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.

17. Reading as Seeing: P.Mil.Vogl. VIII 309 and Greek Art

Nassos Papalexandrou, University of Texas at Austin

O Queen of Egypt with the lovely brow—
To you—thou smilest and to me it seems
The earth has owned but one such smile; ’twas thou
Visitedst Lionardo in his dreams.

(Kenyon Cox 1888)

This essay is motivated by a fascinating collection of ancient poetry, but it opens with a poem dating only to the nineteenth century. Kenyon Cox, who conceived the lyric reverie of these lines, was certainly stirred by an intense emotional impulse. His poetic words channel his energy to the object of his desire and admiration, an unspecified Queen of Egypt. Brief and evocative as they are, they entice us to visualize the Queen as someone combining the simple perfection of Nefertiti’s facial lines with the sunny warmth of an Archaic Greek kore. As we decipher this poetry and its messages, we are made to engage in several concurrent dialogues: first, the poem is a fragment of an encounter between the poet and the Queen of Egypt. Following this, we, the readers, meet with the author and his imagination but also with his interlocutor as we try, in the inner folds of our minds, to delineate the “lovely brow” and the near uniqueness of the celebrated smile. The reference to Leonardo da Vinci expands the field of dialogic confrontations to include fine conduits between the poet and Leonardo, between Leonardo and the Egyptian Queen, and perhaps between us and Leonardo. And if the universal uniqueness of the Queen’s smile and the reference to Leonardo are meant to evoke the most celebrated smile in Western culture, the possibilities of uncovering more nuanced layers in the simple lines of Cox’s poem seem to multiply indefinitely. Herein, then, lies the power of poetry: it evokes what is not present; it spawns a vision out of the unseen; it guides our fantasy to the very roots of the sparks that generated it. In other words, it makes us wonder about many things and, in this particular case, about the Queen of Egypt: who is she? How did she manage to visit Leonardo’s dreams? What is the relationship between her and the poet? Does the poet imply that we, the readers, will be subject to the lures of this mysterious Queen by means of the transformational quality of his poetry? What is the essence of the Queen’s irresistible smile?

In place of the factual coldness of a label, Cox’s painterly vision substituted a piece of paper bearing a hand-written epigram that transcribed his spontaneous, poetic response into a format no less informal than the work of art it accompanies. It is certainly not by accident that we can see the creases of the unfolded paper. We can also easily detect its careless mounting on the pedestal below the head. The improvisational character of these elements jibes with the unpolished diction of the poem and the secondary nature of the cast. This extemporaneousness is motivated by Cox’s normative vision, one which privileges the essence of things over their appearance. There is little doubt that Cox intended label and poem to be of an importance commensurate with the rest of the painting. He carefully signed his name on the label immediately below the epigram, thereby underlining the unequivocal integration of poetry and painting within the image. Although placed in a position visually subservient to that of the sculpted head, Cox’s poem—the epigram of the sculpted head—is a semantic gesture that makes manifest his artistic impulse. Not only does it indicate the focus of seeing (Cox’s and the beholders’) as a playful and necessary interplay between word and painted likeness; it also establishes the artist’s poetic dialogue with the painted object as an essential component of every subsequent beholder’s encounter with the image. In doing so, it directs in explicit terms the focus of our gaze and our visual decoding of the painted head.

The fruitful coexistence of sculpture and poetry in Cox’s painting parallels the perceptual background of the epigrams on P.Mil.Vogl. VIII 309. It matters little why they were compiled together in this now fragmentary papyrus; in many cases the reader’s appreciation of them was originally—and still should be—inextricable from their intended function in their original contexts. [5] For their nature and various levels of referentiality often point to the world of ideas and experience embedded in the materiality of human life. As is the case with Cox’s painting, their motivation stemmed from the need to articulate formalized discourse about objects present or absent. [6] A very brief overview of the compiler’s categorization of this poetry points to the material or pragmatic basis for its inspiration: the Lithika are motivated by the need to articulate, or even dictate, a taste for exotic, intricately carved gemstones. Likewise, the Oionoskopika presuppose observation of natural phenomena and the Andriantopoiika focus on statuary and its ecphrasis. The Epitymbia and Nauagika evoke the actualities of funereal commemoration whereas the Anathematika and Iamatika have to do with material objects. It is therefore worthwhile to probe the material basis that inspired this poetry. In particular, I will argue that the elucidation of the meaning of certain epigrams (Hippika, Iamatika) should rest upon the consideration of the material culture that framed their original function as objects of perception. [7] Inversely, these epigrams can be shown to preserve insights or commentaries valuable for understanding the aesthetic motivation that informs certain works of Hellenistic figurative art. Their value for reconstructing the experience of seeing as an essential component of Hellenistic visuality cannot be emphasized enough. [8]


There is no doubt that the epigrams grouped under the title Hippika evoke the actuality of the major panhellenic sanctuaries at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea, and the Isthmus. [9] They all celebrate the kleos of either a victorious horse or a victor, or both, in one or more of these prestigious athletic arenas. [10] But the poetry of kleos is a poetry of physical and mental action, that is, its purposes are fulfilled upon recurrent readings or performances of their content in specific contexts. [11] It is, therefore, useful to search for internal clues in the poems regarding the material referentiality of their content. In this respect, demonstrative adjectives such as οὗτοϲ (AB 71.1, AB 76.2, AB 77.2), τοῦτον (AB 84.2, AB 85.2), ὅδ᾿ (AB 86.2) always refer to the objects of celebration, πῶλοϲ or ἵπποϲ, thus suggesting a strong and deliberate deictic function. This is easily explainable if we consider that the epigrams were originally meant to be read or performed in the presence of actual likenesses, which I understand as sculptural visualizations of the epigrams’ objects of reference. [12] This is indicated, for example, in the concluding lines of the epigram AB 74:

Θε̣ο̣ῖ̣ϲ̣ι̣ δ᾿ Ἀ̣δ̣[ε]λ̣φε{ι}οῖϲ εἰκὼ ἐναργέα τῶ̣ν τότ᾿ [ἀγώνω]ν̣
     ἅρ̣[μα καὶ ἡνί]ο̣χ̣ον χάλκεον ὧδ᾿ ἔθετο.

Callicrates of Samos monumentalized his victory in an equestrian event at the Pythian games by setting up a bronze quadriga and its charioteer. The demonstrative ᾧδε in AB 74.14 clearly points to the monument, and in this way it signals the implied conceptual and physical space of the epigram. Interestingly enough, in the same epigram the monument is termed εἰκὼ ἐναργέα, a vivid likeness, a representation redolent with the splendor, the vitality, and the emotional charge of the reality it represents. [14] Thus, the beholders are made to understand that they witness a glorious moment of the past in its perpetual reenactment and, in this way, they are immediately transformed into idealized spectators of a unique athletic event. Unfortunately the concerted tenor of these words and their figurative object of reference is now lost. Something of their cooperative efficacy, nonetheless, can be appreciated in monuments such as a gravestone from Athens for a Phoenician visitor who died there. [15] Inscribed in both Phoenician and Greek, this μνῆμα combines a suggestive image with an epigram that verbalizes the subtly dense mood of the former. This extraordinary monument cannot be discussed here in detail, but I would like to emphasize the directive force of the demonstrative in the first line of the epigram <εἰκόνα τήνδε>, which functions like the demonstratives in the Hippika: one is immediately made to understand that the poetry has to do with the relief but also that the relief cannot stand alone without the poetry. Inherent in this explicit gesture of verbal deixis is the latent message that the communicative efficacy of the monument depends on the simultaneous viewing of image and poetry, of the visual and the aural.

A great number of Hellenistic works of art were accompanied by epigrams, that is, verbal enablers intended to function as essential components of ensembles which were programmatically conceived in terms of both poetically articulated words and images. Unfortunately, the intended effect of these ensembles has been lost or largely ignored as a result of the systematic or accidental dislocation of epigrammatic poetry from its actual experiential contexts. [16] The compilation, for example, of epigrams on P.Mil.Vogl. VIII 309 is perhaps one of the earliest testimonies of their transformation into purely literary or textual artifacts. It stands at the beginning of a long tradition of publications which includes the Greek Anthology as well as more recent collections such as those by Kaibel or Peek. [17] This process has resulted in the scholarly neglect of the original format of epigrams as a determinative component of visual experiences much more complex and nuanced than the consumption of poetry available in book form. [18] Equally problematic is the often fragmentary and dispersed nature of monuments that originally combined sculptural or painted images with inscribed epigrams. Pausanias’ account of Olympia, for example, reveals how much of the communicational multivalence of the original monuments he experienced is now lost. Their figurative components have all perished, whereas the few surviving epigrams are often treated as isolated textual data only partially capable of evoking the determinative ambience of their original context. [19] Further, the traditional disciplinary focuses within classical archaeology have privileged the study of the figural components of artworks (e.g. sculptures in the round, reliefs) at the expense of their verbal paraphernalia and vice versa. This is true even when the latter have survived together with the former and their mutual relationship is archaeologically verifiable. [20]

The sheer abundance of originally “functional” poetry in P.Mil.Vogl. VIII 309 provides yet another testimony of the incompleteness or distortion of the surviving record of Hellenistic visual arts. Against this unfortunate situation, certain epigrams enable a fresh understanding of “canonical” works of Hellenistic art that survived detached from their original contexts. For example, it is tempting to juxtapose the enigmatic horse of Artemision (Figure 2), the well-known and celebrated masterpiece, with epigrams such as AB 72 or AB 76. The horse and its jockey, now on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, were recovered in 1926 just off the northwest coast of the island of Euboia. [21] This group has been praised for the accuracy of realistic modeling it displays both in the rendering of its overall movement and for its graphic details. M. Robertson, for example, has stated that the jockey is “a more direct and detailed transcript of observed nature, and a more vivid impression of life in action, than in any other work of major art that has come down to us from ancient Greece.” [22] The same author, however, is perplexed by what exactly the dynamic pose of this horse aims to convey. He is disturbed by its “extremely spread movement (not, I fancy, a good racing style)” which he explains in terms of the artist’s need to accommodate the far superior jockey. [23] Robertson is perhaps right in criticizing the racing style of this horse. The flying gallop with outstretched legs is naturally impossible, but it has had a tenacious career as a conventional schema for representing the impressively fast running of horses. [24] How are we then to account for this paradoxical departure from reality in a composition motivated by the aspiration to be an eikon enarges, a photographic evocation of reality? B. Ridgway is close to the truth when she understands the bronze group to represent the moment “close to the goal.” [25] The horse and its jockey are striving to attain victory and glory; they are conceived at the pinnacle of their performance.

Likewise, in AB 76 a memorable stallion is celebrated thus:

ἐκ̣τέ̣τα̣[τ]α̣ι̣ π̣[ρ]ο̣τ̣[ρ]έ̣χ̣ω̣ν̣ ἀ̣κρώνυχοϲ, ὡϲ Ἐτεάρχωι
     οὗ]τ̣ο̣ϲ̣ κ̣[λεινὸϲ Ἄ]ρ̣α̣ψ ἵπποϲ ἀεθλοφορεῖ
[ν]ι̣κήϲ[α]ϲ̣ Πτ̣ο̣λ̣εμ̣α̣ῖ̣α καὶ Ἴϲθ̣μια καὶ Νεμέαι δίϲ,
     [τ]ο̣ὺϲ̣ Δελφ̣ο̣ὺ̣ϲ̣ π̣α̣[ριδ]ε̣ῖν̣ οὐκ ἐθ̣έ̣λει ϲτεφάνουϲ.

He races ahead fully stretched and hardly touching the ground with the tip of his hooves
     as this glorious Arabian horse wins prizes for Etearchos;
having won at the Ptolemaia, the Isthmia and twice at the Nemea,
     he does not want to miss a Delphic victory.

As it stands now, the bronze monument lacks epigrams such as AB 72 or AB 76. That is, it lacks its kleos. Conversely, the Hippika lack their visual associations. As a result, their communicational efficacy remains no less unfulfilled than that, for example, of lyrics that are devoid of their musical notation. Neither horse nor epigrams make sense when perceived detached from each other. Nevertheless, the Hippika can trigger new evaluations of many decontextualized monuments, for they embody the same values and sentiments as the figural works they were meant to complement or amplify. They were products of an age accustomed to reading the poetry in representational arts and, inversely, to “hearing” the visual in verses like the Hippika.


It is not always easy to recover the original context of the Iamatika in P.Mil.Vogl. VIII 309. To this end, an explicit testimony is offered by AB 97, which is essentially a dedicatory epigram labeling a silver phiale dedicated to Asclepius at Cos as payment and thanksgiving for a successful and miraculous cure. The epigram was probably inscribed either directly on the phiale or, more likely, on a perishable medium appended to it.

Perhaps the most intriguing epigram in terms of its function as verbal qualifier of a figurative work of art is the epigram AB 95:

οἷοϲ ὁ χάλκεοϲ οὗτοϲ ἐπ᾿ ὀϲτέα λεπτὸν ἀνέλκων
     πνεῦμα μόγι̣[ϲ] ζ̣ωὴν ὄμματι ϲυλλέγε̣ται,
ἐ<κ> νούϲων̣ ἐϲάου το<ί>ουϲ ὁ τὰ δεινὰ Λιβύ̣ϲ̣ϲηϲ
     δήγματα φα̣ρμά̣<ϲ>ϲειν ἀϲπίδοϲ εὑρόμενοϲ̣
Μήδειοϲ Λάμπωνοϲ Ὀλύνθιοϲ, ὧι πανάκειαν
     τὴν Ἀϲκληπιαδῶν πᾶϲαν ἔδωκε̣ πατήρ·
ϲοὶ δ᾿, ὦ Πύθι᾿ Ἄπολλον, ἑῆϲ γνωρίϲματα τέχνηϲ
     λείψανον ἀνθρώπου τόνδ᾿ ἔθετο ϲκελε̣τ̣όν.

Like this brazen one, who takes a thin breath on his bones and hardly draws together some life in his eyes, such were those Medeios, son of Lampon, from Olynthos saved from illness, as he discovered the cure from the awful bites of the Libyan asp. To him his father bestowed the all-healing power of the Asclepiads. To you, o Pythian Apollo, as tokens of his skill, he dedicated this skeleton, the relic of a man.

The demonstrative houtos in AB 95.1 emphatically points to something made of bronze, but it is not until the final line that the object of the epigram is specified as a skeleton, a relic of a man (λείψανον ἀνθρώπου τόνδ᾿ ἔθετο ϲκελε̣τ̣όν). What type of figurative work of art was meant to supplement this epigram?

This bronze has always been viewed as an enigma, as yet another specimen of the well-documented penchant in Hellenistic art for the graphically realistic or even the grotesque. In sharp contrast to Classical art, Hellenistic art often portrays liminal situations of human existence, the reversion of normality or the non-stereotypical. This figure, viewed in very generic terms, could fit nicely into this category. The lack, however, of a specific context regarding its experience as a work of art has hindered its interpretation and its appreciation in terms of the sentiments and the experience of contemporary viewers. Contrary to this state of knowledge, AB 95 provides insightful information for a type of situation that could have motivated the commissioning as well as the viewing of this bronze figure. The effect of both figure and bronze is actualized by inversion. As we learn from the epigram, the figure in front of us exemplifies a gruesome past of malady and affliction. It typifies a physical and, perhaps, mental state which was successfully cured by the healing art of Medeios, the son of Lampon from Olynthos (AB 95.3: ἐ<κ> νούϲων̣ ἐϲάου το<ί>ουϲ ὡ Μήδειοϲ). His kleos as a healer, as an inventor of medicines, and as a successful heir (or rival?) to the tradition of the Asclepiads is celebrated by image and epigram alike. The image induces the beholder to think of the diametrically opposite situation, of the multitude of healed persons who owe their happiness to Medeios and Apollo, his divine patron. The motivation for the image is formulated in the apostrophe to Apollo (AB 95.11–12): it was dedicated as a token of Medeios’ healing art, as a sign of his power to effect miraculous transformations. As a dedicatory object or agalma, the value of the image is paradoxically invested in what it is not, that is, the representation of a fully recovered and healthy individual.


[ back ] 1. Kenyon Cox, Head of the Queen of Egypt, 1888: oil on canvas, 18 1/8 x 15 in. (46.1 x 38.2 cm.). National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. Bequest of Allyn Cox. I am indebted to and thankfully acknowledge the valuable assistance of Drs. Jennifer Hardin (Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida), and Richard Murray (Smithsonian American Art Museum) in my research on this painting.

[ back ] 2. Hardin 1996:12. For the cast, see the MMA 1908, no.32. The original is the head of a limestone statue from Karnak (18th Dynasty) in the National Museum at Cairo. I am grateful to my colleague, Professor Susan Rather, for this reference. The MET’s collection of sculptural casts was not put together until 1886 (see MMA 1908:vii).

[ back ] 3. The setting is hinted at by a streak of light that illuminates the head and the surface on which it rests. We are meant to understand a pedestal, on the vertical front of which Cox has painted the label with his poem.

[ back ] 4. MMA 1908, no.32.

[ back ] 5. Some epigrams were certainly composed as purely literary artifacts. Even in this case their consumption must have been conditioned by the original experiential determinatives of the genre.

[ back ] 6. A detailed and rigorous archaeological commentary on these epigrams is urgently needed. As Hoffman points out in this volume, the hermeneutic analysis of the P.Mil.Vogl. VIII 309 as a whole should be based on interdisciplinarity.

[ back ] 7. For a similar approach, see the contributions by Kosmetatou in this volume.

[ back ] 8. On ancient visuality, understood as the culturally conditioned practice of seeing and being seen as meaningful action, see Nelson 2000.

[ back ] 9. See BG 2001:197–216. For the structure of the Hippika see Fantuzzi’s contribution in this volume. The function of certain epigrams in the context of Ptolemaic dynastic commemoration is addressed in Kosmetatou’s analysis of Familiengruppen in this volume.

[ back ] 10. See col. AB 78.1 for a specific identification of the poetry of the epigram as a poetry of kleos.

[ back ] 11. This was precisely Pausanias’ experience of Olympian victory monuments. See Pausanias VI 1.3–VI 18.7 and recent discussion in Elsner 2001:14–16.

[ back ] 12. BG 2001:198 on AB 72.1, talk about “un forte valore deittico.”

[ back ] 13. Although I use AB numeration, I cite the text(s) of the editio princeps throughout. All translations by the author.

[ back ] 14. Inherent in these words and the specific viewing attitude they recommend is the resonance of the philosophical theory of phantasia. See discussion in Goldhill 1994:208–209.

[ back ] 15. First published in AM 13 (1888) 310–316. For the text see Peek 1955, no.1601. For a detailed discussion see Clairmont 1970:114–117, no.38, pl.19.

[ back ] 16. By “context” I mean “… the totality of its relevant environment, where ‘relevant’ refers to a significant relationship to the object—that is, a relationship necessary for discerning the object’s meaning” (Hodder 1991:143).

[ back ] 17. Kaibel 1878; Peek 1955.

[ back ] 18. On the hermeneutical difficulties created by the textual objectification of the inscribed word in collections and corpora, see the observations in Papalexandrou 2001:259–260; see also Stears 2000:206.

[ back ] 19. See, for example, the epigram celebrating the monument of Xenombrotos in Dittenberger and Purgold 1897:293–296, no.170 (mentioned in Pausanias VI 14.12). For an example from Delphi, see Bourguet 1929:41–43, no.510.

[ back ] 20. A good case is the well-known stele of Hediste from Demetrias-Pagasai: the connotations of the tragic theme of the painted image are inconceivable without the accompanying epigram, the efficacy of which (as an indispensable component of the image) is never addressed. See, for example, Pollitt 1986 where this monument is discussed in two different contexts (Pollitt 1986:4 and 194). See also Fowler 1989:92–93, who ignores the epigram altogether.

[ back ] 21. Athens, NM Br 15177. The group has recently been the subject of a series of excellent studies by Hemingway, of which the most recent is Hemingway 2000.

[ back ] 22. Robertson 1975:559.

[ back ] 23. Ibid., emphasis my own.

[ back ] 24. Gombrich 1984:10–11. He based his analysis on Eadweard Muybridge’s series of photographic frames that capture all successive stages of a horse’s gallop.

[ back ] 25. Ridgway 2000:311.

[ back ] 26. See Goldhill 1994 on this type of dialogue as a deeply embedded strategy in epigrammatic poetry of the Hellenistic period.

[ back ] 27. Although tupos is most likely to refer to a figural work in relief, it is not impossible that it is used here to denote a three dimensional work like the Artemision bronze. See discussion in Pollitt 1994:272–293, esp. 291 where he concludes that this term might also have been used to refer to “… any sort of statue that resembled a mold-made image.”

[ back ] 28. See BG:199, commentary on AB 72.1–2 for an interpretation of πνόον ἕλκει as ‘breathing’ or ‘panting’.

[ back ] 29. This was originally inlaid with silver or gold. See Hemingway 2000:234 and accompanying drawing on 229, fig.3.

[ back ] 30. In the specialized language of horsemanship, the Artemision horse and the victorious stallions of the Hippika are by all means “sharp racers,” that is, competitive athletes keen on winning. On this see Ainslie and Ledbetter 1980:164–167.

[ back ] 31. Dumbarton Oaks, no.47.22 (H. 11.5 cm). The cultural biography of this bronze after its discovery near Soissons, France in the nineteenth century is no less exciting than the formal appearance of the object: see Richter 1956:32–35; True in Kozloff and Mitten 1988:151–3; Garland 1995:118. At this point, I should note that I attempt this juxtaposition for heuristic purposes only. The bronze has been dated to the late Hellenistic period and it features a series of individualizing details, such as two inscriptions in punctured letters (one of which is the name of a certain Eudamidas) and the deformity of the right foot, which point to a conception different from that of Medeios’ dedication. However, as Richter and True point out, the Dumbarton Oaks bronze may well be a replica of a larger original that may have also provided a model or inspiration for Medeios’ bronze.

[ back ] 32. Jouanna 1999:33–35.

[ back ] 33. Ibid. See Bing’s contribution in this volume regarding a possible identification of Medeios with a physician active in the Ptolemaic court during the time of Posidippus. Also cf. Bing 2002c.

[ back ] 34. In May 2002 I was able to examine the Dumbarton Oaks bronze in person due to the valuable assistance of Drs. Susan Boyd and Stephen Zwirn, curators of the collection, both of whom I thank wholeheartedly. I also express my thanks to Elizabeth Kosmetatou, Manuel Baumbach, Amy Papalexandrou, and Glenn Peers, for insightful comments and criticism.