3. Epitaphs
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73 C H A P T E R I I I Epitaphs Simonides No genre of verse is more profoundly concerned with seeing what is not there, and not seeing what is, than that of the epitaph. An epitaph is something placed upon a grave—a sœ wma that becomes a sœ hma, a body that is made into a sign. Already in Homer there is mention of a sœ hma or tomb heaped up high over a dead warrior so that some passerby in later time will stop and remark on it.1 The purpose of the monument is to insert a dead and vanished past into the living present. Not until the seventh century b. c. did this insertion become an inscribed event; not until the lifetime of Simonides of Keos did the inscription fall into the hands of a master poet and become a major art form. Simonides was the most prolific composer of epitaphs in the ancient world and set the conventions of the genre. The formal sale of pity contributed substantially to his fortune and became inseparable from his name. We find “tears of Simonides” (lacrimis Simonideis) used as a byword for poetry of lament by the Roman poet Catullus. We hear ancient scholiasts commending the special qualities of “sympathy” and “pathos” that distinguish Simonidean verse.2 What did they get for their money, the mourners who bought tears from Simonides? Exchange A salesman of memorial verse has to think very closely about the relation, measurable in cash, between letter shapes cut on a stone 1 Homer Iliad 7.81–91; Raubitschek (1968), 5–7. 2 Catullus 38.7; tò sumpajŒ ev: Vita Aeschyli 119, cf. Dionysios of Halikarnassos De imitatione 2.420; Horace Carmina 2.1.37–40; Quintilian Institutio oratoria 10.1.64. III: EPITAPHS 74 and the condition of timeless attention that the Greeks call memory . Simonides was struck by the implications of this task, as various anecdotes from his traditional biography attest. Remember his adventure with a corpse on a beach. This story instantiates the epitaphic contract: a poet is someone who saves and is saved by the dead. And although the anecdote is likely apocryphal, its metaphysic can be felt throughout his poetry (and in graveside rhetoric down to the present day).3 What Simonides contributed to our style of thinking and talking about death is a central shaping metaphor: the metaphor of exchange. Here is an example of his epitaphic work: Ä hgemŒ onessi dè misjòn Îjhnaœ ioi tŒ adÃ Õ edwkan Š antà eŠ uergesŒ ihv kaì megŒ alwn Š agajœ wn· mœ allŒ on tiv tŒ adà Š idẁn kaì Š epessomŒ enwn Š ejelŒ hsei Š amfì perì xunoœ iv prŒ agmasi dœ hrin Õ eqein.4 [And to the leaders as a wage the Athenians gave this in exchange for service and great goods. All the more will a man of the future (seeing this) choose to enter battle for the common benefit.] This inscription was probably carved on a herm c. 475 b.c. to commemorate an Athenian victory against the Persians in Thrace.5 Notice the figurative language Simonides has chosen here to represent the relation between death on the battlefield and life on a monument, between soldiers whose lives are past and citizens whose lives are still before them. It is a transactional relationship, as the noun misjŒ ov (“wage”) and the preposition Š antŒ i (“in exchange for”) and the noun eŠ uergesŒ ia (“benefaction ”) imply. Money is not mentioned but we feel the presence of a metaphysical question of value. It is a question at least as old as Achilles, a question whose contours have been sharpened (I think) for Simonides and for his audience by personal experience of money transactions. “Money can exchange any quality or object 3 Lattimore, (1962), 168–73. 4 Simonides fr. 40[c] FGE. 5 Jacoby (1945), 185ff.; Page (1981), 255–58; Wade-Gery (1933), 82ff. III: EPITAPHS 75 for any other, even contradictory qualities and objects,” says Marx.6 Achilles would not have agreed. Achilles’ answer to the question of value was simple: no object or quality in the world (he decided) was worth as much as his own breath of life. 7 Achilles put a veto on the heroic exchange of death for glory. But this exchange is absolutely fundamental to the politics of the public epitaph, as Simonides says bluntly in the last couplet of this poem: All the more will a man of the future (seeing this) choose to...


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