BMCR 2020.07.16

Greek epigram from the Hellenistic to the early Byzantine era

, , , Greek epigram from the Hellenistic to the early Byzantine era. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. xx, 438 p.. ISBN 9780198836827 $120.00.

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

[The author would like to apologize for the lateness of this review.]

Greek epigrams have been the subject of several collective books over the last few years.[1] Most of them are miscellaneous works, with no aim to provide a full-scale overview of the genre, but rather discussions of specific texts, motifs, stylistic features of a certain author or period, etc.[2] This type of volume is necessary for a field study such as this one, almost unfathomable in terms of quantity and variety of text, as it helps gauge research trends and ways of approaching the texts.[3] The book under review, the outcome of a colloquium held in London in 2013, is of a very high quality because of its content, the work of the editors, and the beautiful printing of the Oxford University Press. The volume comprises twenty articles grouped in six thematic sections, preceded by a presentation by the editors which is in itself a valuable update on the studies about epigram. This is a work that incites discussion and examination, and, as a result, my review will be somewhat unorthodox, since instead of discussing each article separately and according to the groups in which they appear in the book, I will address the central points in the study of Greek epigram underlined in it: the current tendencies of interpretation of the genre and how they manifest themselves in each contribution. I believe the intention behind this type of book is precisely that: to promote debate and make us think and rethink our way of reading the texts. These are the analytic trends which I have found most interesting.

1. The reader’s engagement with the text. Several articles refer to the reception of the epigram by the reader. This is a subject that in recent times has attracted increased attention. How is an epigram read and what particular effect it has on the reader, considering the formal features of the genre? In his contribution, Joseph Day studies how the way of reading inscriptional epigrams is cast upon literary epigrams, where a certain “nostalgia” for the archaic modes of communication can be found; a very interesting conclusion, which makes us look at the literary texts differently (I think about how that nostalgia is expressed, for instance, in Posidippus’ more traditional epigrams, but also in other “new” ones such as those about gemstones). The article of Richard Hunter presents the opposite scenario: an inscriptional poem of indubitable literary density (SGO 03/05/04), influenced by the tradition, which proposes for its readers a “nostalgic” text of high literature. In his masterful analysis, Hunter shows how inscriptional epigram is inserted in the same tradition as the literary texts it relies on. The porous frontier between semi-professional versifiers and professional epigrammatists is also studied by Silvia Barbantani and Doris Meyer in their respective articles. The former focusses on military-themed epigrams, both from inscriptions and papyri; the latter on the expression of emotions. They both arrive at similar conclusions, since the transfer of inscriptional material to literary and vice versa is constant and enriches both types of text. The same is seen in Michael A. Tueller’s contribution, which studies the system of opposites (land/sea, life/death, tomb/cenotaph, etc.), which is very developed in literary epigrams, but whose origin is inscriptional.

2. Epigrams and the visual. Since its inscriptional origins, the epigram is closely related to its surrounding contexts, of which it ultimately was part of. But even when the genre becomes literary, the visual element remains one of its characteristic traits. Lucia Floridi studies some skoptic epigrams in which the very well-known notions of enargeia and phantasia are used in a parodic sense to provoke laughter before the physical deformity of some types and characters of the genre. Peter Bing, with his usual acuity and attention to detail, studies some epigrams attributed to Palladas about the misfortunes suffered by pagan statues during the religious controversies of the fourth century, without openly siding with any of the two possible chronologies for the author, a topic much debated recently. These are very problematic texts, for some of which (AP IX 441, for example) he finds interesting parallels in Cicero and Euripides that definitely enrich the discussion about the text; it would be interesting to connect these texts to the ancient theory about ecphrasis, given the notable influence of school rhetoric on the epigrams of Palladas.

3. Frontiers of the genre and contamination with others. One of the keys to success of the epigram as a genre is its permeability, its capacity to contaminate itself and absorb characteristics from other genres. Annette Harder studies in a very interesting way this phenomenon in her contribution about the “miniaturization” of the narrative elegy, bucolic poetry, drama and didactic poetry, showing how, with time, the epigram turns into an almost omnivorous genre where everything fits. This is a process that accentuates itself as the Imperial period advances and with it the elaboration of compilations of “contaminated” epigrams, such as the riddle epigrams that Simone Beta studies, assembled in book XIV of the Palatine Anthology. The old concept of Kreuzung der Gattungen of Kroll is slowly being replaced by a more modern, more dynamic vision of the genres, in which the idea of hybridization utilized in literary theory is gaining ground. This is how we can best explain epigrams about topics that seem ancillary or poorly represented, but which in truth are part of literature (and the history of culture) in a broad sense, reaching beyond the frontiers of the very genre. The article by Marco Fantuzzi is a good example of this. It shows how it is not possible to analyze the epigrams about Cybele and her cult within the genre’s own frontiers, but in the context of the successive debates about the goddess in Greece and Rome. The same can be attested in the articles by Maria Kanellou and Joseph M. Romero about mythographic and philosophical topics respectively.

4. Intertextuality, intratextuality and anthologization. One of the strong points of epigram research in recent times has been the structure of anthologies in their different forms and periods. This line of research has been decisively enriched by the papyri, which allow us to know the epigram books (or substantial parts of them) as they were read by their contemporaries. From this point of view, I find Andrej Petrovic’s article about the epigrams preserved in paraliterary papyri, i.e., outside of epigram books, very interesting and groundbreaking. Petrovic studies 17 papyri coming from private compilations where epigrams appear copied in a more or less incidental manner and mixed in with other types of material. In these miscellaneous books, he concludes, we can find some characteristics seen in epigram books, such as thematic sequence and the tendency to group in pairs; there is also a preference for traditional genres (sepulchral and votive epigrams) and epigrammata de poetis, perhaps useful in the school setting that produced some of the studied documents, and which, as is well known, end up forming a subgenre.[4] These epigrams are studied in the article by Kristoffel Demoen from the point of view of their use are paratexts (in the terms of Genette), i.e., as prologues to authorial or thematic compilations. The majority of them are significantly late and, according to the terminology adopted by Demoen, “post-editorial”, i.e., they have been added to the works in an advanced state of the transmission. The discussed topic would deserve a more complete study, as it directly connects with the tradition of the Byzantine epigram, where this type of poem is abundant. Using texts by Meleager as example, Kathryn Gutzwiller studies how a sequence of epigrams can serve as a model, as a whole and not each one separately, of later literature (Latin elegy, in this case). The study underlines the interdependent character of epigrams and how sequences constitute a kind of macrotext which has its own reception, regardless of the fortune that isolated epigrams might have. Also very interesting is the work by Regina Höschele about the structure of the Garland of Philip, much less studied than the Garland of Meleager. The analysis of the author defines five methods used by Philip to organize the sequences of epigrams in an artistic manner, just as Meleager did, and it successfully demonstrates, from my point of view, that Philip did give an intertextual structure to the successions of the Garland, fitting them in the preestablished alphabetical order. Charles S. Campbell, meanwhile, emphasizes in his contribution the debt that the authors of the Garland of Philip owe to the Hellenistic authors, whom they already considered, to some extent, classics of the genre.

5. Political ideology and propaganda. Since the scholarly community has long overcome the prejudice of regarding Hellenistic epigram as the only valuable type of epigram and the genre as a set of pieces of poetic craftsmanship with little connection to reality, there has recently been a growing interest in the epigram as an instrument of diffusion of political ideology, if not directly of propaganda. Federica Giomoni studies Hellenistic and Late Antique epigrams which portray the monarch as a protector, ascertaining how, in spite of the obvious differences that can exist between a Hellenistic monarch and a Byzantine emperor, the tradition of the epigram shortens the distance between them by presenting these rulers as defenders of a certain Greek ethnicity which defines itself above other peoples. Steven Smith conducts a case study on epigrams about gardens, almost all of them from the Cycle of Agathias, showing the continuity of the subgenre and its possibilities as propaganda.

The volume constitutes an excellent update on the way in which the epigrammatic genre is read by today’s philology, it contains innovative analysis of specific epigrams, and, above all, it shows the new perspectives and lines of interpretation about this genre and the enormous possibilities they offer.

Authors and titles

List of Figures
List of Abbreviations
List of Contributors
1: Introduction, Maria Kanellou, Ivana Petrovic, and Chris Carey

Part 1: Encountering Epigram
2: Reading Inscriptions in Literary Epigram, Joseph Day
3: Lessons in Reading and Ideology: On Greek Epigrams in Private Compilations of the Hellenistic Age, Andrej Petrovic
4: A Garland of Freshly Grown Flowers: The Poetics of Editing in Philip’s Stephanos, Regina Höschele
5: Epigrams on Authors and Books as Text and Paratext, Kristoffel Demoen

Part 2: Imitation, Variation, Interaction
6: Miniaturization of Earlier Poetry in Greek Epigrams, Annette Harder
7: Variations on Simplicity: Callimachus and Leonidas of Tarentum in Philip’s Garland, Charles S. Campbell
8: The Riddles of the Fourteenth Book of the Palatine Anthology: Hellenistic, Later Imperial, Early Byzantine, or Something More?, Simone Beta

Part 3: Writing Death
9: Death of a Child: Grief Beyond the Literary?, Richard Hunter
10: Hellenistic and Roman Military Epitaphs on Stone and on Papyrus: Questions of Authorship and Literariness, Silvia Barbantani
11: Tears and Emotions in Greek Literary Epitaphs, Doris Meyer
12: Sea and Land: Dividing Sepulchral Epigram, Michael A. Tueller

Part 4: Gods, Religion, and Cult
13: Epigrammatic Variations/Debate on the Theme of Cybele’s Music, Marco Fantuzzi
14: Dreadful Eros, Before and After Meleager, Kathryn Gutzwiller

Part 5: Praise and Blame
15: Mythological Burlesque and Satire in Greek Epigram – A Case Study: Zeus’ Seduction of Danae, Maria Kanellou
16: Epigrams on the Persian Wars: An Example of Poetic Propaganda, Federica Giommoni
17: ‘From Atop A Lofty Wall . . .’: Philosophers and Philosophy in Greek Literary Epigram, Joseph M. Romero

Part 6: Words and Images
18: Greek Skoptic Epigram, Ecphrasis, and the Visual Arts, Lucia Floridi
19: Ecphrasis and Iconoclasm: Palladas’ Epigrams on Statues, Peter Bing
20: Art, Nature, Power: Garden Epigrams from Nero to Heraclius, Steven D. Smith



[1] For example: Giuseppe Lozza and Stefano Martinelli Tempesta (eds.), L’epigramma greco. Problemi e prospettive, Milan, 2007 (Quaderni di Acme, 91); Manuel Baumbach, Andrej Petrovic and Ivana Petrovic (eds.), Archaic and Classical Greek Epigram, Cambridge, CUP, 2010; Evina Sistakou and Antonios Rengakos (eds.), Dialect, Diction, and Style in Greek Literary and Inscribed Epigrams, Berlin, 2016 (Trends in Classics Supplementary Volumes, 43). Eleonora Santin and Laurence Foshia (eds.), L’épigramme dans tous ses états : épigraphiques, littéraires, historiques, Lyon, ENS Éditions, 2016; Yannick Durbec and Fréderic Trabjer (eds.), Traditions épiques et poésie épigrammatique Présence des épopées archaïques dans les épigrammes grecques et latines, Louvain-Paris-Walpole MA, Peeters, 2017 (Hellenistica Groningana, 22).

[2] One exception is the companions devoted to the genre, which do attempt a more systematic approach: Peter Bing and Jon S. Bruss (eds.), Brill’s Companion to Hellenistic Epigram Down to Philipp, Leiden/Boston/Tokyo, 2007, and Christer Henriksén (ed.), A Companion to Ancient Epigram, Medford, MA, Blackwell, 2019.

[3] A very conservative estimate would set at 5,000 the epigrams transmitted via papyri or manuscripts, and a number yet to be determined for those preserved in inscriptions. The five volumes of Merkelbach-Stauber alone gather more than 2,000 from Asia Minor alone.

[4] Edited in the well-known compilation by Gabathuler, whose continuation is being prepared by Gianfranco Agosti and Enrico Magnelli.