The Victory of Posidippus

By Gardner, James | New Criterion, October 2003 | Go to article overview

The Victory of Posidippus


Gardner, James, New Criterion


In 1992 a mummy of suitably mysterious, not to say suspicious, provcnance was brought to the attention of several classicists at the University of Milan. The chest-covering of the mummy, who has since disappeared, was made of papier-mache formed from discarded papyrus, the ancient equivalent of old newsprint. As the scholars carefully retrieved and examined this papyrus, which is extant, they were astounded to find that it contained nearly an entire book of short epigrammatic poems by Posidippus of Pella (the attribution is almost universally accepted), a native of Macedon who lived in Alexandria around 270 BC.

Now the sands of Egypt have not been especially kind of late to the Muses of Greece. Early in the last century, they could be counted on to yield a fairly regular harvest of half a dithyramb of Pindar, a scene from Sophocles, a mime by Herodas. But in the past forty years, they have proved far less forthcoming, which is why the announcement of the discovery of 112 new poems by Posidippus has generated great excitement among students of classical poetry. The find was even featured, last November, on the front page of the science and archeology section of The New York Times, in which it was referred to as "the most significant discovery of Greek poetry in decades."

The Greek word "epigramma" means "inscription:' In the present connection,it refers to a small poem on metal or stone, as opposed to papyrus or some comparable medium. By the Alexandrian Age, when Posidippus flourished in the courts of Ptolemy II Philadelphus and Arsinoe II, the epigram had become a kind of sport or elevated pastime, in stature somewhere between a sonnet and a limerick. All Alexandrian poets, in the words of Auguste Couat, "wrote epigrams; some of them wrote nothing else." Posidippus was one of those who, as far as we know, wrote nothing else. It is a vexed question whether the inscriptional function was still vigorous in Posidippus or had become a purely poetic convention. What cannot be denied is that, thematically, it remains an essential element of these poems. Most, if not all, of the epigrams in the Milan Papyrus claim to be the published versions of words originally carved into gemstones, tombstones, altars, or statues offered to the gods.

Before the age of modern archaeology and the revelations of papyrus, we knew of twenty-four poems attributed to Posidippus, of which twenty were in the Greek Anthology and four more in Athenaeus, a writer of the third century AD. To these poems, in more recent years, were added six substantial fragments, mostly on papyrus. With the discovery of the Milan Papyrus, however, we now have an additional H2 poems, of which about 95 are mostly intact, and all are in elegaic distichs.

Two editions of the new poems have already appeared. The editio princeps was published in 2001 by G. Bastianini and C. Gallazzi with help from C. Austin of the University of Cambridge and included an introduction and translations in Italian. Costing nearly $300, however, it is almost prohibitively expensive except for university libraries. But on the basis of twenty pages reproduced on the internet, I find the introduction to be very good and the notes, in Latin, extensive and usually illuminating.

To fill the demand for an inexpensive edition, a new version has now appeared from LED Edizioni Universitarie, Posidippi Pellaei Quae Supersunt Omnia, at a much more manageable 18 euros, roughly $20. (1) This useful volume, edited by Austin and Bastianini, contains not only the new poems but all the ones that were already known from the Greek Anthology, Athenaeus, and previous archeological remains. It is furnished with workman-like line translations in English and Italian (which are not always in agreement) as well as notes in Latin (though not always the best: "unius soli distichi"). What is baffling about the notes is that, although quite pertinent as far as they go, they are extremely sporadic, and one seeks in vain for any guiding principle for their inclusion. …

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