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.

Afterword. An Archaeologist’s Perspective on the Milan Papyrus (P.Mil.Vogl. VIII 309)

Gail Hoffman, Boston College

When I was asked to participate in a workshop on the new Milan papyrus (P.Mil.Vogl.VIII 309) with epigrams attributed to Posidippus, I wondered how an archaeologist, who generally works in the Early Iron Age (ca. 1100–700 BCE), could possibly contribute to a discussion about Hellenistic epigrams. However, as I have come to appreciate, one of the greatest contributions of the Center for Hellenic Studies (CHS) is the way in which it fosters dialogue across traditional disciplinary boundaries. So, I dutifully attended informal evening sessions when the CHS fellows (2001–2002) gathered to read over the new poems and to discuss our initial reactions. Quite to my surprise, I found that I was intrigued by material that in all likelihood I never would have encountered in my work. [1]

Still, I worried what an archaeologist could contribute to their study. Indeed, by my estimate only four of the twelve fellows at the CHS might have claimed the Hellenistic era as their primary area of expertise. So what could the rest of us offer to a group of distinguished specialists on this period? First of all, and perhaps most importantly, we offered a spirit of collegiality in a place where scholars do talk across disciplinary lines, and where all, I think, benefit from the exchange. Secondly, beyond the confines of the CHS most of us would never have been invited to participate in such a workshop. I believe the broader perspective that the CHS fellows provided is rare and that it will have served to push early discussion of this exciting new material beyond borders it might otherwise not so readily have crossed. I have no doubt that the immediate future will see numerous conferences on the new papyrus. I do doubt whether any will actively incorporate the disciplinary breadth provided by the twelve fellows who were at the CHS. So, it is with some exhilaration and much trepidation that I offer a few comments and reflections about these new poems and about our workshop.

These poems, then, somewhat unexpectedly provided many things to interest an archaeologist. Perhaps, if I had initially paid more attention to the subheadings (Lithika, Oiônoskopika, Anathematika, Epitymbia, Andriantopoiika, Hippika, Nauagika, Iamatika, Tropoi), I would not have been so surprised. After all, they describe physical objects or actions, aspects of natural history or folklore, all topics that fascinate archaeologists. It was the importance of the arrangement of individual poems within these subheadings or categories and the complexity of this structure that also turned out to be one of the fascinating themes of the workshop and its lively discussions. I would like to turn, then, to a few observations about the workshop and discussions.

Like the epigrams in the papyrus whose complex and subtle arrangement came to be appreciated over the course of the workshop, the careful design and structuring of the workshop papers and session, largely preserved in this volume, also became apparent over the course of the conference weekend. The arrangement permitted even those unfamiliar with the field to educate themselves by degrees so that eventually even detailed and specialized discussions could be appreciated. Papers began with background to the study of epigram (see introduction in this volume) and details of the papyrus itself. Stephens and Obbink very ably and succinctly presented the evidence for dating, context of production (including that it was written by a practiced professional scribe), damage and repair to the front, as well as the text written upside down on the reverse, and finally, its last use as mummy cartonnage. This presentation elicited discussion about the unusual numbering system. What does it mean, and at what point was it put on the papyrus? Both the view that it was original (Stephens) and that it was added later (Sider) were espoused. The vexing question of the marginal του and its meaning also were raised, various possibilities were rehearsed without any firm conclusions being reached. Obbink’s paper closing the first session in counterpoint to Stephens provided a minute analysis and commentary on a four-line epigram (AB 103) in the Tropoi. While the papyrologists’ observations provided a refreshing perspective on the papyrus, observing that the text must have been produced close in time to the composition of the epigrams, one would plausibly wonder who was choosing, collating, constructing this work and in what kind of social milieu. What if any, would its relationship be to activities at the Library in Alexandria? The papers dealing with the papyrus itself raise what also became another theme or leit motif of the workshop, that is, the social context in which and for which the papyrus was created. Nagy reminded us of the variant Homeric texts available in the third century BCE and proposed that a majority of the Homeric echoes might be drawn from the “Homerus auctus” current at the time. Sider addressed the effect of anthologists on the epigram itself, especially noting the shifting length over time. Smith observed the Lithika fit well in a Hellenistic context of scientific observation, proposing that Theophrastus’ On Stones was the immediate source for the poet’s specialized, accurate, and detailed knowledge of gemstones. Bing, likewise, linked the epigrams to other written documents, in this instance, noting that the Iamatika showed strong links to published descriptions of actual cures, such as those inscribed at Epidaurus. In discussion, we puzzled over the function of these epigrams, the reasons for a collection of cures, and wondered who would be the intended audience. Similarly, Dignas’ exploration of some of the Epitymbia noted the unusual presence of gravestones for initiates and the preponderance of women. Again, why this selection?

It was this issue of selection and crafting of the papyrus as a whole and especially within the various subgroups to which discussion returned time and again. At the end, I think no one doubted how carefully constructed the selection of epigrams was and that much of the elegance of this work derives from a realization of this ordering and its significance. While individual epigrams alone might not seem particularly interesting, sometimes they took on striking additional characteristics and meaning when combined with neighboring poems.

Of course, the realization of the complex structure of many subgroups provided a strong sense of authorial or at the very least editorial hand. Although the question “is this Posidippus?” was not overtly a focus of discussion, the papers of Acosta-Hughes, Sider, and Sens sidled up to or around this question.

I have not done justice to those who tackled the literary dimensions of the poems and their place in historical developments, especially Schur on the Lithika and Thomas on the Nauagika, but perhaps as an archaeologist, I can be forgiven this blunder. These papers were especially insightful and carried analysis deeply into the poetry and its context. Let me close then, with an observation and reminder of the breadth of disciplines involved in this workshop. There were archaeologists, scholars of comparative literature and Greek religion, historians, linguists, literary critics, paleographers, papyrologists, and even philosophers. Archaeologists will find much to interest them in these poems. I hope that these general comments from “an archaeologist’s perspective” as well as the other commentary and analysis of this papyrus by the CHS fellows and distinguished visiting scholars have helped to push forward the boundaries of thinking about these poems.


[ back ] 1. I must admit that nearly all of us thought on our first read through that many of these epigrams were not first rate poetry. Our opinions on this point have changed, especially as we have come to appreciate the careful crafting and arrangements of poems within their subgroups. For the uninitiated, I found Webster 1964, Bing 1988, and Gutzwiller 1998 helpful.

[ back ] 2. For a recent exploration of this, see Snodgrass 1998.

[ back ] 3. Cf. Papalexandrou (this volume).

[ back ] 4. The heading, Lithika, is largely restored ([λιθι]κά). At the workshop Stephens observed that the heading seems above the line. Frame and others wondered whether this was intended to serve as an overall title for the work as well as a subject heading for the first set of poems. Because there is damage (and repair?) to the start of the papyrus, it is an open question whether the preserved text is the actual beginning or not. It is interesting that in antiquity (though generally later than these epigrams) a genre of studies termed Lithika existed. These works were primarily concerned with the magical properties of stones. Plantzos 1999:10. Such works are in contrast to the largely scientific treatises of Theophrastus On Stones and Pliny NH XXXVII.

[ back ] 5. The term probably refers to sard, a variety of chalcedony in layered bands of color. A paper on AB 8 was presented by Kosmetatou at the conference and is forthcoming in Kosmetatou 2003a.

[ back ] 6. On some of these terms, Plantzos 1999:10, 36.

[ back ] 7. This poem about the snakestone was already known from other collections (AB 15 = 20 GP). For comments, Gow 1954:197–199; GP:2 500–501. Fernández-Galiano 1987:126–129.

[ back ] 8. This epigram has already received at least two comments in print. Gutzwiller 1995:385–386 and Niafas 1997.

[ back ] 9. Gutzwiller 1995:387–388. Rock crystal (AB 7 and AB 16) was also known to magnify. Many rock crystal disks have been excavated and some speculate these would have been used by jeweler’s as tools. See Hoffman 1997:202–204. On the question of whether magnifiers were used, see Plantzos 1999:40–41.

[ back ] 10. By the Hellenistic period many names of gem carvers are known, though some may be false; see Plantzos 1999:146. One of the better known from the literature (no signed work of his survives) is Pyrgoteles, who worked for Alexander the Great. Cf. Plantzos 1999:63, 60. Pliny NH XXXVII 8. A gem carver named Cronius is mentioned by Pliny in the same passage.

[ back ] 11. Boardman 1970:17.

[ back ] 12. On the question of whether gem carvers also cut coin dies, see Plantzos 1999:64–65.

[ back ] 13. Pliny NH XXXVII 12–17.

[ back ] 14. Smith in this volume proposes as a source for the poet’s knowledge, Theophrastus On Stones.

[ back ] 15. Zeitlin 1994.

[ back ] 16. Goldhill 1994:198.

[ back ] 17. This paper is now published as Gutzwiller 2003c (non vidi).

[ back ] 18. Hunter in follow up discussion suggested that the importance of phantasia has been overrated.

[ back ] 19. Pollitt 1974:63–66.

[ back ] 20. Goldhill 1994:216–223 posits a similar interpretation for the women viewers and other participants of Theocritus’ Idyll 15.

[ back ] 21. It was unfortunately not possible to include this paper in the present volume.