Walters Art Museum, Baltimore/Bridgeman Images

Lawrence Alma-Tadema: Sappho and Alcaeus, 1881


In its present version, The Greek Anthology comprises about 4,500 short poems, composed by authors ranging from the third century BCE to the fourth century CE (with outliers on either end) and including works by many of the most brilliant figures of Greek literature, especially from the Hellenistic period (323–31 BCE). The collection—assembled over hundreds of years—came to Western Europe from Byzantium in the fifteenth century and immediately began to exercise on European poetry and culture an influence whose depth and breadth are even now difficult to gauge.1 “I’ll tell you the best poem ever written in Alexandria,” announces the commander in chief of the British army (Middle East Command) to a dinner party in Evelyn Waugh’s World War II trilogy, Sword of Honour. Duly encouraged by his hostess, the general begins:

They told me Heraclitus, they told me you were dead
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
I wept as I remembered how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.

And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest,
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.

This is Callimachus (third century BCE), from the Anthology, in the inescapable Victorian translation of William Johnson Cory. Waugh, like other even mildly modernist Englishmen of his era, was both embarrassed by Cory’s sentimental old chestnut and unable to get it out of his head. He had the poetry-plagiarizing hero of The Loved One adapt it to commemorate the suicide of his mentor:

They told me, Francis Hinsley, they told me you were hung
With red protruding eye-balls and black protruding tongue
I wept as I remembered how often you and I
Had laughed about Los Angeles and now ’tis here you’ll lie…

This trip from the sublime—which Callimachus’s Greek text is—to the camp and down to the ridiculous is fully in keeping with the spirit of the Anthology, the vastness of which accommodates poems of remarkable variety. Under the auspices of the Loeb Classical Library, Michael A. Tueller has published the first volume (books one to five of sixteen) of a projected complete edition of the whole gigantic thing—a fully updated revision of W.R. Paton’s five-volume Loeb from a hundred years ago. It is an ambitious and worthy enterprise, but news of it may make non-initiates wonder what epigrams are, and what this enormous Anthology of them is, and why?


Sometime in the mid-to-late sixth century BCE, the Greek lyric poet Anacreon, a fixture at the court of Polycrates, tyrant of the island of Samos (just off the western Asia Minor coast), composed an eight-line poem that seems to be the oldest surviving lesbian joke in European literature:

With his ball of purple and
Hair of gold, Eros, yet again, strikes
And bids me go play
With a girl wearing stippled sandals.

But she, since she comes from
Posh Lesbos, scorns my
Hair, since it is white, and
Gazes, open-mouth, at some other.

The modern reader will hear the word Lesbos and know something is up. Anacreon’s audience did not have that response. The island of Lesbos was known for its rich and cultured cities, and for the fast and luxurious manners the people there had adopted from the Lydian and Persian communities on the mainland to the east, but not for what we call lesbianism. A generation or two before Anacreon, however, Lesbos had produced a poet, Sappho, whose poems present her as a passionate lover of other women. Anacreon created the equation of Lesbian with lesbian by exploiting his audience’s awareness of Sappho’s poetic persona, and did so by means of a surprise vowel in the last line:

pros d’ allēn tina chaskei

Gazes, open-mouth, at some other.

The words signifying “some other” are allēn tina: “other” and “some,” respectively. Greek being a highly inflected language, such words have gender: tina serves as both masculine and feminine, and so is indeterminate, but allēn is unambiguously feminine. We might have expected the masculine allon, but now we find the girl in the poem is gaping at another woman. Her rejection of the speaker, then, is not due to his old gray head, but to her own proclivities: she prefers women to men—like her compatriot Sappho.

So we have not just a gay joke but a gay ethnic joke. The Greeks had a robust enjoyment of ethnic bigotry, but members of the upper class were not prejudiced in favor of heterosexuality: Anacreon’s joke defeats the audience’s expectation not that all sexual desire is heterosexual but that it is most naturally and properly directed toward themselves, the upper-class males. In what little survives of his other poems, Anacreon gives the impression of being up for anything with anybody. We must assume, however, that what he was most valued for was his ability to produce beautifully constructed little poems like “The Girl from Lesbos.”


His legendary status may have been at least partly owed (our ignorance is almost complete) to an ability to improvise such little gems on the spot. At any rate, his brilliant wit and exuberant sense of fun and mischief made him the patron saint of the symposium—the great Greek institution of upper-class male bonding over booze, talk, sex, and song that was borrowed from precisely those Lydians who had ruled the mainland Greeks to the east until they were relieved of power by Cyrus the Great’s Persians sometime in the 540s.

When the Persian axe fell on Polycrates’s own neck, we are told that Hipparchus, brother and cultural minister of the Athenian tyrant Hippias, sent a warship to transport Anacreon from Samos to safety in Athens, where he lingered for some time, leaving a permanent mark on the culture of that soon-to-be-great city, in which the symposium was prominent. A number of Athenian vases survive depicting Anacreon partying with his friends, many of whom are men dressed up either as women or as Lydians. (Scholars have had trouble establishing the difference—though Herodotus suggests there wasn’t much of one.)


A couple of thousand years after Anacreon died, and less than a decade after the publication of his own critical masterpiece, Laocoön, G.E. Lessing (1729–1781) wrote a one-hundred-page essay on epigrams, a poetic form of which he was himself an experienced practitioner, and to whose history he had devoted considerable attention. The essay begins with the theory and definition of the genre. Here Lessing, refining the observations of some distinguished predecessors, propounded what is sometimes now called “Lessing’s Law”: every true epigram should arouse an expectation (Erwartung), which should then receive an emphatic resolution (Aufschluß). More bluntly, we might say a proper epigram has two parts, setup and payoff.

We can see that Anacreon’s “Girl from Lesbos” exemplifies this “law” perfectly: the stately, almost leisurely cadences of the first stanza are succeeded by the abrupt misdirections of the second, which lead us unsuspectingly to the surprise of the last line. The poem displays other typical features of epigram: concision (in the Greek, thirty words, eleven in the slow first stanza, nineteen in the more jittery second), wit (sexual, as often), and a tendency to make the audience work a little to get the joke (the “point,” as the barbed conclusion of an epigram is often called).

But Anacreon’s poem has a further surprise for us: although a perfect epigram in Lessing’s sense, for the Greeks it was not an epigram at all. We can see that it served as a model for later Greek epigrammatists, but that observation simply makes all the more plain the peculiar defectiveness of our knowledge. Greek epigram started as one thing and ended up as another, but we cannot confidently explain how or even precisely when the transformation took place.

In the earliest periods—including, by inference, Anacreon’s—the Greek word epigramma meant “something written on something else.” Unsurprisingly, the specimens that have survived are the ones that were written on or carved into the most durable materials: the fired clay of a drinking vessel, or a marble tombstone or statue commemorating a victory or dedicated to a god. “Epigram,” in effect, meant not much more than “label”: “Property of Phidias” (on a cup), or “Philo is buried here” (on a gravestone), or “Pisistratus dedicated this to Apollo” (on an altar). But at some point before the third century—nearly two centuries after Anacreon—“epigram” had come to designate a much broader literary genre recognizable as the direct ancestor of Lessing’s modern type.

Contemporary scholars have been puzzled by this evolution, and there may be grounds for thinking that ancient literati were, too. The early “labeling” kind of epigram was often cast in verse. The earliest of these to survive use a variety of meters (some of which are hard to make out), but by the time of Anacreon’s death they were mostly being written in elegiac couplets: one dactylic hexameter (the meter of epic) followed by a pentameter, an abbreviated version of the same.

The adoption of this verse form was without a doubt one of the decisive factors in the development of the labeling epigram into the later type. The elegiac couplet had already established itself as the default verse of the symposium, which meant elegy became a kind of omnibus genre, extending from brief complaints about treacherous lovers or political rivals, exhortations to military valor (the symposium was to a great extent the warrior class at play), exuberant celebrations of the joys of youth and intoxication, brooding meditations on age and mortality, and even extended narratives of great local military exploits.


Labeling epigrams, on the other hand, were usually very short, comprising one couplet or two, but sometimes more. The most famous commemorates the heroism of Leonidas and the three hundred Spartans with whom he died refusing to yield the pass at Thermopylae to the Persian invaders of 480 BCE:

Stranger, bring word to the Spartans:
By complying with their laws we now here lie.

Herodotus tells us the poem was inscribed on a slab erected where the Spartans fell, and he seems to say it was composed by Simonides of Ceos, a younger contemporary of Anacreon’s and something like the official poet of the Persian Wars. The conceit of having the deceased speak the epitaph to a passerby is common, as is, in the case of death and burial away from home, that of asking the addressee to bring news of the loss there. So the supposed mere “label” had already become artful and literary very early on. In fact, it had already been detached from its simply functional use as far back as we can go: “here lies so-and-so” is of course the canonical phrase for burial, appearing in innumerable epitaphs from the sixth century BCE forward. But at Iliad 20.389–392, Achilles, kicking off what will be a three-book-long killing spree, delivers a sarcastic address to the corpse of his first victim, an otherwise unknown ally of the Trojans who is named Iphition:

You lie dead, son of Otrynteus, most awe-inspiring of men.
Your death is here, but your birth was by the lake
Gygaea, where your ancestral estate is,
Alongside the rivers fish-bearing Hyllus and swirling Hermus.

How on earth does Achilles know all this? Obscure regions of central Asia Minor, served up with plausible local details—as if he’d memorized a mini-biography of every warrior on the Trojan team along with the geography of his native home. The language and themes are explicitly those of grave epigrams. It is very characteristic of Homeric warriors to make stylized taunts over their victims, displaying a cruel ingenuity, wit, and, as here, inexplicably deep knowledge of their opponents’ backgrounds and physical circumstances. Here the bitter irony derives from having the slayer compose for the slain a memorial that incorporates the poignant epitaphic motif seen already in the Thermopylae epigram: that of the death far away from home, the geographic details of which the blood-spattered killer looming over the lifeless victim now malevolently savors.


What we must imagine to have happened next in the development from the labeling epigram to the Lessing-like genre is the arrival on the scene of a group of poets who saw themselves as heirs to a combined tradition of verse composed overwhelmingly in the elegiac couplet: the Anacreontic themes of elegy from the symposium brought together with those of the more stylized labeling epigrams. Integration was not difficult. Composing fictional epitaphs, for example, fit easily into the elegiac program of reflecting on mortality, as it has continued to into our own era. This epigram by the American poet and scholar J.V. Cunningham is a good example:

Here lies my wife. Eternal peace
Be to us both with her decease.

We are not entirely sure which poets took the lead in effecting the convergence. For one thing, not much elegy from the fifth and fourth centuries survives. In the early to mid-third century BCE, however, a poet named Asclepiades (stress on the i, like Alcibíades), from Polycrates’s isle of Samos, revisited Anacreon’s “Girl from Lesbos” poem in one of his own, in the elegiac meter:

I used to play sometimes with seductive Hermione
Who had a girdle of stippled colors—O Paphian goddess! [i.e., Aphrodite]—
And the girdle had writing on it: “Cherish me,” it read, “for all time,
And do not grieve should some other possess me.”

By the conventions of labeling epigrams, “me” inscribed on an object refers to the object: here, the girdle. But alert readers will have noticed the presence of Anacreon’s trick words “some other” in the last line. This time the word for “other” is given a masculine ending, where we might have expected the feminine, since a girdle is a woman’s garment, to be possessed by a woman. If the possessor is a man, then the semi-concealed barb lies in the implication that “me” is seductive Hermione, not her fancy girdle, and “possess” has a second, below-the-belt meaning of “possess sexually.”

The setup here is “I used to play”—and by implication do so no longer. What happened? We know by the end. In characteristic Hellenistic fashion, the speaker shows rather more interest in the play he is having with the history of his literary genre than in any he had with Hermione: the elegiac theme of the affair long past is narrated implicitly, through a report of an epigrammatic “label” on an object described, which, through a surprise gender-switch in the tail reminiscent of Anacreon, is itself revealed to serve as a label of the person who wears it. The little poem epitomizes the hybridity of epigram as it had now evolved.

It is in Asclepiades’s generation that we first catch a glimpse of the word “epigram” itself applied to this new hybrid genre: a very fragmentary papyrus preserves what seems to be the book’s title page: Miscellaneous Epigrams: by Posidippus… (other names may have followed). Posidippus was a Macedonian poet, like Asclepiades active in Macedonian-run Alexandria. These two, together with their contemporary Callimachus, the great scholar-poet already mentioned, seem to have taken the decisive final steps in defining “epigram” as we now know it. One of Callimachus’s most famous poems, which had great impact on Horace and other Roman poets, combines into Lessing’s bipartite structure (expectation and resolution) two themes of elegy, ethical censure and erotic frustration:

I loathe the popular poem, and I do not esteem
The road carrying a mob hither and yon;
I hate a boyfriend who gets around, and I do not
Drink from the well: everything demotic disgusts me.
Lysanies, you are indeed lovely, lovely—but before
Echo has said that, some other man says “I possess him.”

The speaker here is what the Romans called fastidiosus: the origin of our “fastidious,” it means someone who feels disgust; not exactly a snob, but rather a narcissist who affects to have sensibilities so hyper-refined that they reject most of the world’s contents. Our speaker has forsaken this unsatisfactory world for the wilderness, the place of echoes (i.e., the goddess Echo) and the traditional refuge of the lovesick. He apostrophizes the one thing he can admit a fondness for, the lovely Lysanies, and immediately hears that the youth has been stolen by another.

But by whom? In “before Echo has said that” the “that” must refer to the repeated “lovely”: it is an “echo” of the first “lovely.”2 But in other ancient echo poems a first echo cues another—we do not have singletons. So when our speaker hears “some other” man’s voice, he is hearing an echo of his own: the name of the goddess Echo (Ēchō) and the verb “I possess” (echō) are almost identical. The speaker hears an echo of his own word Ēchō referring to the goddess and chooses to interpret it as some other man’s echō, “I possess (him).”3 As Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection, Callimachus’s fastidiosus speaker has his heart broken by his own voice. Or, we might think, he, like the speaker of Asclepiades’s poem, prefers clever wordplay to any human relationship anyhow.


As the Miscellaneous Epigrams papyrus suggests, people had started to organize collections of these little poems. The earlier stages of this process, and the degree to which, if any, the poets themselves participated in it, are unknown. What is known is that at some time around the end of the second century BCE, a poet called Meleager of Gadara put together a large anthology of epigrams by a variety of accomplished poets, including himself. Among his poems is the poetic preface he wrote for the collection as a whole, listing all the poets included.

Meleager cast his net wide, starting as early as Sappho (that she wrote epigrams is doubtful) and continuing through Callimachus and Co. down to his own contemporaries. He regretfully notes that he has had to exclude the best of Anacreon, since it was not written in elegiac verse, but includes a few of his poems that were. (They are mostly proper labeling epigrams and cannot be attributed to Anacreon with any conviction: false attribution to celebrities was rampant.)

Meleager’s collection was a great success and spawned imitators: sometime around 40 CE another poet-anthologist named Philip, from Thessalonica, gathered poems written in the 130 years since Meleager. This collection and Meleager’s make up the Hellenistic core of the surviving Anthology. And yet the production of successor collections kept repeating itself as antiquity made its way toward the Middle Ages, and Rome toward Byzantium.

We know the history of this process largely by reconstructing backward from two extraordinary Byzantine documents. Together they constitute, as the ultimate repository of this long and variegated epigrammatic tradition, The Greek Anthology now being reedited by Michael Tueller. Until the early nineteenth century only the shorter of these two manuscripts was known: we call it the Planudean Anthology after Maximus Planudes, the early-fourteenth-century Byzantine editor who created it. What Planudes created it from was an even vaster collection of epigrams compiled around 900 CE by a man called Constantine Cephalas. Cephalas drew on the anthologies of Meleager, Philip, and their successors. Around 940 Cephalas’s anthology was copied in a manuscript along with other material (including a collection of Hellenistic imitations of Anacreon, known suitably as the Anacreontea).

This somewhat defective version of Cephalas’s collection is now called the Palatine Anthology, after the Electoral Palatinate of Heidelberg, where most of the manuscript still resides (the rest is in Paris).4 Before it resurfaced in the early nineteenth century, our knowledge of the Anthology was limited to Planudes’s culling from Cephalas; now the roles are reversed, and the much more extensive Palatine Anthology is the default text, containing some 4,100 poems in fifteen books. The Planudean adds another 388 poems omitted from the Palatine, collected in a sixteenth book. These are the nearly 4,500 epigrams that make up the Greek Anthology.

What Tueller has given us now in his first volume is books one to five of the Palatine Anthology, the first three of which contain post-classical material (a very small proportion of the whole). Book Four (also very brief) comprises the metrical prefaces written by the anthologists from Meleager onward—tables of contents, more or less—and Book Five gives us 310 heterosexual love poems. (A later book, excluded by Planudes, supplies 258 homosexual ones: the separating of the two types, unknown to Meleager, was done presumably by Cephalas, in deference to the anti-homosexual legislation initiated by the Christian emperors of the sixth century.)

Book Five includes some of the most delightful and memorable poems of the entire Anthology. Asclepiades’s poem on the seductive Hermione, discussed earlier, was one of them. They vary greatly in tone and approach. Quite a few are borderline pornographic, and are perhaps, even more than vase-paintings, responsible for the widespread impression that the ancient Greeks were forever at orgy. Here is poem 203, also by Asclepiades, first in W.R. Paton’s translation from the original Loeb (1916), and then in Tueller’s revision:

Lysidice dedicated to thee, Cypris [i.e., Aphrodite], her spur, the golden goad of her shapely leg, with which she trained many a horse on its back, while her own thighs were never reddened, so lightly did she ride; for she ever finished the race without a touch of the spur, and therefore hung on the great gate of thy temple this her weapon of gold.

Now Tueller:

Lysidice dedicated to you, Cypris, her horse-riding spur, the golden goad of her shapely leg, with which she trained many a supine horse, while her own thighs were never reddened, so lightly did she bounce. She completed the course without the goad, and therefore hung up the golden implement between your gates.

We see here some delicate updating of archaisms, streamlining (“on its back” becomes “supine”), the restoration of an omitted adjective (“horse-riding”), the replacement of the perhaps too-cautious metaphor “ride” with the more playful “bounce,” and a slight rearranging of the sentence structure at the close. This is the nature of Tueller’s work on Paton’s generally very good edition, and it is both helpful and well done.

The epigrams of the Greek Anthology are of varying quality, but a great many are superb and uniquely delightful—the word “gem” is almost inescapably applied, as likewise the ironic phrase “small but perfectly formed.” The problem for the reader lies in the sheer number of them. It is not beyond human stamina to read through the Iliad’s 15,000 lines in one or two sittings, but how many six-line epigrams on fading courtesans can a normal person take? In making my way through Tueller’s first volume I have found twenty to be my usual limit per session, and I do this for a living. Any more and the taste buds pall and the attention wanders. Tueller and his publisher should start an e-mail subscription service: Your Daily Epigram—Greek text with English translation, some light commentary when needed. Forty-five hundred epigrams would keep us supplied for about twelve years.