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Greek and Roman Eyes: the Cultural Politics of Ekphrastic Epigram in Imperial Rome

Carolyn MacDonald

The recent surge of interest in Greek epigram has brought new attention to the ‘forgotten’ Greek poets who lived and wrote under the Roman empire (Nisbet 2003, e.g.).  As a result, we are beginning to understand more clearly the “intertextual matrix of genres” that connected Greek and Latin literary cultures in the early imperial period (Gutzwiller 2005, ).  My goal in this paper is to contribute to this growing understanding by reading a selection of Martial’s ekphrastic epigrams with and against those written by the Roman poet’s Greek contemporaries. I contend that, where the Greek epigrammatists cleave more closely to the traditional tropes of the genre, Martial creates a markedly Roman variation on the ekphrastic theme.  

I draw out this distinction by focusing on two sets of epigrams, each written in response to art on public display in the city of Rome. I first consider the Greek poems on Timomachus’ Medea (A.Pl. 135-43), a painting which famously adorned the front of the Roman temple of Venus Genetrix.  Four of the epigrams are in fact attributed to poets active in Rome during the principate and early empire, and yet that specificity of time and place is nowhere evident in the texts. Instead, the poems stage typically ‘decontextualized’ events of viewing (Goldhill 2010): they are sophisticated exegetical performances that praise and reciprocate the cleverness of the artist without giving any indication of when and where the work was seen. Although it might be suggested that this decontextualization is simply a generic feature of epigrammatic ekphrasis, I will argue that it acquires new significance when used by Greek poets writing about Greek art in Rome.  

This becomes clearer, I suggest, when we compare the Greek epigrams with my second set of poems: Martial’s Latin epigrams on the art in the temple of Divus Augustus (Apophoreta 170-82, following Lehman 1945, Prioux 2008, Rutledge 2012).   Unlike his Greek contemporaries, Martial mischievously recontextualizes the imperial collection on display in the temple, transforming each work of art into a Saturnalian gift.  This is consistent, I suggest, with the treatment of art throughout the rest of Martial’s corpus. Greek art in particular appears primarily as dinnerware, and every Roman host with dreams of sophistication longs for his very own hand-chased Myron-original silver cup. 

Martial and his Greek contemporaries thus leverage the tradition of ekphrastic epigram in different ways, and thereby model for their audiences different modes of aesthetic engagement. Capitalizing on the ‘directive’ force of ekphrasis (Goldhill 2007), these epigrams offer lessons in looking at art like a Greek or a Roman. The Greek poems consistently represent viewing as an exegetical performance of paideia--a timeless and placeless exchange of Hellenic sophistication between artist and author, affirming the status of the latter as a truly sophisticated Hellene.  Martial’s Latin epigrams, in contrast, take a far more connoisseurial and even imperialist approach: the artwork is seen first and foremost as an object, embedded in a specifically Roman context and available for acquisition and exchange. By comparing these Greek and Roman riffs on ekphrastic epigram, then, we gain insight not only into the genre’s development in imperial Rome, but also into the cultural politics implicated in that development. 

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Vision and Perspective in Latin Literature

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