BMCR 2008.09.18

Inscribing Sorrow: Fourth-century Attic Funerary Epigrams. Trends in Classics – Supplementary Volumes 1

, Inscribing sorrow : fourth-century Attic funerary epigrams. Trends in classics. Supplementary volumes ; v. 1. Berlin/New York: W. De Gruyter, 2008. 1 online resource (xiv, 368 pages).. ISBN 9783110211658. $118.00.

Tsagalis’ study is a welcome and useful addition to the growing corpus of publications on the topic of Greek inscribed epigram. As he writes in his Preface (pp. VII-IX), some signs of a deeper interest in inscribed poetry can be detected in the recent literature on epigrams: it is noteworthy that the excellent companion on Hellenistic epigrams, edited by P. Bing and J.S. Bruss, devotes welcome space to such a considerable core of epigrammatic evidence. Additionally, Tsagalis finds further reference points in other works of scholars included in the Brill volume and also others who “started to zoom their scientific lens on inscribed epigrams” (pp. 4f.): Joseph Day, Marco Fantuzzi, Doris Meyer, Jon Steffen Bruss, Ewen Bowie, but also Andrej Petrovic, whose publications are often quoted in the book. Tsagalis’ study aims at filling the gap of a large-scale research work on inscribed epigrams: as he notices, this gap is due to several reasons, first of all to a sort of field particularism, which keeps epigraphy and philology well separated, then to the traditional dichotomy between anonymous inscribed epigrams of the archaic and classical periods —considered as a minor art— and the ‘literary’ epigrams of the Hellenistic and imperial periods. His research is successful, the more so since it develops within some well defined boundaries: it concentrates on fourth-century inscribed Attic epitaphs, as edited by P.A. Hansen in Carmina Epigraphica Graeca (ι Berolini et Novi Eboraci, 1983-1989)1 and allows the author to highlight some clear features of this developing stage of Greek epigram.

After an Introduction (pp. 3-7), with a survey of previous results in the field and a careful description of his own goal, the first chapter focuses on the presence of gnomai in the corpus of fourth-century Attic grave epigrams: Tsagalis examines some of the different uses of gnomic statements in literary texts antedating the fourth century (pp. 10-15) and lists the gnomai occurring in the corpus of fourth-century Attic funerary epigrams (pp. 17-19), analysing their linguistic features, structure and function (pp. 19-37). By defining the gnome as “a generalizing statement about a particular action”, Tsagalis shows that through the gnome the personal circumstance of the deceased’s death acquires greater significance, since it is presented as a necessity having the force of law: the generalizing force of the gnome fills the gap between the private commemoration of an individual and the public display of the monument, because of the widespread approval of the maxim’s content. Moreover, gnomic expressions present in fourth-century Attic epitaphs are examined from an oral, performative aspect as manifestations of wisdom literature familiar to all members of a community at a given time and place.

In the second chapter, Tsagalis explores two recurrent forms of poetic imagery: the light of life and the halls of Persephone, showing how deftly the anonymous authors use these metaphors to produce some poetic gems. In this way, fourth-century Attic grave epigrams mark a step forward towards the advent of the highly stylish literary epigram. The two above mentioned metaphors represent the two ends of a figurative journey of the deceased, who leaves the world of the living and goes to the world of the dead. Through Tsagalis’ careful and detailed analysis of texts employing these images, the complex technique of producing meaning (literary associations emanating from the conscious use of motifs and expressions, the placement of words, the effort to confer poetic coloring) and the multiple interpretation levels of funerary epigrams (religious and cultural concepts about death during the 4th century) stand out.

The evolving interaction between public and private domains of life is a recurrent theme throughtout the whole book, but it is the main subject of chapter 3 ( Public Display, Private Focus: Redefining Social Virtues, pp. 135-213). First of all, Tsagalis studies the concepts of arete and sophrosyne, which lose their aristocratic coloring, are indiscriminately attributed to both men and women, and become the civic measures of both male and female eulogy, providing us with a good perspective from which to look at the oscillation between the civic and the domestic in a society in transition, such as fourth-century Athens. From the same point of view, Tsagalis examines also the three socially oriented categories (family, age, profession) on the basis of gender representation in fourth-century Attic grave epigrams.

The last —and most interesting— chapter intends to focus on the new features of “subliterariness” exhibited by fourth-century Attic epitaphs: the effort to expand into longer and more elaborate compositions by a variety of means, such as parataxis, relative clauses, μένδέ expansions, temporal clauses, consecutive clauses, asyndeton; an increasing use of tragic diction; the use of wordplay and soundplay for creating literary effects; the increasing frequency of compound epithets, endowing epigrams with a certain poetic color; the priamel and αντί -construction; the preference for the penthemimeral caesura, for augmented verbs and familiar grammatical forms, pointing to the intimacy the epitaphs aim to express. In a transitional period such as the 4th century, a wider privatization process concerns Athenian society: the tendency to highlight passion, the use of the dialogue form, the new concern about literary embellishment feature family-oriented, personalized, private epitaphs, shaping a progressive subliterariness of the epigrammatic tradition. In the period of uncertainty following the Peloponnesian war, the commemoration of the deceased in private epitaphs became a way of displaying publicly a new set of social concerns, and a special emphasis is placed on the composition of funerary epigrams.

One of the most innovative and useful parts of Tsagalis’ book is devoted to The Poetic Grammar of the Epitaph (pp. 261-307): examining the 4th century epigrams as an intermediate phase between non-literary epigrams and the literary epigrams of the Hellenistic age, Tsagalis convincingly demonstrates that the traditional dichotomy between a prehistory and the proper history of Greek epigram is simplistic, and he casts a fresh light on several literary features of the so-called non-literary epitaphs. In particular, Tsagalis provides us with a precious list of intertextual connections between 4th century Attic inscribed epitaphs and literary texts, such as the Homeric poems and lyric and tragic poetry. Tsagalis’ work results in a wider and richer painting of the complex net binding proper literature and “subliterary” texts such as inscribed epigrams. Especially interesting is the importance attached to Euripides’ influence on 4th century Attic inscribed epitaphs: Tsagalis himself offers several suggestions about such a relationship, but —most importantly— he shows that further research on this subject matter is required. As regards compound epithets, the list provided (pp. 276-278) is —so to say— a map for further exploring “the dark side of the moon”,2 that is the influence of literature on inscribed poetry.

Not always persuasive are the passages listed as Varia (pp. 273-276): e.g., for CEG 512, Tsagalis recalls Sapph. fr. 168 V. ( ὦ τὸν Ἄδωνιν), but both derive in all likelihood from the same threnodic tradition; the same may be said of CEG 556 ( αἰαῖ); as regards CEG 550.3 ( ἡδυγέλωτι), besides h. Pan. 37, one can also quote CEG 773.1 ( ἡδυγέλωτι χορῷ); the expression ἡνίοχος + genitive is attested also in Ar. Nub. 602 ( αἰγίδος ἡνίοχος), in GVI 818,2 (Thebes, 3rd cent. AD, παντοίης ἀρετῆς ἔξοχος ἡνίοχος) and in St. Byz. s.v. Μίλητος (pp. 452f. Mein. κιθάρας δεξιὸν ἡνίοχον).

One can certainly agree with Tsagalis about the “copybook theory” (pp. 53-56): metrical epitaphs inscribed on stone were probably drawn from copybook-texts and engravers used them according to the occasion. Apart from evidence concerning 5th-4th century epigram collections (Philochorus’ Epigrammata attiká, possibly the Sylloge Simonidea and perhaps the Aristotelian Peplos), the first argument for circulation of epigram collections is the repetition of phrase-patterns, expressions and formulae, recurring in inscribed (and non-inscribed) epigrams even very distant in time and place. Epigrams circulating in these collections became models for epigraphical authors.

A clever reading is suggested by Tsagalis for CEG 489, where the mise en page of the inscription deserves attention as a way of pointing to a specific interpretative approach: the two elegiac couplets are not placed one after the other, but next to each other, and in Tsagalis’ opinion this indicates that the two couplets retain something of their individuality. Although Tsagalis does not deny that the space available on the stone determines the way the epitaph has been displayed on the stele, he intends to demonstrate that the two aspects —the interpretative and the technical— are not incompatible: the concept of “iconization” (p. 90) seems to be a precious tool for reading several inscriptions, since “the entire monument constitutes a unity and the text inscribed on it should be analysed within the representational framework it belongs to”.3

Another acute interpretation regards CEG 575, where Tsagalis sees a parallelism between Herakleia’s story and the myth of Demeter and Kore (pp. 113f.): in fact, the touching stress given to the daughter/mother relationship and the taste of Greek epitaphs for a more or less plain identification with mythical figures make the suggestion quite attractive.

A fine and appreciable distinction is made between the terms μνῆμα and μνημεῖον : Tsagalis points out that the formula attested in 4th century Attic epitaphs is μνημεῖον ἀρετῆς / σωφροσύνης, instead of μνῆμα ἀρετῆς / σωφροσύνης. In his opinion, the preference for μνημεῖον is due to a new emphasis placed on the particularized memory of the deceased, in other words the tendency of preserving not the deceased’s memory in general, but particular features of his past life: this very record of one’s past deeds is the text of the epitaph.

Tsagalis’ analysis is always clever, although sometimes over-subtle: for ex., in CEG 489 he connects the name of the deceased ( Γλαυκιάδης) with the expression τὸς ἀγαθὸς ἔστερξεν Ἄρης at the beginning of the epigram, since Ares is defined as “flashing-eyed” in CEG 145.1 (5th/4th cent., Corcyra), and γλαυκός means “glaring, glittering menacingly”. The connection is acute, and it would be quite suitable in a Hellenistic poem: however, one can argue that nothing seems properly to allude to the meaning of the deceased’s name in CEG 489, and such an allusion —at least in a 4th century inscribed epitaph— can hardly involve another single inscribed text. Perhaps as subtle is the suggestion of interpreting the word-order of CEG 511.3f as double-meaning: the vocative Νικόβολε is placed between the verb ἔλιπες and the following ἠελίο λαμπρὸμ φῶς in order to make the second part appear as if the deceased were called “the shining light of the sun”. Moreover, note that the metrical incongruity at the beginning of the second foot of the hexameter (v. 3) is probably due to the introduction of Νικόβολε instead of a different name —in the shape of a dactyl or a spondee— present in the model.

Tsagalis’ working method is thorough and rigorous. The reader will appreciate the ample and up-to-date bibliographic information.4 Tsagalis translates the quoted inscribed epitaphs in all cases: the translations are his own most of the time;5 they are usually correct and accurate.6 At least for some inscriptions a critical apparatus quoting the main supplements proposed would have been helpful (see e.g. pp. 108f.); the reader would have welcomed also some additional information regarding the place where the stone was found and other standard editions in addition to CEG.7

The indexes are very useful: besides a general index (pp. 343-345) and an index of principal Greek words (pp. 347f.), the very precise and complete index of ancient authors, works and inscriptions (pp. 349-368) makes this book also a reference work on specific problems and texts. The quality of printing is generally high.8


1. Tsagalis (p. 244) calls attention to the historical ground for his choice, for it corresponds to an early collection of epigrams, made by Philochorus, including only Attic inscribed epitaphs.

2. Anja Bettenworth, Inscribed and literary epigram, in Brill’s Companion to Hellenistic Epigram, ed. by P. B. and J.S. Bruss, Leiden-Boston 2007, 69-93: 93.

3. That the layout of the inscription has to be considered as part of the message is proved also by several examples of inscriptions carved on the stone as if it were the written column of a papyrus roll: both the well-known Salmakis inscription, from Halikarnassos, and the Epicurean inscription of Diogenes of Oinoanda imitate contemporary books in the careful arrangement of the text in columns (for some bibliographical information, see my L’ epigramma longum nella tradizione epigrafica sepolcrale greca, in Epigramma longum. Da Marziale alla tarda antichità. From Martial to late Antiquity. Atti del convegno internazionale. Cassino, 29-31 maggio 2006, a c. di A.M. Morelli, II, Cassino 2008, 623-662: 658-660).

4. Just a minor point: for the technique of variation in Hellenistic epigrams, it would be helpful to quote Sonya Lida Tarán’s book, The Art of Variation in the Hellenistic Epigram, Leiden 1979: in particular, many examples of epigrams expressing the theme of ‘conveying the message’ (which Tsagalis treates on pp. 223f.) is found at pp. 132-149.

5. At pp. 151f., for ex., he quotes the translation of CEG 139 published by J.S. Bruss ( Hidden Presences. Monuments, Gravesites, and Corpses in Greek Funerary Epigram, Leuven 2005, 33).

6. A few details: Tsagalis translates CEG 543.1 as “During your lifetime you received excessive praise because of your manners” (p. 176), CEG 561.3 as “Kallimedon, you have received excessive praise for your virtue” (p. 177): “excessive” for πλεῖστος does not fit the context of the deceased’s praise, where the true meaning seems to be “most, greatest”, such as in CEG 493.3, translated by Tsagalis as “Chairippe died having had the most” (p. 178), and in CEG 546.2, “Anthippe, among humans you had received the greatest praise / of all women” (p. 179). CEG 470.1 ( Αὐτοκλείδο τό|δε σε=μα νέο π|ροσορο=ν ἀν|ιο=μαι) is translated as “While looking at this very sema of Autokleides, I grieve” (p. 255), without taking into account the adjective νέο, “young”. CEG 545.1 ( ὀστέα μὲν καὶ σάρκας, ἔ{ι}χει χθὼν παῖδα τὸν ᾑδύν) is translated as “As far as the bones and the flesh are concerned, / the earth holds a sweet child”: ὀστέα μὲν καὶ σάρκας seems to be not an accusative of respect, but an apposition referred to παῖδα τὸν ἡδ|ύν, as the sweet child is only bones and flesh.

7. For example, it is important to specify that the text of CEG 467 was completed through AP VII 245, ascribed to Gaetulicus by both the Palatine and Planudean Anthology: in fact, the stone preserves only some words and, as far as these characters are concerned, the coincidence with Gaetulicus’ epigram is perfect.

8. Some obvious misprints: p. 26 line 12 read “coalesces”, p. 39 line 3 from the bottom “aesthetic”; p. 54 footnote 136 “to them”; p. 81 line 10 “inscription”; p. 162 line 10 “attribution”; p. 169 l. 23 “concentrate”; p. 172 l. 7 from the bottom “self-consciousness”; p. 174 l. 9 “increased”; p. 174 footnote 112 ἐκφοβηθεῖσαν; p. 223 l. 17 “intra-carminal”; l. 23 after iota in πειρώμενοι the hemi-squared bracket must be open; p. 268 l. 17 “diffusion”; p. 274 ll. 8f. “hiatus” (see e.g. p. 295 l. 1 from the bottom and p. 296 l. 6); p. 286 l. 4 from the bottom “We are fortunate”; p. 303 l. 8 after Table A “awkwardly”; p. 316 l. 8 “As far as”; p. 325 s.v. Chaniotis l. 3 “théâtre”; p. 331 s.v. Kahn “ambiguë”.