Labored in Papyrus Leaves: Perspectives on an Epigram Collection Attributed to Posidippus (P.Mil.Vogl. VIII 309)

  Acosta-Hughes, Benjamin, Elizabeth Kosmetatou, and Manuel Baumbach, eds. 2004. Labored in Papyrus Leaves: Perspectives on an Epigram Collection Attributed to Posidippus (P.Mil.Vogl. VIII 309). Hellenic Studies Series 2. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

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]

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]

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.

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.