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Greek poetry: Epitaphs by Posidippus , Heraclitus, Leonidas of Tarentum, Tymnes and Theocritus

Every so often I try to dissect poetry from a tome titled World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time . It does not skimp on the poetry. It does, however, skimp on context. While the editors provide a general introduction to the main divisions and some dates, they provide (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) no info on individual authors and no context for specific works. It’s been my grumble since page 1 and it’s likely I’ll continue to grumble about this until I finish the book. If I finish the book.

Today, I’ve got a bunch of epitaphs, that is, engraving that honor the recent dead. Many of these are touching, expressing grief and loss, but there is also some humor.

The first is written by Greek epigramic poet Posidippus (c. 310 - c. 240 BCE). Until the discovery of what’s called the Milan Papyrus P.Mil.Vogl. VIII 309, found in the wrapping of a mummy, it was thought that Posidippus wrote about only drinking and love. The Milan Papyrus added 110 poems to his known corpus.

One of his epitaphs (I’m not able to establish whether it was wrapped up with the mummy) is titled “Doricha”:


So now the very bones of you are gone
Where they were dust and ashes long ago;

Nevertheless, the author assures her:

But Sappho, and the white leaves of her song,
Will make your name a word for all the learn,
And all to love thereafter, even while
It’s but a name; and this will be as long
As there are distant ships that will return
Again to your Naucratis and the Nile. (p. 122)

The next guy is named Heraclitus. I’m not sure who his is, but apparently he’s not the same pre-Socratic guy we all heard about in philosophy classes we couldn’t get into the same river twice. That guy lived roughly 535-475 BCE and World Poetry dates this epitaph to about 300 BCE.

The Soil is Freshly Dug

The soil is freshly dug, the half-faded wreaths of leaves droop across the face of the tombstone.
What do the letters say, traveler? What can they tell you of the smooth bone the slab says it guards?
‘Stranger, I am Artemias of Cnidua. I was the wife of Euphro. Labour-pains were not withheld from me. I left one twin to guide my husband’s old age, and took the other to remind me of him.’” (p. 122)

Knowing that the author, Leonidas of Tarentum (active 3rd century BCE) of the next epitaph was the stereotypical starving poet gives it added poignancy:

Theris, the Old Man Who Lived by his Fish Traps

Theris, the old man who live by his fish traps
And nets, more at home on the sea than a gull,
The terror of fishes, the net hauler, the prober
Of sea caved, who never sailed on a many oared ship,
Died in spite of Arcturus. No storm shipwrecked
His many decades. Hi died in his reed hut,
And went out by himself like a lamp at the
End of his years. No wife or child set up this
Tomb, but his fisherman’s union. (p. 123)

I could find nothing on the next poet, but the epitaph is one any dog lover can understand:

The Maltese Dog

He came from Malta; and Eumelus say
He had not better dog in all his days,
He called him Bull; he went into the dark,
Along those roads we cannot hear him bark. (p. 123)

The next (and last) poet, Theocritus, was active in the early part of the third century BCE. He’s now considered the founder of ancient Greek bucolic poetry.

Epitaph: Justice

The poet Hipponax lies here.
In jusitce, this is only fair.
His lines were never dark or deep.
Now he enjoys (like his readers) sleep. (p. 123)

These only serve to remind, at least me, how human the ancients were, with their mourning—whether for a wife dead in childbirth or a dog—as well as their snark. The selections of epitaphs were excellent in that respect, but, again (…still) with context, the so much of the meaning is lost.


Wikipedia on Theocritus

Wikipedia on Leonidas of Tarentum

Wikipedia on Posidippus


Last review: “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs

Last poetry review: Epigrams by Cydias, Plato, Anyte, and Antiphanes



© 2015 Denise Longrie

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