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.

9. Elusive Stones: Reading Posidippus’ Lithika through Technical Writing on Stones

Martyn Smith, Emory University

Nearly all of the stones mentioned by Posidippus are also treated by Theophrastus, the exceptions being the snakestone (AB 15), the conjectural reading of Beryllion (AB 6.3), and of course the great boulder used at the end to praise the power of Poseidon (AB 19).

This coincidence of material leads me to question the nature of the relationship between the epigrams found in the Lithika and the technical writing of authors such as Theophrastus and Pliny. We have already seen how Posidippus could use a technical name for a variety of stone, but there are other more subtle uses of technical writings hidden in the Lithika. At AB 8.5 Posidippus implies that the gem anthrax has an especially brilliant glow. When Theophrastus turns to this gem he mentions this same characteristic:

ἐρυθρὸν μὲν τῷ χρώματι, πρὸς δὲ τὸν ἥλιον τιθέμενον ἄνθρακος καιομένου ποιεῖ χρόαν.

It is of a red hue and when placed towards the sun produces the color of live charcoal.

(III 18)

From parallels such as this it is clear that Posidippus is relying to some degree on technical writing. One or two instances of such technical correctness could be explained by personal experience or hearsay, but for the whole we need to posit the presence of technical sources from which Posidippus could mine his details about stones and their exceptional properties.

In order to clarify the relationship between Posidippus and technical writings such as we possess by Theophrastus and Pliny, I will examine four of the epigrams in the Lithika section, noting the intersections between the epigrams and technical writing. The goal of the readings will be not only to find these references, but further to note how this technical information allows us to update or deepen our interpretation of the epigram. We begin with the first epigram in the collection that is reasonably complete (AB 5):

Τιμάνθ̣ηϲ ἔγλυψε τὸν ἀϲτερόεντα ϲάπειρον
     τὸνδε χρ̣υϲίτην Περϲικὸν ἡμίλιθον
Δημύλωι· ἀνθ᾿ ἁπαλοῦ δὲ̣ φιλήμα̣τοϲ ἡ κυανόθριξ
     δῶρον Ν̣[ι]καίη Κῶια ἔδ̣[εκτ᾿ ἐρατόν.

Timanthes carved the starry sapeiros,
     This gold-dusted Persian semi-stone,
For Demulos. In return for a gentle kiss, the dark-haired
     Coan Nikaie received it as a lovely gift.

Theophrastus gives a slightly different spelling for this stone (which we know as lapis lazuli), but any doubt as to whether he refers to the same stone is allayed by the brief description: ‘[it] is speckled with gold’ (αὕτη δ᾿ ἐστιν ὥσπερ χρυσόσπαστος) (IV 23). In a later mention of the stone Theophrastus adds that the stone is ‘dark’ (μέλαινα (VI 37). It is also (IV 23) classed among ‘stones, of which signets are carved’ (ἐξ ὧν καὶ τὰ σφραγίδια γλύφουσιν).

In highlighting the process of exchange, this short epigram becomes a useful entrance to the poetic project of Posidippus. In the Lithika, but also notably in the Oiônoskopika section, Posidippus is taking over knowledge whose natural domain might be thought to rest in didactic poetry or scientific treatises. But the manifest lack of scientific system, and the presence of the long epigram on a great boulder (AB 19), betray the fact that Posidippus did not intend to write a poetic textbook on gems in a way parallel to Aratus’ poetic translation of a textbook on constellations and weather signs. Rather, in the same way that the stone is worked by a craftsman and transformed into an object exchanged for a kiss, the technical writing of a scientific philosopher such as Theophrastus is skillfully re-worked until it becomes a work that gives aesthetic pleasure.

Posidippus goes further than mere correctness in this epigram, he may also be interested in critiquing an earlier opinion on the stone xanthe. In a short note Theophrastus takes issue with the color of xanthe, writing that it is ‘not so much yellow in color as whitish’ [or ‘off white’] (οὐ ξανθὴ μὲν τὴν χρόαν, ἔκλευκος μᾶλλον) (VI 37). He buttresses this with an explanation that the word xanthos means ‘whitish’ for speakers of Doric Greek, not yellow.

When we turn back to the epigram we notice that color gets emphasized to an unusual degree. Both the third and sixth lines describe the stone as ‘honey-colored’, as if he could not quite trust the word xantha to stand by itself for the color. Then perhaps to prove his point, he sets the stone on the truly white skin of Niconoe’s breast. Given this beautifully white background, the yellowness of the stone stands out vividly in the reader’s imagination, and the doubts of the scholar who might remember the description of Theophrastus are banished.

Although the number of conjectures in this epigram is quite large, it is clear that Posidippus is contrasting two states, first oiled or wet, then dry, and two different ways that light responds to this stone.

I would like to suggest that the stone smaragdos, a name for a class of green precious stones, is a possible solution to this riddle epigram. Theophrastus twice singles out a remarkable power: its ability to lend its color to a body of water that surrounds it.

The smaragdos, on the other hand, possesses also certain powers (δυνάμεις τινάς). For, as we have mentioned, it imparts its color to water (τοῦ τε γὰρ ὕδατος … ἐξομοιοῦται τὴν χρόαν ἑαυτῆ).

(IV 23)

When Pliny writes about the stone he also lingers over the unique optical power of the smaragdos, though applying the effect to the air rather than to water:

praeterea longinquo amplificantur visu inficientes circa se repercussum aëra.

Besides this, being viewed from a distance [the smaragdi] appear larger because they color the air which has rebounded around them.


The mechanism may be suspect, but his meaning is quite clear: the air that bounces up against the stone is colored, and thus when viewed from a distance the stone naturally looks larger.

Oddly, the eyes of cats, real or statue, figure in both of these examples from Pliny, and it is interesting that in the editorial restoration of line 31 we find a lion.

It thus seems plausible to understand this short epigram as a reference to the stone smaragdos. The optical quality of light literally ‘running around’ (περιθεῖ) the mass, as described by Posidippus, seems closely connected to the optical effect of the stone in both Theophrastus and Pliny. And the second quality of blazing solves nicely the last two lines of the epigram. And these dual optical effects seem sufficient to earn for a stone the title ‘crafty’ (κερδαλέη).

Unlike the other stones mentioned above, the snakestone does not correspond to an actual stone. Pliny starts off with a general account of the supposed origin of this stone:

Draconitis … e cerebro fit draconum, sed nisi viventibus absciso capite non gemmescit invidia animalis mori se sentientis, igitur dormientibus amputant.

The “draconitis” (snakestone) … is obtained from the brains of snakes, but unless the head is cut off from a live snake, the substance fails to turn into a gem, owing to the spite of the creature as it perceives that it is doomed. Consequently the beast’s head is lopped off while it is asleep.

(XXXVII 158)

We should imagine a stone smaller than the head of a snake, streaked with white, and with one streak containing an engraved chariot which is impossible to see with the naked eye but which shows up clearly when an imprint is taken.

The internal references to the eyesight of a stoneworker are compatible with this reading. There are two references to the eyesight necessary for this kind of carving: line 4 with the reference to the incredible vision of the Argonaut Lynceus, and lines 6–7 with the note that it is a ‘wonder’ (θαῦμα) that the stoneworker did not damage his eyes by such minute attention. The reader encounters the stone through the eyes of the narrator, and follows the narrator’s reasoning about the necessity of superhuman eyesight and miraculous craft in order to make such a carving. But the reader may well begin to wonder about the conclusions drawn by the narrator, since the conclusions seem to point to a level of skill that is impossible for a human being. One begins to question the reliability of the narrator since this stoneworker is too skilled, the vision required is too great, for an actual stoneworker to have carved the invisible chariot upon the streak of white. Then if the reader recalls the note by Sotacus that this is a stone which cannot be carved, the true nature of this stone appears: it is a natural wonder, a self-carved stone. The hidden riddle mirrors the hidden carving present on the snakestone.

It is also possible to read this in a different way. One could argue that this is another case of Posidippus subtly correcting his source, either by the use of information gained from some other technical source, or by personal knowledge of some stone that was purported to be a snakestone. Posidippus, on this reading, affirms the basic facts about the origin and color of the snakestone as presented by Sotacus, but then differs by presenting a case where the snakestone has been successfully carved. As with the Xanthe discussed earlier, the point is to be aware of Posidippus’ subtle correcting of his sources.

The snakestone contains a design invisible to the eye glancing upon it, a design that appears only after an imprint is taken. It is a picture of the process that a reader must go through in understanding these epigrams: there is a brilliance invisible at first, but which becomes visible as soon as one is willing to delve into its more elusive aspects.


[ back ] 1. Throughout this chapter I refer to Posidippus as the author for the sake of convenience. Also for convenience I use AB numeration, while retaining the BG text.

[ back ] 2. Cf. AB 8.7; AB 13.2; AB 15.7; AB 17.5; AB 19.10.

[ back ] 3. Four fragmentary sections seem especially to demand the name of a stone: AB 1; AB 2; AB 4; AB 10.

[ back ] 4. Gutzwiller 1995:383–398.

[ back ] 5. For an overview of ancient studies in mineralogy, see Halleaux and Schamp 1985:XIII–XXXIV.

[ back ] 6. Theophrastus On Stones I 6; text and translation by Eichholz 1965:6.

[ back ] 7. Compare Wellmann 1935.

[ back ] 8. The date is based on the argument worked out by Eichholz 1965:8–11.

[ back ] 9. An exact count depends on whether sub-classes are counted or not, i.e. whether one counts the “male” and “female” varieties of kyanus as separate stones.

[ back ] 10. Caeruleae perlucidae et sappiri, rarumque ut cum purpura. optimae apud Medos, nusquam tamen perlucida. My text for Pliny throughout this chapter is drawn from Eichholz 1971.

[ back ] 11. ut plerisque ad summam absolutamque naturae rerum contemplationem satis sit una aliqua gemma.

[ back ] 12. Cf. Bing 2002a.

[ back ] 13. Eichholz 1965:114, tentatively identifies this as yellow jasper or brown hematite.

[ back ] 14. Nenna 1998:156–61.

[ back ] 15. Line 3 of this epigram has a significant gap, and the reading supplied by the editors is highly conjectural. What is missing is the noun that accompanies the adjective ‘Persian’. One might want to supply the word smaragdos here, which would be attractive since ‘Persian’ is a variety of the smaragdos that is mentioned by Pliny (cf. XXXVII 69). But the trace of a “Γ” at the beginning of the gap precludes that option, and makes something like what the editors arrived at the most likely reading.

[ back ] 16. Bing 1995:115–131.

[ back ] 17. On Stones I 4.

[ back ] 18. Cyprus happens to also be the place that Theophrastus knows as the origin of the stone (VI 36).

[ back ] 19. oculos et smaragdis ita radiantibus etiam in gurgitem ut territi thynni refugerent …

[ back ] 20. “It is stated that in Cyprus a stone was once found one half of which was smaragdus and the other half an iaspis, as though the transformation of the stone from water were not yet complete” (IV 27).

[ back ] 21. Gow 1954:197.

[ back ] 22. Gow 1954:198.

[ back ] 23. An example of this separate book existence can be glimpsed in the case of the lyngurium, literally: “lynx-urine.” Theophrastus, on the authority of a Diocles, maintains that this stone has its origin as the buried urine of a lynx (V 28). Later Pliny, having quoted Theophrastus, was ready to dismiss this stone as simply a legend: “I for my part am of the opinion that the whole story is false and that no gemstone bearing this name has been seen in our time” (XXXVII 53). The stone lived only in texts, and Pliny recognized this and was ready to banish it.

[ back ] 24. Sotacus was a Greek writer whom Pliny calls one of the very oldest of his sources (XXXVI 146). His date may be as early as the beginning of the third century BCE (as estimated by Eichholz 1965:7). See also Kind 1927:1211.

[ back ] 25. These three words (ψεύδεϊ χ<ειρ>ὸϲ ὅμοιον) have been variously translated. Gow argues strongly for the reading that I have adopted, which makes these three words refer to blemishes on fingernails (Gow 1954:198, and GP:500–501). This reading has been accepted by recent commentators (Fernandez-Galiano 1987:128).

[ back ] 26. Gutzwiller 1995:388.

[ back ] 27. Gow 1954:198. Fernandez-Galiano 1987:127 writes similarly “Segun Sotaco en Plinio … la piedra no podia ser tallada, pero evidentemente Posidipo pensaba lo contrario …”

[ back ] 28. GP:2.500.

[ back ] 29. Bing 1995:131.