Posidippus Conference: On Reading a New Epigram Collection

Conference Summary

The loss of the greater part of Greek literature from antiquity is one of the enduring sorrows for all those who find themselves drawn to the voices of this cultural past. For all the careful and painstaking labor of those who work in the areas of classical antiquity to delineate a lost world, and for all the intellectual effort of their audience(s) to imagine such a world, the reality of this loss is constantly, and frustratingly, present. Hence the joy we all feel at the appearance of a new text, somehow miraculously preserved, is the greater. The last few decades have seen several new poetic texts greatly enhance our knowledge of Archilochus, Stesichorus, Simonides, and Callimachus. In the early autumn of 2001 a truly substantial collection of Hellenistic epigrams, some 112 poems attributed to the third century BCE poet Posidippus of Pella, first appeared before a wider audience. Edited by G. Bastianini and C. Gallazzi, with the collaboration of C. Austin, these epigrams appeared in the lavish edition Posidippo di Pella – Epigrammi (P. Mil. Vogl. VIII 309), the eighth volume of the papyrological series Papyri dell’ Università degli Studi di Milano. It was clear from the moment the volume appeared that this collection was not only going to increase enormously our knowledge of Hellenistic epigram, but it was also going to be of great importance for the understanding of ancient poetry collections, the early book roll, and the aesthetics of organizing texts.

When the new epigram collection first appeared, the Fellows of the Center for Hellenic Studies (CHS) realized that this new text afforded a very unusual opportunity for collegial interaction and interdisciplinary dialogue. Only two of these epigrams were previously known in Byzantine sources: the scholar John Tzetzes attributes one (II.39-III.7) to Posidippus, and one (X.30-33) is included under Posidippus’ name in the Planudean Anthology. A few of the epigrams were published by the editors in a preliminary edition, and some significant scholarly work had already treated some of the unpublished epigrams. Yet the majority of these short poems were essentially unknown: there existed no extensive tradition of scholarship to inform, or prejudice, the reader’s initial encounter with the texts. At the same time, a collection that included poems on gem-stones and statuary, poems honoring contemporary historical figures (among them two Ptolemaic queens), poems that figure definitions of happiness and loss, and poems that were clearly a nexus of allusions to earlier and contemporary Greek literature, provided a very special space for the varied scholarly trajectories of the Fellows to come together. Whether art historical, archaeological, historical, philosophical, or literary, each area of interest in the ancient world could view, and react to, a new cultural monument.

With the encouragement and generous support of the directors (Gregory Nagy and Douglas Frame) and staff of the CHS, the Fellows decided to organize a round-table discussion of these new texts.

The Junior Fellows for the academic year 2001-2002 were Benjamin Acosta-Hughes (University of Michigan), Manuel Baumbach (University of Heidelberg), Hans Beck (University of Cologne), Sylvia Berryman (Ohio State University), Beate Dignas (University of Michigan), Myriam Hecquet-Devienne (University of Lille), Gail Hoffman (Boston College), Sean Kelsey (UCLA), Elizabeth Kosmetatou (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven), Nassos Papalexandrou (University of Texas at Austin), David Schur (Miami University, Ohio), Jan Szaif (University of Bonn), and Kai Trampedach (University of Konstanz).

As conceived by the Fellows, the round-table was to consist of the Fellows themselves, and an equal number of invited participants: experts in papyrology, Hellenistic poetry, Greek epigram and Latin literature. The invited participants were P. Bing, M. Fantuzzi, K. Gutzwiller, A. Henrichs, R. Hunter, D. Obbink, A. Sens, D. Sider, M. Smith, S. Stephens, and R. Thomas. Each participant in the roundtable was invited to choose a poem, or selection of poems, on which to speak for roughly 15 minutes: each paper was to be followed by a 15-minute period of discussion. In the process of selection, there was surprisingly little overlap: when the participants met on April 19-20, 2002, almost all of the nine categories of epigrams collected in the new papyrus were represented by at least one speaker, some by several.

As originally conceived, the roundtable discussion was to consist of three panels, each with a different emphasis. These were: 1) the papyrus itself and reading the papyrus; 2) the poetry of Posidippus that pre-existed the new find and the literary contribution of the new epigrams; 3) the new collection as a cultural monument of a specific time and place, Ptolemaic Alexandria of the early third century BCE. As the Fellows read through the collection together in preparation for the April round-table, it became clear that it was also desirable that the panels be organized to follow the collection in sequence. The resulting Conference Program represents a confluence of these two trajectories.

The April 19-20 CHS roundtable, entitled “En Byblois Peponêmenê: On Reading A New Epigram Collection,” was the first of several conferences to be held on these poems in 2002. It was clear from the opening of the roundtable that this collective “reading” of the new epigrams would be distinguished by 1) its interdisciplinary character and 2) by the dialogue between senior and junior scholars. These two features imbued the roundtable, its discourse, and its progress throughout. Each panel consisted of two sessions. Gregory Nagy, Director of the CHS, offered opening and closing remarks for the program.

The first meeting was devoted to discussion of the papyrus and of the poet Posidippus. Discussion of the papyrus, its character, and some of its unusual aspects, rapidly centered on one of the features that was to become a constant theme throughout—the importance of the categories and their ordering. A further point of discussion was the unusual stichometrics and their significance. Two of the main papyrological challenges that typically confront readers of a new papyrus, namely, the authorship of a text and the matching of fragments to different texts, are, revealingly, not at issue with this papyrus. This unusual situation was also a point of lively discussion.

The second session of April 19 was devoted to the poet Posidippus, both as familiar before the new epigrams and as perceived now in light of the new epigrams. A large part of this session centered on the presence of earlier poets and poetry in Posidippus old and new, and the remarkable similarity of the intertextual strategies of both collections. Intriguingly, while attribution of all of the epigrams to Posidippus is not universally accepted, this issue was largely absent in the course of the April 19-20 round-table. At the time of this writing, general opinion is increasingly in favor of Posidippean authorship. Particularly significant are 1) the absence of any other known epigrammatist in the collection, and 2) the uniform metrical characteristics of the epigrams.

Poetry celebrating monuments, both poems fashioned as inscriptions upon monuments and poems that describe monuments, was the subject of the first session of Saturday, April 20. Discussion of the statuary poems (andriantopoiika) focused particularly on questions of aesthetics and selection in Hellenistic art and literature. Funeral poetry has its own conventions and fashioning of voice and audience: a reading of the epitumbia (poetry of funeral offering) and nauagika (poetry of shipwreck) in light of grave inscriptions and the evolution of shipwreck poetry in Latin literature highlighted particularly Posidippus’ evocation of pathos and audience empathy.

The second session of this panel was devoted to the oiônoskopika (poetry of omens), perhaps the most unusual category in the new collection. Papers approaching these poems from the perspectives of the sequence of poems, the mantic character of the collection, and the manner in which omens are observed and recognized all did much to elucidate this fascinating, and little known, genre of poetry.

The lithika (poems on gem stones) proved to be another particularly popular category. Discussion of these epigrams opened the third panel: papers from an impressive variety of perspective and focus kept these “gems on gems” (to paraphrase one panelist) before the roundtable’s attention. The communal reading moved from gem-stones to occasional poetry, both celebrating athletic victory (the hippika) and safe recovery of health (the iamatika) in the final session: this session, as all before, emphasized in particular the influence of the categories and ordering on the reader’s experience of this collection of epigrams.

The CHS roundtable was, in the estimation of all the participants, resoundingly successful. This was in large part, though not exclusively, due to two factors: 1) a truly “new” text, and 2) the sustained intellectual discourse of senior scholars and junior fellows. Both of these factors allowed for an unusual freedom and parity of discussion, at the roundtable itself and at all of the social functions it occasioned. In the course of two days, classical scholars of varying fields, varied training, and varied methodological approaches engaged together in a communal reading of texts hitherto unknown.

The result for all was an enriched, truly interdisciplinary appreciation of a new collection of Hellenistic epigrams as physical entity, art-work, and cultural monument.

Aware that this perfect moment might prove fleeting, the directors of the CHS resolved at the conclusion of the roundtable to continue the “reading” of the new epigrams through two media, the first issue of Classics@ and a publication of colloquium papers entitled Labored in Papyrus Leaves (forthcoming 2003).

The Posidippus issue of Classics@ has a two-fold purpose. The first is to provide a venue for continually updating the text of the new epigrams with recent conjectures and new readings, thus maintaining an ongoing textual discourse on the poems. The second is to provide a clearinghouse for information on scholarship on the text, in the form of updated bibliography, links to conference sites, and information on forthcoming publications. The guest editors of this issue are Benjamin Acosta-Hughes and Elizabeth Kosmetatou.

The contributions of the roundtable participants will be included in the CHS colloquium publication Labored in Papyrus Leaves: Perspectives on an Epigram Collection Attributed to Posippus (P. Mil. Vogl. VIII 309). Reflecting the original roundtable, this collection will also be interdisciplinary and a confluence of senior and junior scholars. The editors are Benjamin Acosta-Hughes and Elizabeth Kosmetatou.