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The Tomb as Metapoetic Space in Hellenistic Epigram

Irene Peirano

The Hellenistic period witnessed the development of a rich literary tradition of funerary epigrams dedicated to poets (Gabathuler, 1937) which not only continued to be written in the Roman period, when Varro, for example, collected epigrams on the poets Plautus, Naevius and Pacuvius in his De Poetis (Gellius 1.24.), but also influenced the development of the Latin sphragis (e.g. Ennius, Ep. 2; Horace, C. 3.30; Propertius 1.22; Ovid, Met. 15 and see Keith, 2011). While some were transmitted in biographies of poets (e.g. the Virgilian epitaph: Mantua me genuit cited in Suetonius-Donatus, Vita Verg.), others were incorporated in epigrammatic collections by the main poets of the day and are now transmitted in the Greek Anthology.

Scholarship on funerary epigrams of poets has typically focused on trying to establish which, if any, of these poems began their lives as “real” inscriptions. Whatever their origin, however, the epitaphs now function in the context of literary collections where they help to configure and negotiate the epigrammatists’ relationship to the literary tradition of Archaic and Classical Greek poetry (Bing, 1989; Acosta-Hughes, 2010). Thus, leaving aside questions of dating and authenticity, in this paper I focus on the neglected question of the function of the tomb as a site for literary encounter and exchange in Hellenistic epigrams and its reception in Augustan poetry books.

To start with, the funerary context allows authors to thematize the tension between the mortality of the poet’s body and the immortality of his written work which transcends the confines of the tomb in the epigram’s fiction (e.g. AP 7.45-8, playing on the conceit that it is the poet’s memory which is a monument to the land). In addition, and somewhat paradoxically, the physical construction of the tomb as evoked in the poem can also function as a metaphor for artful poetic composition with the physical site becoming an image for the dead poet’s work (cf. Callimachus Aitia fr. 64 on Simonides’ tomb). The use of the tomb as a metaphor for the poet’s work is later exploited in Roman sphragides, for example by Horace, whose monumentum (C. 3.30.1) is a reference to the poetry book and its ability to preserve the memory of its author (Woodman, 1974). Secondly, since the tomb in Greek culture is a site for encounters between the dead and the living, the epitaphs use funerary rites at the tomb site as figures for intertextual encounters. Thus in the pseudo-Anacreontic epitaphs, for example, the libation demanded of the reader/passerby evokes the wine which is introduced as a symbol for Anacreon’s poetry (AP 7.26), and through the act of libation, the reader is implicitly invited to re-perform the literary past.

When examined as part of a creative strategy of engagement with the literary tradition, tombs of deceased poets in the epigrammatic genre function as sites for metapoetic reflection and are not just verbal substitutes for no longer existing physical monuments but in and of themselves meaningful figures for the new poets’ attempt to bring back to life the poetry of the past. 

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Tombs of the Poets: The Material Reception of Ancient Literature

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