BMCR 2020.03.47

Tombs of the ancient poets: between literary reception and material culture

, , Tombs of the ancient poets: between literary reception and material culture. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. xvi, 364 p.. ISBN 9780198826477. $105.00.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Analyzing literary works and in particular studying their reception we often tend to forget that they also have a material dimension. For contemporary readers, reception may involve not only a particular copy of the work and the physical context in which they read it, but also a visit to the author’s tomb or museum; they may read his biography and link his image and the interpretation of his works with objects and places. The book Tombs of the Ancient Poets is a study of literary reception that focuses on the material and immaterial aspects of an author’s works, which may include his body and his tomb. The publication grew out of a conference, one of the events within the larger project “Living Poets: A New Approach to Ancient Poetry,” funded by the ERC and directed by Barbara Graziosi. Another result of the project is an electronic database of the biographical tradition of selected ancient poets (real and mythical), with a particular emphasis on their deaths and tombs. The selection of research topics is an expression of the recent growing importance of studies on memory, collecting, memorabilia, biographical tradition, and in particular tombs and the cult of poets in ancient cultures. The whole phenomenon is well expressed by the phrase coined by P. Bing, memorializing impulse.[1] In recent years, scholars working in this vein have gone beyond the Hellenistic era, scrutinizing the roots and various aspects of the phenomenon in the Classical period and simultaneously examining its transformations in the Roman period and in European culture more generally. This makes it possible to address the universal role of poets and intellectuals in the culture of Europe in a new way and to explore the cyclical recurrence of certain phenomena connected with those “cultural saints”, as Dovič and Helgason call them.[2] Concentrating on the many faces of poets’ afterlives, the authors of the volume under review demonstrate that a tomb is the place “where life ends and Life begins” (p. 3). The book also tackles the intriguing issues raised by the real tombs of fictitious poets (Orpheus) vis-à-vis the fictitious tombs of real poets (Ovid), by the immateriality of poets’ works and the real tombs of literary characters, and by the materiality and the spatiality of ancient tombs and their literary or visual representation and reception in European culture.

The volume consists of an introduction and fifteen chapters. In the introduction, Goldschmidt and Graziosi highlight the expressive significance of the tomb as a literary and social phenomenon: the tomb brings together the physical presence/absence of the author and the reader. Commemoration is based on physical presence (real or imagined) and is located in space, which is an important aspect of the analyses presented in the book. Creating tombs, searching for them, describing them, or writing epitaphs is, like the biographical tradition, the result of a “desire for the author,” the creation of his image, and a dialogue with his works.

The first part (Material Texts, Textual Materials) consists of 5 chapters on the following topics: the poetic corpus, especially in the Hellenistic era (V. Platt), the tomb of Simonides and literary echoes of the poet’s work (R. Rawles), Ennius’ statue on the tomb of the Scipios as imago between Tomb and Text (F. Martelli), a rare example of the tomb of a young poet of Roman times (V. Garulli), and the Ovidian corpus as an (im)material tomb (N. Goldschmidt). These chapters share a concern with various aspects of the opposition and tension between literature and material culture.

Part two (Poet as Character) consists of three chapters: E. Bakola discusses the reception of Aeschylus and his Sicilian tomb, P. Bing examines the phenomenon of poets creating and describing fictitious tombs and fictitious characters (the daughters of Lycambes or Baucis, Erinna’s friend), and B. Graziosi attempts a reconciliation between Orpheus as a character and Orpheus as an author. I shall briefly discuss Bakola’s thesis which, if accepted, would involve the earliest case of the cult of a heroized poet. Her argument is based on two assumptions: a) that the information in Vita Aeschyli refers to the classical era, and b) that the image of Aeschylus in Aristophanes’ Frogs represents the tragedian as a wrathful and benevolent power from below. It is important to note, however, that Bakola overinterprets the text of the Vita Aeschyli in claiming that enagismata were offered to Aeschylus “soon after his death” (p. 137). The text of the Vita contains no such information. Besides, the author seems to have excessive faith in a chronologically coherent and early tradition of Aeschylus’ tomb. Of course, the biography may contain accurate information and descriptions of authentic social gestures; however, it shows little concern for chronology and often conflates events from different periods. Secondly, the information in the Vita by no means indicates that the residents of Gela organized dramatic competitions, a festival, or even a formal cult at the tomb (p. 144). Of items datable to the time of the poet’s death, the Vita mentions only a funeral and an epigram; the additional general information added by the biographer (the visits by poets, suggestive of pilgrimage), is typical of the Hellenistic period only. Nothing in the sentence – εἰς τὸ μνῆμα δὲ φοιτῶντες ὅσοις ἐντραγωιδίαις ἦν ὁ βίος ἐνήγιζόν τε καὶ τὰ δράματα ὑπεκρίνοντο – indicates the periodicity or level of organization typical of polis cults, or specifies the date when the phenomenon emerged. The social context of 5th-century Gela and our knowledge of the cults of poets and intellectuals also argue against an early date. Turning to Aristophanes’ Frogs, in the scene of the poet’s resurrection, it is the “gods below the earth” that bring blessings and end wars, not, as Bakola claims (pp. 140-141), Aeschylus. This largely undermines the image of Aeschylus as a wrathful and simultaneously benevolent power, and the notion that Aeschylus was granted powers of fertility and well-being in Aristophanes’ comedy (p. 141) seems to go too far. Even though many of Bakola’s observations are very apt and interesting, the general thesis requires considerable correction.

Graziosi, who initiated this type of “reception study” with her 2002 book on Homer,[3] makes a brilliant and stimulating attempt to reconcile two traditions of Orpheus, proposing that Orpheus the character and Orpheus the author come together at his tomb. In her opinion, many aspects of the image of the mythical musician are connected with explanations of the supernatural sources of Orphic literature, its antiquity, and its superiority over the works of Homer and Hesiod. In the manner of her previous works, Graziosi concentrates not on Orphism as a current within Greek religiosity viewed from a present-day perspective, but on ancient reception of the Orphic writings and the ancient contexts of the debate on their authenticity. Stories about Orpheus’ tomb show that the hero is very much alive, his tomb is full of music, and that Orphic song emerges from stones and animals (p. 188). Graziosi explores ancient modes of reception and interpretation of Orphic authorship, overshadowed in recent years by the stormy debate about the nature of Orphism. The author also suggests new ways of analyzing stories about Orpheus and his tombs, and asserts that, despite the many studies dedicated to the mythical musician and the Orphics, there is still a great deal to be done.

The third part (Collecting Tombs) contains three interpretations of literary collections of information about the tombs and their representations. Two of them focus on epitaphs (R. Höschele, S. Montiglio), and one on Pausanias’ Periegesis (J. Hanink). Analyses of material from the Anthologia Graeca show a tension between the materiality of the tombs and the immateriality of poets’ works, discussing the place and the role of the tomb in fictitious epitaphs, as well as the theme (recurrent in epigrams) of poetry that lasts longer than stone and metal, and can turn the poet into “the monument of his monument.” Furthermore, Pausanias’ “landscape of memory” shows us the world of the past, filled with tombs, statues and memorials of real and mythical poets. One of Hanink’s more interesting observations is the continuity between those two groups (real and mythical poets), both in Pausanias’ picture and, most likely, in the minds of his contemporaries. Concentrating attention on the monuments and the space they inhabit in Pausanias’ work tends to collapse and efface historical and chronological differences.

The fourth and last part is dedicated to the “Tomb of Virgil” as a special case of a constructed and resonating “place of memory.” The articles here examine the equivalence of the closure of the poems with the closure of life (A. Laird), the early tradition of the circumstances and the place of burial and the phenomenon of ancient tourism around funeral monuments (I.P. Garrison), the Renaissance invention of the tomb of Virgil and its role in modern travel culture (H. Hendrix), and the popularity of the representation of the tomb in the visual arts (S. Smiles). This exclusive focus on Virgil’s tomb is justified by the exceptional popularity of both the poet and his alleged place of burial beginning in antiquity (Silius Italicus), as well as by the influence of the biographical tradition and the images of the tomb on the ideas of burial places of poets in European culture.

Summing up, the book first creates a desire for more: more poets, more tombs, and more contexts. We can also point to several other issues which would be worth discussing, since the ancient material concerning the deaths and tombs of poets is quite rich and intricate enough to provide researchers with opportunities to demonstrate their skills. The book also demonstrates that the concept of a physical tomb is only seemingly a limitation; it can be expanded by new senses and connotations, particularly those connected with the author’s works and their longevity. To explore them all, however, would not be possible within a mere few hundred pages. Tombs of the Ancient Poets is a balanced and exceptionally accomplished publication,[4] which will serve not only researchers dealing with antiquity but also those interested in the broader topics of “cultural saints” and the literary tradition and its spatiality. Concentrating on the ancient period only, it is worth noting that the book is clear evidence of how much has been done over the last twenty years in studies on poets’ tombs and cult. However, the volume does not so much exhaust the subject as open new opportunities and invite further exploration, and the analyses presented here suggest new directions and interpretative possibilities. I am deeply convinced that it is not the last word in the debate on the issues.

Authors and titles

Nora Goldschmidt and Barbara Graziosi: Introduction
1: Verity Platt, “Silent Bones and Singing Stones: Materializing the Poetic Corpus in Hellenistic Greece”
2: Richard Rawles, “Simonides on Tombs, and the ‘Tomb of Simonides’”
3: Francesca Martelli, “Ennius’ Imago between Tomb and Text”
4: Valentina Garulli, “A Portrait of the Poet as a Young Man: The Tomb of Quintus Sulpicius Maximus on the Via Salaria”
5: Nora Goldschmidt, “Ovid’s Tombs: Afterlives of a Poetic corpus”
6: Emmanuela Bakola, “Earth, Nature, and the Cult of the Tomb: The Posthumous Reception of Aeschylus’ heros”
7: Peter Bing, “Tombs of the Poets’ Minor Characters”
8: Barbara Graziosi, “Still Singing: The Case of Orpheus”
9: Regina Höschele, “Poets’ Corners in Greek Epigram Collections”
10: Silvia Montiglio, “Impermanent Stones, Permanent Plants: Tombs of Poets as Material Objects in the Palatine Anthology
11: Johanna Hanink, “Pausanias’ Dead Poets Society”
12: Andrew Laird, “Dead Letters and Buried Meaning: Approaching the Tomb of Virgil”
13: Irene Peirano Garrison, “The Tomb of Virgil between Text, Memory, and Site”
14: Harald Hendrix, “Virgil’s Tomb in Scholarly and Popular Culture”
15: Sam Smiles, “Ruins and Reputations: The Tomb of the Poet in Visual Art”


[1] P. Bing, The Well-Read Muse: Present and Past in Callimachus and the Hellenistic Poets, Göttingen 1988.

[2] M. Dovič, J. K. Helgason, National Poets, Cultural Saints: Canonization and Commemorative Cults of Writers in Europe, Leiden 2016.

[3] B. Graziosi, Inventing Homer: The Early Reception of Epic, Cambridge 2002.

[4] The book is also very well edited. I found only one serious error: on page 125, “Asclepieion” for “Archilocheion”.