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.


Shut not your doors to me proud libraries,
For that which was lacking on all your well-fill’d shelves, yet needed most,
I bring,
Forth from the war emerging, a book I have made,
The words of my book nothing, the drift of it every thing,
A book separate, not link’d with the rest nor felt by the intellect,
But you ye untold latencies will thrill to every page.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1855

There are many ways of presenting a new book, and Walt Whitman has chosen a provocative one. His book, Leaves of Grass, seemingly looking for a place in the canon of established books, i.e. in the libraries, is different as it contains a secret, which cannot be intellectually perceived: the secret of poetry and its power, which goes beyond words and unfolds itself only in the act of reading. In this case Labored in Papyrus Leaves contains no such secret. By presenting a variety of perspectives on an epigram collection attributed to the third-century BCE poet Posidippus of Pella it hopes to attract, inspire, and accompany readers, who are looking for it in another “new” poetry book—the third-century BCE epigram collection preserved by P.Mil.Vogl. VIII 309.

The loss of the greater part of Greek literature from antiquity is one of the enduring sorrows for all those who find themselves drawn to the voices of this cultural past. For all the careful and painstaking labor of those who work in the areas of classical antiquity to delineate a lost world, and for all the intellectual effort of their audience(s) to imagine such a world, this effort must necessarily be, at least in part, in vain. For the reality of this loss is constantly, and frustratingly, present. Hence the joy we feel at the appearance of a new text, somehow miraculously preserved, is the greater. The last few decades have seen several new poetic texts that have greatly enhanced our knowledge of Archilochus, Stesichorus, Simonides, and Callimachus. [1] In the early autumn of 2001 a truly substantial collection of Hellenistic epigrams, some 112 poems attributed to Posidippus of Pella (ca. 315–250 BCE), was first made available to scholars and to the general public. Edited in exemplary fashion by G. Bastianini and C. Gallazzi, with the collaboration of C. Austin, these epigrams appeared in the lavish edition Posidippo di Pella—Epigrammi (P.Mil.Vogl. VIII 309), the eighth volume of the papyrological series Papyri dell’Università degli Studi di Milano. A second edition of this text, which also included the entire literary tradition associated with Posidippus, was published a year later by C. Austin and G. Bastianini with Italian and English translations in a convenient small volume that a wide audience of specialists and non-specialists alike will cherish.

The concept of putting together Labored in Papyrus Leaves was born at the Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies (CHS) in Washington, D.C. during an extraordinary fruitful conference on the poet Posidippus entitled Ἐν βύβλοις πεπονημένη: On Reading A New Epigram Collection. It was the culmination of a happy collaboration between the 2001–2002 Junior Fellows that was conceived and concluded during the better part of their year at the Center. It had already been clear from the moment the editio princeps appeared that this collection was not only going to increase enormously our knowledge of Hellenistic epigram, but was also going to be of great importance for the understanding of ancient poetry collections, the early book roll, and the aesthetics of organizing texts. As soon as the new epigram collection arrived at the CHS, the Fellows realized that this new text afforded a very unusual opportunity for collegial interaction and interdisciplinary dialogue. Only two of these epigrams were previously known in Byzantine sources: the scholar John Tzetzes attributes one (AB 15) to Posidippus, and one (AB 65) is included under Posidippus’ name in the Planudean Anthology. A few of the epigrams were published by the editors in a preliminary edition, [2] and some significant scholarly work had already treated some of the unpublished epigrams. Yet the majority of these short poems were essentially unknown: there existed no extensive tradition of scholarship to inform, or prejudice, the reader’s initial encounter with the texts. At the same time, a collection that included poems on gemstones and statuary, poems honoring contemporary historical figures, among them three Ptolemaic queens, poignant poems that figure definitions of happiness, bereavement, and loss, and poems that were clearly a nexus of allusions to earlier and contemporary Greek literature, provided a very special space for the varied scholarly trajectories of the Fellows to come together. Whether art historical, archaeological, historical, philosophical or literary, each area of interest in the ancient world could view, and react to, a new cultural monument.

With encouragement and generous support of the directors and staff of the CHS, the Fellows decided to organize a round-table discussion of these new texts. As initially conceived, the round-table was to consist of the Fellows themselves and an equal number of invited participants: experts in papyrology, Hellenistic poetry, Greek epigram, and Latin literature. Each participant in the round-table was invited to choose a poem or selection of poems on which to speak. In the process of selection, there was surprisingly little overlap: when the participants met on April 19–20, 2002, all nine transmitted categories of epigrams collected in the new papyrus were represented by at least one speaker, some by several. [3] In preparation for the conference, the Fellows met weekly to read together and discuss each epigram category represented in the papyrus roll, each from his or her point of view. It consequently became clear that it was also desirable that the panels be organized to follow the collection in sequence. The resulting program, which is reflected in this volume, represents a confluence of these two trajectories. In the end, the conference brought together twenty-three speakers from different academic backgrounds and fields in order to approach the new epigram collection from a variety of perspectives. Thus art historians, archaeologists, philologists, papyrologists, ancient historians, epigraphists, as well as specialists in comparative literature and ancient politics entered an interdisciplinary dialogue on the new epigram collection, which turned out to be an intellectually deeply rewarding experience.

This interdisciplinary approach seemed to be most natural as in a way the ‘object’ of the conference, Hellenistic epigram, can also be called an interdisciplinary genre: it enters into a deliberate and constant dialogue with other literary, epigraphical, or archaeological sources. In the Hellenistic era, this technique aimed at engaging the reader into an entangling relationship with the poet and his work by offering limited information and often ambiguous clues. By challenging intellect and scholarly erudition at the same time, epigrammatists invited their audiences to participate in a process of supplementation through which they reconstructed stories and solved riddles. In short, they supplied the context from which literary epigram had been severed. A variety of different perspectives is therefore necessary in order to understand the complexity of the epigrams and to participate in an interactive reading that P. Bing has well defined as “Ergänzungsspiel”. [4] Similarly, the perfect modern reader of Hellenistic epigram would be a learned reader, who combines the knowledge of different fields at the intersection of which participants to the CHS conference engaged in a kind of Ergänzungsspiel themselves by combining their collective expertise in discussions. Eager to share the results of this fruitful encounter with a wider public, we now present twenty papers that will hopefully invite readers to widen this Ergänzungsspiel by entering into a discussion on Posidippus’ extraordinary poetry book.

The collection of papers in this volume includes discussions on general aspects of the work, such as transmission, style, and language, which are then contextualized following a comparison with the “old” Posidippus. In the second part of the volume, all individual sections of the papyrus are discussed and presented from different perspectives. This section constitutes a collection of the voices and perspectives of those who took part in the CHS colloquium. The reader is thus offered a critical overview of the entire work through an interdisciplinary approach. Hoffman’s afterword summarizes the main ideas presented by the individual authors.

In introducing this volume and delineating the importance of its contents for the study of Hellenistic epigram, it is worth taking note that this genre has itself only recently acquired its current position in the study of ancient texts. In all truth, the publication of the Milan papyrus has contributed significantly to a trend in scholarship that began to take form a few years earlier. This was in part due to an increased appreciation of Hellenistic poetry generally, both for its own artistic value and its intertextual response to earlier Greek poetry, and in part to an increased awareness of the multifaceted complexity of Hellenistic epigram itself. [14] The biennial Hellenistic Poetry Workshops sponsored by the University of Groningen (Neth.) have done much to bring scholars working in the area of Hellenistic poetry together, and to provide a venue for scholarly exchange. The series Hellenistica Groningana, the published results of these workshops, has been an especially effective medium for the dissemination of current work on Hellenistic poetry, including epigram. [15] With the publication of K. Gutzwiller’s Poetic Garlands: Hellenistic Epigrams in Context, the study of epigram and of epigram collection attained a new level of importance in the world of classical scholarship. Complementing important studies by P. Bing and L. Rossi on the evolution of epigram from inscribed verse form to book to anthology, Poetic Garlands has greatly contributed to the research on individual epigram authors, on the poetic function of epigram in an era that saw it appropriate characteristics of other genres, on the relationship of ecphrastic epigram and art object, and on the aesthetics of order in poetry collection.

As the present volume goes to press, the future of scholarship on the Hellenistic epigram could not look brighter. Important new work on epigram has appeared in several studies, including L. Rossi’s monograph on the epigrams attributed to Theocritus, M. Fantuzzi’s study of epigram in his large-scale work on Hellenistic poetry co-authored with R. Hunter, and D. Sider’s edition and commentary of the epigrams of Philodemus. New commentaries are in progress on the epigrams of Asclepiades and Meleager (by A. Sens and K. Gutzwiller respectively) and a new study of selected Hellenistic epigrams (by P. Bing) in the Cambridge Greek and Latin Texts series is eagerly awaited. The study of Hellenistic epigram has come a long way indeed from the days when these gems were relegated to commentaries on Roman elegy or dismissed as emblematic of a decadent era of Greek cultural belatedness.

This past year has been tremendously rewarding for all participants in the CHS Posidippus project. For our part, as editors, we would like to acknowledge all those who supported and encouraged us in our endeavour. First, we thank the Directors, Gregory Nagy and Douglas Frame, for funding and organizing this conference, for entrusting us with this project, and for cheering us all the way. The staff of the CHS contributed greatly to its success, especially Adam Briscoe, Sylvia Henderson, and Richard Louis. Jill Robbins made sure that all our interlibrary loans arrived promptly. Colleagues shared their knowledge and expertise, offered their encouragement, and often provided us with their own newly published work. We particularly thank Silvia Barbantani, Guido Bastianini, Luigi Bravi, Willy Clarysse, Violetta de Angelis, Gian Luigi Forti, Claudio Gallazzi, Antonella Karlson, Mary Lefkowitz, Maria Lauretta Moioli, Valeria Passerini, Brunilde Ridgway, Guido Schepens, and Dorothy J. Thompson. The University of Milan, in particular Professor Violetta de Angelis, the LED Edizioni, in particular Dr. Valeria Passerini, the Greek Archaeological Service, the Greek Archaeological Fund, the German Institute in Athens, Dumbarton Oaks, and the Library of Congress provided permissions for the publication of photographs. The editing of a complex manuscript would never have happened so quickly and efficiently without Zoie Lafis, Ivy Livingston, Jake MacPhail, Uche Nwamara, and especially Leonard Muellner. Words cannot express our deep gratitude to Jennifer Reilly for her help with both the organization of the conference and the production of this book.

Finally, we would like to salute the inspiration that was provided by the 2001–2002 Fellows of the CHS who made this a particularly fruitful and unforgettable sabbatical year. Our heartfelt thanks go to the Senior Fellows who elected the specific group, and so provided the opportunity for us to engage in this collegial endeavour. To our dear colleagues and friends, then, this volume is affectionately dedicated for a wonderful year. Let their names appear below for one last time together:

Benjamin Acosta-Hughes, Manuel Baumbach, Hans Beck, Sylvia Berryman, Beate Dignas, Myriam Hecquet-Devienne, Gail Hoffman, Sean Kelsey, Elizabeth Kosmetatou, Nassos Papalexandrou, David Schur, Jan Szeif, and Kai Trampedach.


[ back ] 1. The so-called “First Cologne Epode” (1996a West) was first edited by Merkelbach and West 1974. The “Lille Stesichorus” (PMGF 22b) consists of several papyrus fragments; the longest of these, P.Lille 76, was edited first by Ancher in Meiller 1976, and again by Parsons 1977. Cf. Bremer, van Erp Taalman Kip, and Slings 1987:24–61 (“First Cologne Epode”), 128–74 (“Lille Stesichorus”). The collected “New Simonides” fragments are conveniently available, with English translation, in Boeddeker and Sider 2001:13–29. The same papyrus that gave us the “Lille Stesichorus” is also the source of a large part of the extant opening to Callimachus Aetia 3, the Victory of Berenice (SH 254–269).

[ back ] 2. Bastianini and Gallazzi 1993a, 1993b.

[ back ] 3. For the program, see

[ back ] 4. See Bing 1995.

[ back ] 5. Hunter 2002:24.

[ back ] 6. See

[ back ] 7. For a discussion of authorship see also Hunter 2002:25.

[ back ] 8. See Albrecht 1996:80–81,86,105–106.

[ back ] 9. On dialect, see Sens (this volume) and some discussion in Hunter 2002:25. On the stichometrics of the collection, see Fantuzzi 2002.

[ back ] 10. Cf. Gutzwiller (this volume) and Hunter 2002:25.

[ back ] 11. Lloyd-Jones 2002.

[ back ] 12. On a discussion of Soros, see Gutzwiller 1998:152–157 and Nagy (this volume).

[ back ] 13. See Hutchinson 2002; Magnelli 2002.

[ back ] 14. Seminal recent works in Hellenistic epigram include that of Bing 1988, 1995, 1998, and Walsh 1990, 1991.

[ back ] 15. Several volumes of the series include work on epigram: the fifth volume in the series is devoted entirely to Hellenistic epigram.