BMCR 2021.11.36

Hellenistic epigrams: a selection

, Hellenistic epigrams: a selection. Cambridge Greek and Latin classics. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. 316. ISBN 9780521849555. $99.99.


 In the last few decades epigrams have been having a moment that they haven’t seen since perhaps the turn of the previous century. Their popularity is best seen in an increasing number of publications on the topic, Tueller’s revision of Paton’s dated Loeb editions of the Greek Anthology, a new translation of selections from the Anthology in the Oxford World Classics series, and a growing number of new editions and commentaries of individual authors (e.g. Floridi’s commentary on Hedylus or Sens’ own commentary on Asclepiades of Samos).[1] Despite this growing popularity, ancient epigrams remain somewhat of a recondite field, in which one must often consult multiple, sometimes antediluvian commentaries in several languages and search out both passing mentions in books on other topics and note-length discussions in obscure journals. Sens’ “Green and Yellow” commentary offers advanced students and specialists from other fields a chance to gain a foothold in the complex and deeply referential world of literary epigram. The majority of my review will focus on the text with regard to this non-specialist audience, but it should be noted that there is also a lot here for specialists of Hellenistic poetry. Sens often addresses textual and interpretive issues that have been (and will continue to be) long discussed and should serve as a point of reference for those who want to wade into these debates.

 The book begins with a concise introduction which covers the origins and audience of literary epigram, formal elements of the texts (including helpful reviews of meter and the Doric dialect), and a brief summary of the textual transmission of these texts. Because there is no standard edition for all of the authors of literary epigram—Beckby’s edition of the Greek Anthology[2] remains the starting point for most—there is also no standard point of reference for a list of the author’s own emendations. Even a brief concordance of the various editions of the Anthology and its individual authors would more than double the length of the book’s introduction. Instead of a dedicated list of the author’s editorial interventions, one can consult the brief apparatus criticus which accompanies each poem in order to discover where a non-conventional reading is proposed. Generally, the text is rather conservative, and alternative readings are well defended in the commentary.

 The overall organization of the selected epigrams is not based on subgenres (such as funerary, erotic, dedicatory, epideictic); in fact, Sens frequently shows how the poems fluidly combine and confound the elements which are sometimes recognized as making up these different subgenres.  As he notes, “these categories are inherently flexible and unstable: although early papyrological evidence suggests that some ancient readers divided epigrams into subgenres… the ingenuity of many epigrams lies in the ways they blur the boundaries among different epigrammatic forms or combine elements from multiple types” (p. 3). Instead, Sens employs a primarily chronological ordering which is subdivided by author, and thus allows the reader to easily get an overview of a specific author or period as well as to consider the development of literary epigram from author to author and period to period.

 As one might expect from Sens’ previous work in this field, this is an incredibly rich, learned book. The commentary offers a broad range of glosses and comparanda as well as textual, literary and metrical notes. Each section begins with a brief biographical / stylistic blurb about the author. These generally do not delve as deeply and comprehensively into issues of ascription as Gow and Page’s commentary (see below) but do provide helpful bibliography and metrical cues. There is a lot here that will be of use to both students and scholars. In addition to the commonly noted parallels between literary epigram and inscribed epigram, or literary epigram and archaic epos, the frequent documentation of allusions to and textual parallels with tragedy (Aeschylus in particular) may serve as a springboard for further research.

 This book can best be compared with the monumental text and commentary of Gow and Page (GP, following Sens’ abbreviation) and with Hopkinson’s Hellenistic Anthology (now in its second edition).[3] Hadavas’ concise and affordable selection of (mostly) Hellenistic epigrams remains a useful text for intermediate-level Greek readers,[4] but Sens offers a broader selection and more detailed commentary for those who are able to engage more deeply with textual and literary issues.

 Sens’s book does not replace GP in terms of comprehensiveness (4749 lines vs. Sens’ 768) but does offer a thorough introduction that will empower students and scholars to make their own forays into this larger corpus. Sens’ chronological range, which begins in the early Hellenistic period and ends with Meleager, follows GP’s precedent. Readers encounter the “big name” epigrammatists Anyte, Nossis, Asclepiades, Leonidas of Tarentum, Callimachus, Posidippus (including 9 poems from the Milan Papyrus), Theocritus, Antipater of Sidon, and Meleager, but the volume also includes representative selections from lesser-known poets such as Simias, Perses, Dioscorides, Rhianus, Theodoridas, and Alcaeus of Messene. Poems by anonymous authors are not included. Sens takes into consideration the wide range of scholarship that has appeared in the 50+ years since the publication of GP and avoids the most obvious deficiency of that volume: its tendency to evaluate and even chronologically order poets based on a subjective sense of aesthetic quality, according to which the best poets are also always the earliest, while poorer quality poets must belong to a later period of artistic decline.

 This book exceeds Hopkinson’s selection of 33 epigrams in terms of scope and diversity. Sens’ 140 epigrams duplicate only 13 of Hopkinson’s selection, and he makes his own claim to offer a “partial introduction to Hellenistic poetry more broadly” (ix). In my opinion, the book achieves this. Although the single focus on epigrams leaves many other types of text aside, there is a wide chronological and geographical range as well as a variety of voices and contexts. I can imagine assigning this text alone for a class on epigram or pairing it with Hopkinson to offer a broader introduction to Hellenistic literature as a whole. (I have assigned it as a secondary commentary for a German-language course on ancient epigram, and we frequently referred back to the sections on meter and dialect in the introduction.) Sens’ commentary is generally a bit denser and seems aimed more at graduate students and scholars than at undergraduates but includes enough glosses and grammatical help to be of use to the latter audience as well.

 As is common in this series, the bibliography is impressive but not exhaustive. Sens covers a wide range of essential scholarship in several European languages which should serve as a useful starting point for further research. One surprising oversight that I noticed was the absence of the excellent German commentary on the new Posidippus.[5] Der Neue Poseidipp is the standard reference work to synthesize the wide range of textual criticism and commentary that arose in the 10+ years after the publication of the Milan Papyrus. This text will be essential for anyone who is intrigued by Sens’ selection of Posidippus and wants to explore further.

 I noticed very few typographical errors, and almost none which affected the sense. I found only one misprint in the text: ὑποστὸς for ὑποστὰς (line 481, p. 42, but rendered correctly in the lemma on p. 201).

In conclusion, this commentary is a valuable contribution that should be useful to both students and established scholars. The text would be very well suited for use in an upper-level reading course or perhaps a graduate-level proseminar and will hopefully invite new scholars into the exciting world of Hellenistic epigram.[6]


[1] Lucia Floridi, Edilo, Epigrammi: introduzione, traduzione, testo critico e commento. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2020. (BMCR 2021.01.06); Alexander Sens, Asclepiades of Samos. Epigrams and Fragments. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. (BMCR 2013.01.06)

[2] H. Beckby, Anthologia Graeca. 4 vols. München: Heimeran, 1957-58.

[3] A.S.F. Gow / D.L. Page, The Greek Anthology: Hellenistic Epigrams. 2 vols. London; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1965; Neil Hopkinson, A Hellenistic Anthology (second edition). Cambridge Greek and Latin classics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. (BMCR 2021.07.15)

[4] C. T. Hadavas, Ancient Greek Epigrams: A Selection. Lexington, KY. (BMCR 2019.03.26)

[5] Seidensticker, Bernd / Adrian Stähli / Antje Wessels (eds). Der Neue Poseidipp: Text – Übersetzung – Kommentar (Texte zur Forschung, 108). Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt, 2015.

[6] This book review was completed with funding from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation – Project-ID 405662736 – SFB 1391, “Andere Ästhetik”).