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Invisible Stones: Perses and the beginning of book-epigram

Michael A. Tueller

Perses, among the very first hellenistic epigrammatists, is easily overlooked. Eclipsed by later generations of poets, he has spurred interest over only one issue: were his epigrams, early as they are, intended for the stone or the scroll? Even this question now seems settled in favor of the latter (Bruss 2005: 117–119; Tueller 2008: 58–59; Bruss 2010: 121–122). Michael Tueller (2008: 61) connected Perses’ pioneering role to his unremarkableness: “he was careful to use recognizable patterns, so that his readers could imagine a stone where there was none.”

This line of reasoning, however, leaves more questions unanswered. Why did Perses set himself the challenge of writing epigrams attached to nothing? Did he view the lack of a material monument only as an absence for which he had to compensate, or did he have any inkling of its poetic potential? In my twenty-minute paper, I argue that Perses used the invisibility of his monuments to lend visibility to people and circumstances that would not ordinarily be seen: women and the poor, a birth of questionable legitimacy and the exaggerations of brash young nobles. For the sake of space I will mention just a few examples in this abstract.

Dedications made at the birth of a child have a long history, but historical evidence for how these dedications were displayed indicates that it is unlikely that any dedicatory inscription had ever accompanied them (Wise 2005: 201, 220–221). Perses is the first to memorialize the event in writing; in so doing, he not only gives poetic expression to the lives of women, but also reveals hidden dramas. For instance, in Perses 3 a woman dedicates bridal ornaments—but, surprisingly, for childbirth rather than marriage. This deed, along with a reference to her many suitors and an allusion to a passage (λιπαροπλοκάμοιο, Iliad 19.126) in which the gods manipulated the length of a pregnancy, implies that a suspiciously short time may have passed between her marriage and the birth of her child.

Perses 6 is a sepulchral epigram for a girl who died before marriage. Neither this occasion nor the verb with which the epigram begins—ὄλλυμι—is unusual in inscribed epigram of the classical period. But the specific form of that verb, ὤλεο, is unknown before Perses, except in Iliad 24.725, the first line of the first lament for Hector. By this allusion, Perses elevates a fourteen-year-old girl to epic heights.

Perses 1 is the only epigram of Perses that apparently refers to historically attested people—sons of a prominent Theban family, dedicating trophies of their hunt in Arcadia. These young men (the word τέκνα implies their youth) dedicate an impressive set of antlers from Maenalian does, without realizing that, among the red deer that inhabit the slopes of Maenalus, only bucks grow antlers. These men seem to have no experience of real hunting, and have taken their information about deer from tales of Heracles’ conquest of the antlered Cerynian doe (alternately attested as occurring on Maenalus). Here, the absence of a material component to confirm the dedication buttresses Perses’ point: these young men inhabit a newly unstable world, in which Theban nobles travel through Arcadia, exiled from their demolished home. Their juvenile attempt to secure a place in that world is itself dependent on text rather than on anything solid—but the uncertainty of their position is very real, and revealed by Perses’ new method.

While later epigrammatists will mine the peculiar nature of book-epigram for riddles or Ergänzungsspiel (Bing 1995), Perses demonstrates an alternative: epigrams of minor drama. This fact gains importance when we consider that Perses created some of epigram’s key themes, such as dedications at moments of life transition, and the shipwrecked corpse on the shore. By this means his emphasis on the small dramas of life persists into the generations when epigram turns its focus to wit and cleverness.

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Inscribing Song: Archaic and Classical Greek Poetry

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