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.

4. Alexandrian Posidippus: On Rereading the GP Epigrams in Light of P.Mil.Vogl. VIII 309

Benjamin Acosta-Hughes, University of Michigan

A Poem Commemorates

Among the poems of pre-Milan Posidippus that at once contextualize him in a third-century BCE Alexandrian setting, and highlight some of the more revealing features of the epigrammatist’s verse, this commemorative epigram is one of the more remarkable. The poem’s eight lines are a series of striking juxtapositions that entwine temporal and physical distance, contrasting images of the passage of time, and a series of changing focal points, as each distich envisions a different figure: Doricha, Charaxus, Sappho, the evoked commemoration. Among the poem’s more revealing features are the following:

In the pages that follow I consider the pre-Milan author, under three categories particularly evoked in the new collection. These are:

  1. representation of Alexandrian monuments and ecphrastic technique;
  2. resonances of other authors, especially here Sappho;
  3. evocation of pathos in the representation of death (or near death).

In each case the new collection casts remarkable light on the old, and features that seemed perhaps less remarkable before turn out to be far more representative of the poet’s artistry than we might have thought.

On Reconsidering Posidippus

Modern knowledge and reception of Hellenistic poetry is, in large part, dependent on the chance survival of texts: we, a much later audience, imagine a whole from the shards that remain. Inevitably this leads to a hierarchy of authors that, rightly or wrongly, prefers the survivors. In some cases, e.g. Euphorion, the modern audience knows, at least at one level, that it sees “through a glass, darkly,” that poets of great artistic significance for their own and later eras are now all but entirely lost. [11] Often only the occasional reference of a scholiast is the sole hint of the artistic value of lost work. The discovery of a lost text can lead to an enhanced appreciation of an already valued author, as was the case with the publication of the Lille papyrus. [12] In the case of a less valued author, the discovery of lost text can lead to a more radical re-evaluation of the poet in terms of his place in his contemporary setting, the scope of his work, and his role as a model. This is very much the case with Posidippus: the publication of P.Mil.Vogl. VIII 309 has already led to a wide-ranging reassessment of his poetry as both intertextual matrix of his own period and influence on Latin literature. [13] But the discovery of a new text often has another function as well—it necessitates re-evaluation of earlier known text now part of a larger, different corpus. The new epigrams, whether all, or some, are correctly attributed to the third-century BCE Macedonian poet Posidippus, do compel us to look again, and from a new perspective, at the author we had before and our earlier reception of him. [14]

Prior to the publication of the Milan papyrus one might rightly have said, to someone inquiring about this epigrammatist, that Posidippus was of particular interest for three reasons:

Looking again, in a new context, at the pre-Milan author, we encounter some ‘problematics’ in approaching the collection, and these are worth detailing briefly.

What this brief survey does, I think, suggest is that our pre-Milan collection is in some respects a rather unstable one, and may, in the context of a larger corpus, come to be perceived quite differently. And then there is the odd experience of reading this collection of epigrams in light of the new ones. For the epigrams of Posidippus from the Palatine Anthology are not, of course, contiguous: the associations made between them, now contiguous on the modern page, are partly ours, the modern readers, as, in some cases, their separation in the new editio minor makes clear. The Milan epigrams are, on the other hand, contiguous, and the experience of reading them necessarily very different, one that experiences their order, their position, and their respective quality to Posidippus.

Posidippus and the Monuments

AB 116 and 119 (= 11 and 12 GP), the two 10-line poems preserved by the Firmin-Didot papyrus, share particularly an extended play of image and monument, and sense of geographical place. [35] As P. Bing has evocatively shown, the image (of Zeus Soter) in the first and last distichs encloses the aition of the monument (lines 3–4), and its daytime (lines 5–6) and nighttime aspects (lines 7–8, with the pointed juxtaposition at the opening of 7 ἤματι, παννύχιος δέ). [36] The image of the tower shining forth at great distance in lines 5–6 is answered in lines 7–8 with the light of the tower’s summit perceived by the distant sailor—distance perceived at each end of the spectrum. The eye of the reader/viewer moves first up, then outward, then back. There is similar play in direction in several poems of the new collection: cf. AB 90 (from the Nauagika) γῆν ἔνθεν τε καὶ ἔνθεν ὁρώμενον, where the verse captures the swimmer’s wandering gaze. AB 116 (= 12 GP) displays similar touches of prefigure and recall. The opening distich configures monument and place, the monument, in a nice touch in the first ηεμιεπσ, is set indeed ‘between’ μέσσον ἐγὼ Φαρίης. These two lines, encompassing place and monument, are followed by two juxtaposed distichs, one on place (lines 3–4), one on monument (5–6). [37] The monument evolves into the divinity at lines 7–8, and then back into the monument in the final line.

Posidippus and Sappho

The epigram on Doricha’s tomb (AB 122 = 17 GP), discussed above, is remarkable both for the characterization of Sappho’s verse as physical text, and particularly as a collective cultural metaphor. The appearance of Sappho’s verse in a similar guise in one of the new epigrams (AB 55.2) and its conjecture in another (51.6) encourages us to re-consider Posidippus’ use of Sappho, and also Posidippus’ place in a long tradition of reception of Sappho in Hellenistic and Latin poetry. Both passages in the new epigrams occur in the contexts of funerary lament, and so share with the epigram on Doricha’s tomb the association of Sappho and death:

πάντα τὰ Νικομάχηϲ καὶ ἀθύρματα καὶ πρὸϲ ἑώιαν
     κερκίδα Ϲαπφώιουϲ ἐξ ὀάρων ὀάρουϲ
ςιχετο Μοῖρα φέρουϲα προώρια· τὴν δὲ τάλαιναν
     παρθένον Ἀργείων ἀμφεβόηϲε πόλιϲ.
Ἥρηϲ τὸ τραφὲν ἔρνοϲ ὑπ᾿ ὠλένοϲ· ἆ τότε γαμβρῶν
     τῶν μνηϲτευομένων ψύχρ᾿ ἔμεινεν λέχεα.

All of Nicomache’s possessions, her playthings and Sapphic songs
     upon songs, lasting until the morning shuttle, all these
has Fate, untimely, come and borne away. The wretched
     maid does Argos’ city cry aloud,
a young shoot raised under Hera’s care. Alas then, for those
     suitors who would be bridegrooms—cold remain their beds. [

ᾡδακρυόεϲϲα[ι ἕπεϲθε, θε]οῖϲ ἀνατείνατε πήχειϲᾤ,
     τοῦτ᾿ ἐπὶ πα[ιδὸϲ ἐρεῖτ᾿ αὐ]τόμαται Καρύαι,
Τηελφίηϲ, ἧϲ [κεῖϲθε πρὸ]ϲ ἠρίον· ἀλλὰ φέρουϲαι
     εἴαρι πορφυρέ[ου κλῶν᾿ ἐϲ ἀ]γῶνα νέμουϲ
θῆλυ ποδήν[εμον ἔρνοϲ] ἀείδετε, δάκρυϲι δ᾿ ὑμέων
     κολλάϲθω Ϲα[πφῶι᾿ ἄιϲμ]ατα, θεῖα μέλη.

In tears [follow], your arms stretch to the gods!
     Say this freely [for the girl], Carian women,
she, Telephia at whose tomb [you lie]. But bearing
     in spring a [spray] from purple meadow to this gathering,
sing of the maiden, with wind-swift feet, and to your tears
     be joined Sa[ppho’s] odes, divine songs. [

In their comments on AB 55.2, the editors of the editio princeps, comparing this use of the adjective Ϲαπφώιουϲ with that of 17.5 GP, doubt that the phrase Ϲαπφώιουϲ ἐξ ὀάρων ὀάρουϲ referred to Sappho’s poetry. “Qui Ϲα<φ>ώιουϲ dovrebbe invece genericamente significare ‘femminili’ (cfr. παρθενίουϲ τ᾿ ὀάρουϲ in Hes. Theog. 205) come induce a credere anche il confronto con altre inconsuete formazioni aggettivali presenti nel rotolo: per es., δελφὶϲ … Ἀριόνο[ϲ di VI 19, dove all’aggettivo pare essere attribuito il generico scopo di designare un delfino ‘qual era quello di Arione’ …” In their translations of this epigram both the Italian and English renditions reflect this: “conversari femminili”, “conversations à la Sappho”. Concerning the sense of AB 51.6 their interpretation is similar. [41] Yet we might choose to look at this evocation of Sappho from another perspective, that of Archaic poet now become poetic motif—Sappho as metaphor, as it were. Sappho is by no means the only figure who is present, through evocation or as intertext, in the epigrams of Posidippus; in particular the poets Theocritus and Callimachus have a marked presence in the epigrams, as several recent studies have well shown. [42] But the simple recurrence of the epithet. Ϲαπφῷοϲ in the collection might suggest looking again, from a different perspective, at other epigrams that appear to recall Sappho.

One example would be AB 139 (= GP 8), the prayer of Callistion:

ἃ Κύπρον ἃ τε Κύθηρα καὶ ἃ Μίλητον ἐποιχνεῖς
     καὶ καλὸν Συρίης ἱππκρότου δάπεδον,
ἔλθοις ἵλαος Καλλιστίῳ, ἣ τὸν ἐραστήν
     οὐδέποτ᾿ οἰκείων ὦσεν ἀπὸ προθύρων.

You who frequent Cyprus and Cythera and Miletus
     and the lovely plain of horse-beaten Syria,
may you come favorably to Callistion, who a lover
     never thrust away from her own door.

The use of Sappho’s name as epithet in the new epigrams raises a number of intriguing questions about Posidippus’ reading of Sappho, and of the reception of Sappho in this period, particularly, again, as cultural metaphor. Once again the new epigrams cast light back on the old, and vividly make clear for us the significance, which we may not have perceived, of the verses we already had. The final line of BA 123 (= 1 GP) μέλοι δ᾿ ἡμῖν ὁ γλυκύπικρος Ἔρως has always been understand as a resonance of Sappho’s image (fr. 130 V: Ἔρος δηὖτέ μ᾿ ὀ λυσιμέλης δόνει, | γλυκύπικρον ἀμάχανον ὄρπετον. The degree, and variety, of Sappho’s resonance in Posidippus is only now becoming clear.

Posidippus and Pathos

A surprising number of the epigrams preserved by P.Mil.Vogl. VIII 309 have death as their focus: these include the categories on grave offerings (Epitymbia), shipwreck (Nauagika), sickness and cure (Iamatika) and the somewhat enigmatic Tropoi. Poems in other categories, particularly the Oiônoskopika, also include poems that have death as a central image. The poems exhibit a great innovation in the conventions of funerary epigram, and as well a wide range of treatment of pathos. It is particularly with this variation in pathos in mind that I would like, in the final portion of this paper, to look again at a pre-Milan epigram of Posidippus that plays in revealing ways with conventions of pathos, and with the audience’s expectations. AB 131 (= 21 GP) appears twice in the Palatine Anthology, the second time ascribed to Callimachus: in the Planudean Anthology it is ascribed to Posidippus. Gow’s remark on the epigram, “its tenderness or sentimentality does not accord very well with what we know of Pos.”, would need re-thinking in light of the new collection.

          Τὸν τριετῆ παίζοντα περὶ φρέαρ Ἀρχιά̣νακτα
               εἴδωλον μορφᾶς κωφὸν ἐπεστάσατο,
          ἐκ δ᾿ ὕδατος τὸν παῖδα διάβροχον ἥρπασε μάτηρ
               σκεπτομένα ζωᾶς εἴ τινα μοῖραν ἔχει.
5        Νύμφας δ᾿ οὐκ ἐμίηνεν ὁ νήπιος ἀλλ᾿ ἐπὶ γούνοις
               ματρὸς κοιμαθεὶς τὸν βαθὺν ὕπνον ἔχει.

          The silent image of his form drew
               the three-year old Archianax playing at the well.
          And from the water his mother snatched the boy all wet
               wondering what part of life he yet retained.
          The infant did not pollute the nymphs, but upon the knees
               of his mother lulled fell into a deep sleep.


As the present volume was on the eve of going to press, C. Austin’s and G. Bastianini’s editio minor of Posidippus appeared, the first volume to include all of extant Posidippus between two covers. Their positioning of the poems was of course crucial for their reception—for while the edition follows a logic at once material and chronological, it also effectively incorporates the pre-Milan epigrams together with the new, both through continuous numeration and placement of categories. A continuous reading of the volume results in an appreciation of the old epigrams informed by the new—the reader perceives the old epigrams anew, with new association and meaning.


[ back ] 1. I follow Albrecht 1996:73–74 in accepting Wilamowitz’s (1913:20) reading for line 1. GP obelize the problematic text of Athenaeus here, the source of this poem: Δωρίχα, ὀστέα μὲν †σ᾿ ἁπαλὰ κοιμήσατο δεσμῶν†. Cf. GP: 2.497, Fernandez-Galiano ap. crit. Austin (AB 122) conjectures ∑ν ὅ τε δεσμός.

[ back ] 2. There are many evocative translations of this poem, testifying to the changes in reception of Posidippus over time: among the most poignant is the sonnet of E. A. Robinson in his 1902 collection Captain Craig:

So now the very bones of you are gone
Where they were dust and ashes long ago;
And there was the last ribbon you tied on
To bind your hair, and that is dust also;
And somewhere there is dust that was of old
A soft and scented garment that you wore—
The same that once till dawn did closely fold
You in with fair Charaxus, fair no more.
But Sappho, and the white leaves of her song
Will make your name a word for all to learn,
And all to love thereafter, even while
It’s but a name; and this will be as long
As there are distant ships that will return
Again to Naucratis and to the Nile.

[ back ] 3. On the self-conscious play with form of the funerary epigram of this period, see esp. Bing 1995, Walsh 1991.

[ back ] 4. Although I have adopted Wilamowitz’s reading for line 1, κοιμήσατο, ‘was put to sleep, laid to rest’, of Athenaeus’ text that preserves this epigram (Athenaeus XIII 596c) is a vivid contrast with the sleeplessness of line 4.

[ back ] 5. Cf. Theocritus Idyll 7.83: ὧ μακαριστὲ Κομᾶτα, τύ θην τάδε τερπνὰ πεπόνθας, “O blessed Comatus, indeed you had experience of these sweet things”, and Hunter 1999:177 on this line.

[ back ] 6. I thank M. Baumbach for helpful discussion of this point.

[ back ] 7. On the personification of Sappho’s columns here as an example of personified text(s), see Bing 1988:33, and also Prins 1999:23–24.

[ back ] 8. The erotic sense of χαρίεις when used of men is nicely brought out at Theocritus Idyll 2.115: πρᾶν ποκα τὸν χαρίεντα τράχων ἔφθασα Φιλῖνον, ‘as surely yesterday I outran lovely Philinus’.

[ back ] 9. There is a clear contrast of sound effects in the two quatrains: a predominance of palatals in the first is replaced by a predominance of liquids and nasals in the second. On the euphonic appreciation of lambda see Janko 2000:176–78.

[ back ] 10. On Alexandrian reconfiguration of the Archaic past, two recent and very thought-provoking studies are Selden 1998 and Stephens 2000.

[ back ] 11. As Magnelli’s recent illuminating study of this poet, and of his enduring influence, makes clear.

[ back ] 12. Parsons 1997. Discovery of a lost text can also lead to a negative re-evaluation, as was the case with the Gallus fragment, and also in some sense with the Archilochus Cologne epode. Scholars who find the pre-Milan Posidippus artistically superior to the new epigrams are faced with a similar situation.

[ back ] 13. The role of the new poems, as individual works and as an artistic composite, for Latin literature is only beginning to be appreciated: Hutchinson’s 2002 study is a crucial beginning of what will be a large area of scholarship to come.

[ back ] 14. While the attribution of some, or all, of the new epigrams to Posidippus is still a point of vivid discussion, the passage of time is seeing the weight of scholarly judgment come down in favor of Posidippus. The absence of any other known epigrammatist in the collection, and the consistency of metrical practice both argue strongly for one author, and that this author is Posidippus. On the metrical consistency of the collection, see now Fantuzzi 2003.

[ back ] 15. This is almost certainly the correct reading for Aetia fr. 1.1, as confirmed by Pontani 1999:57–59.

[ back ] 16. Or Sicelus. See GP 2:115.

[ back ] 17. See Massimilla 1996:199–201.

[ back ] 18. See Sider this volume on AB 140 (= 9 GP).

[ back ] 19. Sens 2002.

[ back ] 20. The new epigram on the Colossus of Rhodes, then still standing, is another example, as D. Sider has pointed out to me. On Posidippus and Alexandrian monuments, see esp. Bing 1998.

[ back ] 21. Page ascribes to Posidippus six epigrams (23–28) that Gow ascribed to Asclepiades. He also ascribes one epigram to Meleager (54) that Gow ascribed to Posidippus (23). The final epigram in Page’s edition (29) is given the wrong GP number (this should be 24, not 34). For a more detailed discussion of the pre-Milan collection, see Sider in this volume. See further Albrecht 1996:20–21, Fernandez-Galiano 1987:24–26.

[ back ] 22. AB 114 (= SH 961), perhaps an epithalamium of Arsinoe, is attributed by some to Posidippus: see further Albrect 1996:10, Fernandez-Galiano 1987:38–39. The preponderance of poems on Ptolemaic queens, and on Arsinoe II in the new collection, makes this attribution the more intriguing. See Fantuzzi and Stephens in this volume. On the correspondences of the Seal and Callimachus’ Aetia fr. 1, see Sider (this volume), Acosta-Hughes and Stephens 2002:244n24, Fernandez-Galiano 1987:16–17, and in his commentary ad loc.

[ back ] 23. On the physicality of the text, see Bing 1988:15, Goldhill 1991:224.

[ back ] 24. Fernandez-Galiano 1987:27–31.

[ back ] 25. The longest poems in the Milan collection are 14 verses (AB 19, AB 74, AB 78). These are not as long as the Seal (perhaps 28 lines—see Lloyd-Jones and Parsons ad loc.), but attest to the variability in size of Posidippus’ epigrams. The longest of the epigrams in the pre-Milan collection is 12 lines.

[ back ] 26. This attribution must then have been Page’s, as my colleague David Sider has pointed out to me: Page does not, in the introduction to his OCT text, address this.

[ back ] 27. E.g. 10 GP (= AB 124).

[ back ] 28. E.g. 2, 4, 5, 15, 18 GP (= AB 125, 130, 135, 132, 65).

[ back ] 29. See Fantuzzi 2003.

[ back ] 30. AP 9.359, assigned either to Posidippus or Plato Comicus.

[ back ] 31. P.Firmin-Didot comes from a collection of papers belonging to two brothers, Macedonians, associated with the temple of Sarapis at Memphis. See Bing 1998:21n2, Thompson 1988:259–261. The brother(s) are already reading the city through epigrams on its monuments: see Bing, 1998:30–31.

[ back ] 32. Bing 1998:22–27.

[ back ] 33. The editors of the editio minor have, in their structure of the corpus, restored something of the association of these two poems in the Firmin-Didot papyrus by separating them from the AP epigrams.

[ back ] 34. Two of the many signal features of Hellenistic ecphrasis are small objects delineated in great detail and large objects captured in Kleinem, both exemplified by the new Posidippus epigrams.

[ back ] 35. On the possibility that these epigrams are emblematic of a guide to monuments, see Bing 1998:30–31, Thompson 1987:109. Callimachus in his Aetia and Iambi similarly provides a panorama of celebrated statuary. See Acosta-Hughes 2002:287–288.

[ back ] 36. Wonderful moments of recall in lines 9–10 reflect lines 1–2: Φάρου σκοπόν, Ταύρου κερας (remarkable geographic features, same position in the line); σωτῆρα, σωτῆρος; Πρωτεῦ, Πρωτεῦ. Further close reading might garner many more.

[ back ] 37. The phrase ἑν περιφαινομένῳ (line 2) occurs also at AB 93.5 (from the Nauagika) ἐν περιφαινομένωι Κύμηϲ, καὶ τὸν νέκυν, ὡϲ χρή. The setting is quite different (albeit both are poems, in a sense, about sea-faring); the further sound parallel in κύματι/Κύμηϲ is worth noting.

[ back ] 38. See respectively Stephens, Thomas, Bing, this volume.

[ back ] 39. Translation by B. Acosta-Hughes and E. Kosmetatou.

[ back ] 40. Translation by B. Acosta-Hughes and E. Kosmetatou.

[ back ] 41. See their comments to AB 51.6: “Riguardo al senso, dovremmo forse pensare che le faniculle dolenti cantino veramente carmi di Saffo? Ciò non sembra probabile, e saremmo propensi a ritenere che l’aggettivo Ϲαπφῷοϲ, ammessa la giustezza dell’integrazione, sia usato in senso analogico …”

[ back ] 42. On Theocritus and the new epigrams, see Petrain 2003; on Callimachus and the new epigrams, Fantuzzi and Sider in this volume.

[ back ] 43. GP: 2.487, Albrecht 1996:167–68. Artistically the anaphora is clearly meant to draw attention to the dialect form.

[ back ] 44. Albrecht 1996:172–73 has some very good observations on this poem and thematic parallels in Sappho: I would just take it a step further and say that Posidippus is indeed evoking Sappho here.

[ back ] 45. As Sens, this volume, well captures.

[ back ] 46. See Barchiesi 2000:172–73.

[ back ] 47. A nice parallel here is Theocritus Idyll 2, with the ‘re-writing’ of Sappho fr. 31 in Simaetha’s description of her experience of the ἐρωτικὴ νόσος at lines 88–90 and 106–110. See Dover 1971 to line 108.

[ back ] 48. A contemporary poem that has Aeolic coloring, similarly for associative reasons, is Callimachus’ Iambus 7. See D’Alessio 1996:627.

[ back ] 49. Well articulated by Piacenza 1998:348–50. Cf. also [Theocritus] 23.56 εἴματα πάντ᾿ ἐμίανεν ἐφαβικά. I thank M. Fantuzzi for this reference.