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In one of the most enigmatic poems from the Posidippan corpus (AB 15, 20 HE) the poet describes a snakestone, or dracontias, a gem said to have been harvested from the head of a live snake. The stone, engraved with an image of a chariot so tiny as to be barely perceptible to the human eye and displaying such great attention to detail as to be potentially damaging to the craftsman’s eyesight, has been interpreted as a reference to the labor involved in artistic production (Gutzwiller 1995) as well as a commentary upon Hellenistic aesthetics (Porter 2011). Beyond the snakestone’s beneficial properties for eyesight or a potentially humorous reference to the stone’s origins (Kuttner 2005), however, the snake’s significance remains largely overlooked. I suggest that the serpent in AB 15 not only enhances our understanding of the poem, but also Posidippus’ strategies within the collection. I argue that the snake serves to highlight important themes and features of literary production within the Lithika as well as aspects characteristic of ekphrastic literature such as the evocation of visual detail by means of vivid color and intricacy.

In this paper I examine the representation of snakes and serpentine figures in literary texts (Iliad 2.308, the final poem from Meleager’s Garland, Vit. Ap. III.7-8, Heliodorus Aethiopika 3.4), didactic works (Nicander’s Theriaca ll. 438-57, Pliny HN 37.158), and historical anecdotes (Lucian Alexander 8, Plutarch Life of Alex. 2.4) in order to draw attention to ophidian characteristics implicit in Posidippus’ poem. I suggest that the serpent holds not only social and political associations as Thompson (2005, 281) has suggested, but also metapoetic significance. For example, deception and seduction, traits frequently demonstrated by snakes in Greek literature, are also central to Posidippus’ Lithika. The poems entice and beguile and, in the end, are not what they first appear to be. Moreover, the snake, which functions as a liminal figure straddling the world above and that below, serves as a marker of boundaries recalling Posidippus’ poems which mediate the margins of inscriptional and ekphrastic epigram. Further, when read against Meleager’s coronis poem (A.P. 12.257) the depiction of the serpent may further the claim (Petrain 2005) that poem AB 15 marks the thematic shift between poems on inscribed stones (AB 3-15) and those that are uncarved (AB 16-20). Additionally, the figure of the serpent has been used to draw attention to the complexities of the organization of literary works, as in Michael Psellus’ commentary on Heliodorus’ Aethiopika in which the plot, which begins in medias res, is likened to a serpent. Finally, in Posidippus’ poem on the snakestone, there emerges an increased emphasis on the eye, thus privileging the sense of sight, which is heightened by reference to the snake. In Nicander’s Theriaca, for example,as well as in Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius, the drakon from which the snakestone is harvested is described in the same vivid, jewel-like manner as many of the stones in the Lithika. Similarly, in Heliodorus’ Aethiopika (3.4) the heroine’s girdle, consisting of two intertwined snakes, is depicted in an ornate and animated fashion. The serpent, therefore, like the gems of the Lithika, becomes a locus for visual description and, when read against the above examples, functions as a complex signifier for Posidippus’ literary and visual strategies.


  • Gutzwiller, K. “Cleopatra’s Ring.” GRBS 36.4 (1995) 383-98.
  • Kuttner, A. “Cabinet fit for a Queen: The Lithika as Posidippus’ Gem Museum.” The New Posidippus: A Hellenistic Poetry Book. ed. K. Gutzwiller. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 141-63.
  • Petrain, D. “Gems, Metapoetics, and Value: Greek and Roman Responses to a Third Century Discourse On Precious Stones.” TAPA 135.2 (2005) 329-57.
  • Porter, J. “Against Leptotes: Rethinking Hellenistic Aesthetics.” Creating a Hellenistic World. Swansea: The Classical Press of Wales, 2011. 271-312.
  • Thompson, D. “Posidippus, Poet of the Ptolemies.” The New Posidippus: A Hellenistic Poetry Book. ed. K. Gutzwiller. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 269-286.

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