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Two Sides on Corinth: The Cultural Stakes of Epigram ca. 102 BCE

James Faulkner

University of Michigan

Two near contemporary epigrams have not been examined together until now though they share the same subject, the ruins of Corinth. One is in Latin, written by Marcus Antonius (grandfather of the triumvir), while the other belongs to an obscure Greek poet, Polystratus. Polystratus' piece takes an ambivalent posture towards Roman hegemony after the Sack of Corinth. Antonius' foray, on the other hand, epitomizes how eager the Roman aristocracy was to compete in a new genre, even on Hellenic home turf and as early as the late second century BCE. Read in combination, the two poems place counterclaims on the intellectual and physical landscape of Greece. If Antonius' monument is granted priority, moreover, then Philostratus' "response" may be read as a challenge to the presence and semiotics of this war trophy within the remains of Corinth.

Antonius' poem dates to his extraordinary naval command of 102 BCE which tasked him to pursue Cilician pirates far and wide (Taylor and West 15–20). The inscription itself records only a minor feat, however: Antonius moved part of his fleet overland across the Isthmus, where it was then detained by inclement weather. The grandiose open of the inscription particularly recalls Duilius' commemoration of his victory at Mylae, which had claimed: "as consul I won a victory on ships at open sea for the first time in our history" (ILS 65 ll. 5–6). Likewise, Antonius claims to have completed something "never attempted nor even conceived of until now" (ILLRP 342 l. 1). By evoking Rome's first naval "first", Antonius embellishes an exploit which was otherwise rather quotidian.

Additional socio-historical considerations suggest that Antonius participated antagonistically in a shared Greco-Roman poetic milieu. Scholars have observed recently that the block was spoliated from a public monument nearby in the city center, then repurposed as a vehicle for pedestrian poetry (Gebhard and Dickie 273). This is not unbefitting Cicero's Antonius, who, though he knows Greek literature well enough (de Orat. 2.60–1), does his best to disguise that fact and was no great writer himself (ibid. 96). His fellow Ciceronian interlocutors, all the same, have a number of connections with epigram/-ists, including Crassus and Catulus, the latter of whom wrote elegant examples of his own (Gell. NA 19.9; cf. Cic. de Orat. 3.192, Arch. 6). The genre thus seems to have piqued Roman elite curiousities around this time.

The "response" piece is transmitted as a funerary epigram under the name Polystratus (AP 7.297), whom Meleager included in his Garland (AP 4.1.41). Its content depicts the aftermath of Mummius' sack of Corinth. In a macabre image, Acrocorinth becomes the burial tumulus which covers a mass grave. With this picture in mind, the poetic irony of the closing couplet makes for a sick Homeric joke; those who escaped Troy's fires—i.e. the Romans—now deny their once conquerors, the Achaeans—read Achaean League—basic funerary rites: τοὺς δὲ δόμον Πριάμοιο πυρὶ πρήσαντας Ἀχαιοὺς | ἀκλαύστους κτερέων νόσφισαν Αἰνεάδαι.

Polystratus' reaction, I will argue, directly engages Roman propaganda, even perhaps the specifics of Antonius' trophy, which plausibly could date earlier. Certain Latinisms in the Greek, heavy alliteration foremost, may signal that Polystratus targets Roman audiences. Striking too is the "single heap" of bodies (σωρευθεὶς εἷς) which dominates Polystratus' landscape. Yet a σωρός signified also "a collection of epigrams" in Hellenistic Greek. On my interpretation, the Greek poet reclassifies Antonius' epinician as sepulchral in a perverse anthology of Roman violence.

Polystratus cuts an even more compelling figure if we press a one-time suggestion of Colin (119) and identify him with a homonymous epic poet who went on an embassy to the pro-Roman authorities at Delphi to beg for privileges traditionally afforded his occupation (IG II².1134; 117/116 BCE). Later the Greek professional would take umbrage with the amateur attempts of the praetor Antonius, who had left his scrawlings beside a main thoroughfare like a humiliating epitaph to Old Corinth. 

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Hellenistic Poetry

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