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.

7. A New Hellenistic Poetry Book: P.Mil.Vogl. VIII 309 [1]

Kathryn Gutzwiller, University of Cincinnati

One of the most surprising aspects of the papyrus is its division into sections, each with its own title, placed within a column and centered. Nine such sections are clearly visible on the papyrus, and the editors believe that a tenth may be lurking in the scraps at the end of the surviving text. [4] The Byzantine anthologies are arranged in categories of larger scope, and Planudes subdivides his major sections into smaller ones with specific headings somewhat reminiscent of Posidippus. It has been argued that Meleager’s Garland consisted of at least four such sections—epitymbia, anathematica, erotica, and one other of less certain content. [5] In addition, the collection of Theocritean epigrams in the bucolic manuscripts, of uncertain date, is easily divided into three sections, but without transmitted titles. [6] The Posidippus papyrus shows that this type of division goes back to the third century, though some of the headings are unexpected. They are nevertheless, I suggest, thematically connected to poetic arrangement in a way that the Byzantine headings are not. The editors point out that the distribution and arrangement of epigrams within sections is arbitrary: [7] certain poems would fit in more than one category, especially dedicatory and sepulchral epigrams, and some epigrams are only marginally related to the heading of their section. This is not, however, because the headings are formally inadequate or because the ancient editor was careless in his arrangement. It is rather because the sections are ordered to create a certain poetic experience and themes take precedence over formal categories.

Most of the epigrams in this collection belong to inscriptional types, connected with dedications, grave monuments, or art objects. Erotic and sympotic epigrams by Posidippus are known from the Anthology, but no example of this more personal, subjective type appears in the surviving portion of the papyrus. As a result, the voice heard most commonly in the collection is that of the objective epigrammatic narrator, who only occasionally addresses an internal auditor or ventriloquates other voices. Artistic arrangement for a collection of the more objective type requires that cohesion be achieved within the natural variety of epigrams dealing with a wide range of subjects and individuals; [8] the Posidippus collection displays a number of sophisticated techniques for creating such cohesion. Thematic and structural similarities are easily emphasized by the grouping of poems within sections, and the most similar poems are often given contiguous placement. In at least two instances the collection contains a pair of epigrams on the same topic, placed side by side (AB 6–7 and 11–12), creating a knot of density within the flow of the collections’ variety. [9] There is also a remarkable amount of verbal linkage between poems, mostly contiguous epigrams, but strong verbal parallels occur over larger spaces as well. [10] This technique also appears in the longer Anthology sequences deriving from Meleager’s Garland, particularly the erotic section, where the poet-editor links his own epigrams both to earlier epigrams he anthologizes and to other epigrams of his own, through similarity of vocabulary and phrasing. [11] In Posidippus the phenomenon seems, in part, a result of natural verbal repetitions in poems on similar topics, but over the course of the collection the links are numerous enough, and often repeated in key or identical positions within poems, so as to suggest that they function to foster continuity within the ever changing subject matter endemic to epigram books. [12]

Another important element for giving the collection cohesion is the rhythm of the arrangement within sections. Certain sections, like the short one on shipwrecks, are ordered for the purpose of variation on a given theme, as the problem of commemorating the drowned is differently focalized by the empty tomb, the grieving family, the deceased buried by a stranger, or even the possible survivor of a wreck. But in some sections unique or special poems are placed first or last, or even at transitional points between sequences within one section. And importantly, several sections also display a movement from the specific to the general, the private to the political, or the small to the large. These movements work to identify the political world encompassing the various subjects of Posidippus’ collection, from its historical background in the Argead dynasty and Alexander’s conquests to the three generations of Ptolemaic rulers who apparently supported Posidippus’ poetic endeavors. More speculatively, I will argue that arrangement combined with interconnection between poems offers a key to the aesthetic principles underlying Posidippus’ epigrammatic collection.

A quick overview of the nine sections will highlight major themes and the flow of the arrangement. I warn that this discussion is based on only a preliminary reading of the text and reflects my initial impressions, which will surely be subject to change. The gaps in the papyrus certainly hinder a holistic reading, and it is unfortunate that the first few poems have almost completely disappeared. We lack as well a knowledge of the full scope of the collection, whether the papyrus breaks off near the original conclusion or continued with additional sections.

The editors note that the first seven epigrams, as best they can tell, concern gemstones belonging to women, [14] but they fail to notice that the transition from this group is marked at the beginning of the eighth poem concerning an enormous carnelian engraved with Darius and a chariot. That epigrams begins, “No neck or finger of any woman wore this carnelian, but the lovely stone … was attached to a gold chain” (AB 8.1–3). Next is the Polycrates epigram, which opens with the narrator addressing the tyrant, who is a suitable archaic predecessor for the Hellenistic owners of gemstones, because, as Herodotus (III 40–41) tells the story, he loved his ring better than any other possession. The sequence then advances to stones that were engraved with special craft, so that they change their visual properties, show contrast between surface and background, or display very miniature images (AB 11–15). The gemstone sequence is followed by a shorter section on natural or extraordinary stones (AB 16–18), culminating in a fourteen-line poem about a huge boulder cast up onto Euboea by Poseidon (AB 19). The final epigram, not about stones at all though verbally and thematically connected to the preceding poem, is a prayer to Poseidon not to harm Ptolemaic lands with earthquakes (AB 20). This poem brings closure to the section by its expansive reference to the Ptolemaic kingdom, which may be perceived as the setting from which the poet has made his comments on various stones – from the small and artistically worked, to the natural and the unusual, to the enormous and threatening.

The fourth section, whose title is lost, consists of twenty sepulchral poems. The great majority of these are about women, and the section seems to begin with epitaphs for initiates in the mysteries. Particularly interesting is a poem concerning a girl from Pella who was initiated in Dionysiac mysteries (AB 44). As we know from a poem by Posidippus found on a wax tablet, his so-called sphragis or elegy on old age (AB 118.24–28 [SH 705.21–25]), the poet himself was a Dionysiac initiate, and a gold lamella from a Macedonian grave bearing the name Posidippus has been taken as evidence that one of his ancestors participated in the mysteries. [17] This section is organized, as is the sepulchral section from Meleager, by type of individual—old women (AB 45–47), maidens (49–51, 53–55) [18] , women who died in childbirth (56–57). The last two epitaphs are for men, both of whom died in their prime with loving descendants; both poems contain the theme of “no need for tears” (μὴ κλαύσητέ με, AB 60.3; τὸν ἀδάκρυτον βλέψον λίθον, 61.3), which appears as well in Posidippus’ elegy (μηδέ τις οὖν χεύαι δάκρυον, AB 118.24 [SH 705.21]), where it is connected with the happy life of the initiate. Since this theme is very rare, the coincidence is remarkable. [19] If the request for “no tears” were characteristic of initiates, then the last two epigrams in this section would link back to the first set about female initiates. But at the very least, the parallels with Posidippus’ elegy support his authorship for these two poems, in addition to the two ascribed to him elsewhere (AB 15 [20 GP], AB 65 [18 GP]).

The fifth section, entitled ἀνδριαντοποιικά, concerns bronze statues and links with the first section, dealing largely with carved stones. The connection involves both similarity and difference, since sculpting in bronze and carving in stone were conceived as antithetical forms of artistic creativity (Aristotle Nichomachean Ethics 1041a). The first of the nine poems in this section begins with a direct address to sculptors: “Mimic these works, sculptors, and leave aside ancient rules for larger-than-life-size statues” (μιμήϲαϲθε τάδ᾿ ἔργα, πολυχρονίουϲ δὲ κολοϲϲῶν, ὧ ζῳοπλάϲται, ναί, παραθεῖτε νόμουϲ, AB 62.1–2); it then proceeds to praise the new art of Lysippus in comparison with the old style of earlier sculptors. Serving an obviously introductory function, the poem was perhaps composed for this position in the collection, [20] and here the poet himself speaks, alluding to the subjects of the remaining poems in the section with the phrase τάδ᾿ ἔργα. The first of these works is a statue of Philetas, commissioned by Ptolemy and remarkable for the realistic manner in which the poet-scholar’s old age and intelligence are represented (AB 63). The sculptor Hecataeus is also praised because he constructed the Philetas statue in human rather than heroic proportions and so realistically that he is “like one about to speak” (AB 63.7), if the editors’ supplement here is correct. The following poem addresses the reader, or viewer, who is asked to praise the bronze Idomeneus sculpted by Cresilas, and the words that Idomeneus seems to speak to his companion Meriones are then quoted (AB 64). The point seems to be that, even if the Idomeneus statue is heroic in subject matter in the older fashion, it is nevertheless so lifelike that the viewer may perceive the very words the figure wishes to speak.

The sixth section, entitled ἱππικά and concerning equestrian victories, contains eighteen poems which appear, according to the editors, in two series. [23] The first series begins with seven poems (AB 71–77) that celebrate victories in single horse racing or chariot racing all apparently by men, including Callicrates of Samos (AB 74), the Ptolemaic nauarch lauded in previously known epigrams by Posidippus (AB 116, 119 = 12–13 GP). Some of these mention commemorative statues of horses or victors, and yet others seem suitable for inscription in such contexts. The next five poems may all concern victories by Berenice II (AB 78–82), including one or two Nemean victories datable to 249 or 247 BCE, which may correspond to the one celebrated by Callimachus at the opening of the third book of the Aetia (AB 79-80). [24] In the first of the five poems (AB 78), fourteen lines in length, the speaker appears to be Berenice herself, [25] who calls on all Macedonian poets to tell of her κλέος—the victories of her grandfather Ptolemy I Soter, her grandmother Berenice I, her father Ptolemy II Philadelphus, and Arsinoe II, as well as now her own triumph in chariot racing. The next four poems, possibly all about her other victories, may be taken as Posidippus’ answer to that request, and this reading is supported by the last poem in the series where the poet directly addresses the queen as internal auditor: “Only you, queen, brought it about that your house was so many times heralded as victorious at the Isthmus” (AB 82.5–6). The second section of six ἱππικά has a similar structure (AB 83–88). The first four poems concern victories apparently by individual men and the fifth an Olympian chariot victory by Berenice I, spoken by the victorious horses, who boast that their owner has taken away from the Spartan Cynisca the claim to be the only woman victor at Olympia (AB 87); the last is spoken by her son Ptolemy II, who celebrates the κλέος gained by himself and his parents in Olympian victories (AB 88). The two sequences in this section, the first ending with a victory in the early 240s and the second with a victory in 284, may define, at least generally, the chronological boundaries for the composition of Posidippus’ collection, as they praise the various Ptolemies who have supported his work.

The seventh section, entitled ναυαγικά, concerns men who died at sea (AB 89–94). While in the Byzantine anthologies epigrams on the shipwrecked appear in the sepulchral books, here they are given a separate section. [26] The arrangement has the advantage of highlighting the difficulty of maintaining the conventions of sepulchral inscription in the case of death by shipwreck, since any tomb erected by the family will lack a body and any epitaph for a body found will lack name and homeland. This short section, neatly conveying the pathos of those lost at sea, works changes on this theme. The first poem (AB 89) performs its work as introduction by commenting on the “empty tomb” of Lysicles, a friend and patron of Polemo who was head of the Academy (Diogenes Laertius 4.22). Though his philosophy would teach rational calm in the face of a friend’s loss at sea, here the cenotaph is asked, perhaps ironically, to weep and blame the gods for Lysicles’ fate. In another epigram the cenotaph, one may suppose, warns the viewer against sailing lest, like the deceased, he lie unburied far from home (AB 91). In another a kinsman, as it seems, asks Poseidon to send home the body of the lost one (AB 93), and in the last poem the deceased expresses thanks to a passerby for performing the last rites of lamentation and burial (AB 94). [27] We move, then, through the various possibilities, from “empty tomb” to a body in need of a tomb, so that the organization of the section conveys the pathos inherent in the separation of the shipwrecked from his proper mourners.

The eighth section consists of seven ἰαματικά, or poems on cures. In the introductory poem a physician, who has discovered a cure for the bite of the asp, dedicates to Apollo a bronze statue of an emaciated man (AB 95). The next five celebrate cures obtained by individuals (AB 96–100), in several instances from Asclepius, while in the last poem (AB 101), on a more general theme, a man asks Asclepius for moderate wealth and health, “two cures”, the “high acropolis” for men’s characters (ἠθέων). Once again, we find that key poems are placed in the positions of introduction and conclusion for the section.

The ninth section, apparently consisting of eight poems (AB 102–109), is somewhat mysteriously called τρόποι, and the editors debate the meaning of the title. The poems in this section that are still readable are spoken by deceased persons to those who pass by their tombs. Taking note of the phrase ἤθη τε καὶ τρόπους in Plato’s Laws (924d), we may understand that here ἠθέων in the last line of the eighth section looks forward to the title τρόποι and that the ninth section concerns various character types, at least the first of which are revealed through their speech from the grave. So, for instance, in the first poem the deceased complains that passersby pester him with questions about his identity (AB 102), while in the second a deceased of the opposite persuasion complains that a passerby hurries on without making the customary inquiries (AB 103). If this interpretation is the correct one, then the τρόποι section displays the poet’s skill at distinguishing and delineating particular or idiosyncratic character traits, just as Hecataeus’ statue of Philetas is said to be lifelike because it was “made distinct with so much character” (ὅϲωι ποικίλλεται ἤθει, AB 63.7). Apparently at the beginning of a tenth section, for which no title can be discerned, the text of the papyrus breaks off.

The new Posidippus collection is clearly a remarkable poetry book that deserves a much more detailed and careful reading than I have been able to give it in this paper. The force of many scholarly minds now being brought to bear on the papyrus will do much to illuminate the meaning of individual poems and to help us understand the fragmentary passages. But I suspect that in the end the most exciting discovery will be the way in which the collection as a whole creates meaning from the interrelationship of its epigrams. The strategic placement of references to monarchs, the Argeads and Ptolemies, defines the chronological and spatial limits of the multifarious individuals named in the collection. The grouping of contemporary subjects with key predecessors from the late archaic and classical ages suggests those portions of Greek heritage that shape Posidippus’ artistic vision. The two sections on works of art, emphasizing miniature carvings on gemstones and accurate, realistic portraits in bronze, may reveal the aesthetic principles that underlie Posidippan poetics. As in the instance of Polycrates’ ring, carved by Theodorus who polishes with a file, containing a representation of Anacreon’s lyre, and specifically named a sphragis (AB 9.1), the works of art described in Posidippus’ collection are carefully designed emblems of his own epigrammatic art.


[ back ] 1. This is a slightly expanded version of a paper that was given at the annual meeting of the American Philological Association in January of 2001. The paper was then published on the APA website at

[ back ] 2. For discussion, see Cameron 1993:3–18; Gutzwiller 1998:15–46; Argentieri 1998:12–17.

[ back ] 3. BG:24–26; Bastianini 2001:114–118.

[ back ] 4. BG:18–19.

[ back ] 5. Cameron 1993:24–33; Gutzwiller 1998:278–321.

[ back ] 6. For the sectioning within the Theocritean collection, see Tarditi 1988:47–52, Gutzwiller 1998: 42–45, and Rossi 2001:367–371. Since Meleager seems not to have known a sylloge of the Theocritean epigrams, it was likely not formed until after his Garland. In Gutzwiller 1996 and 1998:41–42 I have argued that Vergil’s imitations of key Theocritean epigrams in programmatic passages in the Eclogues indicate that an epigram collection similar to the one in the bucolic manuscripts existed by ca. 40 BCE. Rossi 2001:363–371 posits a more stratified collection, with pre-Vergilian sections supplemented with material from the imperial period.

[ back ] 7. BG:25 and Bastianini 2001:115.

[ back ] 8. For this type of arrangement in an epigram collection and the likely reaction of readers to it, see Gutzwiller 1998:11–12.

[ back ] 9. Other sets of “companion pieces” are known, such as Callimachus AP VII 525 and VII 415 (29–30 GP), Leonidas AP VII 648 and VII 440 (10–11 GP), Theocritus (?) AP VII 658 and VII 659 (7–8 GP), and Meleager AP VII 195 and VII 196 (12–13 GP), AP V 172 and V 173 (27–28 GP), AP V 151 and V 152 (33–34 GP); see Kirstein 2002:113–135. It appears that Meleager V 151–152 and V 172–173 have descended to us in their original Garland sequence, and the Posidippus collection now provides evidence that juxtaposition of such paired epigrams began in an earlier period.

[ back ] 10. For instance, the phrase καλὸϲ ἠέλιοϲ or καλὸν ἠέλιον occurs in three noncontiguous poems, always at the end of an epigram (AB 13.4, 16.6, 52.6). This sort of verbal repetition argues strongly for a single author for the collection.

[ back ] 11. The principal studies are Radinger 1895:100–107, Wifstrand 1926:8–22, and, more comprehensively, Gutzwiller 1998:277–321.

[ back ] 12. A few examples will illustrate the technique. The first two poems (AB 1 and 2), fragmentary as they are, seem linked in their first and last words (Ἰνδὸϲ Ὑδάϲπηϲ, Ἰνδ[); for this technique of linkage, cf. Meleager AP XII 52 and XII 53 (81 and 66 GP) with the discussion of Gutzwiller 1998:286–287. The last two poems in the first section on stones are also linked verbally (κύμα[τα, νῆϲον, AB 19.1, 19.14; κύματι, νήϲων, AB 20.1, 20.5), while in the omens section the last line of AB 22 (κῦμα, ἠέρίων) echoes in the first line of AB 23 (ἠερίην, κῦμα). The first two dedicatory poems, AB 36 and 37, are linked by the same beginning phrase (Ἀρϲινόη, ϲοί), as in the equestrian section Βερενίκηϲ . . . ϲτέφανον at the end of one poem, AB 78.13–14, echoes in Βερενίκη . . . ϲτεφάνουϲ at the beginning of the next, AB 79.1–2. Likewise, the last two poems in the epitaphic section share language as well as theme (βαρύγηρωϲ, AB 60.5, κοῦφοϲ 60.6; εὐγήρω, 61.1, κοῦφον, 61.4). Epigrams in other sections are linked by vocabulary that reinforces the theme of that section: note, for instance, the words πλάϲϲω//πλάϲτας (AB 63.2, 64.4, 65.1), ἄκροϲ//ἄκρον//ἀκριβήϲ//ἀκρομέριμνοϲ (AB 63.2, 63.5, 67.4), τέχνη//τεχνίταϲ (AB 63.5, 65.2, 68.3, 68.5), and χείρ (AB 62.3, 65.1, 66.3, 67.2, 67.4, 70.3) in the bronze statue section; ἵπποϲ (71.4, 75.2, 76.2 78.4, 79.3, 79.5, 82.2, 83.1, 84.1, 85.1, 85.4, 86.2, 87.1), ἀέθλοϲ//ἀεθλοφορέω//ἀέθλοφόροϲ (71.3, 76.2, 78.8, 78.12, 79.2, 82.6, 85.1), and ϲτέφανος//ϲτεφανόω (AB 73.3, 74.6, 74.11, 75.3, 76.4, 78.14, 79.2, 80.2, 84.3, 86.4, 87.2) in the equestrian section.

[ back ] 13. On interest in collecting antique gems on the part of the Romans and late Hellenistic monarchs, see Plantzos 1999:108. Posidippus’ collection now shows that the phenomenon goes back to the early Ptolemaic period.

[ back ] 14. BG:25.

[ back ] 15. For a somewhat different structure for this section, see the essay of M. Baumbach and K. Trampedach in this volume.

[ back ] 16. The object dedicated is specified by two rare nouns, βρέγμα and κανόνιϲμα, the known meanings for which do not work here. BG:151–152 think of a handkerchief, Lapini 2002:47 of a headband.

[ back ] 17. Dickie 1995 and 1998:65–76, Rossi 1996.

[ back ] 18. AB 52, which occurs in the midst of the epitaphs for maidens, concerns Timon, whose sundial, erected by his tomb, will be guarded by a female figure, whom the editors think is his daughter. It is a good example of how thematic focus, here on the girl, is more important to the arranger than strict typology.

[ back ] 19. See the note of BG:184, although “Simonides” AP X 105.2 seems to me not a good parallel because the theme there is malicious happiness at another’s death. The editors cite as a close parallel οὐδὲν ἔχω θρήνων ἄξιον οὐδὲ θανών, Carp(h)yllides AP VII 260.2 (1.2 GP), where the deceased just may be an initiate of the mysteries. Not only does he “not die” but his descendants send him to sleep “the sweet sleep” in the “land of the blessed” (ἐπ’ εὐσεβέων); cf. Posid. AB 43.1 where the initiate Nicostrate has gone ἐπ’ εὐϲεβέων.

[ back ] 20. Many of the epigrams on the papyrus were likely occasional in nature, later gathered for collection. But this first poem in the statue section does not fit with known types of epigrams and seems particularly well suited to its literary context.

[ back ] 21. For a more detailed analysis of the structure and significance of the section, see Gutzwiller 2002. There I argue that the section is a carefully arranged sequence, which “constitutes nothing less than a brief history of Greek bronze statuary, one in which Lysippus is the culmination of the development toward true naturalism and precision in detail and Myron his principal predecessor.”

[ back ] 22. Pliny Natural History XXXIV 83 stresses that the self-portrait was famous because of its realism (similitudo) and fineness (subtilitas); for discussion of Theodorus, see Stewart 1990.1:244–46.

[ back ] 23. BG:197. For a revisionary assessment of the structure, see the essay by Fantuzzi in this volume.

[ back ] 24. See BG:206, 208.

[ back ] 25. It is just possible that the speaker is Ptolemy III Euergetes, but I agree with BG:206 that the queen is the better possibility.

[ back ] 26. It does appear, though, that deaths at sea were grouped together in Meleager’s sepulchral section, as they are in Planudes’ anthology: see Gutzwiller 1998:312–314.

[ back ] 27. The fact that the person who buries the shipwrecked’s body, Leophantus, is named and the deceased who speaks remains unnamed suggests that we are to imagine Leophantus as the one responsible for the inscription. Callimachus AP VII 277 (50 GP) contains a similar play with voicing.