THE epigram has acquired such an air of being smart and modern that it would probably not surprise people to be told that it was a somewhat recent invention. In fact it is the oldest form of written literature. For what is an 'epigram'? Merely something written upon a surface capable of receiving it. At first what people wrote down were things they particularly wished to remember. A simple community particularly wants to remember its laws and customs, a family desires to have a written record of its titles to the property it owns or an inscription on the tomb of some distinguished member, an individual may wish to carry about with him a piece of wood or lead engraved with a magic formula for blessing or cursing. Such were the first 'epigrams', and many have survived. They were not always, but they were often, perhaps generally, in verse, which is more memorable than prose. In ancient Greece, where every activity that could be made into an art was so made, it was felt that epitaphs on famous men, inscriptions on temples or on offerings to the gods--that these at least should be entrusted to an artist in words, that is, in these early times, to a poet.
It is obvious that an epitaph or a dedication ought not to be in the modern sense epigrammatic. It is not wit that is expected of the composer but appropriateness. Accordingly the early Greek epigrams have that quality; their grave and solemn beauty depends on their not being 'epigrammatic'. Some of them touch the perfection of the pure classical style. They are untranslatable for just that reason. It is not so hard to give a suggestion of their quality in Latin, a kindred language and as well adapted as Greek for the writing of inscriptions. I will therefore give Cicero's translation of what is perhaps the most