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.

13. Posidippus and the Mysteries: Epitymbia Read by the Ancient Historian

Beate Dignas, University of Michigan

Grave Inscriptions—Grave Epigrams

Ancient historians and epigraphists rarely consider Hellenistic poetry in their research. Although literally transmitted funerary epigrams have been absorbed frequently in epigraphic corpora, skepticism prevails even with regard to this category. But neither Posidippus nor other Hellenistic poets, nor their impact on historical insights can be ignored altogether. P. Bing calls the distinction between ‘inscribed’ and ‘quasi inscriptional’ texts “a hermeneutical crux”—looking at Hellenistic epigrams from the philologist’s angle he observes that “the possibility of inscription bedevils scholars who deal with funerary epigram.” [1] In analogy, the historian should complain to be bedeviled by the possibility of literary fiction. But is this so? Does it matter whether Posidippus composed an epigram for it to be inscribed, or composed it and then it happened to be inscribed, or composed it knowing that it would never be inscribed, or was inspired by a monument that he thought should be inscribed, or used an inscribed epitaph as a model, or thought of an epitaph for a person he knew? The possible scenarios are many. On both ‘sides’, scholars have denied that it matters, because the generic conventions of both types—meter, structure, formulae, and themes—are the same; the history of the term ‘epigramma’ and its meaning confirm that one cannot really be understood without the other. [2]

Epitaphs both in meter and prose began to appear in the mid-seventh century BCE: the dead person’s name, sometimes accompanied by patronymic or ethnic, was incorporated into a short formula. Soon this was expanded, with the main intention to commemorate the deceased as an ideal type. From early onwards the reader was envisaged as moving along, encouraged to stop, to praise the deceased as well as the poem and the monument. This dialogue between monument and passerby can take many forms: the stone can speak for itself; the dead person, the dedicator who composed or commissioned the inscription, or the passing reader’s voice can be heard. The texts inform the reader not only about the deceased’s name and homeland but also about how he died, who performed funeral rites, and about the feelings of survivors. Moreover, inscribed epitaph was an integral part of grave monuments. A three-dimensional character, the fact that the text was an essential part of a monument that often showed secondary decoration reinforcing the praise and characterization of the dead person, is thus crucial for its interpretation. [3] However, this monumental aspect of grave inscriptions was often imitated in literary epigrams that appear to describe the relief or sculpture of a grave monument. [4] As R. Thomas puts it, “the fiction of functionality is part of the essence of the developing epigrammatic genre.” [5] Hellenistic epigram books, which were preceded by a growing interest in authorship in the fourth century BCE, and which can be traced to the first half of the third century, were thus not an antidote to inscriptions but a form of literary expression that imitated and further developed what poets found on stone and composed for epigraphic purposes. Not surprisingly, some historians have included the literary epigram in their analysis of particular themes in grave inscriptions [6] and, vice versa, philologists have observed epitaphic rhetoric as inspiration and boundary for the Hellenistic poet. [7]

Posidippus’ Epitymbia

The fact that Nicostrate is transferred into a world that she had glimpsed already during her lifetime (indicated by ἄψ) is important in order to make the case that she was indeed an initiate. Described is not just the transition to the underworld, which may be part of any epitaph. The final sentence, “the harbor of sad old age is softer this way,” has a double meaning in that her comfort could either lie in having seen her children grow up or in the initiation with the promised blessed afterlife.

The third epitaph (AB 44) is for a young girl named Niko from Posidippus’ birthplace Pella. She was a servant of Dionysus, a young Bacchant.

ἐκ τέκνω̣[ν νεάτ]η̣ν δυοκαίδεκα καὶ .[…..]ϲ̣α.
     παρθένο̣[ν ἔκλαιο]ν Πέλλ̣[α] καὶ Εὐιάδ̣[εϲ
αἶ̣ τρίϲ, ἐπ[ειδὴ Μοῖ]ρα Διωνύϲοιο θερά[πνην
     Νικὼ Β̣αϲ̣[ϲαρικῶν] ἤγαγε̣ν ἐξ ὀρέων̣.

Pella and the Bacchants were lamenting the [youngest] of twelve children, a … young girl, “Alas”, three times, since Fate led the servant of Dionysus, Niko, down from the Bassaric mountains.

The Εὐιάδ[εϲ in this case are not the mythological Maenads but the local women initiated in the Dionysiac mysteries. Their exclamation αἶ τρίϲ refers to the threefold invocation of the deceased that we encounter already in Homer (e.g. Odyssey IX 65), which also makes the restoration of the imperfect ἔκλαιον more plausible than the rather too long aorist ἔκλαυσαν. The ἐξ ὄρεων contrasts with and at the same time reminds of the famous cry of the Bacchants in Euripides’ Bacchae (163ff.), εἰς ὄρος, εἰς ὄρος. A famous inscription from Miletus illustrates nicely that walking to the mountains was a central feature in Bacchic rites: [22]

“τὴν ὁσίην χαίρειμ” πολιήτιδες εἴπατε βάκχαι
     “ἱρείην” χρηστῇ τοῦτο γυναικὶ θέμις,
ὑμᾶς κεἰς ὄρος ἦγε καὶ ὄργια πάντα καὶ ἱρὰ
     ἤνεικεμ πάσης ἐρχομένη πρὸ πόλεως
τοὔνομα δ᾿ εἴ τις ξεῖνος ἀνείρεται· Ἀλκμειωνίς
     ἡ Ῥοδίου, καλῶμ μοῖραν ἐπισταμένη.

You Bacchants in the city say, “Be greeted, pure priestess”; this is proper for a good woman.

She led you to the mountain and carried all the sacred symbols, walking before the whole city.

But if a stranger asks about her name: she was Alkmeionis, daughter of Rhodios, and she had the destined understanding of the good things.

Although the “pious initiate” in the fourth century leaf from Pella cannot be our poet and although the name Posidippus is reasonably common in Macedonia, a family connection seems plausible. [37] If one takes hints from these gold leaves and allows for a connection with the epigrammatist, several passages in the so-called Seal of Posidippus or Poem on Old Age [38] take on far more concrete meanings than they would otherwise. At least two passages in the poem feature the language of mysteries and initiation.


[ back ] 1. Bing 1998:29.

[ back ] 2. For references to works regarding the relationship between Greek epigram and epigraphy see Rossi 2001:3n2; Rossi calls epigram the “literary alter ego” of epigraphs; see also Gutzwiller 1998:47–49.

[ back ] 3. It is remarkable that the correspondence between epigram and sculptural ornamentation, which does apply in most cases in the Archaic and Classical periods, often does not exist in the Hellenistic period. Although at this time epigram was very concerned with private matters and with grief and emotions, reliefs on public grave stelai tend not to be. These differing messages might be a result of “mass production” with only the epitaph having been specifically commissioned for a given situation or individual; for a detailed analysis on second century grave reliefs from Smyrna, see Zanker 1993:212–230; Rossi 2001:20 and n24 denies altogether that funerary inscriptions had any explanatory function with regard to the iconographic aspect of the monument. She explains this observation by pointing out that each had its own tradition of formulaic conventions.

[ back ] 4. Lefkowitz 2001 explains epigram AB 56, “The epigram may describe a representation of the dead woman and her son on a grave stele,” although in this case no monument is mentioned.

[ back ] 5. Thomas 1998:205.

[ back ] 6. In his dissertation on women’s praise in Greek funerary epigram, Pircher 1979:11, explains the selection of texts, “Die in der Anthologia Palatina literarisch überlieferten Epigramme konnten nicht ausgeschlossen werden, da sie, wenngleich oft fingiert, in Formular und Thematik durchaus in die Nähe der echten Grabgedichte zu stellen sind.”

[ back ] 7. Walsh 1991:77–105, observes the influence of epitaph rhetoric outside the graveyard and sees the Hellenistic poet as the reader of inscriptions, as an interpreter of signs who uses the constraints and possibilities of real epitaphs for his art; it is also possible, of course, that vice versa certain formulae originated in literature and then passed to epigraphy.

[ back ] 8. Bing 1998:35; Rossi 2001:5, however, insists that even manifestly fictitious epigrams always featured at least a single epigraphic marker.

[ back ] 9. A good example is the statement by Garland 1985:xi, “Epitaphs are in fact of limited value to this study since, with some signal exceptions, the majority record little more than the achievements and virtues of the deceased and the sense of loss which he has bequeathed to his relatives.”

[ back ] 10. Bing 1998:35.

[ back ] 11. For arguments in favor of this restoration see the commentary in BG:157. As the adjectives were synonymous, we could also restore epitaphia.

[ back ] 12. Rossi 2001:13 claims that the interest in categories of the dead rather than the defunct as an individual marks the difference between funerary epigram and epigraphic model—this shift in interest might, however, occur after composition.

[ back ] 13. The great majority of the texts date from the imperial period; see BG:158; the editors refer to GV 1344 (= Merkelbach-Stauber 1998:01/20/21), Merkelbach-Stauber 1998:01/20/45; GV 1916; GV 509 (= Merkelbach-Stauber 1998:03/02/74), GV 974; GV 2012; GV 694; GV 879, Merkelbach-Stauber 1998:04/19/02. See also GV 1179 (= Merkelbach-Stauber 1998:05/01/50), Merkelbach-Stauber 2001a:10/03/02; Merkelbach-Stauber 2001b:14/07/06; Merkelbach-Stauber 2002:17/09/04, 18/01/22, 21/12/02, 01/19/29; Betz 1998:400n7 with a list of epitaphs that allude to the initiation of the deceased.

[ back ] 14. Cf. Cole 1993:280–292; Cole counts a total of 75 sepulchral inscriptions, 25 of which fall under this category. She observes that only four texts relate to women; cf. Cole 1993:283.

[ back ] 15. See, e.g., Merkelbach-Stauber 2001b:16/34/24; the editors entitle the epitaph for a certain Daphne from Dorylaion (imperial period) “Daphne, eine Dionysosmystin?” because a grape cluster is depicted above the inscription.

[ back ] 16. For a survey of themes, see also Chaniotis 2000:166.

[ back ] 17. Cole 1993 observes a marked contrast in this respect between the early gold tablets (see below) and later public inscriptions on stone.

[ back ] 18. Although I cite the epigrams with their AB numeration, I give the text of the editio princeps. All translations by the author except where otherwise stated.

[ back ] 19. See Foley 1994:61, figure 4.

[ back ] 20. BG 158 (with parallels); in Merkelbach-Stauber 2001b:14/07/06 the Κόρης τε θεᾶς πρόπολοι καὶ Διονύσου (l.14f) join the parents of the deceased in mourning.

[ back ] 21. The editors do not necessarily see her as an Attic woman but point out that mysteries of Kore, Demeter, and Triptolemus existed also in other places. The Eleusinia in Alexandria were not necessarily a festival that included mysteries, therefore I would argue for an initiation at Eleusis; this does not, however, mean that Nicostrate was an Attic woman.

[ back ] 22. Herrmann 1998, no.457.

[ back ] 23. Cf. Plutarch Mulierum Virtutes 13.

[ back ] 24. Note in particular the expression πρὸ πόλεως, which alludes to the fact that the Bacchic rites were performed outside the city—the term occurs frequently in that context and meaning—but which in this case shows the priestess’s important role within civic life. See Henrichs 1990.

[ back ] 25. For Bacchic evidence from Macedonia, see Gioure 1978; for evidence from Pella, see also below.

[ back ] 26. Polyaenus IV 1; cf. also Herodotus VIII 137f.

[ back ] 27. Plutarch Alexander 2f.

[ back ] 28. Cf. Laks and Most 1997 where previous bibliography is cited.

[ back ] 29. SH 705.

[ back ] 30. G IX 12 17. 24 (263/2 BCE).

[ back ] 31. FdD III 192. 9f (273/2 BCE).

[ back ] 32. Cf. Dickie 1995; Dickie 1998; Rossi 1996.

[ back ] 33. Dickie 1995:81; Lilimbake-Akamate 1992:91–101.

[ back ] 34. For texts and commentary, see Riedweg 1998.

[ back ] 35. See Graf 1993.

[ back ] 36. Riedweg 1998:P(elinna) 1–2, ll 1f (= IIB 3–4 Pugliese Caratelli; end of fourth century BCE).

[ back ] 37. AB 2002 include the leaf in their list of testimonia and take up Dickie’s suggestion that the initiate might have been Posidippus’ grandfather.

[ back ] 38. We cannot be entirely sure that this poem should be attributed to Posidippus but most scholars do see it as an autobiographical statement of our poet.

[ back ] 39. SH 705.1–6.

[ back ] 40. SH 705.21–23.

[ back ] 41. Translated by Gutzwiller 1998:153–154.

[ back ] 42. Lloyd-Jones 1963.

[ back ] 43. See the publications by Dickie 1995 and Rossi 1996 for—in my view convincing—arguments.

[ back ] 44. Bing 2002c argues that inscribed epitaphs up through the early Hellenistic period were read only by exceptional persons and that wide reading of inscriptions did not develop until epigram became a genre composed or collected for the book. I do not agree with Bing’s emphasis on a radical indifference towards inscribed texts, but would argue that it was precisely the deep familiarity with epitaphs that made the development of the genre possible.

[ back ] 45. Cf. Rossi 2001:21.