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Between Oral and Written: Archaic Epigram & Elegiac Formulae

Alan Sheppard

Inscribed epigram has recently attracted considerable attention, particularly with regard to its ritual and material context (Day; Baumbach, Petrovic, & Petrovic). Yet, while epigram has often been used as a comparison point for epic and lyric (Scodel; Irwin; Elmer), the place of inscribed epigram in archaic literary culture has not been fully considered since Friedländer & Hoffleit’s commentary on archaic epigram and Di Tillio’s catalogue of formulae shared between epigram and epic. The subsequent publication of many new epigrams as well as developments in the study of archaic lyric mean that a reassessment of the connections between inscribed epigram and oral poetry in Archaic Greece is long overdue.

This paper investigates how archaic inscribed epigram used and adapted formulae that also appeared in oral elegy (elegy is a particularly suitable comparison due to the metrical and thematic similarities with sepulchral epigram). An analysis of formulaic correspondences between the two genres can better inform us how inscribed epigram positioned itself in archaic literary culture. By showing that elegy and epigram shared common formulae and that composers of epigram varied these formulae from region to region, this paper demonstrates that inscribed epigram was subject to many of the same processes of composition and transmission as its oral counterpart.

My starting point is the formula Κ̣ὰρ ἔκιχεν θανάτου, occurring at the end of SEG 41.540a (the ‘Ambracia epigram’ from mid-sixth century BCE Ambracia). This phrase bears close similarities to the formula μοῖρα κίχηι θανάτου that occurs, with some variation as to the mood of κίχηι, in archaic elegy (Callin. 1.15 W2; Tyrt. 7.2 W2; Sol. 20.1, 6 W2; Thgn. 340). The use of Κὰρ in the Ambracia epigram shows how composers of inscribed epigram were able to vary standard elegiac formulae for their own purposes; for instance, the epigram’s use of the indicative mood adds an immediacy to the formula. Elegy by contrast prefers a more hypothetical version in the optative or subjunctive mood.

An examination of the formula’s use elsewhere in archaic epigram demonstrates how such formulae travelled widely across the Greek world, becoming subject to local variations. Thus CEG 158 (late-sixth century BCE Thasos) maintains the formula from oral elegy while CEG 77 (early-fifth century BCE Eretria) reworks the word order of the formula to θανάτο δὲ ἐνθάδε μοῖρ’ ἔχιχε, thereby retaining the indicative mood alongside μοῖρα. CEG 172 meanwhile (early-fifth century BCE Apollonia Pontica in modern Bulgaria) exhibits the alternative phrase τ]έρμα λα|[χ]ὼν θανάτο which is not attested elsewhere in either inscribed or oral poetry. This phrase occupies the same metrical position as μοῖρα κίχηι θανάτου, fulfilling a similar function in the epigram since it provides a closing statement about the inevitability of death.

By examining one set of variants in archaic epigram, this paper demonstrates how formulae simultaneously appear in both inscribed epigram and oral elegy. Indeed, the appearance of these formulaic variations across the world of late archaic Greece shows how inscribed epigram preserves local poetic traditions that are otherwise lost. This local variation neatly illustrates wider trends surrounding archaic epigram for, although inscribed epigram shared some basic similarities across Greece in the archaic period, local traditions meant that there was considerable potential for the adaptation and transformation of common generic characteristics.

Thus, rather than thinking of the oral and the written as being binary opposites, a comparison of formulae in archaic epigram and elegy illustrates how the same poetic formulae and themes were subject to similar processes of composition in both inscribed and oral literature. This paper does not aim to elide the important difference between oral and inscribed literature but instead to demonstrate that epigram must be viewed within its broader literary as well as material context. This appreciation can help nuance our understanding of the transmission and dissemination of poetic formulae in Archaic Greece as well as the pressures and nuances which epichoric poetry, both oral and written, was subject to. 

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Inscribing Song: Archaic and Classical Greek Poetry

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