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Inscriptional Conventions in Early Hellenistic Book-Label Epigram

Barnaby Chesterton

Texas Tech University

In this paper, I consider the flourishing of Greek ‘book-label’ epigram, a sub-type of the genre first attested in the early 3rd Century BCE, which - as the designation suggests - take the form of blurb-like laudations of poets, purportedly affixed to book-rolls containing their works. There has been much recent discussion of the methods by which authors celebrated their predecessors in Hellenistic epigram (see Klooster 2011; Rosen 2007, and generally the essays in Bing and Bruss 2007; Rossi 2001), but such investigations privilege the two predominant types of epigram: those written as if for the tombs of poets, and those supposedly accompanying their statues. There has been little assessment of book-label epigram as a category distinguishable from either type, particularly due to the recurrence therein of elements redolent of inscriptional epigram, seemingly employed as in other epigrammatic sub-genera. This apparent commonality masks a fundamental distinction between book-labels and the sepulchral and dedicatory  epigrams, in the process of adapting and subverting inscriptional conventions: I argue that said conventions are utilized to establish the book-roll as a new memorial form, akin to the stelae and statues that accompanied inscribed epigrams. However, I further propose that the revised application of inscriptional conventions also inaugurates the roll as a more potent means of memorialization than previous forms.

My investigation focuses upon three early 3rd Century BCE poems illustrative of the role played by inscriptional conventions at the outset of book-label epigram's development: two by Asclepiades - AP 7.11 on Erinna’s Distaff, and AP 9.63 on Antimachus’ Lyde - and Callimachus AP 9.507, for Aratus’ Phaenomena. Firstly, I suggest that Asclepiades utilizes the standard means by which an inscribed epigram would identify its ‘speaking voice’ (on which see Tueller 2008; Vestrheim 2010) to problematize the exact identity of the speaker: I demonstrate that the application of inscribed tropes - deictic self-reference, and self-identification using εἰμί and με - here renders that voice ambiguous. In AP 7.11, Erinna’s voice and that of her poetry seem to comingle, with an apparent shift in vocal identity mid-epigram; in AP 9.63, the speaker seems be an object - the book-roll of the Lyde - but also the flesh-and-blood woman, Lyde, simultaneously. In constructing speaking voices thusly, I argue that Asclepiades subtly encapsulates the unique situation of book-label epigram, compared to that of other epigrammatic types. Instead of a text operating in conjunction with an object, here a text (the epigram) accompanies an object that is also a second text, which might thus be thought to possess dual voices: that of the book-roll qua object, and that of the poetry contained within. The protean voices which sound out from Asclepiades’ book-label epigrams reflect this multiplicity of potential sources of speech, equally indicating the ability for book-poetry to - quite literally - speak for itself, testifying to the inherent memorializing capabilities of the book-roll. I then argue that Callimachus demonstrates a comparable sensibility in his application of inscribed conventions in AP 9.507, particularly in the usage of the imperative χαίρετε (used in inscribed sepulchral epigram to greet the passerby), here employed to hail Aratus’ poems. In so doing, Callimachus establishes the Phaenomena as a functional analogue of the passerby: the poems are made the propagator of their own renown (therefore, also that of Aratus), by occupying the memorializing part usually allotted to the reader (see Schmitz 2010; Tueller 2010).

In assessing these poems, I reveal how the first authors of book-label epigram utilized the tropes of the inscribed tradition to conceptualize their new bookish endeavors, and to convey the unique, memorializing possibilities of the book-roll format. By modifying a familiar set of conventions, I argue that poets such as Asclepiades and Callimachus embedded their book-label innovations within a recognizable context of memorialization, which consequently allowed them to establish the book-roll as a conceptual analogue - but also a superior - to the stelae and statues which preceded it.

Session/Panel Title:

Hellenistic Poetry in its Cultural Context

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