BMCR 2023.07.12

Dictionnaire de l’épigramme littéraire dans l’Antiquité grecque et romaine

, Dictionnaire de l'épigramme littéraire dans l'Antiquité grecque et romaine. Turnhout: Brepols, 2022. 2 vols. Pp. 1700. ISBN 9782503593104

Literary epigram often seems a genre best defined by what it is not: not part of the educational or literary canon in antiquity (and long after); not lengthy, nor too serious, notin a lyric meter… although sometimes not very short at all, sometimes deathly serious, sometimes in surprising meters, often generating and participating in their own canons, and increasingly recognized today as classical and of real educational utility. A slippery, changing, shady creature this genre. But a genre it is indeed, and anyone with interest in epigrammatic poems and collections owes an immeasurable debt to Urlacher-Becht and the over 100 contributors to this immense, illuminating, invaluable work, which at last provides scholars and scholarship on ancient Greek and Latin epigrams a vibrant, secure, panoptic center from which to work on these scattered, polymorphous, fleeting, enthralling, and vexing little works.

The Dictionnaire’s aim is as ambitious as its size (over 1500 pages in two large, well-produced volumes weighing just shy of 12 pounds!). Its goal: the first complete synthesis of ancient Greek and Latin epigram, from its epigraphic origins and early literary witnesses c. 400 BCE, through its renaissance amid the emergence of distinctive Christian epigrammatic forms in late antiquity, to its petering out in the mid-7th-century CE, with attention to the tensions and contrasts that animate the genre: epigraphic and literary; Greek and Latin; secular and Christian (v). Its agenda to describe literary epigram includes metrical inscriptions, of course, and there is real value in having figures like Julia Balbilla and Herennia Procula integrated into the Dictionnaire’s weft. Anonymous epigrammatists, especially those whose poems survive on stone, receive their due as well, often in the work’s longer thematic entries on e.g., “Epitaph” (539–564) or “Sculpture” (1350–1356).

Two flavors of entries intermingle in the Dictionnaire: those describing individual authors and collections; and those analyzing diachronic themes, which are frequently traced through sections on Greek, Latin, and sometimes late antique and Byzantine epigrams. Every entry concludes with both a substantial “Selected Bibliography” and an even more extensive list of “Studies” on the figure or theme. These are thorough in scope and display a commendable attention to the international cohort of scholars who have and continue to work on the matter.

Major figures and corpora like Callimachus, Martial, and the Palatine Anthology are of course well served and their entries are suitably thorough yet restrained, in deference to the wealth of scholarship already produced on them. But it is enlightening to flip a few pages further to brief yet still rich entries on e.g., the Bobiensia (Epigrammata), Cicero, Ennodius, Honestos, Martin de Braga, Nicarchus II, etc. One quickly grasps the abundance of connections that emerge with the more canonical figures.  Copious cross-references make this not only a reference work but one that promotes and empowers intellectual discovery. Expanding horizons, rounding out impressions, and encountering new figures and new works will be a regular experience for all who do not already possess an encyclopedic knowledge of this vast, diverse field.

It is the thematic entries that truly distinguish the Dictionnaire and establish it as an essential resource for the scholar working on any variety of Greek or Latin epigram. In addition to foundational entries such as “Genre (History of –)”, “Inscriptions”, “Metapoetics”; “Preface”, and “Reader, (Act of) Reading”, there are dozens of erudite, provocative entries on e.g., “Art Criticism”, “Banquets”, “Bilingualism”, “Dedicatory Epigrams”, “Ecphrasis”, “Objects”, “Settings”, “Smallness”, “Verse Epistles”, and “Voice”. There are some surprises: an entry on “Obscenity” shorter than that on “Birds”? But the former is still sufficiently treated, especially in light of previous scholarship on the subject; the latter reveals how shifting our spotlight can produce new revelations. Many of the larger thematic entries show, typically without distracting seams, the expertise of several hands. To highlight one: Gutzwiller & Moreno Soldevila’s entry on “Editor/Poet-Editors” is particularly deft.

The text of the Dictionnaire is French, but the team of contributors is admirably international (entries were translated into French as needed). It is worth recognizing the titanic labor involved in assembling this team, organizing this sprawling yet coherent project, and especially in editing its more than 400 entries, in which Urlacher-Becht was assisted by an epigrammatic dream team of Kathryn Gutzwiller, Alfredo Mario Morelli, and Évelyne Prioux. Each volume includes a useful list of entries in that volume. The second volume concludes with a list of contributors that helpfully notes the entries they produced. There are four figures (of Optatian and the Tabula Italica). One wishes, or at least this reviewer wishes, that there were an electronic version planned (even a simple e-book), which might make this resource accessible to more scholars, and would facilitate further discovery within and connections among its wealth of data.

In short, the Dictionnaire de l’épigramme littéraire is awesome—both in the sense of being truly excellent, and of being impressive, daunting, and inspiring admiration. While its significant price will prevent many from clearing out a home for it on their bookshelves, the Dictionnaire deserves a place in any serious research library and I encourage all with even a passing interest in the subject to seek it out early and often.