Academic journal article Acta Classica

'He Smiles and Is Gentle': The Lighter Side of Palladas of Alexandria

Academic journal article Acta Classica

'He Smiles and Is Gentle': The Lighter Side of Palladas of Alexandria

Article excerpt


We recall the verdict of Georg Luck, who criticised Palladas' epigrams for their shallow pessimism and eccentric invective, which he regarded as 'not balanced by a sense of values which recognizes the good and the beautiful next to the corrupt and the ridiculous in human life', and rather the symptom of a disease or neurosis which distorted life like a carnival mirror. (1) It is true that the overwhelming majority of Palladas' epigrams are serious, highly critical and pessimistic. However, earlier in his article, Luck also acknowledged Palladas' popularity in antiquity and quoted the anonymous epigram AP 9.38 as evidence, concluding with this observation: 'In view of this, the traditional portrait of Palladas as the gloomy outsider who nurses a grudge against everyone and everything, needs a few corrections.' (2)

There are certainly a number of epigrams that have a happier, more forgiving and accepting content and tone, which, although not sufficient to restore the 'balance' that Luck sought, nevertheless reveal to us a much more sympathetic side of the poet which he deliberately or instinctively chose for the most part to conceal. This article takes a closer look at these 'more sympathetic' epigrams which have not received the analytical attention they deserve. (3)


There is no better place to start in the process of uncovering the smiling and gentler nature of Palladas than the two epigrams dedicated to his pear-tree:


   This pear-tree is the sweet product of the toil of my hand,
   with which I tied a graft in its wet bark in summer. The shoot,
   rooted on the tree by cutting the tree, has changed its fruit:
   below it's still a wild pear-tree, but above a fragrant
   pear-tree. (9.5) (4)

Palladas expresses his pride in having pruned a pear-tree. The epigram is composed in dactylic hexameters, which give it a mock-heroic tone and also a fluent narrative instead of the antithetical statements of the epigrammatic couplet. The clear formulation is enhanced by a few linguistic features. First, the reader is meant to distinguish between two types of pear-tree, the grafted or cultivated version ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the first and last word) and the wild version ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). However, the ancient terminology is not quite as clear. The term [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] is a later form of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and refers to what is today called pyrus (or pirus) communis, the European wild pear. The latter is found in Homer (Od. 7.115; 11.589; 24.234), the former in Theocritus (1.134 and 7.144). Palladas contrasts this with [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], a term used by several ancient scientific writers (5) and referring to a kind of wild-pear, now called pyrus amygdaliformis. Next there is the elliptical use of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], in the sense of 'the result of labour', (6) which creates an apparent oxymoron with [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Apart from the alliteration with [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], normally in the plural in epic, is here used (perhaps metri causa) not of a leaf or plant in general, but specifically of a grafted slip, a sense not given in LSJ. The tautology of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] creates emphasis which in turn suggests the poet's pride in his achievement and the intensity of the effort. The genitive form [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] also provides a Homeric touch. The epigram closes with the antithesis between the wild pear-tree and the cultivated one that bears proper fruit. As a whole it is a testament to honest and productive toil.

In the next epigram, the pear-tree replies:


   I was a wild pear; with your hand you made a fragrant pear-tree,
      implanting graft on the tree. I bear a return favour for you.

The response of the 'grafted tree' picks up some of the vocabulary of the 'grafter/poet', but with differences. …

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