Celebratory epigrams from Hellenistic Delos: A first survey of the epigraphic testimonies


Delos, part of the Cyclades archipelago, [1] is one of the main archaeological sites in Greece. In ancient times this sacred island stood out in the southern Aegean, in terms of myth, religion, geography, and politics. In the Homeric Hymn to Apollo (dated around the sixth century BCE) Delos is presented as a sacred place, chosen by Leto to be the birthplace of the twin gods Apollo and Artemis. According to Bruneau and Ducat, [2] the first shrine of Apollo (and also of Artemis and Leto) on Delos—the so-called Porinos Naos—was built in the second half of the sixth century BCE. This sanctuary, dedicated to the Delian triad, soon established itself as a regional and inter-regional center. In 314 BCE Delos gained its independence from Athenian control and a period of great change began. The isle underwent major developments, such as intense construction work, population growth, and increasing commercial prosperity. The period of Delian independence lasted until 166 BCE, when the Romans converted the isle into a free port and, despite its decline, it continued to be an important religious and economic center for many years to come. [3]
Archaeological excavations have yielded many inscriptions, mainly published in Inscriptiones Graecae. Inscriptiones Deli, fasc. 2 and 4 (IG XI.2, IG XI.4) and Inscriptions de Délos (ID). As pointed out by Constantakopoulou, [4] “the epigraphic habit of the Delians allows us to glimpse at the opportunities, associations, and context that a small island constructed in order to survive in the constantly changing political, diplomatic and economic landscape of the Hellenistic world.” For example, the inventories—found in the shrines—of the objects dedicated to the Delian gods record the name, patronymic, and ethnonym of the dedicator, as well as the occasion for the dedication. As Jacquemin noted, [5] despite the number of inscriptions that have come to light, only a handful in verse have been retrieved. This number becomes even smaller if we look only at celebratory inscriptions, [6] dated between the seventh and the mid-second century BCE: out of 109 celebratory inscriptions, only 22 are epigrams (just over 20%). The number of verse-inscriptions slightly increases, to 31 epigrams, if we also extend our analysis to the period ranging from the second half of the second century BCE to the end of the first century BCE. [7] These texts represent an interesting field of investigation, as they provide real information about the patron who commissioned the verses, the occasion for the dedication, and the historical events or people mentioned. Verse-inscriptions are mostly anonymous, and the presence of the poet’s name is exceptional. Some epigrams found in Delos bear the poet’s signature or mention the poet’s name within the text: [8] the names are Apollonios of Karystos (ID 2551), Antipater of Sidon (ID 2549 I), Antisthenes of Paphos (ID 1533; ID 2549 II), Zenobios (SEG XIX 532 = ID 2552), Poplios (ID 1658). [9] In most epigraphic epigrams the author’s name is not stated. However, these are poems commissioned by a patron for a particular occasion, so they were conceivably written by paid authors who moved from court to court, composing public epigrams. [10]
In this paper, my goal is to analyze the anonymous celebratory verse-inscriptions from Hellenistic Delos. While the signed epigrams have received much scholarly attention, the anonymous ones have hardly been studied at all, with a few exceptions. A first survey of the characteristics of these compositions allows us to better understand the epigraphic poetry produced in Delos and to observe what celebratory types were most widely practiced there. Moreover, the study of these epigraphic texts composed by paid poets allows us to reflect on the concept of poetic authorship.

The epigrams

This research explores epigraphic epigrams with the following characteristics: [11]

  • found in Delos and dated between the third and the first century BCE;
  • indirect evidence of authorship (an author is implied);
  • hetero-referential compositions celebrating local deities or prominent personalities;
  • epigrams in elegiac couplets or hexameters (at least two lines);

A total of 16 epigrams satisfies these criteria. These texts belong to three different types: the largest group is that of dedications to the Delian deities (eight texts); another group of epigrams concerns the dedication of statues celebrating notable individuals (four texts); the third and last group consists of agonistic dedications represented by choregic dedications (four texts).

1) Dedicatory epigrams to the gods

The largest group of celebratory epigrams is the one with dedications to deities. These texts can be divided into two sub-groups: public dedications made by magistrates at the end of their term of office and dedications by private individuals.
1. Dedicatory public epigrams to the gods from magistrates:

  • inscription 1 = IG XI.4 1137 (dated ca. 300–250 BCE; found in the Prytaneum);
  • inscription 2 = IG XI.4 1139 (dated to the mid-third century BCE; found in the thermal baths);
  • inscription 3 = SEG XIX 522 = IG XI.4 1142 (dated to the mid-third century BCE; n.s.);
  • inscription 4 (prose + epigram) = IG XI.4 1143 (dated to the mid-third century BCE; found in the Forum Area).

Even at a cursory inspection, it is possible to reflect on the historical value of this type of public verse-inscriptions of this type, as they provide information on public offices and who held them. In addition, inscriptions 1 and 2 are crucial from a religious point of view because they attest to the cult of Hestia in Delos. By contrast to the subsequent texts, which were commissioned by private individuals, dedications of this sort present a number of intriguing features. They can all be dated to the same period and are formulaic in their structure as much as in their language. They present: 1) the magistrate’s name and/or his patronymic (1 = l. 1 Τιμόθεμις … ὁ Δέξιδος; 2 = l. 1 Πολύβοιο [name]; 3 = l. 2 -ΛΟΣ κυδίμου Αὐτοκλέους; 4 = l. 1 Ἀθά[μβ]η̣τος παῖς Λυσιφάνους, l. 2 Πανταγόρας τ’ Εὐδίκου υἱός, l. 3 Ἀρχέπολις Λυσιξένου); 2) the use of a verb that indicates his specific office (1 = l. 2 ὅτ’ ἦρχεν; 2 = l. 3 στεφανηφόρος ἡνίκ’ ἐτάχθη; 3 = l. 1 [θ]ε̣ῶν στεφαναφορίαν; 4 = an implicit reference to the office of ἀγορανόμος); 3) the dedication to a god (1 = l. 1 Ἑστίαι; 2 = Ἑστίη; 3 = not specified; 4 = l. 1–2 Ἀγοραίωι | Ἑρμεῖ). All these epigrams are four verses long, except epigram 1, which has only three verses (two hexameters and one pentameter). These poems are not particularly interesting for their style or vocabulary, but they are useful from a historical point of view because they list magistrates’ names. It is clear that these epigrams are intended to give greater prestige to monuments dedicated to the gods. The poet, like the stone-cutter, is a simple craftsman and produces a poem devoid of originality, using an existing word pattern.

2. Dedicatory epigrams to the gods from different people: [12]

  • inscription 5 = IG XI.4 1289 (dated to the third century BCE; found in the Serapeion);
  • inscription 6 = SEG XIX 525 = IG XI.4 1289 (dated to the third century BCE; found in the sacred area dedicated to Inopus);
  • inscription 7 = ID 2388 (dated after 166 BCE; n.s.);
  • inscription 8 = ID 2548 (dated to the first century BCE; found in the shrine of the Dioscuri).

These poems in elegiacs were commissioned by private individuals for different occasions. The first, inscription 5, is a fragmentary prayer to Dionysus and Poseidon and we can only detect a reference to a storm (l. 2 οἶδμα ἅλιο[ν]). Inscription 7 is also a prayer, this time addressed by a man (l. 2 ὁ Βάλης) to the god Asclepius to ask for the healing of his wife. The text, damaged from verse 5, is engraved on a marble base together with a bas-relief depicting a reclining woman and a man sprinkling incense on an altar. Inscriptions 6 and 8 are of a different type: these are texts related to the offering of a statue—respectively, to Heracles and the Dioscuri. Within this group of dedicatory epigrams for deities, a lengthy epigram for the Dioscuri deserves special attention. It was engraved on a marble base at the beginning of the first century BCE, and is perfectly preserved:

τίς τὰ πάλαι πιναρᾶι κεκαλυμμένα θήκατο <λ>άθαι φαιδρὰ Διοσκούρων ἐν προδόμοις ξόανα; τίς δ’ ἐνὶ μακραίωνι χρόνωι πομποστόλον ἆμαρ σιγαθὲν πινυταῖς αὖθις ἄγει πραπίσι; 5 ἦ ῥα θυηπολίας ὁ λαχὼν γέρας ὃς δίχα μώμου ἰθύνει βιοτὰν πᾶσαν Ἀθηνόβιος. τοίαδε χρὴ μακάρεσσι τελεῖν γέρα, καὶ τάχα τιμὰς ἀθανάτων εὐρὼς οὔποτ’ ἐπισκιάσει. ὧν χάριν εὐσεβίας ὄλβωι βρίθοντι γεγηθώς, 10 σὺν τέκνοις λιπαροῦ γήραος ἀντιάσαις.
Who, in the temple, has restored the idols of the Dioscuri, / long covered in the filth of oblivion, to their splendor? / And who, after the long period when no one spoke of the day of the procession, / has had the pious inspiration to restore it? / Yes, it is he who has obtained from destiny the honor of the priesthood, / he who throughout his life has stood beyond the reach of guilt, Athenobios. / Such are the tributes that must be paid to the blessed, and soon, / mold will forever cease to obscure the statues of the immortals. / And as a reward for this pious conduct, may you reach / an opulent old age, full of wealth and joy, surrounded by your children.
More generally, even in the case of this group of epigrams, it is evident that each poem is linked to the monument which is being dedicated. The poet was paid by a private citizen to compose a poem and not a simple dedication, so as to give greater value to the monument dedicated to the gods.

2) Honorific epigrams for prominent personalities

The island of Delos—particularly the sanctuary of Apollo—has yielded a large number of honorific statues and bases that supported them. Hundreds of statues must have piled up over time, commissioned by public and private citizens, for more or less famous people. These monuments served to celebrate diverse occasions such as military victories, royal friendships, and family ties. On the other hand, in Delos, as in the rest of ancient Greece, celebrations of citizens were usually carried out through specific decrees that awarded honors, the offering of crowns and—just as often—the dedication of statues.
Some of these bases bear encomiastic verse-inscriptions instead of a simple dedication. According to Constantakopoulou, [14] “the great number of epigraphically attested honorific epigrams that survive from the island is not simply the result of good excavation records.” Only four of these epigrams are anonymous: [15]

  • inscription 1 = IG XI.4 1088 (dated to the third century BCE; found in the south Portico);
  • inscription 2 = IG XI.4 1094 (dated to the third century BCE; inscribed on the Exedra of Soteles);
  • inscription 3 = IG XI.4 1105 (dated to the third century BCE; found in the Sanctuary of Apollo);
  • inscription 4 = ID 1853 (dated between 86 and 83 BCE; found in the southern part of the Portico of Philip).

All of these are remarkable poems, dedicated to people who played an important role in Delos between the third and the first centuries BCE. In all of them, we can observe that the layout is well planned, as each line of writing corresponds to a verse, with a minimum length of four lines (inscriptions 1 and 4) and a maximum one of ten (inscription 3). The study of the texts does not always make it possible to identify the person being celebrated or who commissioned the poem. Inscription 1 is quite damaged, and it is impossible to make out the name of the honorand but, according to Dillon and Palmer Baltes, [16] it may refer to a statue that the Delians commissioned for a queen. On the other hand, based on a comparison with other epigraphic sources, the Aichmokritos celebrated in inscription 2, should probably be identified with a son of Agatharchos, who was president of the Delian assembly, choregos of the Apollonia in 268 BCE, and epimeletes in 246 BCE. [17] In inscription 3, which I will discuss in a moment, Philetaerus is celebrated to commemorate his victory over the Gauls. Inscription 4, dated between 87 and 83 BCE, celebrates the Roman Sulla (l. 4 Σύλλου … ἀνθυπάτοιο) for taking care of the orphans of the civilians killed by Mithridates VI of Pontus during a bloody siege on the island in 88 BCE.

Within this group of honorific epigrams for prominent personalities, special attention ought to be paid to the long encomiastic verse-inscription for Philetaerus, engraved on a block, found in the Sanctuary of Apollo. This block comes from the base of a marble monument that originally bore a bronze statue-group by the Athenian sculptor Niceratus. It was dedicated by a certain Sosicrates to commemorate the victory over the Gauls (ca. 275–274 BCE) by Philetaerus, founder of the Attalid dynasty at Pergamon.

ὦ μάκαρ ὦ Φιλέταιρε, σὺ καὶ θείοισιν ἀοιδοῖς καὶ πλάστηισιν, ἄναξ, εὐπαλάμοισι μέλεις· οἳ τὸ σὸν ἐξενέπουσι μέγα κράτος, οἱ μὲν ἐν ὕμνοις, οἱ δὲ χερῶν τέχνας δεικνύμενοι σφετέρων, 5 ὥς ποτε δυσπολέμοις Γαλάταις θοὸν Ἄρεα μείξας ἤλασας οἰκείων πολλὸν ὕπερθεν ὅρων· ὧν ἕνεκεν τάδε σοι Νικηράτου ἔκκριτα ἔργα Σωσικράτης Δήλωι θῆκεν ἐν ἀμφιρύτηι μνῆμα καὶ ἐσσομένοισιν ἀοίδιμον· οὐδέ κεν αὐτὸς 10 Ἥφαιστος τέχνην τῶν γε ὀνόσαιτ’ ἐσιδών.
O blessed Philetaerus, you captivate both divine singers / and dexterous sculptors, lord. / These proclaim you mighty power, the ones in hymns, / the others by showing the skill of their hands, / how once joining in swift combat with those ill-omened warriors, the Gauls, / you drove them far beyond your own borders, / on account of which, these choice works by Niceratus / Sosicrates dedicated to you in sea-girt Delos, / a monument to be the subject of song for men of the future. Not even Hephaestus himself would disdain the art upon seeing you.
Transl. Bing-Bruss.
Figure 3. Front view of the marble-base
IG XI.4 1105 (from http://lespierresquiparlent.free.fr/Delos-23.html).
Figure 4. Epigram for Philetaerus, inscribed on the marble-base (from http://lespierresquiparlent.free.fr/Delos-23.html).
To conclude this section, it can be observed that the encomiastic epigrams attempt to achieve a degree of poetic refinement, unlike the dedications of magistrates and the choregic ones. In these honorific epigrams we find the essential elements of the dedication: the dedicator’s name, the mention of the statue that is being donated, the reference to the sculptor. Even if we do not know the poet’s name, generally speaking, we can observe an adherence to the canons of the celebratory genre through the use of epithets of praise, invocations of the laudatus, rhetorical questions, and fairly sophisticated vocabulary.

3) Choregic verse-inscriptions

A particular type of public votive dedication is the one made by winners of public agones, especially of the choregos. [22] The χορηγία, one of the most popular institutions in ancient Greece, was first established in Athens at the time of Clisthenes (508 BCE) and spread to many regions of the Greek world, including the Aegean islands. The choregia was one of the λειτoυργίαι of ancient Greek cities: a rich citizen would be appointed by the polis—in the role of χορηγός—to assume the responsibility and the expenses of staging a lyrical or tragic chorus. His duty was to compose the choir, find a practice, and financially supporting both the choir and the maestro (διδάσκαλος) and, in case of a lyrical competition, also the αὐλητής. The competitions took place mainly during the Dionysian and Targelian festivals. On the day of the festival, the choregos would lead his choir to the competition and, if he won against the other choregos, his name would be included in the official list of winners of the poetic agon. A large number of inscriptions of this sort have survived. In lyrical agones, the choregos would receive a bronze tripod as a prize from the polis, which would then be dedicated by the choregos himself to Dionysus or Apollo and placed on rich monumental bases (choregic monuments). In dramatic contests, [23] a prize was not always given to the winning choregos, but the latter would offer the god a relief, a painting or a pinax. There are many public monuments with dedications by the winning choregos thanking the gods, especially Dionysus. The island of Delos has also yielded a fair number of choregic dedications of this sort. In particular, we have four examples in verse:

  • inscription 1 = CEG II 838 = IG XI.4 1148 (dated to the late fourth / early third century BCE; found on the eastern side of the Portico of Antigonos);
  • inscription 2 = IG XI.4 1163 (dated to the early third century BCE; found in the Forum Area) [24]  ;
  • inscription 3 = IG XI.4 1149 (dated ca. 300–250 BCE; inscribed on the Exedra of Inopus);
  • inscription 4 = SEG XIX 523 = IG XI.4 1150 (dated to the second century BCE; found in the Theater).

To better understand what kind of texts we are dealing with, let us briefly examine the verse-inscription CEG II 838 = IG XI.4 1148: [25]

πᾶσι χορηγήσας καὶ νικήσας, Διονύσωι εὐξάμενός με ἀνέθηκε Καρύστιος Ἀσβήλου παῖς.
After having borne the costs of everything and won, to Dionysus / Karystios, son of Asbelos, having prayed, dedicated me as a gift.
Figure 5. Monument of Karystios (from https://www.persee.fr/doc/bch_0007-4217_1907_num_31_1_3269).
If we consider the overall features of these inscriptions, we note the very same formulaic structure and language: 1) the name of the choregic winner and his patronymic (1 = l. 2 Καρύστιος Ἀσβήλου παῖς; 2 = l. 2 —Σ : ὑὸν Γνωσ[ιδίκου; 3 = l. 1 Πρε̣πεφύ[λ]ου π̣[α]ῖς Κριτόδ̣ημ[ος]; 4 = l. 3 υἱὸς Φανοδίκοιο Θεαῖος]; 2) the use of the verb χορηγέω indicating the office of a choregos (1= l. 1 πᾶσι χορηγήσας; 3 = l. 3 πάντα χορηγήσας; 4 = l. 3 ἀγω̣νοθετήσας); 3) the verb νικάω, which indicates the choregos’s victory (1 = l. 1 νικήσας; 2 = l. 4 νικήσ[αντα]; 3 = l. 2 π[ά]ν[τ]α [δ]ὲ ν̣[ικ]ή̣σας; 4 = l. 4 ὧνπερ ἔην ἔροτις); 4) the use of the dedicatory verb ἀνατίθημι and the mention of the donated object (1= l. 2 με ἀνέθηκε; 3 = l. 2 τό[νδ]ε ἀν̣[έ]θ[η]κ[εν]; 4 = l. 4 τόνδε ἀνέθηκε); 5) the dedication to deities, especially Dionysus (1 = l. 1 Διονύσωι; 2 = l. 3–4 Φοί[βωι] … / … [Ἀ]ρ̣τέμιδι; 3 = l. 2 Δ̣ι[ο]ν[ύσωι]; 4 = l. 1 Φ̣οί[β]ωι Β̣ρ̣ομ̣ίωι τε). In addition, all these choregic verse-inscriptions are only two verses long, except for 2, which is extremely fragmentary, but must have been at least six verses long.
To sum up, it is evident that choregic dedications have an extremely formal structure, marked by certain essential elements, but not the use of poetic language. Such characteristics are typical of this genre and can be appreciated in the choregic inscriptions retrieved not only in Delos, but also in the rest of Greece. As in the case of magistrates’ dedications to the gods, it is evident that the choregic dedications are of low metric and stylistic quality and have few poetic ambitions. These verse-inscriptions have more value than common prose ones and give greater prestige to the monument on which they are engraved.

Final Remarks

To conclude, Hellenistic Delos has yielded sixteen anonymous inscribed dedicatory epigrams, of which four are for prominent personalities, eight are for gods (four commissioned by private people and four commissioned by magistrates), and four are choregic dedications. It may be noted that these are mainly public dedications, engraved on monuments in notable Delian locations. This succinct survey suggests a few observations. The first is that epigraphic poetry always implies a concrete epigraphic context. It may be argued that the poem and its monument form a single whole, [27] since the former is always composed in view of the latter. For this reason, the epigrams analyzed are of little significance without the monument on which they are engraved. The verse-inscriptions for prominent personalities and for celebrating deities appear to be more accurate in the mise en page, more elaborate in content, and richer in encomiastic motifs than the dedications by magistrates and choregoi, which instead show less care in the layout and a low presence of topoi and encomiastic formulas. The study of these compositions with their related monuments allows us not only to identify the man celebrated and his role in the society of the time, but also to imagine who may have commissioned the poems and why they did so. The other point concerns the poets responsible for the composition of these celebratory epigrams. The different types of celebratory epigrams analyzed allow us to observe some relevant features in terms of poetic authorship. The public dedications to gods by magistrates and the choregic dedications are extremely formulaic in their language and syntax: it is evident that these are modest compositions, devoid of any distinct poetic identity. We can assume that the poet who composed them was a real craftsman working on commission, with little wit or poetic creativity. The situation is slightly different when it comes to honorific epigrams by prominent personalities and dedicatory epigrams for gods. These verse-inscriptions differ from the previous ones because they are not formulaic in their style and poetic diction. Some of these compositions reach the extraordinary length of ten lines (epigrammata longa) and most of them contain a sophisticated lexicon and topoi typical of literary poetry (invocations of the laudatus, epithets of praise, rhetorical questions). Even though these texts are more original, the absence of the poet’s signature does not allow us to hypothesize that any real form of poetic authorship is at work here. Beyond these differences, which evidently reflect the importance of the person celebrated, the occasion for the dedication to the gods, and the client’s status, what clearly emerges is the central role and the hegemony of the political élites, who could thereby exercise and, at the same time, display their power.
I expect that further studies of these monuments and of the anonymous inscribed epigrams will improve our knowledge of Hellenistic Delos.


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[ back ] 1. According to Strabo 10.5,1, the Cyclades islands took this name because they ‘encircled’ Delos; according to Callimachus, Hymn to Delos 16–22, because they ‘danced around’ Delos.
[ back ] 2. Bruneau – Ducat 2005:182.
[ back ] 3. For the history of Delos, see Constantakopoulou 2017.
[ back ] 4. Constantakopoulou 2019:97.
[ back ] 5. Jacquemin 1995:155–157. With regard only to dedications, the author also discusses the percentage of verse-inscriptions in relation to the overall number of inscriptions found at Delphi and Athens.
[ back ] 6. Guarducci 1969:121 uses the adjective ‘celebratory’ with a general meaning, to refer to different types of dedications that include an offering. Following Guarducci, I will consider properly celebratory dedications to divinities (votive inscriptions) and dedications to living public figures (honorary inscriptions).
[ back ] 7. See Peek 1941; Peek 1956–1957.
[ back ] 8. Concerning signed epigrams, see Santin 2009.
[ back ] 9. On these poets, see Robert 1973:472–478 (Apollonios of Karystos); Garulli 2012 (Antipater of Sidon and Antisthenes of Paphos); Manieri 2009:154–156 (Zenobios); Geffcken 1916:82 (Poplios).
[ back ] 10. See Petrovic 2009:209; Cinalli 2015.
[ back ] 11. In this paper, I do not consider the following epigrams because of their poor state of preservation: IG XI.4 1294, ID 60 (third century BCE); ID 2553, ID 2646 (between the third and the first century BCE); ID 2662 (first century BCE).
[ back ] 12. For these epigrams, see Peek 1956–1957:567–568; for ID 2548, see note 19.
[ back ] 14. Constantakopoulou 2019:97.
[ back ] 15. Concerning signed honorific epigrams, see note 9.
[ back ] 16. Dillon – Palmer Baltes 2013:234.
[ back ] 17. Vial 2008:15.
[ back ] 22. On the history of choregic dedications, see Guarducci 1969:177–189. For a focus on Delos, see Agelidis 2009:21–22.
[ back ] 23. There were two types of agones: the agones chrematitai, for which prizes were offered to the winners, and the agones stephanitai, where the prize was a stephanos. See Della Bona 2015.
[ back ] 24. This verse-inscription is fragmentary but, nevertheless, it is possible to find some information about this choregic dedication.
[ back ] 25. See Agelidis 2009:109–110.
[ back ] 27. Garulli 2014:125.