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Dialect and Poetic Self-Fashioning in Hellenistic Book Epigram

Taylor Coughlan

Several Hellenistic book epigrammatists wrote their own self-epitaphs, which likely held important positions in their poetry books, appearing at the close of a section or the conclusion of the entire collection (Reitzenstein 1893 and Wilamowitz 1924). Scholars have recognized that these self-epitaphs were integral to an epigrammatist’s literary self-fashioning, providing commentary on their poetry and poetics (cf. e.g., Skinner 1989; Walsh 1991; Gutzwiller 1998; and Höschele 2013). My paper examines an aspect of these self-epitaphs that has been little commented upon previously: the dialect in which these various epigrammatists chose to commemorate themselves. Dialects are freighted with various meanings based on context. The tradition of inscribed epitaph included the practice of matching the dialect to the regional or ethnic identity of the deceased, and so a reader would approach these epigrams with that convention in mind (Buck 1913). At the same time, dialects also had associations with generic conventions. Using examples including those below, I will show that Hellenistic book epigrammatists were sensitive to the conventions of dialect choice and used the linguistic fabric of their self-epitaphs to express their relation to the poetic tradition as well as to articulate their own poetic identity.

I first discuss the self-epitaph of Leonidas of Tarentum (G-P 93=A.P. 7.715), in which the deceased poet, after a lifetime of penurious itinerancy, laments his death far away from his native Italy. Leonidas composed this poem with an Ionic patina (cf. Ἰταλίης; πάτρης; οὔνομα; ἠελίους). The dialect choice is markedly different from the Doric of Tarentum and what would be expected for an actual epitaph. By inverting epitaphic convention, the use of Ionic underscores the bitter displacement Leonidas has experienced. Allusions to the opening lines of the Odyssey in this poem identify Leonidas with the most famous beleaguered traveler in Greek literature (Gutzwiller 2012) and should also be taken into account in the discussion of the literary resonances of the dialect choice. Leonidas’ engagement with Cynic thought is a defining feature of his corpus (Gigante 1971 and Gutzwiller 1998), and Odysseus, especially in his guise as a beggar, was a Cynic hero (Montiglio 2011). The great majority of epigrams composed in Ionic have in common the themes of travel or poverty, which unite Leonidas and the Cynic Odysseus. When Leonidas speaks elsewhere in propria persona (cf. G-P  36=A.P. 6.300 and G-P 37=A.P. 6.302) on his poverty-stricken itinerancy, his voice is rendered in a similar dialect coloring.

Unlike Leonidas, Nossis composed her self-epitaph in a literary Doric that echoes the language of her native Epizypherian Locris (G-P 11=A.P. 7.718). Nossis instructs an imagined passerby to send news of her passing to Mytilene, the native city of Sappho, which she considers her poetic and spiritual homeland. As an author of female-centered epigrams, Nossis’ debt to the Sapphic tradition has been well-recognized (cf. e.g., Gigante 1974, Skinner 1989, and Skinner 1991). I argue that Nossis’ use of Doric recalls the contemporary view that female poets, such as Sappho, Corinna, and Erinna, composed their poetry in literary versions of their local dialects sometimes in opposition to the generic conventions. Understood in this way, Nossis’s Doric allows the poet to write herself into both the imagined soundscape of Epizypherian Locris and the tradition of female poetry initiated by Sappho.

These examples of dialect use in self-epitaphs further this nascent field of study into the effects of dialect choice and mixture in Hellenistic book epigram (cf. Guichard 2004, Sens 2004, and Gutzwiller 2014) by demonstrating that Hellenistic epigrammatists were cognizant of dialect conventions and considered dialect as an important conveyer of poetic information in epigrams that were designed to encapsulate the author’s poetic identity. 

Session/Panel Title:

Poetry and Place

Session/Paper Number

60.4

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