioch). Coughlan exposes just how attuned epigrammatists were to their predecessors’ works, engaging with and varying not only their themes, but their dialect choices.

Egbert Bakker’s study of the seal of Theognis against the background of Archaic (esp. funerary) epigram will be of interest to scholars working on both epigram and elegy, and to those thinking more broadly about genres, ‘Kreuzung der Gattungen’, and generic fluidity across media (i.e. from oral to written, and vice versa). Bakker tackles the perennial conundrum of how exactly to interpret Theognis’ seal elegy from an innovative vantage point, by drawing on the wealth of near-contemporary inscribed epigrams which were also interested in commemoration and post-mortem ‘fame’. He succeeds in opening up a new perspective on the elegy by painting a compelling picture of Theognis’ sympotic elegies as both deeply engaged with epigram, its writtenness and monumentality, and as resisting and critiquing the idea of epigram’s claims to everlasting commemoration. Bakker shows how for Theognis, song beats stone.

David Petrain’s study of the Tabula Albani goes further than many studies in considering the visual as well as the verbal aspects of inscribed epigram and its context. He deftly unites analysis of the tablet’s visualisations of Heraclean myth and the epigrammatic form and dialect in which those myths are expressed. His study offers a timely reminder for those working on inscribed epigram: there is much information transmitted to the reader besides an epigram’s words.

A section that coheres particularly well is the three studies on epigram’s reception of philosophy and philosophers. Together, they contribute to our understanding of the (popular) reception of philosophy in antiquity as much as of the use of philosophical allusions in epigram. Not all of the proposals across the subsection will convince readers in equal measure, but as a trio of studies they raise broader questions about the intersection of philosophy and epigram. More specifically, each contribution attempts to traces out how epigram responds to philosophical conceptions of what it means to live and (more often) to die.

A further category of contributions consists of those works which will be extremely useful and frustrating to readers in equal measure. The papers of Floridi, Hutchinson, Massimilla, and Garulli brim with micro-analyses of epigram, its language, and form. These studies have a long shelf-life inasmuch as they will be frequently consulted for their breakdown of the various stylistic features of Greek epigram through the ages. Hutchinson’s paper on the pentameters of epigram, for example, couples clear and concise tabulation of different authors’ styles, while posing broader questions about how we should think about the pentameter. Hutchinson comes to no firm conclusion, but instead sets the stage for further research and close analysis.

At moments, though, this reader, at least, was left wondering what all the analysis added up to. Massimilla’s paper, for example, considers the ἀπὸ κοινοῦ construction, where two complements are governed by the same preposition, but where it is implied in the first and only stated with the second. He concludes that the construction ‘was regarded as appropriate for the epigrammatic style’ (p. 189). However, all twenty quoted passages are epigrams. To make a claim about the appropriateness of a stylistic choice when composing epigram specifically requires a control, a comparison with other genres. Moreover, for all the information provided, it is difficult to discern what is being proposed. The ἀπὸ κοινοῦ construction clearly intends to draw some relationship between two terms; unsurprisingly that use can modulate from parallel to polarity. Unfortunately, Massimilla’s examples never quite get past this observation, variously phrased.

A number of other papers lack critical exploration and focus. While Nita Krevans’ study of pastoral markers in epigram has great potential and is an essentially enjoyable and informative read, her use of the ‘fan-fiction’ approach requires qualification. She uses fan-fiction with respect to post-Theocritean works to denotes ‘a whole range of activities practiced by both amateurs and professionals who wish to recreate – and participate in – an appealing fictional world’ (p. 298). This sounds very much like literary reception. It would have been helpful to know what Krevans understands reception to be, and how fan-fiction improves on those traditional theories of reception. Closely aligned to this is the issue of genre: are subsequent pastoral works participating in a generic tradition? Is this in fact synonymous with reception? A little more exploration of the topic would have gone a long way.

Demetra Koukouzika, on the other hand, considers the presence of epigrammatic passages in Apollonius’ Argonautica. Her discussion is hampered by not offering any clear criteria for what would or would not count as epigrammatic, and by a lack of any statement about how Apollonius handles genres other than epic more generally. The result is that any passage is identified as ‘epigram in epic’ which concludes with a reflection on the life and/or death of an epic figure. This may be the case, but Koukouzika proceeds by piling on possible examples rather than by arguing her case.

The volume as a whole put me in mind of the Soros, a shadowy Hellenistic epigram collection, which evokes the sorites paradox (a single grain is not a heap, nor two, nor three….; when does the addition of a single grain create a heap?). Each additional essay on epigram offers interesting discussion, but I wonder whether the volume quite makes it to being a heap, to being more than the sum of its parts. This is an issue: one criterion for publishing an edited volume should be that the contributions do better together than separately as journal articles. In this respect, it would have helped for the volume to have an introduction outlining the research topic and how the contributions cohere and variously tackle a set of research questions.

This potential lack of coherence is perhaps also due to the topics of analysis. Dialect, diction, and language are already the stock in trade of scholars working on Classical literature, and style is a nebulous enough term to allow for numerous modes of criticism. What this really amounts to is a volume which produces close-readings of epigram. In that sense it does make every word count and it is that which gives the volume value. Equally, though, those papers also excel which break from the stricter interpretation of the volume’s remit. I have already mention the philosophical style section, and in this category too is Clayman’s discussion of Callimachus 51 Pf. It is made a fuller and more interesting paper by exploring beyond dialect and addressing other topics of equal importance to the text. Some successful papers in the volume work precisely because they have a keen eye for detail while keeping another eye on the bigger picture.

Conversely, something which is commendable but nowhere flagged as important, is the space the volume dedicates to inscribed epigram and the innovative nature of those papers. They enable a critical juxtaposition of inscribed epigram against those from papyrus and the manuscript tradition. While the volume’s division between literary and inscribed epigram seems to reinforce old assumptions about what counts as ‘literature’, individual contributors’ handling of inscribed epigrams without a whiff of value judgement is a promising step in the right direction.

In terms of presentation, typographical errors are few and never intrusive; impressive for a conference-to-volume turnaround of just over a year.

Criticisms aside, then, the volume contains heaps of useful analysis and the sheer range of topics and discussion makes it a valuable addition to any library.

Authors and Titles

Dialect and Diction
1. Doing Doric. Ewen Bowie
2. Callimachus’ Doric Graces: 15 GP = 51 Pf. Dee L. Clayman
3. Dialect and Imitation in Late Hellenistic Epigram. Taylor Coughlan
4. The Language of Greek Skoptic Epigram of the I‒II centuries AD. Lucia Floridi

Form and Design
5. “Unplumbed Depths of Fatuity?” Philip of Thessaloniki’s Art of Variation. Regina Höschele
6. Pentameters. Gregory O. Hutchinson
7. Epigrams in Epic? The Case of Apollonius Rhodius. Demetra Koukouzika
8. When Is a Riddle an Epigram? Jan Kwapisz
9. The ἀπὸ κοινοῦ Construction of Prepositions as a Feature of the Epigrammatic Style. Giulio Massimilla

Style in Literary Epigram
a) Sepulchral Style
10. Archaic Epigram and the Seal of Theognis. Egbert J. Bakker
11. Words for Dying in Sepulchral Epigram. Michael A. Tueller
b) Philosophical Style
12. A Little-Studied Dialogue: Responses to Plato in Callimachean Epigram. Benjamin Acosta-Hughes 
13. Style and Dialect in Meleager’s Heraclitus Epigram. Kathryn Gutzwiller
14. A Philosophical Death? Richard Hunter
c) Pastoral Style
15. Novice Pastoral Eros and Its Epigrammatic Critics. Marco Fantuzzi 
16. Pastoral Markers in Hellenistic Epigram: The Fan-Fiction Approach. Nita Krevans 

Style in Inscribed Epigram
17. A Sundial for a Deceased Woman: Two Epigrams from Pamphylia (I–II A. D.). Francesca Angiò 
18. Playing with Language in Everyday Poetry: hapax legomena in Inscribed Funerary Epigrams. Valentina Garulli
19. Hearing Heracles on the Tabula Albani. David Petrain
20. Casualty Lists in Performance. Name Catalogues and Greek Verse-Inscriptions. Andrej Petrovic
21. The Style and Language of Epigrammatic Programmata. Ivana Petrovic
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