10. A Garland of Stones: Hellenistic Lithika as Reflections on Poetic Transformation

David Schur, Miami University, Ohio
Drawing inspiration from the importance of floral metaphors for poetry in the Western literary tradition and in our conception of the Hellenistic epigram tradition particularly, I think it would be worthwhile to consider the relationship between stones and poetry; more specifically, the conceit that likens stones or gemstones to poems. [1] What I wish to suggest is that the lithic poems collected in the Milan papyrus (AB 1–20) illuminate the self-presentation of literary epigram. Since we are here dealing with a form of poetry that presumably began as, and continued to emulate, epigraphy, stone is not a neutral topic when addressed in the epigram form. [2]
The poems, possibly by Posidippus, [3] tend to describe stones that have been transformed. These stones are not so much inherently precious as artistically or geographically distanced from their sources. As K. Gutzwiller has remarked: “The epigram placed in a book, whatever its intended purpose at the time of composition, gives meaning to its referents through exemplification: its subjects become types, presented, gemlike, through brief but specific details” (my emphasis). [4] Gemlike in this sense of particularity, the stones themselves are travelers, and the distance traveled may remind us that just as a stone can be made into a gem through human artifice, so too can a lithic inscription become a literary epigram. It is a journey of transformation, which P. Bing has called “the journey from physical source to cultural application,” that takes inert material far from its presumed source. [5]
Since this is largely a question of context and reception, let us pause for a sweeping consideration of the topoi or conventional conceits involved. An anthology is understood etymologically as a collection of flowers, along the lines of Meleager’s Garland and through association with garlands worn during symposia. [6] Though by no means the first to associate poetry with flowers, Meleager even refers to “newly-written shoots” (ἔρνεα … νεόγραφα, 1.55 GP), thus giving the conceit a sense rather close to that of the German word Blatt, meaning both leaf and page. In such a phrase, plant material and written form become inextricable; whereas a typical simile might make an explicit association between two separate images, and a metaphor might substitute one for the other, here the vehicle (plant) and tenor (writing) are combined in a hybrid form. Meleager’s written shoots exemplify a poetics of transformation. Interestingly this concept is already found in another epigram by Posidippus (6.3 GP = AP XII 98) in which he describes his intellectual labors with books in these terms (ἐν βύβλοις πεπονημένη, which was incidentally translated into the title of this volume). [7]
Historically, the weaving of poetic garlands or wreaths has been reinforced by an etymological connection between texts and textiles. And the commonplace of poetic vegetation has persisted in famous examples such as Sa’adi’s Gülistan, or Rose Garden (1258), the German selection of poetry entitled Venusgärtlein (1656), Frances Lincoln’s A Garden of Greek Verse, Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil , A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The string of poetic stones has been a somewhat less popular convention, though it hardly seems unfamiliar. Perhaps the early ancient anthology that is attributed to Posidippus by ancient and modern authors, called the “heap” (Σωρός), was conceived as a pile of quarried poems. [8] More recent parallels include the Renaissance crown of (jewel-like?) sonnets, the Romantic association of stone ruins with literary fragments, and the Symbolist poets’ search for crystalline perfection in their writings. [9] Just as telling are cases where stones and flowers are conflated. Thus a 1913 translation of the Greek Anthology is entitled Ancient Gems in Modern Settings. And on a lighter (or heavier) note, we have the Rolling Stones’ song “Ruby Tuesday” appearing first on the album called Flowers, and later anthologized in a collection of hits called Hot Rocks. These examples may simply serve to show how aptly the title Lithika—a title standing, if it is there at all, at the head of the entire Milan papyrus as we have it—fits a gathering of poems when the topos is seen through a modern lens largely forged in ancient times. [10]
Now to the poems themselves. If stone is indeed conceived as the fundamental material for epigram, then it is extraordinarily suited to represent the epigram form. The Lithika are essentially presented as inscriptions about inscriptions, when inscription is understood broadly in terms of carving, engraving, and marking. This is one crucial significance of verbs that characterize the stoneworker’s craft. “As art contemplating art,” writes P. Bing, “they invite a self-reflexive interpretation.” [11] The conceit of stones as poems, carried into new contexts, literalizes the linguistic parallel between the word “metaphor” itself and its Latin counterparts “translation” and “transformation”. I am not suggesting that this view is consciously adopted in the Lithika; instead, I would argue that very early in the history of epigram composition, conceptual connections had already begun fueling certain underlying rhetorical conventions or generic self-representations.
In general, the attribution of specific carvings to named artisans raises questions of creation and authorship. We might envisage a series of transformations, compositions moving from improvised speech to carvings in monuments, then to engraving in smaller stones, then perhaps to written tags anchored to stones, and finally to poems on papyrus. [12] Each step takes us further away from the presumed source or original context, leaving us in possession of literary texts that are less seemingly anonymous and less strictly referential than would previously have been perceived. The deliberate creation of such distance in epigram allows for what P. Bing has called Ergänzungsspiel. [13]
We may identify several types of transformational distance in the new epigrams. One is geographical, as in the poem that traces a stone’s journey from Arabian mountains to a woman’s breast (AB 7). A more personal change of location is seen in the theme of exchange, exemplified by stones changing hands as gifts (AB 4, AB 5). The poem about a stone with unusual, dual magnetic qualities (AB 17) touches on the theme of attraction and repulsion, another kind of give and take that echoes throughout the Lithika section in verbs such as ἕλκω (‘to drag’), φορέω (‘to carry’), κυλίω (‘to roll’). We can understand this as a tension between distancing and attraction. Stones are repelled—dragged, carried, and rolled about—yet they can be attractive and valuable. In fact, distance makes them more valuable (compare AB 16.6). And in the case of gemstones, carving itself is a kind of translatio. We should not ignore the overt associations between carving, inscribing, and writing that unfold in the poetic glyptic and graphic handling of stones.
With these observations in mind, I shall conclude by reading the following epigram (AB 5):
Τιμάνθηϲ ἔγλυψε τὸν ἀϲτερόεντα ϲάπειρον
τόνδε χρυϲίτην Περϲικὸν ἡμίλιθον
Δημύλωι· ἀνθ᾿ ἁπαλοῦ δὲ φιλήματοϲ ἡ κυανόθριξ
δῶρον Νικαίη Κῶια ἔδεκτ᾿ ἐρατόν.

Timanthes carved this starry lapis lazuli,
a gold-speckled Persian half-stone,
for Demylus; in exchange for a soft kiss, dark-haired
Nicaea of Cos accepted the erotic gift.
The poem celebrates the achievement of a skilled stone-worker. The sequence of events forms a small narrative that follows the stone through two stages, expressed in two main clauses. First the Persian stone is carved by Timanthes and transferred to Demylus. The initial position of the name Demylus in line 3, following the hapax ἡμίλιθον, marks the halfway point of transition to a second stage, as the stone is given by him to Nicaea. While the word ἡμίλιθον may have something to do with the stone’s softness, [14] it also literally stands as a go-between. And the sequence of sounds heard in the words ἡμίλιθον | Δημύλωι· ἀνθ᾿ traces an elegant, almost palindromic route of exchange.
When composed, the narrative may certainly have been referential. In its current context, however, the poem’s emphasis is twofold, focusing on the carved stone’s starry, golden brilliance and on its value in an amorous exchange. The lapis apparently presents the dark blue of a night sky against which “gold pyrite inclusions” shine like stars. [15] It may recall the rare word ἀντιϲέληνον, which occurs in the collection’s preceding, fragmentary epigram (AB 4.3). Since, as Bastianini and Gallazzi note, ἀντιϲέληνον has been translated elsewhere as “shining like the moon”, [16] our stone exchanged for (ἀνθ᾿) a kiss has comparable celestial brilliance. The stone’s brilliance and hardness seemingly melt into the woman’s contrastive dark hair and soft kiss.
In this interpretation, the artist/artisan is ultimately responsible for the translatio or exchange that takes place. It is therefore fitting that the major theme of exchange, expressed by the preposition ἀνθ᾿ (ἀντί), echoes the second element in the artist’s name Τιμ-άνθηϲ. The name, which at first may have looked like a “precious flower”, upon further reading becomes a nomen loquens personifying “exchange-value” itself.


[ back ] 1. On lapidary lore in antiquity, see Gutzwiller 1995:383, especially n1.
[ back ] 2. Hence the valence in, e.g., funerary epigrams of “this stone”. Cf. Bing 1995; Bing 1998:21–43; Gutzwiller 1998:47–114; Rossi 2001:3–13; Bing (this volume).
[ back ] 3. The fact that no authorship is indicated in the surviving portions of the papyrus led a few scholars to initially dispute the attribution of the entire collection to Posidippus. The most notable objections were voiced by H. Lloyd-Jones in 2002 at the APA annual meeting in Philadelphia. Significantly, in his first publication on the Milan papyrus Lloyd-Jones seems to avoid reference to Posidippus. See Lloyd-Jones 2001. However, he appears to have changed his mind. See Lloyd-Jones 2002. Scholarly consensus seems to move decidedly towards the attribution of all epigrams to Posidippus. Cf. the proceedings of the Florence conference in 2002, in particular Fantuzzi’s stichometric analysis (pp. 79–97). See also Sider (this volume).
[ back ] 4. Gutzwiller 1998:8.
[ back ] 5. Bing 2002a:4. Cf. discussion infra of epigram AB 7 which describes the journey of a gem from the Arabian mountains to the sea, finally resting on the neck of a woman.
[ back ] 6. Gutzwiller 1998:227–322.
[ back ] 7. Gutzwiller 1998:160–161. Philip also equates the making of an anthology to harvesting the grain of a new page. Cf. AP IV 2.3 = L3 GP Garland.
[ back ] 8. Gutzwiller 1998:18–19, 155–157, 169–170. Reitzenstein (1893) assumed the Soros to be an anthology of epigrams by Asclepiades, Posidippus, and possibly Hedylus as well. Gutzwiller is probably right to attribute it to a single author, namely Posidippus.
[ back ] 9. This romantic notion of the quest for perfection in a miniature literary world is further found in Jane Austen who described her novels as “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which [she works] with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour” (Letter to James Edward Austen, 16–17 December 1816). Related to this assessment of her work is her other reference to her Pride and Prejudice as “too light, and bright, and sparkling” (Letter to Cassandra Austen, 4 February 1813).
[ back ] 10. On the important observation that Lithika may have been the possible title of the entire collection preserved on the Milan papyrus, see also Bing 2002a and Hunter (this volume).
[ back ] 11. Bing 2002a:2.
[ back ] 12. Evidence for the actual association of tags with small objects that served as votives is provided by inventory lists from the Classical and Hellenistic periods associated with the Athenian Acropolis and Asclepion, as well as with various Delian temples. Cf. Tod 1954:1–8; Harris 1995:23–24.
[ back ] 13. Bing 1995; cf. Hunter 1992:114.
[ back ] 14. BG:114.
[ back ] 15. Spier 1992:6. Cf. Schumann 1995:172.
[ back ] 16. BG:113.