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  • Hellenistic Epigrams: Contexts of Exploration by Francis Cairns
  • David Sider
Francis Cairns. Hellenistic Epigrams: Contexts of Exploration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. Pp. xviii, 516. $120.00. ISBN 978-1-107-16850-3.

Hellenistic epigrams can be quite recondite, showing off their learning in the compressed space of only a few distichs, the fewer the better. In preferring shortness along with the form of the elegiac couplet, these poems proclaim their origin in archaic and classical inscribed epitaphs and dedications, both types appearing in fictitious form in Alexandria and elsewhere. But this later genre also felt free to use the themes of the other genre that employed the elegiac distich, elegy, which was performed orally either in public (especially if commissioned by the polis) or in the more intimate enclosed space of the symposium or the military campfire, where ethical, political, or erotic themes could be developed. There can thus be a lot to chew on in these short poems, and Francis Cairns is just the person to match his learning with anything that can be devised by Hellenistic reconditeness.

Although there is some overview scattered among these pages, the book is not designed to be a chronological history of the genre; rather, by and large, it consists of studies of over a hundred individual epigrams by thirty named poets, arranged topically in thirteen chapters (with a fourteenth that collects and illustrates some leftover bits of Hellenistic learning, including a brilliant metrical analysis [454–55] of Erucius 10 GP). Henceforth, anyone working on epigrams will surely check the excellent index locorum to see whether Cairns has something to say on a particular poem.

A short review cannot provide details, but one striking basic premise has to be examined, namely Cairns’s argument (15–28) that many Hellenistic epigrams were, like their predecessors, inscribed, which directly contradicts the prevailing view that almost without exception they were Buch-, not Steinepigramme. But the genius of Hellenistic epigrams is the ability brilliantly to mimic their lithic ancestors, making proof one way or the other impossible. Thus, for example, Cairns’s statement that Posidippus’ epigram on the Pharos “was commissioned for inscription . . . and actually inscribed” (16) may well be true, but to say that “the onus of proof” is on those who would deny this is simply wrong. One could counter by saying that this epigram, although “fictional,” is good enough to fool someone as intelligent as Cairns into thinking it the one inscribed there. And I would argue that the same is true of all the epigrams he interprets in this way. An example from later in the book: Asclepiades 36 HE (AP 5.209), which narrates Cleandrus’ seeing Nico swimming in the sea and their subsequent lovemaking on, it would seem, the beach. Eight pages of impressive scholarship follow, beginning with its attribution and some important textual problems, but also some matters that may not be essential for an understanding of the poem, such as whether it was meant to raise the issue of Aphrodite’s birthplace to such an extent that the reader is to understand that Asclepiades had a particular beach in mind (near Paphos) (but κείνης in v. 8 may mean only “that” beach mentioned earlier) along with a particular configuration of the drop as one enters the water. All this forms only part of an analysis that concludes that this epigram was inscribed to advertise the attractions of Aphrodite’s Paphian temple. Even if one agrees with this analysis, it nowhere deals with the epigram as a poem, ignoring, for example, v. 2 Νι κ ου̑ν ἐν χαροποι̑ς κ ύμασι νη χ ομένην, with its artful chiasmus and repetition of k-sounds, including the echoing of Νικ- in νηχ-; a chiasmus that, furthermore, prefigures the crossing of sea and land that meets on the [End Page 280] beach where the lovemaking takes place, echoed by the chiasmus of vv. 5–6, on which see Sens. It also ignores vv. 3–4, where the excess of s-sounds in every noun, adjective, and verb (except for one) mimics the sizzling of water meeting hot coals, which is precisely what is described as the effect the wet Nico has on Cleandrus’ burning with erotic desires. This is certainly not to argue that...


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