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Silent Bones and Singing Stones: Materializing the Poetic Corpus in Hellenistic Greece

Verity Platt

Poets’ tombs, whether real or imagined, mark the physical presence of authors’ mortal remains. In ancient Greece, they were sources of civic pride, sites of literary pilgrimage, even the focus of cultic honors, and drew particular attention from the third century BCE, when local historiographical practices coincided with the formation of a Greek literary canon and an intensely creative engagement with the poetic past (Hunter; Acosta-Hughes). These trends prompted the emergence of two parallel forms of response to the poet’s tomb: epigraphic texts celebrating the achievements and local significance of long-dead poets (such as Mnesiepes’ inscription from the Parian Archilocheion, SEG 15 no. 517), and a vogue amongst epigrammatists for composing their fictional epitaphs (AP 7.1-80). Despite recent attention to the epigram’s epigraphic origins, the genre’s self-conscious lithic poetics, and the fluidity of the relationship between ‘scroll and marble’ (Bing; Baumbach et al.), these texts have seldom been put in dialogue with one another. While surviving inscriptions have been examined as evidence for the cult of poets (Connolly; Clay), literary epitaphs have been treated as another form of Hellenistic intertextual play–a metapoetic engagement with the canon by means of contemporary miniaturizing aesthetics (Klooster).

This paper argues that both forms of text respond to the challenge posed by the tomb’s materialization of poetic legacy. In creating a lieu de mémoire that celebrates the poet’s body of work by marking the site of his physical body, the poet’s tomb raises the question of how literary voice is to be transmitted once the literal voice has been silenced. It is thus a site where encounters are staged between different practices of verbal transmission, including poetic performance, oral tradition, technologies of the book, and inscribed text. So Mnesiepes monumentalizes and perpetuates Archilochus’ legacy in a lengthy document on stone, yet draws upon local biographical tradition, oracular verse and the evidence of his surviving poetry in order to record Archilochus’ special relationship with the gods and the foundation of his cult; moreover, the inscribed text is framed as if it were an unfurled papyrus scroll and borrows structuring devices such as ekthesis from papyrological practice (Clay). It thereby stages a lithic encounter between poetic, religious and historiographical modes of discourse at the site of the poet’s very own body, which continues to serve as a channel between the human and the divine in the context of ritual. Likewise, the epigrams chart a shift from the silencing of the poet’s voice in death to the dissemination of his work in ‘immortal papyrus columns’ (e.g. AP 7.21) while exploiting their own fictional status as epigraphy. They thus treat the tomb itself as a materialization of the poet’s legacy and an ornament (kosmos) to the place of burial, whether through the plants that grow upon it (ivy, vines), the libations (milk, wine, honey) poured in his memory, or the tomb’s sculptural iconography, each appropriate to the favoured genre or poetics of the deceased. These strategies echo ekphrastic and dedicatory epigrams, demonstrating a similarly deep concern with the relationship between material objects and the written word. When applied to the site of the poet’s body, however, literary epigram specifically addresses the transformation of a poetic corpus (whether oral or textual) into a physical monument, a manoeuvre that parallels the epigram’s ambiguous status between the material and the literary. Indeed, the permeable boundary between the two is demonstrated by a further inscription from the Archilocheion (SEG 15 no. 518), which borrows explicitly from ekphrastic epigram in order to reveal its author’s identity through a dialogue between the passer-by and Archilochus himself, in the form of his statue. It is no accident that epigraphic evocations of papyrus and papyrological evocations of stone each coincide with shifting practices of literary production and dissemination in the Hellenistic period: the transformation of the poet’s body from voice to monument offers an ideal site for addressing this cultural shift. 

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Tombs of the Poets: The Material Reception of Ancient Literature

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