Professor Chris Carey and Dr Maria Kanellou join CC’s Anastasia Bakogianni at UCL’s Department of Greek & Latin to talk about the literary epigram. They tell us about this ancient literary genre, its form, origins and evolution from archaic Greece to Byzantium.

The epigram dates back to the introduction of writing in ancient Greece. As a literary genre it flourished not only in Greece, but in Rome and it persisted through to the Byzantine world. The genre’s ability to adapt to new circumstances and to respond to developments in other literary genres ensured its success. Literary epigrams cover a wealth of subject matter and offer a vast tonal range. Maria and Chris share with us their thoughts on their favourite type of epigram. Maria tells us about her study of erotic epigram, while Chris explains the many functions of funerary epigrams.

Maria and Chris talk to us about how literary epigrams were produced and consumed. From performances at symposia, where guests strove to outdo each other by crafting the best epigram of the evening, to reading a collection in the comfort of one’s own home the literary epigram continued to be popular with a variety of audiences. Maria and Chris testify to the appeal that these short poems have for modern readers.

Maria and Chris also tell us about two international conferences designed to promote the study of the literary epigram. Last year’s Greek Literary Epigram: From the Hellenistic to the early Byzantine Era (11-13 September 2013) and the Palladas and the New Papyrus (4-5 September 2014), which will bring together a number of experts to discuss the discovery of a new papyrus containing fragments from about sixty epigrams by Palladas of Alexandria dated to 4th century AD.

[Post-interview note: the presentations from the Palladas conference can now be viewed online]

Follow this link to watch our interview, and to learn more about this protean literary form and its evolution. From Greek courtesans as pirate ships, to a jilted lover begging a lamp for aid, the literary epigram has much to offer. Join us to find out more!

Main epigrams referred to in this interview:

Antipater of Sidon AP 7.218

I hold Lais, who exalted in her wealth and purple dress

and in her amours/ with the power of Eros, more delicate than tender Cypris,

the citizen of sea-girt Corinth,

more sparkling than the white water of Peirene,

the mortal Cytherea, who had more noble suitors

than the daughter/ bride of Tyndareus,

plucking her charms and mercenary favours.

Her very tomb smells of sweet-scented saffron,

her skull is still soaked with fragrant ointment,

and her anointed locks still breathe a perfume as of frankincense.

For her the Foam-born tore her lovely face,

and sobbing Eros groaned and wailed.

If she had not made her bed the public slave of gain,

Greece would have pains for her as for Helen. (trans. K. Gutzwiller, slightly altered)

Asclepiades AP 5.7

Lamp, Heracleia swore three times in your presence

that she would come, and she hasn’t come; lamp, if you are a god,

take revenge on the deceitful girl; whenever she has a friend at home

playing with him, extinguish yourself and give (them) no more light. (trans. W.R.Paton, modified)

Paulus Silentiarius AP 5.272

I press her breasts, our mouths are joined, and I feed

in unrestrained fury round her silver neck.

However, I have not conquered the whole ‘Foam-born’ yet; I still toil pursuing

a maiden, who refuses me her bed.

Half of herself she has given to Paphia and half to Athena,

and I waste away between the two. (trans. W.R.Paton, modified)

Meleager AP 5.204

No longer Timarion, the once hollowed fast-sailing ship,

can endure the rowing of Aphrodite;

but the back is curved like a yard-arm on the mast,

and the greying forestays are loose,

and the relaxed breasts are loose like hanging sails,

and she has a wrinkled belly because of the tossing,

and below the whole ship is completely full of bilge-water, and the sea

overflows the ship’s hold, and her knees tremble.

Wretched is whoever will sail still alive across the lake of Acheron

having mounted the old twenty oared-galley. (trans. W.R.Paton, modified)