Afterword. An Archaeologist’s Perspective on the Milan Papyrus (P.Mil.Vogl. VIII 309)

Gail Hoffman, Boston College
When I was asked to participate in a workshop on the new Milan papyrus (P.Mil.Vogl.VIII 309) with epigrams attributed to Posidippus, I wondered how an archaeologist, who generally works in the Early Iron Age (ca. 1100–700 BCE), could possibly contribute to a discussion about Hellenistic epigrams. However, as I have come to appreciate, one of the greatest contributions of the Center for Hellenic Studies (CHS) is the way in which it fosters dialogue across traditional disciplinary boundaries. So, I dutifully attended informal evening sessions when the CHS fellows (2001–2002) gathered to read over the new poems and to discuss our initial reactions. Quite to my surprise, I found that I was intrigued by material that in all likelihood I never would have encountered in my work. [1]
Still, I worried what an archaeologist could contribute to their study. Indeed, by my estimate only four of the twelve fellows at the CHS might have claimed the Hellenistic era as their primary area of expertise. So what could the rest of us offer to a group of distinguished specialists on this period? First of all, and perhaps most importantly, we offered a spirit of collegiality in a place where scholars do talk across disciplinary lines, and where all, I think, benefit from the exchange. Secondly, beyond the confines of the CHS most of us would never have been invited to participate in such a workshop. I believe the broader perspective that the CHS fellows provided is rare and that it will have served to push early discussion of this exciting new material beyond borders it might otherwise not so readily have crossed. I have no doubt that the immediate future will see numerous conferences on the new papyrus. I do doubt whether any will actively incorporate the disciplinary breadth provided by the twelve fellows who were at the CHS. So, it is with some exhilaration and much trepidation that I offer a few comments and reflections about these new poems and about our workshop.
What struck me as the poems were read was how frequently a vivid visual image came to mind, which has also been the subject of papers by Kosmetatou and Papalexandrou on the Hippika. I work in a period in which the relationship of art and text is not at all close. Texts rarely conjure images of “real” archaeologically preserved objects, and conversely visual images rarely refer directly to stories known textually. [2] Yet as I read many of these poems, they called to mind statues. For instance, AB 71, AB 72, or AB 76 conjured images similar to the bronze jockey from Artemisium, in which the expressive power of the animal galloping at break-neck pace with his tiny jockey glancing to the side at his imagined competition makes palpable the tension of the race (Figure 2). Or AB 87, where the horses themselves speak, which calls to mind a dedication like Polyzalos’ famous charioteer at Delphi, that would originally have included a four-horse chariot now mostly missing (Figure 1). [3] With the Oiônoskopika (AB 21–35), I was startled by the vividness of bird descriptions and even the seemingly detailed knowledge of migration patterns. For instance, AB 22, describing the flight of cranes from Egypt to Thrace, and AB 23, in which the shearwater signals the presence of schools of fish, seem to include real natural history. Baumbach and Trampedach discuss the structure and meaning of this section in an illuminating exploration.
Still, for all the vivid detail of the other poems, it was the Lithika (AB 1–20) [4] that were especially striking. In these poems, the precision of description goes beyond simply conjuring a vivid visual image to include seemingly specialized knowledge about materials and craftsmanship—types of stone, special properties of stones, sources of materials, even the skill of the craftsman and techniques of production, as Smith has argued in his paper. For example, there is lapis lazuli (AB 5, !ãpeιρον), sard [5] (AB 8, ϲάρδιον), rock crystal (AB 13; AB 16, κρύϲταλλον Ἄραψ), chalcedony (AB 14, ἴαϲπιν), snakestone (AB 15, δράκοντοϲ), and perhaps beryl (AB 6, β[ηρύλλιον]). [6] The special properties of stones are observed in the magnetic stone (AB 17) and the snakestone (AB 15) that hides the chariot until an impression is made. [7] There is also the wondrous stone (AB 13), that seems to reveal its image (of a Persian lion? 13.3, ὠκὺ γ[λυπτὸϲ λ]ὶϲ ὁ Πέρϲηϲ) only after being rubbed with oil and left to dry.
The special skill of the artisan is noted in AB 15 “a marvel the craftsman did not hurt his eyes”. But also in the joining of subject and material (“the use of hand and mind”) in the Pegasos stone (AB 14). [8] In addition, there is the carving of the “invisible” chariot in the snakestone (AB 15), that Gutzwiller has proposed plays on an ancient belief that the snakestone could improve vision. [9] Some of the epigrams (AB 5 and AB 6 [completely conjectured]) reveal the gem carvers’ names, Cronius and Timanthes, [10] as well as occasionally the owner of the stone.
These observations about the knowledge of the poet caused me to wonder about the social context of engraved gem production and use during the Hellenistic period. The materials mentioned in these epigrams are notable for their value and rarity. In particular, the large sardion cameo that is three spans round, indicates that the epigrams describe the gems of kings and royalty, not the gemstones of average citizens. The identification by name of individual carvers, while known earlier (only a few carvers’ names come down from the Archaic and Classical periods), [11] is in keeping with the Hellenistic context in which gem engravers would be employed at the royal courts to produce ruler portraits, expensive seal stones, and probably also the die for coins. [12] We also know that Hellenistic kings made collections (dactylio thecae) of gemstones. [13] Perhaps we might imagine a poet sitting and chatting at lunch with a gem carver, much like philologists, philosophers, historians, and archaeologists sit and chat at the wonderful lunches of the CHS. It could be in a context such as this, then, that a poet might learn the details of the gem carver’s craft. [14] Of course, I do not mean this literally, but I think that both poet and gem carver were likely the beneficiaries of royal patronage and in such a context, their paths might have crossed.
It is also in the Hellenistic period, after all, that the Mouseion and Library at Alexandria are created, that poets begin to write down their works in books, and that art criticism develops new vocabulary. This is also an era when ekphrasis changes from earlier forms that can be considered largely in terms of narrative and description, examples of which can be found in Homer’s Shield of Achilles, the pseudo-Hesiodic Shield of Heracles or even, Euripides’ Ion with a description of the sculptures on the Apollo temple at Delphi. [15] It now becomes a type of ekphrasis that actively involves the viewer. Goldhill has claimed that Hellenistic ekphrasis is related to “cultural ideas about vision, reading, and the production of meaning.” [16] Kosmetatou’s review of the structure and meaning of the Andriantopoiika explores the theory behind the ecphrasis in that section (AB 62–70) arguing for its attribution to Posidippus’ contemporary Samian historian Duris. There is also an imaginary place of viewing set up in some of the poems, leaving one to wonder about the possibility of collections of statues and gemstones perhaps made by Hellenistic kings, an idea that was suggested by Gutzwiller at the CHS conference. [17] Even with both an expanded understanding of ekphrasis and the expectation that real artworks are discussed, the depth of understanding of materials and technical process again seems to go beyond what has been previously described.
In terms of art criticism, I expected to find in the poems the view of an intelligentsia with links to philosophy and perhaps ideals about phantasia, as it was considered in the Hellenistic period, [18] but found, instead, earlier classical terms (καν≈ν and ἀλήθεια) occurring in the Andriantopoiika, while in the Lithika the judgments on the artistry of the stones are more in the vein of what Pollitt terms “popular criticism” that is, with an emphasis on describing the realism of the art work, its miraculous qualities, and its costliness. [19] Here I wondered whether the poet was contriving to include perspectives from differing social groups, that is, the artisan in the creation of the poem and artwork, royalty in the place of viewing, materials used, and in the possibility of gemstone collections, and then, commoners in the guise of viewers commenting on the objects seen. [20]
These poems, then, somewhat unexpectedly provided many things to interest an archaeologist. Perhaps, if I had initially paid more attention to the subheadings (Lithika, Oiônoskopika, Anathematika, Epitymbia, Andriantopoiika, Hippika, Nauagika, Iamatika, Tropoi), I would not have been so surprised. After all, they describe physical objects or actions, aspects of natural history or folklore, all topics that fascinate archaeologists. It was the importance of the arrangement of individual poems within these subheadings or categories and the complexity of this structure that also turned out to be one of the fascinating themes of the workshop and its lively discussions. I would like to turn, then, to a few observations about the workshop and discussions.
Like the epigrams in the papyrus whose complex and subtle arrangement came to be appreciated over the course of the workshop, the careful design and structuring of the workshop papers and session, largely preserved in this volume, also became apparent over the course of the conference weekend. The arrangement permitted even those unfamiliar with the field to educate themselves by degrees so that eventually even detailed and specialized discussions could be appreciated. Papers began with background to the study of epigram (see introduction in this volume) and details of the papyrus itself. Stephens and Obbink very ably and succinctly presented the evidence for dating, context of production (including that it was written by a practiced professional scribe), damage and repair to the front, as well as the text written upside down on the reverse, and finally, its last use as mummy cartonnage. This presentation elicited discussion about the unusual numbering system. What does it mean, and at what point was it put on the papyrus? Both the view that it was original (Stephens) and that it was added later (Sider) were espoused. The vexing question of the marginal του and its meaning also were raised, various possibilities were rehearsed without any firm conclusions being reached. Obbink’s paper closing the first session in counterpoint to Stephens provided a minute analysis and commentary on a four-line epigram (AB 103) in the Tropoi. While the papyrologists’ observations provided a refreshing perspective on the papyrus, observing that the text must have been produced close in time to the composition of the epigrams, one would plausibly wonder who was choosing, collating, constructing this work and in what kind of social milieu. What if any, would its relationship be to activities at the Library in Alexandria? The papers dealing with the papyrus itself raise what also became another theme or leit motif of the workshop, that is, the social context in which and for which the papyrus was created. Nagy reminded us of the variant Homeric texts available in the third century BCE and proposed that a majority of the Homeric echoes might be drawn from the “Homerus auctus” current at the time. Sider addressed the effect of anthologists on the epigram itself, especially noting the shifting length over time. Smith observed the Lithika fit well in a Hellenistic context of scientific observation, proposing that Theophrastus’ On Stones was the immediate source for the poet’s specialized, accurate, and detailed knowledge of gemstones. Bing, likewise, linked the epigrams to other written documents, in this instance, noting that the Iamatika showed strong links to published descriptions of actual cures, such as those inscribed at Epidaurus. In discussion, we puzzled over the function of these epigrams, the reasons for a collection of cures, and wondered who would be the intended audience. Similarly, Dignas’ exploration of some of the Epitymbia noted the unusual presence of gravestones for initiates and the preponderance of women. Again, why this selection?
It was this issue of selection and crafting of the papyrus as a whole and especially within the various subgroups to which discussion returned time and again. At the end, I think no one doubted how carefully constructed the selection of epigrams was and that much of the elegance of this work derives from a realization of this ordering and its significance. While individual epigrams alone might not seem particularly interesting, sometimes they took on striking additional characteristics and meaning when combined with neighboring poems.
The issue of structuring within the subheadings has been explored especially for the Andriantopoiika by Kosmetatou, the Hippika by Fantuzzi, and the Oiônoskopika by Baumbach and Trampedach. The Oiônoskopika were particularly fascinating as it seemed that the broad structure of the epigrams contrast oikos and polis, private with public settings, with a transitional poem bridging both placed at the center. The section closes with two mantic poems that cast the poet/reader in the role of seer. It seems almost as though these poems were designed to educate the reader in the mantic craft. This proposed interpretation of the structure is nicely supported by Henrich’s analysis of the highly specialized language. [21] He observed the almost exclusive use of phainesthai and idein, two of the three necessary parts of augury, i.e. appearance and viewing. The vocabulary for the last stage, interpretation, is lacking in the text, perhaps because that is the role of the reader? The importance of the structuring within subsections came out also in Bing’s paper on the Iamatika, though all wondered whether this could be carried further. This subject was again explored by Hunter in the Lithika. Even though a whole session was devoted to consideration of the Lithika, additional work remains to be done on their arrangement as a group.
Of course, the realization of the complex structure of many subgroups provided a strong sense of authorial or at the very least editorial hand. Although the question “is this Posidippus?” was not overtly a focus of discussion, the papers of Acosta-Hughes, Sider, and Sens sidled up to or around this question.
I have not done justice to those who tackled the literary dimensions of the poems and their place in historical developments, especially Schur on the Lithika and Thomas on the Nauagika, but perhaps as an archaeologist, I can be forgiven this blunder. These papers were especially insightful and carried analysis deeply into the poetry and its context. Let me close then, with an observation and reminder of the breadth of disciplines involved in this workshop. There were archaeologists, scholars of comparative literature and Greek religion, historians, linguists, literary critics, paleographers, papyrologists, and even philosophers. Archaeologists will find much to interest them in these poems. I hope that these general comments from “an archaeologist’s perspective” as well as the other commentary and analysis of this papyrus by the CHS fellows and distinguished visiting scholars have helped to push forward the boundaries of thinking about these poems.


[ back ] 1. I must admit that nearly all of us thought on our first read through that many of these epigrams were not first rate poetry. Our opinions on this point have changed, especially as we have come to appreciate the careful crafting and arrangements of poems within their subgroups. For the uninitiated, I found Webster 1964, Bing 1988, and Gutzwiller 1998 helpful.
[ back ] 2. For a recent exploration of this, see Snodgrass 1998.
[ back ] 3. Cf. Papalexandrou (this volume).
[ back ] 4. The heading, Lithika, is largely restored ([λιθι]κά). At the workshop Stephens observed that the heading seems above the line. Frame and others wondered whether this was intended to serve as an overall title for the work as well as a subject heading for the first set of poems. Because there is damage (and repair?) to the start of the papyrus, it is an open question whether the preserved text is the actual beginning or not. It is interesting that in antiquity (though generally later than these epigrams) a genre of studies termed Lithika existed. These works were primarily concerned with the magical properties of stones. Plantzos 1999:10. Such works are in contrast to the largely scientific treatises of Theophrastus On Stones and Pliny NH XXXVII.
[ back ] 5. The term probably refers to sard, a variety of chalcedony in layered bands of color. A paper on AB 8 was presented by Kosmetatou at the conference and is forthcoming in Kosmetatou 2003a.
[ back ] 6. On some of these terms, Plantzos 1999:10, 36.
[ back ] 7. This poem about the snakestone was already known from other collections (AB 15 = 20 GP). For comments, Gow 1954:197–199; GP:2 500–501. Fernández-Galiano 1987:126–129.
[ back ] 8. This epigram has already received at least two comments in print. Gutzwiller 1995:385–386 and Niafas 1997.
[ back ] 9. Gutzwiller 1995:387–388. Rock crystal (AB 7 and AB 16) was also known to magnify. Many rock crystal disks have been excavated and some speculate these would have been used by jeweler’s as tools. See Hoffman 1997:202–204. On the question of whether magnifiers were used, see Plantzos 1999:40–41.
[ back ] 10. By the Hellenistic period many names of gem carvers are known, though some may be false; see Plantzos 1999:146. One of the better known from the literature (no signed work of his survives) is Pyrgoteles, who worked for Alexander the Great. Cf. Plantzos 1999:63, 60. Pliny NH XXXVII 8. A gem carver named Cronius is mentioned by Pliny in the same passage.
[ back ] 11. Boardman 1970:17.
[ back ] 12. On the question of whether gem carvers also cut coin dies, see Plantzos 1999:64–65.
[ back ] 13. Pliny NH XXXVII 12–17.
[ back ] 14. Smith in this volume proposes as a source for the poet’s knowledge, Theophrastus On Stones.
[ back ] 15. Zeitlin 1994.
[ back ] 16. Goldhill 1994:198.
[ back ] 17. This paper is now published as Gutzwiller 2003c (non vidi).
[ back ] 18. Hunter in follow up discussion suggested that the importance of phantasia has been overrated.
[ back ] 19. Pollitt 1974:63–66.
[ back ] 20. Goldhill 1994:216–223 posits a similar interpretation for the women viewers and other participants of Theocritus’ Idyll 15.
[ back ] 21. It was unfortunately not possible to include this paper in the present volume.