BMCR 2020.04.50

Greek epigram and Byzantine culture: gender, desire, and denial in the age of Justinian

, Greek epigram and Byzantine culture: gender, desire, and denial in the age of Justinian. Greek culture in the Roman world . Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. xiii, 275 p.. ISBN 9781108480239 $99.99.


In recent years, Greek epigram, a genre which used to be of only marginal scholarly interest, has at last attracted the attention it deserves. Following the publication of several groundbreaking studies in the 1990s,[1] and the spectacular discovery of the Milan Posidippus papyrus (whose editio princeps came out in 2001), the past two decades have seen a flurry of articles, monographs, commentaries, collected volumes, and companions on the subject. We have learnt a lot about how epigrammatists played with epigraphic conventions and engaged with the literary tradition, how they experimented with voice, how their poems were arranged within the medium of the book, and so on.

The focus, however, has mostly been on epigram’s emergence as a literary genre during the Hellenistic age. As so often in Classical scholarship, one can still sense, even today, a clear prejudice vis-à-vis later texts. The Garland of Philip, which dates to the early imperial age, for instance, has not received remotely as much attention as that of Meleager. Scholars have shown even less interest in the third major collection excerpted by Constantine Cephalas, namely the Kyklos (Cycle) of Agathias. This early Byzantine anthology was published around 567 AD, shortly after the death of Justinian I, and so falls outside the range of texts most Classicists typically deal with. Its epigrams, however, are deeply immersed in the culture and literary tradition of Hellas and anybody dealing with the genre ought to be familiar with its later development. Among the Cycle poems are, indeed, some of the most fascinating and amusing epigrams to have come down to us, including several on unexpected themes such as public lavatories (AP 9.642-44) and mosquito nets (AP 9.764-66).

Steven Smith’s monograph is precisely the kind of book that needed to be written on this subject. It is a pleasure to read from beginning to end. Even if I did not find myself agreeing with every observation, the overall discussion is chock-full with important insights. The author sheds much-needed light on the tension between the epigrams’ concern with the leisurely life (including food, drink, and sex) and contemporary Christian discourses. As Smith puts it (5): “The Cycle appears as a strange cultural product indeed: a collection of frivolous diversions totally irrelevant to the more serious spiritual concerns of the age, while paradoxically also an ultra-refined instrument of social ambition within an elite class of learned men.” As the book’s sub-title indicates, Smith is mainly interested in questions of gender and desire; his study thus does not offer a comprehensive analysis of the Cycle, but focuses on poems with erotic and sympotic themes.

The book is divided into six chapters, which are preceded by a substantial introduction (1-32) and followed by brief a conclusion (240-246). The Introduction situates the Cycle in its cultural and historical context: while most of the epigrams are pagan in content – refined expressions of Classical paideia –, they were written against the backdrop of Justinian’s reign and its Orthodox Christian morality. Smith is very good at teasing out how the poets’ reveling in erotic fantasies and various forms of earthly pleasure stand in marked contrast to the ascetic ideals of Christianity: “The textual, discursive play of classical Greek epigram offered the early Byzantine poets living in Justinian’s orthodox society an alternative matrix within which to fantasize and play out transgressive, subversive, even queer desires” (11). The absence of any explicitly homoerotic poems, a favored theme among earlier epigrammatists, is not surprising, if one considers Justinian’s strict legislation against homosexual activities (6). What we do find, however, is the appropriation of pederastic motifs in heterosexual poems, such as Paul Silentiarius’ epigram (AP 5.232) on a woman whose lust cannot be satisfied by one lover alone: her catalogue of men is clearly reminiscent of earlier poems listing a pederast’s multiple objects of desire (9). In this context, a comparison with the erotic universe of Aristaenetus would, I think, be very fruitful. His collection of fifty fictional letters, which was presumably published under Justinian,[2] likewise portrays a world of sensual pleasure and sexual escapades, but refrains from openly depicting male-male desire, a fact that Arnott plausibly connected with Christian mores.[3] There are, indeed, many letters in which Aristaenetus quotes Platonic passages concerned with pederastic love, but Plato’s words have all been transposed into heterosexual scenarios. Smith (215) in fact draws a comparison between an epigram by Eratosthenes Scholasticus (AP 5.242) and a letter from Aristaenetus (1.9), which both deal with a woman encountering her paramour in the presence of her husband, but a more detailed consideration of these two collections side-by-side remains a desideratum.

The Cycle is introduced by a tripartite prologue: First comes an iambic proem in 46 verses presenting the collection as an assembly of culinary delights (AP 4.3). This is followed by 87 hexameters (AP 4.4 or 4.3b), which praise the emperor (vv.1-51) before turning to the anthology’s dedicatee, Theodorus, and giving an overview of its contents (vv.52-87). Last but not least, a 10-line epigram (AP 4.5 or 4.4) asserts that eternal renown can only be secured through literary products, not images or monuments. Smith offers a detailed discussion of the first two parts, though not in order and spread out over several chapters. This struck me as slightly confusing: While the address to Theodorus is analyzed in the Introduction (21-28), Smith considers the iambic preface in Chapter 1, “Food and Wine” (30-63, where his examination is interspersed with the analysis of various other poems), and then turns to the first part of the hexameter proem in Chapter 2, “An Erotic Geography” (72-103).

While I found his overall discussion of the iambic proem, with its Aristophanic excesses, vis-à-vis Christian discourses to be very stimulating, I would read the banquet metaphor itself somewhat differently: Agathias here addresses a group of banqueters, who are so stuffed from earlier courses that they may not be interested in any further foods. Nonetheless, he has convinced many to contribute new dishes, which he is now serving to his guests combined with products of his own. Whereas Smith takes the men addressed in v.1 exclusively as Agathias’ fellow-poets, I believe that the preface is more broadly addressed to all readers, including but not limited to his literary colleagues, who are, like him, primarily featured as cooks. To be sure, the idea of a δεῖπνον ἠρανισμένον (v.19) suggests a meal to which everybody contributes their share, but Agathias’ text resists a simple equation of banqueters and cooks (note the switch from ὑμᾶς —in v.22 – a reference to the guests –, to πολλούς in v.23, which points to the many poets included in the Cycle; Agathias, moreover, speaks of a cook as “one of them” not “one of you” in v.28). In addition, I would argue that the “feasts of extravagant and many words” (vv.5-6) that have previously been set before the banqueters symbolize the long literary tradition of Hellas. The image is an intriguing reflection of Agathias’ own position within the history of Greek letters: readers are so oversaturated with the infinite products of earlier ages that the thought of adding something new is particularly daunting (Smith does not explicitly consider this diachronic aspect of the metaphor).

Chapter 2 explores the eroticism inherent in Agathias’ vision of empire. While the Cycle itself does not contain any panegyrics, the encomium of the Emperor in the hexameter preface shows fascinating parallels with the collection’s erotika: “The brutal order that the Roman emperor imposes on the world and the servile humiliation of his conquered subjects anticipate the dynamics of domination, submission, and denial that structure the erotic poetry of the Cycle” (73). Smith is very much attuned to reading between the lines and teasing out hidden meanings, though at times he may be going too far in his associations. Would a reader coming across a brief mention of the Tanaïs in vv.50-51, for instance, readily think of the myth, reported in Pseudo-Plutarch’s On Rivers, according to which this river got its name from a youth who drowned himself to escape his incestuous desire for his Amazon mother? Maybe. But since the two lines do not at all gesture toward this aition, I find it hard to see here “a tantalizing allusion to the myth of a barbarian who became the victim of an erotic madness by the goddess Aphrodite” (102).

Chapter 3 (“Urban Pleasures”, 103-138) – my personal favorite – looks at various epigrams dedicated to different forms of pleasure and the ways in which the authors construct their masculinity: dancers and prostitutes, the hippodrome, the baths, games of dice, and the luxury of an afternoon nap protected by a mosquito net. Particularly noteworthy is Smith’s interpretation of Paul Silentiarius AP 9.620 (123-126), an epigram on a gate which separates male from female bathers: Instead of bewailing this physical obstacle to the fulfillment of his desires, he takes particular pleasure in the very denial of pleasure, in his inability to see the flesh of women just beyond reach. As Smith astutely observes (124), “though the little gate is supposed to keep Aphrodite out of the bath, the chiastic word order of Paul’s second verse illustrates that for his speaker the little gate ironically contains Paphie in all her grandeur (πυλὶς Παφίην τὴν μεγάλην ὀλίγη).”

While Chapter 4 looks at “Phallic Creatures” (139-164), i.e., at the representation of Pan, Priapus, and Satyrs, Chapter 5 (165-191) considers “Classical Women,” namely portraits of infamous figures such as Pandora, Laïs, Sappho, and Medea. Smith illustrates how the Cycle poets show greater sympathy with these scandalous women than the earlier tradition, and interestingly compares early Christian lives of the holy harlot as well as contemporary representations of the Virgin Mary as Theotokos. With Chapter 6 on “Thieving Aphrodite” (192-246), we return to the pursuit of pleasure, now specifically within the erotic realm. Among the epigrams discussed is a fascinating pair of poems, AP 5.292 and 293: in the first, Agathias complains to Paul Silentiarius that legal business is keeping him away from both his friend and a beloved woman, to which the latter replies that he cannot really be in love, since true Eros does not care about the Law and would propel him to return. As Smith well demonstrates, Paul here lays bare Agathias’ performance of “the swooning lover” as a mere pose (200), even as he himself seems to be filled with erotic yearning for the absent friend (202). Another text that deserves special mention is Paul’s AP 5.275, in which a male narrator describes how he raped a sleeping girl, who berates him upon waking up—it is an astounding narrative, which ought to be included among the readings for courses on sex and gender in Antiquity, together with Smith’s perceptive analysis (222-227).

One topic not addressed by the author that would deserve closer investigation is the Cycle’s arrangement: how do Agathias’ editorial principles, his mode of interweaving poems, compare to those of Meleager and Philip? While Mattsson considered structural questions in his 1942 monograph,[4] particularly with regard to the erotika, the issue should be revisited in light of more recent studies on epigrammatic arrangements.

Altogether, it remains to be hoped that Smith’s monograph will inspire more scholars to explore this intriguing work. The minor quibbles mentioned above should not distract from the overall excellence of the book. It is a must-read.


[1] Besides articles by P. Walsh (in CPh 85, 1990; Arethusa 24, 1991) and P. Bing (in A&A 41, 1995), cf. in particular, A. Cameron, The Greek Anthology from Meleager to Planudes, Oxford 1993; K. Gutzwiller, Poetic Garlands: Hellenistic Epigrams in Context, Berkeley 1998.

[2] Cf. O. Mazal, “Zur Datierung der Lebenszeit des Epistolographen Aristainetos,” JÖB 26 (1977), 1-5; now also P. Bing, “Thanks Again to Aristaenetus: The Tale of Phrygius and Pieria in Callimachus’ Aetia (Frs. 80-83b) Harder through the Eyes of a Late-Antique Epistolographer”, in Callimachus Revisited: New Perspectives in Callimachean Scholarship, ed. J.J.H. Klooster et al., Leuven, 2019, 27-49.

[3] G. Arnott, in YCS 27 (1982): 314.

[4] A. Mattsson, Untersuchungen zur Epigrammsammlung des Agathias, Lund 1942, 1-16.