BMCR 2008.06.19

Brill’s Companion to Hellenistic Epigram

, , Brill's companion to Hellenistic epigram : down to Philip. Brill's companions in classical studies,. Leiden: Brill, 2007. 1 online resource (656 pages).. ISBN 9789047419402. $279.00 / €199.00.

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

[The reviewer sincerely apologizes for the lateness of this review.]

Scholarship on Hellenistic epigram has exploded in recent years, a phenomenon only partly to be explained by the publication of the Milan Posidippus papyrus. This is both a suitable time and an unusual time for the publication of a Brill companion on the genre: suitable because many students and scholars are seeking a way in to the topic, and unusual because, unlike the subjects of most Brill companions, there are many fundamental aspects of the study of epigram that have not yet adequately been explored. This companion does an excellent job giving an introduction to the topic; it will work well for graduate students and scholars, including those coming from other specialties, and many of its chapters will also be suitable for advanced undergraduates. Editing of the book, however, is uneven, especially in the footnotes and bibliography.

The Companion contains 28 chapters, divided into five parts plus an introduction. In what follows, I will characterize each part, but, for the sake of brevity, comment on only selected chapters.

The introduction, by Peter Bing and Jon Steffen Bruss, briefly gives the information that suits a reader unfamiliar with the basics of epigram, including its development as a genre and the contexts in which one is likely to encounter it today. It also deals with the peculiar nature of the Palatine Anthology and with the connection of epigram to elegy.

Part one, titled “Models and Form,” contains eight chapters describing the origin of epigram in inscribed poetry, its transition to literary poetry on papyrus, and its collection and anthologizing. It ends with a survey of meter and diction. This part goes through territory that is still largely unexplored, so some chapters must content themselves, at times, with cataloguing phenomena and suggesting further research, rather than providing a real introduction to scholarly work. One writer compares her task to writing about the dark side of the moon (p. 69). Nevertheless, there is a great deal of important work here that will go far to help the reader understand how epigram came to be what it was.

Joseph Day’s chapter 2, “Poems on Stone,” revisits performative questions that Day had raised in two seminal articles on inscribed sepulchral and dedicatory epigram. Day refines his arguments here; whereas earlier he had claimed that epigrams re-enact ritual speech (in fact a relatively rare case), he now shows how “archaic and earlier classical inscribed epigram preserves a fossil of performance” (p. 46, my emphasis).

Chapters 3 and 4 deal with parts of the transition from stone to page. Here the competing concepts of Adolf Köhnken’s Überinformationstest and Peter Bing’s Ergänzungsspiel come to the fore. While Köhnken had proposed, in essence, that epigrams lacking a description of their object probably were inscribed (and thus the object was visible), Bing shows that, in fact, the absence of information creates a “completion game” into which the reader is invited. Andrej Petrovic and Anja Bettenworth, describe the contest with nuance while giving weight to Ergänzungsspiel. They tackle very well an area that is still quite obscure, and give recommendations for further work .

In chapter 5, Ewen Bowie takes on the influence of archaic elegy on sympotic epigram. Here Reitzenstein ( Epigramm und Skolion, 1893), who posits a direct influence of archaic elegy, provokes any scholar of epigram to respond with a gentle redirection (and redirection is needed, as Reitzenstein’s influence remains strong). There is influence, but how can we characterize it? I have previously been satisfied with Kathryn Gutzwiller’s brief characterization at the beginning of her chapter on erotic and sympotic epigram in Poetic Garlands (1998), and, in my opinion, the true beginner laboring under Reitzenstein’s influence would be best advised to start there. But Bowie’s chapter here expands on Gutzwiller’s work helpfully. He more fully characterizes the variety of the sympotic tradition, and carefully weighs the influence of Theognidea Book 2.

I have only one significant disagreement with this chapter. In its first paragraph, Bowie states that “in the poems of the earliest generation of Hellenistic epigrammatists, Asclepiades, Callimachus, Hedylus and Posidippus, erotic and, rather less, sympotic themes are also prominent.” This gives the impression that these themes were prominent from the beginning of Hellenistic epigram, but this is not the case; these epigrammatists, by my numbering, constitute the second generation, and we find a quite different picture in the first (including, among others, Nossis, Anyte, Perses, and probably Leonidas of Tarentum)—a near total absence of sympotic and erotic themes. With this information, the reader may gain a clearer picture of Hellenistic epigram as a genre that evolved directly and primarily out of inscribed epigram, to which elegy was added as a secondary and slightly later influence.

Enrico Magnelli’s chapter 9 addresses the evolution of diction and meter in epigram. He addresses the startling fact that many of the best epigrammatists used considerable reserve in their vocabulary (comparing, for instance, Callimachus’s epigrams to his other work). Others, such as Posidippus and Meleager, went to the opposite extreme. Leonidas here is a problematic figure, not least because of his dating.

Especially noteworthy is Magnelli’s treatment of meter. He takes only four pages (including lists and charts) to distill some important observations. This arrangement is especially fitting for a companion of this type: I feel confident that I can refer my advanced undergraduates to it with little concern that they will come away with the numbness and confusion that usually attends one’s first contact with hexameter metrical “rules.”

Chapters 10-13 constitute the second part of the companion, titled “Poetics.” This section concerns itself with theoretical approaches to epigram, both new and old. The section is not long, with only four approaches, chosen for their aptness to epigram rather than their current popularity.

Chapter 10, by Doris Meyer, begins with Iser and addresses the act of reading and the act of writing. Epigram begins to be conscious of the implications of its own writtenness before the Hellenistic period—no surprise, given its status as a literate genre in an oral age. When reading and writing came into their own, this fact provided the seeds of play, as epigram first outwitted the response of its fictive reader, and then began to probe the characteristics of its own communication, including physicality and the arrogation of authority. While the theory with which Meyer introduces this chapter may be difficult for some (and she provides references that the perplexed would be well advised to follow), this chapter is well worth reading, as it lays out one of the things that Hellenistic epigram (in my opinion, at least) does best.

Chapter 11, by Jackie Murray and Jonathan M. Rowland, takes a feminist perspective, explicating the effects of feminine voice in epigram. Here again, epigram is unique. When epigram dawned as a literary genre, four women were among its founders: Erinna, Moero, Nossis, and Anyte. While lyric poetry has its Sappho, no other genre of Greek literature (save exclusively feminine ones) can boast so much female involvement at its start. Consideration of Erinna here is especially well executed. While early pages of the chapter imply that male poets could also deliver an authentic female voice (pp. 212-213), I was disappointed to see none analyzed here. In particular, the preponderance of female sepulchral epigrams among the epitymbia of the Milan Posidippus could well have been evaluated as to how genuinely feminine a voice Posidippus may (or may not) have found.

Compared to the post-modern concerns of chapters 10 and 11, chapter 12 might seem out of place. It deals with the ancient critical topos of characterization, even invoking Aristotle’s definition. However, Graham Zanker, its author, is correct to point out that characterization is not an axis on which epigrams have been measured to any great extent, and yet, as he shows, epigrammatists seem to have taken it as a challenge to create a lively character in an epigram’s brief compass. I was particularly struck by Zanker’s emphasis on how retirement epigrams, in which a person dedicates the tools of his or her trade, can be used to characterize the dedicator. Without Zanker’s observations, these poems easily collapse into dull and repetitive lists.

The third part of the companion, comprising chapters 14-18, is titled “Genre,” and investigates the sub-genres of epigram. There is plenty of room for disagreement with the editors’ choices here. It is here that we might expect some exploration of clear Hellenistic sub-generic divisions, such as sepulchral, dedicatory, and erotic epigram, along with other, less well divided or populated divisions, such as ekphrastic (chapter 13 could have fit here). It is true that Meleager’s stranglehold on the definition of epigrammatic sub-genres has been broken by the categories of the Milan Posidippus papyrus (and I would have expected a chapter on the possible varieties of ancient sub-generic divisions), but at least the three clear sub-genres I mentioned above stand well-attested. Instead, we find five chapters on (respectively) encomiastic, epinician, amatory, bucolic, and satiric epigrams. Among these, “amatory” is traditional, and “satiric” is as well (though post-Hellenistic). In the wake of the Milan Posidippus, I could scarcely argue against an expanded idea that would include the other three, and I applaud the editors for thinking broadly enough to include them (though, as it turns out, encomium and bucolic are treated more as themes than sub-genres); but I certainly miss the oldest and largest epigrammatic sub-genres, sepulchral and dedicatory. This companion could have taken the opportunity to discuss their themes and variations; their omission is a serious shortcoming.

Particularly noteworthy in this section is Kathryn Gutzwiller’s chapter 16, “The Paradox of Amatory Epigram,” by which she means that epigram generically implies permanence, but erotic epigram is inherently momentary, or at least in motion. Her chapter provides a good example of what the reader might well expect from a chapter analyzing an epigrammatic sub-genre: it gives a coherent argument about the character and development of the erotic sub-genre, by focusing on three major epigrammatists, Asclepiades, Callimachus, and Meleager. In Gutzwiller’s clear and convincing characterization, Asclepiades focuses on a moment of passion, Callimachus on a moment of reflection, and Meleager on motion and change.

Satiric epigram, covered by Gideon Nisbet in chapter 18, is a surprise here, as its heyday was after the Garland of Philip, which this Companion takes as its endpoint. Nisbet does nothing to dispel this surprise; in fact, the chapter takes as its thesis that any attempt to classify epigrams as scoptic prior to Lucillius is an act that removes them from their original interpretive frame and displaces a large measure of their meaning. While I appreciate Nisbet’s thesis, it seems that he has mounted the best possible argument that his chapter should not have been included in this book in the first place.

Part four of the Companion (chapters 19-25) deals with “intertexts”—the ways in which epigram behaved in a typically Hellenistic manner, lending and borrowing from other texts across the generic landscape. After an introductory chapter on allusion generally, this section features two chapters on Homer and one each on lyric, iambic, theater, and philosophy. The authors of these chapters interpret their task quite differently, some (19, 20, 21, 25) focusing on the re-working of texts and themes, others on responses to or evaluations of authors (23, 24); one (22) does both.

Alexander Sens’ introductory chapter (19) is a must-read, even for those who are interested in the later, more specific, chapters of this section. He characterizes allusion in the Hellenistic period as attempt by poets to create a space for themselves in the poetic tradition, both by connecting themselves to the tradition (by the mere making of allusion) and by re-framing that tradition (by the content of the allusion). An epigram by Antipater of Sidon, for instance, connects directly to Erinna and Homer, but also, in the message it extracts from Homer, derives the implication that small-scale works (such as the epigram itself) are superior. Sens’ analysis of Marcus Argentarius 10 GP masterfully demonstrates the tendency of epigram, once the genre was well established, to interact intensely with other epigrams, pointing unmistakably to predecessors with the idea of competing with them or even, as in this case, refuting them.

When epigram evaluates (rather than simply alludes to) authors, it creates a kind of literary history (a point Marco Fantuzzi makes explicitly in chapter 24). But epigrams respond to the authors of various genres in very similar ways, making their separation by genre here largely unnecessary. While I would hesitate to go without the good work done in these chapters, this work could have been done in just one chapter.

The Companion‘s fifth and final part deals with the “reception” of epigram. It features two chapters on Roman reception and one on modern reception. One may well argue that epigram was a continuing tradition, rather than a “reception”; there is no bright line where epigram ever ended or was radically transformed. But this is a quibble over terms at best.

My greatest difficulty with this book came from its editing. It has a number of annoying errors, from inconsistent formatting to bibliographic omissions to incorrect citations to occasional misspellings and mistranscriptions, especially in Greek. Additionally, some of the translations are dependent on Paton’s Loeb edition, and, in some cases, retain his errors or do not fit an emended Greek text that they accompany. Most of these errors occur in the footnotes or the bibliography, but there are occasional problems elsewhere. I select only one example. The lists on pp. 21 and 22 of Meleagrian and Philippan runs in AP are taken from Alan Cameron’s lists in The Greek Anthology from Meleager to Planudes (1993), pp. 122-3 and xvi-xvii respectively. I invite the reader to put the texts side by side and compare them. It is unfortunate that these problems should damage such a fine book. This is certainly not the quality we have come to expect from Brill.


1. Peter Bing and Jon Steffen Bruss: Introduction to the Study of Hellenistic Epigram

Part One: Models and Form

2. Joseph W. Day: Poems on Stone: The Inscribed Antecedents of Hellenistic Epigram

3. Andrej Petrovic: Inscribed Epigram in Pre-Hellenistic Literary Sources

4. Anja Bettenworth: The Mutual Influence of Inscribed and Literary Epigram

5. Ewen Bowie: From Archaic Elegy to Hellenistic Sympotic Epigram?

6. David Sider: Sylloge Simonidea

7. Nita Krevans: The Arrangement of Epigrams in Collections

8. Lorenzo Argentieri: Meleager and Philip as Epigram Collectors

9. Enrico Magnelli: Meter and Diction: From Refinement to Mannerism

Part Two: Poetics

10. Doris Meyer: The Act of Reading and the Act of Writing in Hellenistic Epigram

11. Jackie Murray and Jonathan M. Rowland: Gendered Voices in Hellenistic Epigram

12. Graham Zanker: Characterization in Hellenistic Epigram

13. Irmgard Männlein-Robert: Epigrams on Art: Voice and Voicelessness in Hellenistic Epigram

Part Three: Genre

14. Annemarie Ambühl: Tell, All Ye Singers, My Fame: Kings, Queens and Nobility in Epigram

15. Adolf Köhnken: Epinician Epigram

16. Kathryn J. Gutzwiller: The Paradox of Amatory Epigram

17. Karl-Heinz Stanzel: Bucolic Epigram

18. Gideon Nisbet: Satiric Epigram

Part Four: Epigrams and Their Intertexts

19. Alexander Sens: One Thing Leads (Back) to Another: Allusion and the Invention of Tradition in Hellenistic Epigrams

20. Evina Sistakou: Glossing Homer: Homeric Exegesis in Early Third Century Epigram

21. Annette Harder: Epigram and the Heritage of Epic

22. Benjamin Acosta-Hughes and Silvia Barbantani: Inscribing Lyric

23. Ralph Rosen: The Hellenistic Epigrams on Archilochus and Hipponax

24. Marco Fantuzzi: Epigram and the Theater

25. Dee L. Clayman: Philosophers and Philosophy in Greek Epigram

Part Five: Reception

26. Alfredo M. Morelli: Hellenistic Epigram in the Roman World: From the Beginnings to the End of the Republican Age

27. Gideon Nisbet: Roman Imperial Receptions of Hellenistic Epigram

28. Kenneth Haynes: The Modern Reception of Greek Epigram.