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Poetry, Greek

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome

G. O. Hutchinson,

Robert Shorrock,

Giovan Battista D’Alessio,

Giovan Battista D’Alessio,

Konstantinos Spanoudakis,

Thomas K. Hubbard,

Ian Rutherford,

J. D. Reed,

Giovan Battista D’Alessio,

Elizabeth Irwin,

Regina Höschele,

Ralph M. Rosen,

Ellen Greene

Poetry, Greek 

Overview to 1 bce

The following article sketches the continuously inventive development of Greek poetry, with an emphasis on surviving texts. Each section ends with a few pairs of moments to evoke the period and provoke comparisons.

The Archaic Period (c. 725–500 bce).

Dates of poets and works:

  • eighth and seventh centuries: Iliad, Odyssey, Hesiod;

  • seventh century: Archilochus, Tyrtaeus, Callinus, Mimnermus, Theognis, Alcman, earliest Homeric Hymns;

  • sixth century: Solon, Stesichorus, Sappho, Alcaeus, Ibycus, Hipponax, Anacreon.

Politically the Greek world in the Archaic period consisted of autonomous cities; linguistically there were groups of dialects. The literature has two strands, regional and super-regional. Hexameter and elegiac poetry both were composed everywhere, in Ionic. Iambic poetry was mainly written in Ionic by Ionians, Aeolic lyric by Aeolians (on Lesbos). Until Ibycus—a sixth-century poet from Rhegium in southern Italy—Doric lyric may have been written mainly for Dorians. Some Doric lyric was performed by an accompanied chorus, other poetry by one accompanied singer.

Hexameter poetry includes narratives of heroes and gods and poems of instruction. The two extant heroic narratives, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are so huge that the circumstances of performance are puzzling. Delphi's riches (Iliad 9.404–405) point to the period after about 725 for the Iliad's composition. The many repeated phrases or formulas—“swift-footed Achilles,” and so on—supposedly without duplication for their metrical slot, have led to the suggestion that the poetry was orally composed. A safer conclusion might be that the Iliad and Odyssey drew on oral tradition. Indo-European, earlier Greek, and Near Eastern traditions all contributed to the poems.

The Iliad and Odyssey are highly organized, on every level. Diomedes takes up Agamemnon's rude speech about 2,660 lines later (Iliad 4.370–402, 9.34–36); every speech is shaped and suited to its speaker. Although formulas suggest a uniform world of admirable heroes, actually differentiations and surprises multiply. Achilles prefers life to glory (Iliad 9.398–415), Hector runs away (22.136–144). Immense detail of action creates a world as if true.

The Iliad concentrates fiercely in space and time: its geometry sharply divides inside Troy's walls from outside, the Greek ships from the sea. Within its narrow space-time, deaths amass, all different; glory abounds. The master image is fire: fire threatens the ships, and the image of fire is used in depicting the magnificence and destructiveness of warriors in gleaming armor. The supreme character is Achilles, often unreasonable, always compelling and stylish. But there are multiple viewpoints, including the gods—who are intensely divided—Trojans, Greeks, their women. Briseis, removed from Achilles near the start, suddenly presents the plot as part of her life story (19.282–302). The astonishing end of the poem momentarily unites Achilles and his enemy's father in partly shared grief. The poem presents a universal wisdom, and the narrator's voice is not emotional, but richly ironic.

The Odyssey transforms what look to have been standard structures. A series of returns from Troy now becomes one man's, with others’ compared. His adventures are not strung out in a line (contrast modern retellings); an inset narrative subordinates most of them. Spatially, dispersed characters are eventually drawn into one room, shut for slaughter. The Odyssey is a poem of houses; there social action is scrutinized. Domestic detail proliferates: tables are cleaned with “many-holed sponges” (Odyssey 1.111), for instance. Searching reevaluation results: elite suitors are worthless, the swineherd admirable. Penelope's sufferings are explored like Odysseus’, and repetition expresses her fixed grief. Divine conflict is rarely onstage in the Odyssey, but Athena embodies the poem's justice and irony.

Hesiod expanded, colorfully and personally, formats partly Oriental: genealogies, divine battles, instructions. His shrewd, grumpy narrator, especially in Works and Days, recasts Homeric narrators. His poems are much shorter than the Iliad and Odyssey; shorter still are the Homeric Hymns. Narrative can even subvert the Hymns’ official purpose—so especially the Hymn to Aphrodite.

Elegy can include mythological narrative (Archilochus, Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 4708), but it commonly serves local purposes: politics (Theognis, Solon), warfare (Tyrtaeus, Callinus), past events (Mimnermus). As suits performance at drinking parties, elegy can dwell on wine and love, either generally or with a focus on the speaker's experience.

Much of this also applies to solo lyric. Mytilenean men's poetry, largely on politics (Alcaeus), is divided from women's, largely on love (Sappho). The two types may snipe at each other. Anacreon writes self-ironic love poetry, and he plays with Sapphic tradition: a Lesbian girl is unimpressed by the aging narrator, for instance (fragment 358 Page).

Love enters poems for grander occasions, too. Alcman's poetry for Spartan festivals has the girls express passion for their chorus leader; this partly enhances the attractive choral display. Ibycus’ poems celebrate the beauty and sporting prowess of aristocratic boys, presaging epinician (victory) song. Both poets’ work features myth and the gods. Later choral lyric continued Alcman's concerns (gods, city, elite) and structures (occasion, myth, occasion; cf. fragments 1 and 3 Davies). Stesichorus’ long mythical narratives are more related to hexameter poetry.

Less elevated is iambic, trochaic, and epodic poetry. Archilochus’ “I” attacks Lycambes, who canceled the wedding between his daughter and Archilochus, with beast fable, not myth; Hipponax's “I” is entertainingly scurrilous.


Archilochus’ narrator describes seducing the sister of his former fiancée (fragment 196A West); Aphrodite urges Helen to sleep with Paris and is bitterly attacked (Iliad 3.383–412). Sappho compares a girl who has left to the moon (fragment 96 Voigt); the Trojans’ campfires resemble a starry night (Iliad 8.555–561). Demeter reveals herself to foolish mortals (Homeric Hymn 2.250–279); Hipponax begs Hermes for a cloak and cash (fragment 32 West).

The Classical Period (c. 499–336 bce).

Dates of poets and works:

  • fifth century: Simonides, Bacchylides, Pindar, Aeschylus, Parmenides, Empedocles, Sophocles, Euripides, Cratinus, Eupolis;

  • fifth through fourth centuries: Aristophanes, Timotheus, Antimachus.

In the Classical period, Doric lyric became still less regional. Simonides, Bacchylides, and Pindar were not Dorians. Paeans were written for Ionians and others, victory odes predominantly for Dorians. These international poets traveled more than Stesichorus, or even Ibycus and Anacreon. Having acquired subject states and wealth after the Persian Wars (490 and 480/79), Athens became the biggest cultural center. Athenian drama was regional, at least for a play's first performance. Athenian authors sometimes wrote for competitions and events elsewhere.

The super-regional hexameter and elegy continued. Elegy includes Simonides on the Persian Wars, Antimachus on his wife and myths. Hexameter includes the South Italian Parmenides’ poem on his figurative journey and on being, thought, and negation, as well as the Sicilian Empedocles’ poems (or poem) on the vast cycle of a universe driven by opposites. In these works the speaker is central.

Choral poetry adorned such events as funerals, festivals, and victory celebrations. There are differences among types: some have a refrain, and some can have a choral speaker rather than a poet-speaker. But across most of this poetry runs the themes of city, gods, and family and the structure of a central myth. Best represented are victory songs. The usual setup of these—different times for myth and for victory, different places for games, celebrations, and the poet's home—generates multiplicity in space-time. Journeys are frequent, both literally and as images of the poem moving place. So, for instance, Apollo's snatching the nymph Cyrene from Thessaly to Africa matches the impetuous shifts of Pindar's ninth Pythian Ode. Gods unite present and mythical time, but the mythical world highlights spectacular events, more so than in tragedy. Apollo strides through fire to rescue his baby from its mother's womb; Zeus sends golden rain when Athena leaps from his head with a war cry (Pindar Pythian Odes 3.38–44; Pindar Olympian Odes 7.34–38). The poet in victory songs often issues canny and authoritative generalizations; he is also the victor's friend. The victory song is half private, half public. Its language is often sensuous, as well as ornate.

Such lyric faded after 440; flamboyant musical and poetic experiment appeared instead. Timotheus’ narrative Persians blends tragedy, comedy, and rich lyric style; he defends his novelty.

Athens had a dithyrambic competition, but Athens’ main forms were dramatic. Athenian drama had predecessors, especially Sicily in comedy, and it is called a “mixed genre” for adding choral lyric to spoken iambus. In tragedy, through time actors’ songs became increasingly elaborate and exploited newer lyric. Performances took place during Dionysian festivals, in a centrally placed theater. To an enacted story was added the excitement of a competition among playwrights; actors, too, eventually won prizes. Tragedy continued in the fourth century, with significant writers. In comedy of 399 to 336 bce, mythology and tragedy remained important; politics and the chorus eventually became less so.

Fifth-century comedy was more directly local in its concerns than tragedy was. In tragedy, Athens can be a focus or be glorified at the margins, but tragedy's immediate sphere is myth, through which it explores wide theological, philosophical, and political questions. Tragedy's relation to Athenian democracy is controversial. But tragedy had its own comic relief: in a given competition, each poet entered three tragedies and one satyr play. Through choruses of satyrs, myths could be presented partly from a humorous viewpoint. Comedy was slower to flower. Myths could be its subject or shape the plot, but up-to-the-minute Athenian politics are comedy's prime interest. Politics are turned into personal, often domestic, stories, but a political argument—at whatever level of seriousness—frequently drives the plays. Comedy mostly parodies tragedy, not hexameter; tragedians, as Athenian celebrities, appear onstage. On the surface, tragedy ignores the upstart genre.

Comedies are more fluid, but tragedies further narrow Homeric space-time. Stories are normally presented in one place, in the time that the stage action takes. The concentration and tension are acute, as if—on one level—the story were now. The characters are drastically present, though their minds are not directly seen, their words sometimes deceptive or inadequate.

In tragedy the author is formally absent; at the center of a comedy, the chorus speaks for the author, sometimes about his career. Unlike hexameter, tragedies have no narrator, and choruses are more fallible than choral lyric speakers are. All characters convey their point of view, and together the audience members are like judges at a trial; comedy formally includes a debate. Yet the audience is also judging among authors, whom the competition foregrounds. Aristophanes discusses playwrights’ oeuvres and characteristics. Each oeuvre accumulates a poetic and theatrical world.

Aeschylus sets in opposition contraries and customs, not always onstage: in Suppliant Women, Egyptian women and the Argive king; in Persians, Greeks (absent), Persian warriors (largely absent), the Persian queen and elders. Commonly deeper than such confrontations run characters’ internal anxieties, captured in drastic language. While humans fear and hope, divine rules of punishment remain. Imagistic language and striking sights—necromancy, chariots, the Erinyes—offer a vigorously concrete world, infused with mental and theological meaning. The tetralogy format of Aeschylus’ plays enriches the connections.

In contrast, Euripides’ tetralogies are mostly unconnected, and individual plays such as the Phoenician Women and Medea sometimes offer a trilogy's worth of events. His plays often contain two play shapes, to express unpredictability or moral complication: for instance, in Electra, recognition, and murder and parting; in Heracles, rescue and child killing; in Hecuba, noble death, and blinding and child killing. Anthropomorphic gods are the only firm agency; humans rarely stay in charge (an apparent exception, Medea, becomes half divine). Intelligent, emotional women are Euripides’ favored main characters; song helps express their violent feeling—so Creusa on Apollo's rape and neglect (Ion 859–992). Lively intellectualism confronts operatic pathos, as when Cassandra proves the Trojans more fortunate than the Greeks, and Andromache learns her son will be killed (Trojan Women 365–405, 709–798). Euripides exploits the organization and arguments of intellectual prose. His language is light and ready to disconcert.

Sophocles’ plays produce remarkable depth of time. Long experience makes his characters weighty with consciousness—so Deianeira, Electra, Philoctetes. But events often subject them to rapidly altering emotional extremes. Both sexes sing; in later plays, protagonists’ speech is more constantly passionate. Interaction is no less intense and volatile, and many scenes begin from calm and reach fury—so Oedipus the King 297–462. Behind the extremity of characters, self-consciously felicitous language creates a sense of masterly artistry. The divine is often mysterious, sometimes numinous; Aeschylean simplicities are exposed as insufficient.

Aristophanes vied with Cratinus and Eupolis, both of whose works are now fragmentary. The comedian is harder for us to distinguish from his colleagues than is true of the tragedians; the comedian's self-image involves cleverness and crusading. By contrast with tragedy's stern laws and coherent world, his imagination is limitless. Birds take over the universe (Birds); a cheese grater is a witness (Wasps 962–966). The play's premise enables comic scenes, and these in turn underline the premise. In Acharnians, for instance, Dicaeopolis makes his own peace (the premise); a protesting informer, wrapped as a vase, is exchanged for a Boeotian eel: peace is good for you (Acharnians 860–976). Reality, fiction, and subtlety make sympathies complex: Strepsiades in Clouds is seen through various lenses as a rustic idiot and a pitiable old man. Aristophanes’ language is pungently everyday and exuberantly inventive.


Myrrhine tantalizes her husband, insisting on romance and pillows (Aristophanes Lysistrata 870–953); Deianeira realizes that her love potion for her husband was poison (Sophocles Women of Trachis 663–733). The length of the snake guarding the Golden Fleece exceeds that of a fifty-oared ship (Pindar Pythian Odes 4.244–246); Jason must argue against Medea like a skilled helmsman (Euripides Medea 522–525). Silenus and the satyrs play with the baby Perseus and look forward to sex with Danae (Aeschylus fragment 47a Radt); violets illuminate the baby Iamus (Pindar Olympian Odes 6.53–56).

The Hellenistic Period (c. 335–1 bce).

Dates of poets and works:

  • mid-fourth through early third centuries: Menander;

  • third century: Asclepiades, Callimachus, Aratus, Theocritus, Apollonius, Posidippus, Herodas;

  • second century: Nicander (?), Moschus, Bion;

  • late second to early first centuries: Meleager, Archias;

  • first century: Parthenius, Philodemus;

  • first century bce through first century ce: Crinagoras.

Macedonian dominance reorganized the Greek world. Alexandria became the leading cultural center, with a vast library, and Alexandria's rulers attracted poets. (Egyptian influence on poetry is disputed.) Our understanding of the poetry is hampered by our ignorance of hexameter and elegy in the fifth century and of most poetry in the fourth. Reading was a fundamental means of reception, but it may well long have been so; poets and readers organized material into books. Boundaries between genres were experimentally transgressed, and there were controversies; the same can be seen in sculpture, as in fifth-century drama. Diverse activity from one author was something already seen in Antimachus, who wrote both hexameter and elegy; the tragedians, who also wrote satyr plays; Simonides; and indeed Pindar.

Drama was still written in Athens, but increasingly it was written elsewhere, too (first century, e.g., Inscriptiones Graecae 7.2727). Menander's work exemplifies comedy on love and sundered families, set largely in Athens. His subtlety rests on interlacing complexities: mobility of impact (comic, mock-tragic, involving), multiple perspectives on characters, intricate states of mind, unexpected interactions, and social and economic differentiations. Demeas brutally dismisses his mistress, but he has revealed a tangle of feelings toward mistress and son (Samia 324–398). Sostratus amusingly depicts his unheroic but enjoyable contribution to rescuing his beloved's misanthropic father; the father then seriously reflects on himself (Dyscolus 666–747).

Hexameter and elegy took intriguing turns in the Hellenistic period. Apollonius Rhodius (Apollonius of Rhodes) with his Argonautica wrote mythological narrative on a smaller scale than Homer, using Homeric dialect and words but avoiding Homeric phrases. The Syracusan Theocritus wrote hexameter principally in Doric; connected are his ethnic self-image and the locale of many poems. The surprising Sicilian material that he brought into hexameter includes song making and mimes (prose mini-dramas). Callimachus wrote a one-book mythological narrative, Hecale: besides Theseus he emphasized the aged Hecale, just as besides the Argonauts Apollonius had emphasized young Medea. Callimachus wrote hymns similar to the Homeric Hymns, but one is written in Doric and another in Doric elegiacs. Aratus and Nicander developed hexameter didactic works; their works’ close relation to prose deliberately throws the nature of poetry into relief and question.

Callimachus expanded elegy to the four-book Aetia (cf. Antimachus). The Aetia assembles mythological narratives and alludes to the hexameter Hesiod and to prose local history. The narrator is important, especially as a self-ironic pedant; narratorial themes of wine and love are not absent. Parthenius wrote a three-book lamentation for his wife (fragments 1–5 Lightfoot), an emphatically first-person conception. Conversely, the rage for tiny poems, amatory or quasi-inscribed, scaled elegy down into epigrams. However, poets joined epigrams into books, like Posidippus’ organized roll, and Callimachus mock-modestly defends the Aetia's small scale (fragment 1 Massimilla). Conspicuous for finesse and invention in epigram are Asclepiades, Callimachus, and Meleager. As poets had done with hexameter, elegiac poets, especially Callimachus, maintained a new strictness in versification.

Lyric performance continued in monody and (simplified) cult hymns. Callimachus and others wrote pseudo-ritual book lyric in one-line meters; Theocritus varied his Doric identity with poems Aeolic in meter and dialect.

Iambus was a common form; it imitated Hipponax, who stood to Archilochus as Hesiod stood to Homer. Herodas vivaciously turned sordid mime into iambus, stressing the mixture with drama (8). Callimachus included Doric dialect in his Iamboi and half playfully defended his diversity, both within this genre and generally (fragment 203 Pfeiffer).

Callimachus’ whole oeuvre, and especially the Aetia, self-consciously encompasses the fullest space-time; this range contrasts with his supposed restriction of textual space and reading time. He explores young, old, men, women, gods, animals, and, besides many genres, diverse generic effects. The idea of reading adds complication: for instance, play on readers’ not seeing Athena naked contrasts with Chariclo's tragic lament for blinded Tiresias (Hymn 5), and various types of writing and reading complicate Acontius’ Menandrean love story (fragments 67–75 Pfeiffer). Callimachus’ imaginative writing and reading are often contained, or heightened, by a personified viewpoint: Berenice's lock becomes a constellation, but it longs for hair oil (fragment 110 Pfeiffer); Delos turns gold and becomes fixed, a happy ending for a scorned island (Hymn 4). In Callimachus, modifying elegance and vigorous rhetoric combine.

Apollonius’ poems on the foundation of cities define themselves by space. The Argonautica sweeps the known world, yet intimate spaces like Medea's bedroom become vital, too. Medea's mind and body, locales for emotion, are elaborately treated; fullness on love is striking in hexameter. Interacting characters and viewpoints are handled with dramatic flair—goddesses, young and old men, man and girl. The narrator plays with Homeric grimness, un-Homeric involvement, and austere erudition. Scholarship often mingles with emotional effect at moments of closure, as in Cleite's suicide (1.1063–1077) or the temple of Concord (2.714–719). Similes parade insight and imagination: for instance, Jason's mother like an unmarried stepdaughter (1.268–277), or Jason and Medea standing like trees soon to be struck by the wind (3.967–972).

Theocritus’ poems concentrate most on Sicily, South Italy, and Alexandria. Many depict a circumscribed rustic world; these are mostly set in the present, though localized mythology enters, particularly the proto-rustic Polyphemus. Other poems narrate myths, deflatingly; still others present the narrator's love, without location. Theocritus sets drama against formalized song, but dialogue and monologue can acquire the contours of song (so the start of 1), and song can be competitive. The presence of song creates a regress of self-reference: the reader judges the poem, not just the songs; the writer's role is sometimes explicit (so 11) or strongly suggested (as by the occasion in 15). Structures highlight contrasts in style (so inept monologue and learned song in 3), but a personal manner pervades, to which mesmerizing repetition and striking word choice contribute.

The third century is clearer for us than the next two. The impact of third-century poets is apparent (for Apollonius note Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 4712?). But poets like Bion and Moschus (bucolic) or Parthenius (hexameter and elegy) developed their genres in original ways. Archias, Philodemus, Parthenius, Crinagoras show new circumstances: they have Roman friends and patrons.


Charis reports to Arsinoe's deified sister that the vast fires in Alexandria below are Arsinoe's pyre (Callimachus fragment 228 Pfeiffer); ten-year-old Myrtis dies unknown to her traveling brother (Posidippus 54 Austin-Bastianini). Thrasonides laments, at night, the antipathy of Crateia (Menander Misumenos 1–14 Arnott); a goatherd serenades Amaryllis in her cave (Theocritus 3). Medea passionately denounces the treacherous Jason (Apollonius 4.350–393); Asclepiades complains to the lamp of Heracleia's perjury (9 Gow-Page).


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Whitmarsh, Tim. Ancient Greek Literature. Oxford: Polity, 2004.Find this resource:

Wilson, Peter, ed. The Greek Theatre and Festivals: Documentary Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

G. O. Hutchinson

Overview from 1 ce

The first three centuries ce—commonly referred to as the Second Sophistic—are often characterized as the time when the orator triumphed over the poet. The ability to participate in, and appreciate, Sophistic display was seen as an essential factor in gaining social advancement and political success. Such was the ascendancy of prose that traditional poetic genres were colonized: praise poems for cities, hymns, even the pronouncements of the Delphic oracle were no longer delivered in hexameters, but rather in Attic Greek prose.

But although the Sophist's voice was the louder, it did not completely drown out the voice of the poet. Throughout the Second Sophistic, collections of epigrams, such as the Garland of Philip of Thessalonica (c.40 ce), were garnered and circulated (including the influential work of the satirist Lucilius). The Hesiodic tradition of didactic epic was continued by poets from Asia Minor: Dionysius Periegetes produced a hexameter Geographical Description of the Inhabited World, complete with acrostics. Oppian's Halieutica is a poem devoted to marine life and fishing; Pseudo-Oppian produced a sequel on hunting, the Cynegetica. Quintus Smyrnaeus wrote an epic continuation of the story of Troy in fourteen books—including an account of how he was inspired by the Muses to become a poet that draws on both Hesiod and Callimachus—beginning precisely where the Iliad stopped. The lyric tradition was continued by the Cretan Mesomedes, a freedman of Hadrian.

Much poetry from this period has, of course, simply failed to survive, and our overview remains inevitably partial. We have only fragments of Dionysius’ Bassarica, a major mythological epic on Dionysus; Marcellus of Side wrote a forty-two-book medical epic, as well as works on werewolves and fish. From the sands of Egypt we now have fragments of an anonymous historical epic—the so-called Blemyomachia—about a Roman campaign against the Blemyes from Upper Egypt.

One would like to have the poetic output of the father-and-son literary team Nestor and Pisander of Laranda in Asia Minor. Nestor wrote an epic poem on metamorphosis and a lipogrammatic version of the Iliad, in which the letter alpha was omitted from book 1, beta from book 2, and so on; to his son Pisander is attributed a sixty-book epic poem called Heroic Marriages of the Gods that narrated the history of the world to the death of Alexander the Great. The popularity of Pisander's epic is said to have caused the Epic Cycle to disappear.

To whatever extent poetry remained in the shadow of prose during the Second Sophistic, it underwent an astonishing resurgence—if not exactly renaissance—in the fourth to sixth centuries ce, a period popularly referred to as late antiquity. Poetry now began to recolonize its previous territory: the Delphic oracle once again delivered its pronouncements in verse; panegyrics, hymns, praise poems for cities all returned to the medium of poetry. Poetry even began to expand into the traditional domain of prose: biblical prose was transformed into Homeric hexameters, and public inscriptions appeared in hexameters and elegiac couplets. In the sixth century, Christodorus produced a hexameter description of the statues that stood in the baths of Zeuxippus in Constantinople; such ecphrastic writing had previously been the preserve of prose authors such as Flavius Philostratus and his grandson of the same name (third century ce).

The poetic revolution that took place in late antiquity defies any simple explanation. However, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this renewed interest in poetic self-expression was linked in some way to the profound cultural, social, and literary transformation effected by the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Traditionally poets had been the respected spokespersons of their communities, who relied on their special relationship with the figure of the Muse to mediate between the spheres of the human and the divine. The coming of Christ brought with it a radical reappraisal of the relationship between humanity and the divine. The traditional authority of Apollo and his Muses was set against the new authority of Christ and his Angels. An awakened interest in the concept of inspiration can be seen throughout the literary and material culture of late antiquity. Images of Dionysus, a figure with a unique connection to inspiration and ecstasy, abound on textiles, mosaics, and poetry, most notably in the Dionysiaca of Nonnus. Orpheus, the son of a Muse, enjoyed popularity not just on mosaics that celebrated his power to enchant the animal world, but also as the subject of epic poems: Orpheus became the central character in the so-called Orphic Argonautica; in the Lithica, Orpheus explains to one of the sons of Priam the magical qualities and functions of precious stones. And “Musaeus” is an appropriately inspired name—whether a pseudonym or not—for the poet of the epyllion Hero and Leander.

Nonnus’ Dionysiaca (c. mid-fifth century) is the longest poetic text to have survived from the whole of antiquity and is one of the major landmarks of later Greek poetry. Its forty-eight books represent not just an attempt to rival the combined output of Homer (the Iliad and Odyssey have twenty-four books each), but also a bold appropriation: the whole of Greek mythology (with elements of Titanomachy, Argonautica, the story of Oedipus, and Cypria through to the story of Alexander the Great) and literature (tragedy, pastoral, hymns, epigrams, epyllia, encomiums, city foundation stories, the Greek novel) are subordinated to the single dominant story of Dionysus and his attempt to win a place in heaven beside his father Zeus. A dizzying profusion of compound adjectives, exuberant and often voyeuristic detail, and dense allusive texture (in the best Hellenistic manner) is held together by a tightly disciplined metrical scheme.

The Dionysiaca's insistent eroticism and stories of rape and drunken excess have made the poem hard to place within the context of Christianized late antiquity. Yet Nonnus is also the likely author of a Homeric Paraphrase of Saint John's Gospel. The apparent disjunction between the two texts reveals more about the inflexibility of traditional approaches toward “pagan” and “Christian” than about ancient ones. Dionysus and Christ belong to the same late-antique world. The Christ of the Paraphrase sheds tears at the news of the death of Lazarus; Dionysus sheds tears at the death of his lover Ampelus. Following Christ's tears Lazarus rises from the dead; following Dionysus’ tears Ampelus is brought back to life in the form of the vine. Nonnus’ Dionysus is no crude parody of Christ, but part of a sophisticated and often provocative exploration of the relationship between the classical tradition and a newly emerging Christian world.

The Dionysiaca stands out like a colussus against its surrounding literary context. The majority of works produced at this time are of a significantly smaller scale. Though a rich variety of genres and themes is recorded, it is mythological epyllia that have been preserved, the majority of which were written in Egypt. From the fourth century come Triphiodorus’ Capture of Troy and Claudian's now fragmentary Gigantomachy; from the sixth century come poets whose hexameters bear all the hallmarks of Nonnian influence in terms of vocabulary and meter: Colluthus’ Rape of Helen, Musaeus’ Neoplatonic Hero and Leander. Of the nine-book erotic epic Daphniaca of Agathias from Mysia in Asia Minor, only the preface remains. However, the surviving epigrams from his seven-volume Cycle (including poems by Paulus Silentiarius) attest to the continuing vitality and popularity of traditional classical themes alongside poems on, for example, the birth of Christ and the annunciation.


Bowie, Ewen. “Greek Poetry in the Antonine Age.” In Antonine Literature, edited by D. A. Russell, pp. 53–90. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Cameron, Alan. “Poetry and Literary Culture in Late Antiquity.” In Approaching Late Antiquity: The Transformation from Early to Late Empire, edited by Simon Swain and Mark Edwards, pp. 327–354. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Hopkinson, Neil, ed. and trans. Greek Poetry of the Imperial Period: An Anthology. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Paschalis, Michael, ed. Roman and Greek Imperial Epic. Herakleion: Crete University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Whitby, Mary. “From Moschus to Nonnus: The Evolution of the Nonnian Style.” In Studies in the “Dionysiaca” of Nonnus, edited by Neil Hopkinson. Supplementary vol. 17. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge Philological Society, 1994.Find this resource:

Robert Shorrock

Didactic Poetry

With the label “didactic poetry” modern scholars indicate an important poetic tradition attested from the Archaic period down to late antiquity. The tradition mainly comprises poems in dactylic hexameters in which an authoritative voice imparts instructions on various more or less technical matters, almost always addressing one or more named or unnamed interlocutors. (Moralistic advice imparted in elegiac distichs is not usually included in the category.) Such didactic poems were considered in antiquity as part of the larger canon of epic poetry (e.g., Quintilian Institutio oratoria 10.1.55f.), but even if it is not clear that “didactic poetry” was ever explicitly treated as a separate category in ancient sources, its tradition stands out clearly enough. It is debatable (and debated), however, whether teaching per se was actually the primary aim of all the poems thus labeled. The Works and Days of Hesiod, to whom other didactic poems now lost were attributed, is the most ancient and influential example: the poet draws his authority from the Muses, and the addressees—his brother Perses and the corrupted kings—are cast in a negative role. No other poem of this kind is completely preserved before the Hellenistic period.

The works of some of the so-called presocratic philosophers, such as Parmenides and Empedocles, fall in this category of imperfectly preserved didactic poetry. From the few substantial fragments of Parmenides’ poem On Nature (Elea, southern Italy, first half of the fifth century bce) we can see how the poet described his journey through the gates of the paths of Night and Day, where a goddess welcomed him and instructed him on truth, reality, and appearance. In this case the authoritative voice imparting knowledge does not belong to the persona of the poet, who appears to be rather in the role of the addressee. In addition to being shaped by Hesiodic and other mainstream epic traditions, the narrative frame of the poem is influenced by so-called Orphic, Pythagorean, and mysteric poetry.

The same is true of Empedocles (Acragas, modern Agrigento, in Sicily, mid-fifth century bce), to whom two titles, On Nature and Purifications, are attributed, though it is possible that these titles refer to different portions of the same work. Empedocles addresses both a named individual (Pausanias: 1 Diels-Kranz [DK]), promising to impart to him supernatural powers, and (perhaps in a different poem?) a group of loyal followers from Acragas (112 DK, cf. 114). Like Parmenides he requests the assistance of a goddess, the Muse (3 and 131 DK), but his authority seems to derive also from his particular divine status: he is “a deathless god, no more mortal” (112.3 DK) who, following the transmigration of his soul, has already been “a boy and a girl, a bush and a bird, and a fish” (117 DK). Aristotle (Poetics 1447b17–20) thought that Empedocles should not be called a “poet,” despite his use of the hexameter, but rather a physiologos—that is, probably, “somebody who speaks about nature” by means of allegory—though in his lost treatise On Poets (fragment 70 Rose) Aristotle acknowledged that Empedocles was “endowed with impressive power of language.” His poem was widely influential in later periods and is an important model for Lucretius.

Most of the Greek didactic poems that have been preserved and that we know about date from the Hellenistic and Roman periods and reflect an important paradigmatic shift in their relationship with authority and tradition. This is particularly clear if we look at the most important Hellenistic didactic poem, the Phaenomena of Aratus (Soloi, Cilicia, first half of the third century bce). Formally it exhibits a deep intertextual relationship with Hesiod, opening with a hymn to Zeus and a request to the Muses, but its content is based mainly on the published prose work of the eminent astronomer Eudoxus of Cnidus (mid-fourth century). The use of the first person is remarkably unobtrusive when compared with previous examples, and any reader can identify with the anonymous addressee. It has been a matter of debate whether Aratus’ poem should be seen purely as a literary and formal exercise or whether, and to what extent, we should recognize in it a philosophical agenda influenced by early Stoicism. Aratus’ work had tremendous influence on both contemporary and later Greek poetic tradition and also, especially, in the Roman world, where it was translated or rewritten several times by (among others) Cicero, Ovid, and Germanicus.

After Aratus, didactic poetry became increasingly popular. If we limit ourselves to hexametric instances, the most important preserved examples are the two poems, on snakes and on poisons, by Nicander of Colophon (western Anatolia, probably second half of the second century bce), author of several other poems now lost (some of which may be the work of a homonymous Colophonian poet, active in the late third century, possibly Nicander's grandfather), including Georgics and one on metamorphoses; the Description of the Inhabited World of Dionysius of Alexandria (first half of the second century ce); the poem On Fishing by Oppian of Anazarbus in Cilicia (late second century ce); and the poem On Hunting, attributed to the same Oppian but most probably the work of a Syrian poet published in the early third century ce.

Starting from the Hellenistic period, though, we find features belonging to the tradition of didactic poetry also in poems in meter other than the hexameter. An example is the Chronicle of the great scholar Apollodorus of Athens (c.180–after 120 bce), which is in iambic trimeters; the Chronicle is one of the most important and influential chronographic works published in antiquity, based on the third-century scholar Eratosthenes of Cyrene and on the author's own research. The most intriguing case, however, is a poem that defies generic classification but obviously plays with the didactic mold: the first two books of Callimachus’ Aetia, in elegiac distichs (as, later, Ovid's Art of Love and Fasti), in which the poet-narrator and the Muses have a long conversation and exchange erudite information. In the later books of his poem Callimachus even explicitly acknowledges the written sources of his Muse.


Clay, Jenny Strauss, Phillip Mitsis, Alessandro Schiesaro, eds. Mega Nepios: Il destinatario nell’epos didascalico. Pisa, Italy: Giardini, 1993.Find this resource:

Effe, Bernd. Dichtung und Lehre: Untersuchungen zur Typologie des antiken Lehrgedichts. Munich: Beck, 1977.Find this resource:

Fowler, Don. “The Didactic Plot.” In Matrices of Genres: Authors, Canons, and Society, edited by Mary Depew and Dirk Obbink, pp. 205–219 and 299–302. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. Focuses on the Latin texts but makes a few points of general interest.Find this resource:

Toohey, Peter. Epic Lessons: An Introduction to Ancient Didactic Poetry. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.Find this resource:

Giovan Battista D’Alessio


Of the vast corpus of epic poetry produced from the Archaic down to the Classical age only a few small fragments and quotations have survived, apart from the Hesiodic poems. The exceptional Panhellenic success of the Iliad and the Odyssey overshadowed, and eventually obliterated, alternative and complementary traditions. One of the main problems when working one's way through the maze of these remains, particularly if dealing with the earlier period, is that even the information relative to the dates and the authors of these lost poems is subject to considerable debate. Ancient sources, even when referring to the same poems, oscillate among various positions, such as the belief that some of them were the work of “Homer” himself, their attribution to Archaic authors dated as early as the eighth century bce, and their quotation as anonymous works. This uncertainty has led many modern scholars to taking a skeptical attitude toward such external information, considered to be part of the later history of the tradition and of the reception of these texts rather than hard-core evidence, and to concentrating on the elements provided by the fragments themselves, meager as they are. If we bear in mind the difficulty in reaching agreement on the exact date and history of the recording of the major Homeric poems themselves, it is easy to understand how risky a similar attempt may be when applied to these fragmentary texts. The majority view is that most of them were later, even substantially later, than the Homeric poems. It is impossible to say, however, how many of them might be just the latest, written avatars belonging to a much older tradition, or, on the contrary, the inventive works of much later and clearly individual figures.

Eumelus and Related Traditions.

Omitting the vast corpus of epic poems that went under the name of mythic figures such as Orpheus and Musaeus, one of the earliest epic poets whose work was deemed extant in later antiquity is Eumelus of Corinth, allegedly active around the middle of the eighth century bce. To him various sources attributed at least the Korinthiaka (a poem mainly on the mythical history of his hometown, including one of the earliest versions of part of the Argonautic saga), a poem known as the Europia (apparently on the story of Europa, abducted by Zeus, and other Boeotian myths), as well as the War against the Titans, included in the Epic Cycle (discussed below), and the earliest recorded and quoted choral poem, a processional ode for the Messenians (in D. L. Page, Poetae Melici Graeci 696). Even if some critics have defended the exceptionally early date of all these works, it seems much more likely that most if not all of them are substantially later poems attributed to a historical and prestigious figure. Another poem dealing in part with the Argonautic saga is the Naupactia, a title suggesting a connection with the Locrian town of Naupactus. It is surprising that the only known poem that may have narrated the saga in its entirety is the obscure Argonautica (not even a verbatim quotation is preserved) that bears the particularly suspicious attribution to the semimythical religious figure of Epimenides of Crete (active around 600 bce). It is likely that many other oral poems must have told the story, but we do not reach firmer ground before the third century bce, with the obscure Cleon of Curion and, of course, Apollonius of Rhodes.

Other epic poems focused on local traditions, as had the Korinthiaka. These include the Phoronis, drawing its name from Phoroneus, the aboriginal hero of the city of Argos, and the Danais, on another Argive myth, that of Danaus and his daughters. A Spartan poet, Cinaethon, allegedly active in the eighth century bce, is credited both with information on genealogical lore, covering also Spartan matters, and, by a minority of sources, with the authorship of three Cyclic poems (Oedipodeia, Little Iliad, and Telegony, discussed further below). Genealogical interest was also an important feature in the work of Asius of Samos (sixth century?), two of whose fragments concern his own homeland.

The Epic Cycle.

The Epic Cycle was a collection of epic poems first attested with certainty in Roman times but quite probably going back at least to the fourth century bce. Commentators on Homer in the ancient scholia, reflecting Alexandrian scholarship, often use the term “Cyclic” in a derogatory sense, just as Callimachus in one of his epigrams declares his loathing for the “Cyclic” poem (epigram 28, Rudolf Pfeiffer, ed., Callimachus (2 vols., 1949). Two passages in Aristotle refer to the double meaning of the word kyklos (circle) when talking of the geometrical figure and of Homer's (or epic) kyklos (Analytica posteriora 77b 32 and Sophistici elenchi 171a 7). We do have several fragments and quotations from the Cyclic poems, but the most important source for their sequence as a whole is a literary handbook (Chrestomathia) of a certain Proclus (perhaps the fifth-century Neoplatonic philosopher), whose summary is preserved in a Byzantine source, the Library of Photius (ninth century), and an excerpt of which, with the plot of the poems dealing with the Trojan story, is included in some manuscripts of the Iliad. Another work that seems to have broadly followed the plots of the Cyclic poems was the mythological handbook of the early Roman period known as Apollodorus’ Library: even if it does not quote them as its source, their relevance is made explicit in an introductory epigram. The cycle was a sequence of several poems (some of them in various books) of different dates. It is possible that they might have been adjusted in order to fit better together, but it does not seem that this produced a smooth sequence without gaps and overlaps. There is no general consensus about the list of poems it included, and we cannot be sure that its content did not change over time.

It probably opened with a Theogony, followed by a Titanomachy (attributed to Eumelus and Arctinus of Miletus, both allegedly active before the mid-eighth century, or left anonymous). Then followed three poems dealing with Thebes and the myths of Oedipus and his family: the Oedipodia (attributed to Cinaethon), the Thebais, and the story of the war waged by the second generation, the Epigoni. These two latter poems were attributed to Homer himself: for the Thebais, which was widely admired, the evidence for such attribution apparently goes back already to the elegiac poet Callinus (in the seventh century bce, fragment 6, Martin L. West, Iambi et elegi graeci ante Alexandrum cantati [2nd ed., 1992]), though we cannot be sure that he referred to the same poem later eventually included in the cycle and whose fragments we read. Most modern critics, however, on the basis of our scanty remains, consider this poem as belonging to a definitely later stage of the epic diction than the Homeric poems. In the largest fragment, Oedipus, probably already blind, curses his sons because at a banquet Polynices gave him a golden cup belonging to his father. In another fragment, the doomed Argive seer Amphiaraus instructs his son to behave just as the octopus, which adapts its color to the surrounding rocks, and to adapt himself to the people with whom he dwells. It is not clear whether the sequence also included the Alcmaeonis, a further poem on Amphiaraus’ other son, Alcmaeon, who killed his mother in order to revenge his father.

The most famous section of the Epic Cycle was the Trojan one. The Cypria—attributed to several authors, including Homer (a tradition already doubted by Herodotus 2.117); a Stasinus from Cyprus (so, apparently, already Pindar fragment 265, Bruno Snell and Herwig Maehler, eds., Pindari carmina cum fragmentis [1989]), who would have received the poem as dowry after marrying Homer's daughter; and a Cyprias of Halicarnassus—covered in eleven books the prequel of the Iliad. Everything starts with Zeus’ project to relieve the earth from the burden of too many mortals: the begetting of fateful Helen, the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, the judgement of Paris, and his abduction of Helen follow in due course. It also narrated the first years of the war, including its false start in the wrong country of Mysia (a version now attested also in an elegy of Archilochus) and the stories of Philoctetes, Protesilaus, Troilus, and Palamedes. The Iliad too was included in the cycle, possibly with a few minor changes at the beginning and the end. It was followed by the Aethiopis, attributed fairly unanimously to Arctinus of Miletus, that narrated in three books Achilles’ victory over the Amazon Penthesilea (with whom he falls in love, and whom he kills in duel), over “Aethiopian” king Memnon, son of the Dawn, followed by the hero's own death at the hands of Paris and Apollo; it also included the struggle over his body and armor, and his funeral.

The end of the war was covered in two partly and confusingly overlapping poems: the Little Iliad (attributed to Lesches of Mytilene), that narrated also the story of the wooden horse, and The Destruction of Troy (attributed to Arctinus). A further poem (attributed by some to an Agias of Argos) told of the Returns of the Greek heroes and included the death of Agamemnon. This naturally leads to the Odyssey, which was included in the cycle, too, followed by the poem of a Cyrenean poet, Eugammon (who is dated around 580 and must anyway be later than the foundation of his city around 630), that featured the story of Telegonus, the son of Odysseus and Circe, who comes to Ithaca in search of his father and unwittingly kills him: eventually Telegonus marries Penelope,Telemachus marries Circe, who makes all of them immortal and everybody lives happily ever after.

In some respects the Trojan poems of the Epic Cycle seem to be filling narrative gaps left open in the two Homeric poems. Even if we acknowledge that the preserved fragments are likely to belong to poems later than the Iliad and the Odyssey, however, it is hard to deny that many of the narrative elements of the cycle must go back to an earlier date, and that these poems must be, at least in part, the later re-elaboration of the early epic traditions from which the Homeric poems emerged. Neoanalytic critics—that is, those who explain strange features in the Homeric poems as a result of imitation of previous stories where the details made more sense—have convincingly argued that some Homeric episodes (such as that of the death of Patroclus) are in their turn modeled upon similar episodes present in the ancestors of the Cyclic poems (such as, in this case, the death of Achilles himself).

As it is clear from this selective survey, these were poems of widely disparate dates and provenance, and it would be unreasonable to expect that they would all share the same linguistic, stylistic, and poetic features. And yet their comparison with the Iliad and the Odyssey (themselves included in the “cycle”) has played a major role in the history of their reception down to our times, mainly with the purpose of extolling the unique qualities of the Homeric poems. In his Poetics, Aristotle praised the skilled and economic narrative structure of the Iliad and the Odyssey when compared with that of the Cypria and the Little Iliad (1459a 37). More recent critics have listed several non-Homeric features present in these poems, covering both matters of style and of content, such as the penchant for folktale and magical motifs and the presence of lowly characters and “inappropriate” behavior. The facility with which “cyclic” heroes gain immortal status has been seen as incompatible with the tragic attitude toward mortality of the “Homeric” ones. On the other hand, the themes covered in these poems, if not exactly the poems themselves, enjoyed a remarkable success down to the end of the fifth century. Some of the Archaic lyric poets, such as Pindar, seem to allude to them at least as often as to the Homeric poems. The Athenian tragedians drew on their stories with remarkable frequency, and so did vase-painters and sculptors. In later periods they seem to have gone out of fashion, perhaps also under the pressure of the increasing Panhellenic prestige of the Homeric poems, and to have been gradually substituted by prose summaries or by new “traditional” epic poems, such as The Sequel of Homer of Quintus Smyrnaeus (probably second century ce). It has been argued, however, that a papyrus fragment of the fourth century ce may belong to a copy of the Little Iliad (fragment dub. 32 Bernabé), and the influence of some of the Epic Cycle poems on Virgil's Aeneid is not in doubt.

Stories of Heracles.

Heracles (Hercules) was a popular subject in Archaic epic poetry: there are references to his story already in speeches of various characters in the Iliad and in the Odyssey, as well as in Hesiod's Theogony. All of the three poems known to have dealt with his story have an eastern Greek provenance. One of the most famous in this series was The Capture of Oechalia, narrating the story of the hero's sacking of Eurytus’ town in Euboea, and his abduction of his daughter, Iole. There was an anecdote on its composition, going back at least to the early fourth century bce and known in several variants, involving the Samian poet Creophylus, who was said to have hosted Homer. According to some sources Creophylus received the poem as a reward for his hospitality, while other authors (including Callimachus epigr. 6 Pfeiffer = T 7 Bernabé) say that he was its real author. Aristotle (fragment 611, 10 Rose = T 14 Bernabé) says that Creophylus’ descendants had been for generations the custodians of Homer's poetry. Another shadowy figure, Pisander of Rhodes, dated in the seventh century bce, composed a Heracleia in two books. In his poem the hero was first represented with a club and the lion's skin (but cf. Stesichorus, M. Davies, Poetarum Melicorum Fragmenta [1991] 229), an iconography that already ancient sources (Strabo 15.1.8) thought to be attested relatively late. We are on much firmer ground with the next Heracleia, a much longer poem, in fourteen books: the author was Panyassis of Halicarnassus, the uncle of the historian Herodotus, active in the first half of the fifth century bce. Several fragments are preserved, two of them (from two speeches respectively on the pleasures and the dangers of wine drinking) are eighteen and fifteen lines long. A literary canon of the best epic poets reflected in several sources lists Panyassis (and perhaps Pisander) together with Homer, Hesiod, and Antimachus (cf. Pisander, TT 7–10 and Panyassis T 8–14 Bernabé.).

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Epic Scene. The judgment of Paris. Apulian red-figure bell krater by the Rehearsal Painter. © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford/The Bridgeman Art Library

Historical Epos.

Choerilus of Samos, a, probably younger, contemporary of Panyassis and, according to a somewhat suspect biographic tradition, acquainted with his nephew Herodotus, is the first epic poet who dealt with an historical theme, the same Persian Wars narrated by Herodotus himself: in this he had, to some extent, poetic predecessors in elegiac poems such as Simonides’ Elegy for the Battle of Plataea. His reputation as a poet was somewhat doubtful, though he may have perhaps attracted also some of the unfavorable comments destined to a later homonymous poet from Iasos, who wrote praise poems for Alexander the Great. He is also thought to have been one of the poetic targets in the prologue of Callimachus’ Aetia (fragment 1. 13–6 Pfeiffer.). A fragment probably belonging to the proem of Choerilus work (fragment 2 Bernabé; H. Lloyd-Jones and P. J. Parsons, Supplementum Hellenisticum [Berlin-New York, 1983], fragment 217; Choerili Samii Reliquiae, ed. P. Radici Colace [1979], fragment 1) is remarkable for its attitude toward previous poetic tradition: the poet contrasts the happy times, when ancient poets had an undefiled meadow before them, with his own time, when “everything has been divided, all arts have reached their limit, and we remain as the last ones in the race, and there is no place, looking around everywhere, where we can drive our newly fashioned chariot.”


Primary Works

Bernabé, Albertus, ed. Poetarum Epicorum Graecorum: Testimonia et Fragmenta. Vol. 1. Leipzig, Germany: Teubner, 1987. The fullest edition, with ample apparatuses, iconographic appendix, and rich bibliography.Find this resource:

Davies, Malcolm, ed. Epicorum Graecorum Fragmenta. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1988.Find this resource:

West, Martin, L., ed. and trans. Greek Epic Fragments, from the Seventh to the Fifth Centuries bc. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 2003. With English translation.Find this resource:

Secondary Works

Burgess, Jonathan S. The Tradition of the Trojan War in Homer and the Epic Cycle. Baltimore, Md., and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Davies, Malcolm. The Epic Cycle. Bristol, U.K.: Bristol Classical Press, 1989.Find this resource:

Debiasi, Andrea. L’epica perduta: Eumelo, il Ciclo, l’occidente. Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 2004. Includes an ample and up-to-date bibliography.Find this resource:

Griffin, Jasper. “The Epic Cycle and the Uniqueness of Homer.Journal of Hellenic Studies 97 (1977): 39–53.Find this resource:

Huxley, George Leonard. Greek Epic Poetry from Eumelos to Panyassis. London: Faber, 1969.Find this resource:

Giovan Battista D’Alessio

Post-Classical Greek Epic

Post-Classical Greek epic largely defined itself against Homer. After Choerilus of Samos’ first-ever historical epic Persica, a more influential attempt at renewal was undertaken in the first half of fourth century bce by Antimachus of Colophon, a scholar and poet included in the canon of epic poets next to Homer and Hesiod. His Thebais, on the expedition of the Seven against Thebes, emulated Homer inasmuch as it opened with an invocation to the Muses and included a catalog of the Argive forces, funeral games for Opheltes (Archemorus), and possibly the description of a shield (fragment 51). It also, however, emphatically differentiated itself from the earlier, much admired (Pausanias 9.9.5) cyclic Thebais, engaged in Homeric interpretation, and contained learned digressions on epichoric lore. The meter was hyper-Homeric and the length of the poem sizable: in the fifth book Adrastus entertains the heroes ahead of the expedition.

Hellenistic Epic.

Poets gradually came to realize that older epics defy competition, so that it is futile to produce competing versions of them, or even to innovate within traditional parameters. Instead an effort was made to open epic to other genres, to pragmatic aspects of life, and purify it from formulas and metrical licenses conflicting with modern aesthetics. The first poet to open and purify the epic was Philitas of Cos (c.300 bce), the teacher of Ptolemy II Philadelphus. His hexametric Hermes, named after the most antiwar and erudite god (Iliad 21.497ff. with scholia), gave an entertaining account of Odysseus’ sojourn on Aeolus’ island and Odysseus’ secret liaison with Aeolus’ daughter Polymele (Parthenius Erōtika pathēmata 2), incorporating elements from Euripides’ notorious incest tragedy Aeolus.

The new movement gained momentum in the next generation with Callimachus of Cyrene. The ingredients of Callimacheanism are indefatigable learnedness and literary self-consciousness. In practice these qualities produced poems of concise but refined form; poems that are in highly allusive dialogue, on a narrative and lexical level, with earlier literature, especially Homer; poems that represent a challenging broadening of the epic spectrum. In Callimachus’ vocabulary “cyclic” equals “recycled” and suggests an ungainly style and lack of originality. His Hecale provocatively adopts epic conventions: its subject is a hero (Theseus) who performs a single heroic deed (fight with the Marathonian bull) that is recounted in hexameters and in third-person narration. But Hecale subverts the conventions in every other respect: on his way to Marathon, Theseus, the hero, is in need of hospitality, and he can find it only in the humble hut of Hecale, an impoverished but once noble elderly woman. Within this strikingly modest milieu the king is reduced to a listener of the talkative old woman, who becomes the chief focus of the poem. Included in the narrative is a nighttime dialogue between a garrulous crow and another bird. The poem is an aition—that is, an explanation of the origin—of the name of the Attic deme Hecale and of the celebrations for Zeus Hekaleios, but it also constitutes a reassessment of the norms of the genre and a profound reflection on their very foundations. By such means the grand epic is deflated to become a Kleinepos, or epyllion. “Epyllion” is a loose modern term usually designating short-scale narratives that are experimental, etiologically oriented, and embroidered with colorful digressions.

The Hellenistic period is also the time when hexameters and elegiacs, now used for narrative in the new style, crossed paths. Hecale's spirit seems to govern the elegiac Erigone of the polymath Eratosthenes of Cyrene (second half of the third century). Eratosthenes also wrote the lively hexametric Hermes containing, among other things, a mathematics lesson on the duplication of the cube (Collectanea Alexandrina, pp. 58–63; Supplementum Hellenisticum 397–398; Supplementum Supplementi Hellenistici, p. 48). Epyllia became popular in Hellenistic times, with Theocritus’ so-called Argonautic idylls 13 (Heracles and Hylas) and 22 (Amycus and Polydeuces) and with his idyll 24 (Heracliscus); Euphorion's mythological poems (Collectanea Alexandrina, pp. 28–58; Supplementum Hellenisticum 413–453; Supplementum Supplementi Hellenistici, pp. 52–59), which were enriched with (often gloomy) digressions containing all manner of obscure material; and Moschus’ Europa recounting—with artful naïveté and a great deal of humor—the abduction of the young princess by Zeus. Much later we find Colluthus’ dreary Abduction of Helen (c.500 ce); the grammarian Musaeus’ Hero and Leander, a romantic and spiritualizing retelling of the old tragic story; and a number of self-contained epyllia included in Nonnus’ Dionysiaca. A further product of Callimacheanism was the immensely influential third century bce Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius (Apollonius of Rhodes), which introduced romance, exotic lore, the supernatural, and contemporary science into epic.

Contrasting with these are a large number of usually commissioned, probably more traditional epics celebrating Hellenistic rulers such as Lysander or Alexander the Great, or the archaeology of a certain place. Though many of their titles are known, these epics are almost entirely lost.

Imperial and Later Epic.

A similar polarization between archaicizing and innovative epics persists in imperial and later epic. Immense scale, mythological (especially Trojan) themes, and the increasingly popular Dionysus, now likened to Alexander the Great, preponderate. The Posthomerica of Quintus Smyrnaeus (c.250) in fourteen books aims at filling the gap between the Iliad and the Odyssey: this renders the books suitable for study at school. Quintus handles the stories of Penthesilea and Memnon (books 1–2) and Achilles’ death by Apollo (3), followed by funeral games (4), the suicide of Ajax (5), Neoptolemus (6–8), Philoctetes (9), the death of Paris (10), the siege of Troy (11), the Trojan horse (12), the destruction of Troy (13), and the wrecking of the Greek fleet (14). The influence of Virgil is debatable. Quintus chose a style that seeks a middle ground, neither humilis nor sublimis (12.313), perhaps designed to resemble the lost cyclic epics on the same subject. His language and style are mainly Homeric; the speeches are conventional but often set in contrasting pairs; the narrative is sequential, enlivened by similes some of which are of his own making; and his characters, especially gods, display a tendency toward decorum, probably under Stoic influence.

Eunapius (Lives of Sophists 10.7.12) says that “Egyptians are mad about poetry,” and much of the poetry of the era was written in Egypt. A few decades after Quintus, Triphiodorus wrote his 691-hexameter Sack of Troy. His name, from the Egyptian god Triphis, suggests an origin from the area of Panopolis. After an ekphrasis on the Trojan horse (57–107), he juxtaposes Greek craftiness (108–234) with Trojan foolishness (235–505), ending with the seizure of Troy (506–663) and avoiding details that would prolong his poem (664–667). With the exception of meter, Triphiodorus displays the stylistic features known as “Nonnian,” themselves the endpoint in the evolution of Callimacheanism. Nonnus of Panopolis, an educated Christian of the fifth century, was endowed with a gift for prolific verse. He wrote two poems once considered irreconcilable: the Paraphrase of the Gospel of John in twenty-one chapters, as many as the chapters of the gospel, and the Dionysiaca in forty-eight books, the sum of the number of books in the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Paraphrase is a dignified versification of its model, expanding and interpreting it through the filter of spiritual Neoplatonism. For this Nonnus draws on the Synoptic Gospels, but mainly he uses Cyril's commentary on John (425–428) as an exegetical guide. This provides a certain terminus post quem for dating the poem.

The Dionysiaca recounts the prequel (Typhonomachy, Cadmus) to the birth and youth of Dionysus (books 1–12), his expedition against India (Indiad 13–40), and his return and apotheosis (40–48). In the proem the Muses are supplanted by Bacchae, and the poet evokes poikilia (variety), an attempt at all-inclusiveness for the ultimate epic. With this Nonnus openly challenges his “father” Homer (25.265), described as the “anchorage of all good poetry” (13.51). He also evokes Hesiod (13.75–76) and Pindar (25.21) and employs an unprecedented variety of sources—the last poet to do so—including Hellenistic epics such as Euphorion's Dionysus, novels (especially Achilles Tatius), patria (works devoted to local history and lore), Orphica, and the Chaldean Oracles. In books 44–46 he reenacts Euripides’ Bacchae. Nonnus displays all aspects of late-antique paideia (mythology, rhetoric, philosophy, astrology) and a penchant for eroticism and paradox. The many and long speeches of his epic are humorous exercises of ethopoeia. His language makes use of a formulaic system overloaded with compounds. He adheres to very austere metrical rules, rejecting spondees, hiatus, and proparoxytonic clausulae. Underlying themes of his epic are continuity through change, the mystic succession of death and regeneration, metamorphosis violated by parthenogenesis, and juxtaposition of sharply opposing traits—all of which reflect the nature of Dionysus and constitute a meditation upon man and history. The conception is to describe a phase in world history, the era of Dionysus.

The last epic of antiquity is probably the Orphic Argonautica, a retelling of the expedition in idiosyncratic language, with Orpheus as narrator and protagonist. This epic exhibits the influence of Neoplatonism and an antiquarian interest in Constantinople.


Primary Works

Gerlaud, Bernard, ed. and trans. Triphiodore: La prise d’Ilion. Paris: Belles Lettres, 1982. Includes a Greek text and French translation.Find this resource:

Hollis, Adrian S., ed. Callimachus: Hecale. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2009. Includes a Greek text, an English translation, and commentary in English.Find this resource:

James, Alan, ed. and trans. Quintus of Smyrna: The Trojan Epic, Posthomerica. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Matthews, Victor J., ed. Antimachus of Colophon. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1996. Includes a Greek text and commentary in English.Find this resource:

Vian, Francis, ed. and trans. Les Argonautiques Orphiques. Paris: Belles Lettres, 1987. Includes a Greek text and French translation and commentary.Find this resource:

Vian, Francis, ed. and trans. Quintus de Smyrne: La suite d’Homère. 3 vols. Paris: Belles Lettres, 1963–1969. Includes a Greek text and French translation.Find this resource:

Vian, Francis, et al., eds. and trans. Nonnos de Panopolis: Les Dionysiaques. 19 vols. Paris: Belles Lettres, 1976–2006. Includes a Greek text and French translation and commentary.Find this resource:

Secondary Works

Agosti, Gianfranco. “Reliquie argonautiche a Cizico: Un’ipotesi sulle Argonautiche orfiche.” In Incontri triestini di filologia classica VII, edited by Lucio Cristante and Ireneo Filip, pp. 17–36. Trieste, Italy: Edizioni Università di Trieste, 2008.Find this resource:

Baumbach, Manuel, and Silvio Bär, eds. Quintus Smyrnaeus: Transforming Homer in Second Sophistic Epic. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2007.Find this resource:

Fantuzzi, Marco, and Richard Hunter. Tradition and Innovation in Hellenistic Poetry. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Livrea, Enrico. “Il poeta e il vescovo: La questione nonniana e la storia.Prometheus 13 (1987): 97–123. Reprinted in his Studia Hellenistica (2 vols., Florence, Italy: Gonnelli, 1991), vol. 2, pp. 439–462.Find this resource:

Miguélez Cavero, Laura. Poems in Context: Greek Poetry in the Egyptian Thebaid, 200–600 AD. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2008.Find this resource:

Paschalis, Michael. “Pandora and the Wooden Horse: A Reading of Triphiodorus’ Capture of Troy.” In Roman and Greek Imperial Epic, edited by Michael Paschalis, pp. 91–115. Herakleion, Greece: Crete University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Konstantinos Spanoudakis

Choral Lyric

Choral song and dance were a fundamental and distinguishing characteristic of Greek culture throughout its history. Perhaps to a greater degree than all other literary forms, choral poetry speaks both to and for the community: the multiple and homogeneous performers constitute a microcosm of the community, enacting group solidarity as they sing and move in unison, but they also present their performance as a lesson before the broader community assembled in a civic or ritual space. As such, choral lyric is to be contrasted with monody, iambics, and elegy, which were usually performed in more private, sympotic settings by a soloist, whether the poet himself or a banqueter who assumes the poet's individual persona, with its distinctive and often idiosyncratic orientation toward the community. However, the same authors might well compose both choral and monodic poetry, and it is also likely that some works originally intended for public choral performance might be reperformed monodically at symposia.

Even within the unity of choral performance, the role of the chorēgos or chorus leader would sometimes stand out. Whereas the chorus was homogeneous in gender and age, the chorēgos might be older or male (versus a female chorus). Sometimes the chorēgos would play an instrument while the chorus sang and danced; sometimes he both played and sang while the chorus merely danced. In certain cases the chorēgos acted as the chorus’ trainer, whereas in others he or she might just be the star performer. Choral training was a key part of the musical education of both male and female youths, and also was to some extent their immersion in gender norms and civic values. Indeed, in the Doric dialect choros was also the term for “school.” Influential critics have attributed an initiatory function to some instances of choral participation within cultic contexts.

Public Ritual.

Religious worship and ritual provided one of the most common settings for choral performance. Many of the formal generic categories that Alexandrian scholars later assigned to lyric poetry had no generally recognized status in the Archaic period: for instance, songs of praise or gratitude to a god were not specifically classified as “hymns” until the time of Plato. Two generic labels that do appear to have Archaic provenance are those of the paean and dithyramb. Paeans are usually sung by a male chorus in honor of Apollo (in some cases in honor of Artemis or other gods), with the aim of either averting disaster from the community or thanking the god for deliverance. The origin of the term “paean” was specific to Apollo's function as a healing god, but the song by extension also became common in military settings; the performance enacted communal cohesion in a time of crisis. The dithyramb was a song for Dionysus, the origin of which is variously claimed for Archilochus (fragment 120 West) and Arion of Corinth (Herodotus 1.33). The form came to be particularly important in democratic Athens, where it was performed at various public festivals, most prominently at the City Dionysia, where each of the ten tribes contributed choruses of men and boys that competed for victory. This contest served to reinforce allegiance to the new tribal divisions that were fundamental to Cleisthenes’ political reorganization of Attica. Judging from the fragments of Pindar's paeans (fragments 52a–70 S-M [Snell and Maehler]) and dithyrambs (fragments 70a–83 S-M), praise of the city bulked large as a theme in both genres.

Paeans and dithyrambs were hardly the only two forms of ritual choral performance practiced in the Archaic and Classical periods. Although the term prosodion may have been an Alexandrian classification, processional songs were certainly common: we have substantial fragments of Pindar's daphnephoric songs (fragments 94a–c S-M), performed by choristers bringing laurel branches to the temple of Apollo Ismenius at Thebes and led by the boy who was to be invested as the priest of Apollo for the following year. The presentation of the sacred phallus at the City Dionysia was also accompanied by choral hymns promoting procreation and fertility. Indeed, virtually any dedication or transport of sacred objects might be an apt occasion for choral song: Xenophon of Corinth's dedication of one hundred prostitutes to Aphrodite was enhanced by a colorful song of Pindar (fragment 122 S-M). Another type of processional chorus consisted of children at Rhodes begging for food in the name of the springtime swallow (anonymous, fragment 848 PMG [Poetarum melicorum Graecorum fragmenta]).

Private Ritual.

Even rituals of a more private nature lent themselves to choral celebration. Weddings featured multiple occasions for choral song: the procession leading the bride from her father's house to the groom's, the wedding banquet, standing in front of the door to the bridal chamber, or even awakening the couple the following morning. The chorus consisted of young maidens, sometimes complemented by another chorus of unmarried boys. Their participation in the ritual and performance of often bawdy epithalamic songs served to motivate and prepare them for eventual marriage and consummation. Similarly, funeral rites offered another private context for expression of community values: typically the chorus responds antiphonally to the song of grief delivered by one or more soloist, who is usually a close female relative of the deceased. Such dirges might be performed either at the funeral itself or at memorial rites long afterward; the literary threnodies of Simonides (fragments 520–31 PMG) and Pindar (fragments 128a–138 S-M) seem to be retrospective commemorations, designed to console mourners by placing the death in some larger political, moral, or theological context.

Weddings and funeral songs should perhaps be considered subsets of encomiastic song more generally. Choral performance provided a uniquely effective medium for asserting public gratitude toward a beneficent patron or ruler, even if that expression of the patron's magnanimity was commissioned and orchestrated by the patron himself. Some monarchs or tyrants retained poets at their court, as Polycrates of Samos appears to have done with Anacreon and Ibycus in the third quarter of the sixth century bce, but a more common model soon came to be that of the professional poet, who would compose occasional pieces commissioned by various patrons from all over the Greek-speaking world.

The growth and Panhellenic prestige of the major athletic festivals at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea, and the Isthmus of Corinth during the sixth century engendered an impulse to monumentalize the athletic victor's brief moment of glory by commemorative statuary and public celebration in choral song: the genre of epinician poetry developed as a mechanism for aristocratic families to convert the prestige of victory into an even more potent form of social capital both within their own cities and among the interconnected elites of all Greek states. Our earliest evidence for such epinician choral lyric is found among papyri attributed to Ibycus, but Simonides, Bacchylides, and Pindar all favored the form as well. Even outside the athletic context, encomiums were performed to highlight other virtues or accomplishments of a patron or his family, as we see with Ibycus’ ode praising Polycrates’ heroism and beauty (fragment 282 PMG) or Pindar's ode celebrating Aristagoras’ election as prytanis (leader of the city council) of Tenedos (Nemean Odes 11). One of the strangest such encomiums is a hymn of apotheosis accompanied by phallic processions, which Athenaeus (6.253c–f) records as sung by the Athenians on the occasion of Demetrius I Poliorcetes’ return from victory at Corcyra.

Early Choral Lyric.

Choral performance is already central to Homeric society, where a mixed chorus of youths and maidens sing and dance in the culminating ecphrastic scene on the shield of Achilles (Iliad 18.590–606). We also hear of groups singing a paean to Apollo (Iliad 1.472–474), a thrēnos for the dead Hector (Iliad 24.720–722), and a wedding hymn accompanied by dance (Iliad 18.493–495); at the harvest, youths respond with song and dance to a boy singing the lament for Linus (Iliad 18.569–572). The Hymn to Apollo (3.156–164) praises the Delian maidens, who sing both hymns to the gods and genealogical songs about men of the past. Indeed, our earliest fragment of an actual choral performance comes from Eumelus of Corinth's processional song for the Messenians at Delos (fragment 696 PMG), which Pausanias (4.4.1) dates to the mid-eighth century. That Eumelus, otherwise known as the composer of a local Corinthian epic supporting the claims of the Bacchiad clan, would be invited by the Messenians to compose such a work for them to present at the sanctuary of Delos suggests the importance of choral song as an assertion of local presence within a Panhellenic space.


However, it is a century later with Alcman that we have remains extensive enough to form a proper estimation of the style of choral poetry. Seventh-century Sparta hosted numerous festivals that attracted poets from all over the Greek world: Terpander of Lesbos is credited with a musical victory at the Carneia in the 670s, although it is unclear whether his poetry was choral. More certain in this regard are Thaletas of Gortyn, to whom paeans and dance songs are ascribed, and Polymnestus of Colophon, known for his processionals; both came to Sparta. Some sources identify Alcman as from Lydia, but all his poetry is composed in Laconian dialect and makes reference to Spartan cult. His many erotic fragments could have been excerpted from monodic poems, but indubitably choral are the two substantial papyrus fragments from partheneia (an Alexandrian name for “maidens’ songs”). Here we see a more complex metrical form than is common in monody: the stanzas are nine and fourteen lines in length, mixing Aeolic, trochaic, and dactylic rhythms. Similarly the style is highly variegated and discontinuous, alternately narrative, sententious, encomiastic, playful, self-conscious, and chatty. The chorus leaders are singled out for special praise: names like Hagesichora (literally “leader of the chorus”), Agido (a reference to the royal clan of the Agids?), and Astymeloisa (literally “care to the city”) may be stage names assumed by the girls playing this role in each performance, rather than the actual names of individuals. Throughout his work Alcman displays a fondness for personifying metaphysical abstractions, such as Aisa (Apportionment), Poros (Resource), Tekmor (Limit), Ersa (Dew), Akmon (Untiring), Tyche (Chance), and Promathea (Forethought), which he arranges into a complex genealogy of his own.

Best preserved is the so-called Louvre partheneion (fragment 1 PMG), which appears to have been performed at an early-morning ceremony in honor of a dawn goddess. Although full of abrupt transitions, the poem is unified around the theme of female beauty and its erotic allure: the myth of the battle between the Dioscuri and the sons of Hippocoon for the daughters of Leucippus exalts a pair of prized females who are ready for marriage, whose roles become embodied in the twin chorus-leaders Hagesichora and Agido. A scholium informs us that the ten performers split into semichoruses alternating praises of their two leaders after the myth; they probably reunite in the final stanza, as the dawn goddess makes her epiphany in the sky. One can interpret the choral performance as being part of an initiation process preparing girls for marriage by showcasing their desirability before the assembled public; verses 74–76 even suggest homoerotic bonds among the girls of the chorus, and some have seen the ceremony as a kind of lesbian betrothal in mimetic anticipation of the girls’ imminent marriages. The associations of the dawn goddess with fertility and rebirth are certainly supportive of a ceremony marking such an important life transition.


Stesichorus of Himera represents another early tradition of choral poetry, which was almost entirely narrative and not overtly cultic. Chronographic tradition dates him to the late seventh and early sixth century. Unlike Alcman's monostrophic stanzas, Stesichorus’ poems were all triadic, consisting of metrically equivalent strophes and antistrophes followed by epodes with a slightly different form. His themes were the common stuff of epic tradition, including material from the Trojan cycle (Helen, Sack of Troy, Nostoi, Oresteia), the Heracles saga (Cycnus, Geryoneis, Cerberus), the Theban saga, the Calydonian boar hunt, and the Argonautica (Funeral Games of Pelias). Not surprisingly, his meter is primarily dactylic, and his dialect a lightly Doricized version of epic language; hence he was able to reuse many epic formulas but also showed a flair for inventing imaginative epithets of his own. Our longer papyrus fragments suggest a fondness for direct speech and picturesque similes, as in epic, but what we also find in Stesichorus is a compassionate and sympathetic treatment of character: even the three-headed giant Geryon is humanized and presented as a tragic figure. Stesichorus’ innovative treatment of myths appears to have had enormous influence on sixth-century vase painting and later Athenian drama.

The extant remains of the Geryoneis suggest that the poem had a total length of more than thirteen hundred lines, leading some critics to doubt that Stesichorus’ poetry could be choral. However, the choral portions of Aeschylus’ Oresteia are, when added together, at least as long, so there is no question that a thirteen-hundred-line poem could be performed by a chorus within a single day. It is also possible that the chorus merely accompanied the singer with dance or that different chorus members sang different parts of the song seriatim. Stesichorus’ significant professional name—literally it means “erector of choruses”—makes it hard to deny that he had some connection with choral performance.


Most of Sappho's poetry was probably monodic, but her wedding hymns (e.g., fragments 103–117b Voigt) and perhaps cletic hymns like fragment 2 Voigt were choral. Similarly Ibycus’ many erotic poems were likely monodic, but his encomiums and epinicia were choral. It is with Simonides of Ceos in the last quarter of the sixth century that we first see a thorough professionalization of the choral poet's art: he wrote paeans, threnodies, dithyrambs, epinicia, and encomiums for multiple patrons throughout Greece. Our choral fragments reveal him to be a poet of considerable gnomic subtlety (as in fragment 542 PMG, discussed in Plato's Protagoras), with a picturesque and empathetic style of narrative (as in Danaë's lament in fragment 543 PMG) and even with a certain ironic wit deployed in otherwise serious encomiastic contexts (see fragment 507 PMG on the “shearing” of the wrestler Crius, or fragment 515 on Anaxilas’ victory in the mule-cart race).

Simonides’ nephew Bacchylides is often contrasted unfavorably with his contemporary Pindar, who competed for the same patrons in many of the same genres. Our knowledge of Bacchylides was greatly expanded by publication of a papyrus in 1897 with remains of at least thirty poems, including fifteen epinicia and other poems that have been labeled “dithyrambs” but that seem to be almost entirely narrative in content. Although his epinicia are similar to Pindar's in structure, meter, and dialect, Bacchylides’ style is much more lucid and continuous. His narratives resemble the technique of Stesichorus but add an element of suspense and situational irony that may betray the influence of Athenian tragedy.

The influence of choral lyric on the choral portions of fifth-century drama is also evident: not only are the same metrical patterns and elements of the Doricized dialect retained, but we also find embedded within tragedy generic forms like the threnody, paean, hymn, and processional song, and even the epinician. The same forms are subject to parody in comedy. During the fifth century a new form of dithyrambic poetry evolved, perhaps under the influence of drama, in which the choral performance was interspersed with long virtuoso arias characterized by greater musical complexity and lexical innovation. Nevertheless, traditional hymns and paeans continued to be composed for cultic performance throughout the fourth century and well into the Hellenistic period: several of these are preserved on stone, including the paean of Isyllus of Epidaurus, the anonymous Erythraean Paean to Asclepius, Limenius’ Paean and Prosodion to Apollo (complete with musical notation), Philodamus’ Paean to Dionysus, and the Palaikastro Hymn to Idaean Zeus. As we have seen with the epinician hymn to Demetrius I Poliorcetes, the pagaentry and public display favored by the Macedonian Successor kings and their generals was conducive to the perpetuation of choral performance. As we can see with Horace's Carmen saeculare, the appeal of such performance extended to the Roman imperial period as well.

Poetry, GreekClick to view larger

Choral Lyric. Dionysiac procession. Detail of an Attic red-figure bell krater, fifth century bce. Musée du Louvre, Paris/Peter Willi/The Bridgeman Art Library


Primary Works

Campbell, David A., trans. Greek Lyric. 5 vols. Vols. 1–4. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982–1993.Find this resource:

Davies, Malcolm, ed. Poetarum melicorum Graecorum fragmenta. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.Find this resource:

Furley, William D., and Jan Maarten Bremer, eds. and trans. Greek Hymns: Selected Cult Songs from the Archaic to the Hellenistic Period. 2 vols. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2001.Find this resource:

Secondary Works

Calame, Claude. Choruses of Young Women in Ancient Greece: Their Morphology, Religious Role, and Social Function. Translated by Derek Collins and Janice Orion. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997.Find this resource:

Davies, Malcolm. “Monody, Choral Lyric, and the Tyranny of the Hand-Book.Classical Quarterly, n.s., 38 (1988): 52–64.Find this resource:

Harvey, A. E. “The Classification of Greek Lyric Poetry.Classical Quarterly, n.s., 5 (1955): 157–175.Find this resource:

Herington, C. J. Poetry into Drama: Early Tragedy and the Greek Poetic Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.Find this resource:

Rutherford, Ian. Pindar's Paeans: A Reading of the Fragments with a Survey of the Genre. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Stehle, Eva. Performance and Gender in Ancient Greece: Nondramatic Poetry in Its Setting. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Webster, T. B. L. The Greek Chorus. London: Methuen, 1970.Find this resource:

Wilson, Peter. The Athenian Institution of the Khoregia: The Chorus, the City, and the Stage. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Thomas K. Hubbard


Aristophanes of Byzantium identified a group of nine “lyric” or “melic” poets: Pindar, Bacchylides, Sappho, Anacreon, Stesichorus, Simonides, Ibycus, Alcaeus, and Alcman. One important criterion for inclusion in this group was that they wrote poems (or more accurately songs) to be performed to musical accompaniment, usually the lyre (Greek lyra, kithara), sometimes the aulos. An alternative term is “melic” (from melos, “song”), and melopoios (maker of songs) is another common term for “lyric poet.” Musical accompaniment is not the only criterion here, because forms of poetry not generally classed as lyric were also sung, including elegy (sung to the aulos) and possibly even Homeric epic. Another part of what distinguishes lyric poems seems to be form: their structure tends toward complex stanzaic and triadic patterns, rather than being “stichic,” that is, involving the repetition of an identical line. Where lyric poems consist of the same repeated line (as in the case of Sappho fragment 44), the line itself is complex in structure. But this criterion is not watertight, either: it might be hard to exclude the “epodic” verse pattern associated with Archilochus and Hipponax of Ephesus, who would usually be considered writers of iambic rather than lyric.

Lyric poems (or “songs”) seem to fall into several subtypes, based on the criteria of mode of performance and structure. Key subtypes include the following:

  • Choral lyric. Performed in public contexts, mostly at festivals and rituals (such as the partheneia of Alcman) but also at competitions, such as the dithyramb at the Athenian Dionysia. The chorus not only sang but danced. The structure of these songs tends to be triadic—that is, composed of a sequence of triads (occasionally one triad only) each made up of strophe-antistrophe-epode—with longer stanzas.

  • Monodic lyric. Often performed at symposia, with political or erotic content. The songs of Alcaeus and Anacreon and Ibycus’ song in honor of Polycrates of Samos (Poetae melici Graecorum [PMG] 282) belong here, as do the encomiums or scolia of Pindar and Bacchylides. The symposiastic context is at least prima facie more private. In terms of structure, songs of this type tend to be made up of short stanzas. There is a striking overlap with the symposiastic uses of elegy.

  • The sung nomos (tune). Examples include the citharoedic nomos established by Terpander that consisted of seven sections, or the trimelēs (three-song) ascribed to either Sacadas or Clonas. Little about these is known, though it is assumed that musical virtuosity was more emphasized in these than in other forms. The most famous early kitharōdos (one who plays and sings to the cithara) was Arion of Methymna (Herodotus 1.23–24). The Persae of Timotheus seems to be a post-Classical version of such a poem. Citharoedic preludes were performed before recitations of epic poetry at festivals.

  • Long narrative songs in triadic form. These are attested only for the poet Stesichorus. The best known of these is the Geryoneis, a poem about combat between Heracles (Hercules) and the monster Geryon (Supplementum lyricis Graecis [SLG] 7–87); a large fragment of his Thebaid was published in 1977 (Poetarum melicorum Graecorum fragmenta [PMGF] 222[a]). The performance of this could have been monodic or choral or a combination of the two. Stesichorus’ name, which means “starting the chorus,” might suggest choral performance, but the length of the songs points toward monody; it has been argued that Stesichorus was a kitharōdos.

The divisions between these categories are not clear-cut, and we do not know what category to place all songs in. Pindar's epinicia may have been monodic and relatively private or choral and public, and Sappho's love songs may have been monodic or choral. One might have thought that the thrēnos or dirge would be a communal affair, but in fact these seem to have been performed long after the death (cf. Proclus, in Photius Bibliotheca 239, 321a30–2), and there, too, monodic performance is possible.

Archaic Period.

The floruit of Greek lyric is the seventh to sixth century bce; none of the canonical nine poets was born after 500 bce. However, lyric should not be seen as coming after epic poetry in the eighth century (or before). The metrical forms of lyric seem to be particularly old (some forms are paralleled in the Indian Veda). It is also possible that Near Eastern models have influenced the shape of Greek lyric, just as they certainly influenced Greek music. The Greeks believed that there had been lyric poets such as Orpheus, Thamyras, and Olen of Lycia even earlier than the seventh century. That we start hearing about lyric poets in the seventh century is likely to reflect a new tendency to attribute songs to specific authors, which itself may be a reflex of the introduction of writing; anonymous traditions of song must have existed long before.

The Hellenistic canon of nine poets represents only a tiny fraction of the total number of lyric poets operating in the seventh through fifth centuries bce. Famous names left out include Thaletas of Gortyn, a contemporary of Alcman, whose paeans were still apparently recited in the Hellenistic period, and Terpander of Lesbos, who was remembered as the most influential of all lyric poets. The absence of some poets from the canon may be because texts of their poems were not available to Aristophanes of Byzantium, but Timotheus of Miletus, whose Persae was read in Egypt, was presumably excluded because he was judged too late or decadent. The stars of Athenian dithyramb such as Melanippides (highly esteemed by Xenophon: see Memorabilia 1.4) may have been omitted for such a reason.

Most lyric poets known were men, but there were famous women lyric poets as well: not only Sappho of Eresus, but also Corinna of Tanagra, sometimes regarded as the tenth in the canon. Some sources claim that she was contemporary with Pindar, though several modern scholars, from Edgar Lobel in the early twentieth century onward, have argued that she was in fact Hellenistic. Another famous poetess was Telesilla of Argos, said to have played a part in military activities in her home city in the fifth century.

It should be remembered that song is a much broader cultural phenomenon than the output of nine preferred poets; we are talking about a “song culture” deeply embedded in the society. Crude choral performances accompanied many situations in life, such as mourning the dead or performing war dances in battle. There were work songs, ritual-begging songs, and witty songs for the symposium (known as skolia or scolia). Another important genre must have been hymns for the gods. Anonymous songs still circulated in the later period, or had cultic use, such as the Swallow Song (PMG 848), the Elean hymn for Dionysus (PMG 871), the Erythraean paean to Asclepius (PMG 934), the Dictaean hymn to Zeus, and the anonymous scolia (PMG 884–917).

In the seventh and sixth centuries, lyric poetry seems to have been deeply embedded in the structures of early Greek society. It was linked to three main performance scenarios: the festival culture of Archaic societies, where the performance of choral song was a focus for the expression of the social order; the symposium, a focus for ideological discourse for oligarchs and tyrants, as well as for political factions who resist them; and festivals at Panhellenic sanctuaries, particularly Delphi and Delos. It has become increasingly clear since the later twentieth century that Greek song was deeply embedded in the social order of society, and this gives us insights into understanding such song.

The subject matter of most Greek lyric poetry is myth, either for its own sake (as in the narratives of Stesichorus) or linked to a specific purpose, such as the celebration of a festival or ritual, the praise of an individual, or the illustration of a moral point. Themes personal to the poet, which may have appeared in Archilochus’ elegies and iambics in the eighth century, surface first in lyric in the poems of Sappho (love) and Alcaeus (politics). History, which had long been a theme of elegiac poetry, is not attested for lyric before Timotheus’ Persae, although Simonides’ poem on the battle of Artemisium may have been in lyric format. One long passage of Simonides cited by Plato suggests that Simonides used the lyric as a format to debate an intellectual issue.

Classical Period.

In the fifth century, lyric poetry seems much less at the center of society. At any rate this is true of Athens, from where much of our evidence comes, and where the main focus of poetic activity in this period was obviously drama. The only forms of lyric still regularly being produced there were the “narrative dithyramb” or kyklios choros, though elsewhere the traditions of choral song were more tenacious. Part of the change was ideological—in that along with democratic politics came new media—and part was musical: as civic participation in song faded, new musical fashions appeared, such as the so-called New Music of singers such as Timotheus of Miletus. Song flourished in the world of tyrants and aristocratic stasis, where song was highly valued as an ideological medium, but by the late fifth century either society or the position of song in it had changed.

Lyric poetry seems to have been particularly well established in the Dorian world, especially in Sparta, where tradition recorded two musical katastaseis, or settings-in-order. It was also established on the Aeolian island of Lesbos, home of Terpander, Sappho, and Alcaeus. It was not so well established in Ionia, where epic seems to have had a better hold (though the island of Ceos was a center). However, from as early as we can see, lyric poetry was a Panhellenic form that transcended local areas: the poetic dialect in which lyric poets wrote tends to be a blend of Doric with Aeolic elements, and there is plenty of evidence that poets themselves traveled throughout the Greek world.

The only Greek lyric poetry transmitted complete to the modern world through continuous manuscript tradition is the epinician odes of Pindar. Until the nineteenth century, knowledge of the rest of lyric came exclusively from citations in other ancient authors, which cite only one poem entire (Sappho fragment 1). In the last century or so, papyri have significantly augmented our knowledge, providing parts of the paeans and other genres of Pindar, parts of the epinicians and dithyrambs of Bacchylides, and partheneia by Alcman, as well as several poems by Sappho (including one published as recently as 2004) and Alcaeus, fragments of narrative poems by Stesichorus, an important poem by Ibycus, and scraps of epinicia and paeans by Simonides.

The evidence suggests major changes in form and function over the centuries. For example, the epinician ode, which is perhaps the most conspicuous form of public song in the fifth century bce, cannot be traced back further than Ibycus in the sixth century. Similarly, no thrēnoi are attested for any poet before Simonides, although choral performance of anonymous dirges cannot have been new. The narrative dithyramb of the fifth century or kyklios choros also seems to be an innovation.

The lyric sections of Greek tragedy and comedy are related to nondramatic lyric; there were even theories that drama arose from forms of choral lyric. Lyrics in drama are formally distinguished in that the stanzaic structure tend to be AABB rather than triadic or a repeated stanza. Sophocles and Euripides are both known to have written nondramatic lyric (Sophocles’ paean to Asclepius, PMG 737; Euripides’ epinician for Alcibiades, PMG 755); Ion of Chios wrote lyric as well, including his “hymn to Opportunity,” whom he described as “the youngest child of Zeus” (PMG 742).

Post-Classical Period.

Lyric poetry certainly continued to diminish in importance after the Classical period, partly because of changes in society and partly because music became more professionalized. Musical taste seems to have favored more complex, astrophic forms that were the province of professional musicians, such as the paeans of Limenius and Athenaeus written on the Athenian Treasury at Delphi (late second century bce). To some extent genres that had been covered by song in the Archaic and Classical periods seems to be taken over by prose writers, such as the encomium (enkōmion) and hymn (cf. Aelius Aristides’ Hymn to Sarapis).

After the end of the fifth century, there are far fewer writers of lyric. Among the most surprising works are the paean for the tyrant Hermias by the philosopher Aristotle (PMG 842) and Hermocles’ ithyphallikos (Collectanea Alexandrina 173–174). Inscriptions contribute a number of poems in this period, including the “Paean to Dionysus” by two brothers from the Locrian town of Scarphea (fourth century bce). Numerous melopoioi are attested in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, mostly in inscriptions (Stephanes, pp. 573–574, lists about fifty), though we have very few texts. It seems likely that lyric poetry continued to be written in the Hellenistic period, although little survives besides cult songs preserved on stone. Callimachus wrote cult poems in complex stichic meters, which are given the title “Lyrica” in Rudolf Pfeiffer's edition (fragments 227, 228, 229), but it is disputed whether this is accurate. An encomium of Rome in Sapphic meter survives under the name of Melinno (Supplementum Hellenisticum 541), and this may be either Hellenistic or imperial.

Greek lyric was imitated by Roman poets, above all by Catullus, who adapted (or translated) a poem of Sappho and imitated her in other poems, and by Horace, whose Odes are formally closely modeled on Lesbian lyric and who prays to be included in the lyric canon (Ode 1.1, end). Statius also uses lyric meters occasionally. In imperial Greece, lyric poetry seems to have been written by Publius Aelius Aristides in the second century ce. One genre that was certainly practiced in this period was that of simple verse forms in imitation of Anacreon, the so-called Anacreontea, at least some of which could be as early as the Hellenistic period. Mesomedes of Crete writes hymns in simple stichic meters.


Because so little else was known, up until the nineteenth century the reception of Greek lyric in modern literature amounts to the reception of Pindar's epinicia and of Horace's odes. Since then the newly discovered fragments have exerted an influence on Ezra Pound and others. In Western literature “lyric” has often been regarded as one of the big three genres, alongside epic and drama. In some cases these three genres have been used to map out a history of the development of the human intellect. As Claude Calame showed, there is no sign that lyric played such a major role in ancient literary criticism; rather, it was ignored—partly, perhaps, because it is closely associated with ritual.

Poetry, GreekClick to view larger

Lyric Poet. Marble statue of Corinna by Silanion, fourth century bce. Musée Municipal Antoine Vivenel, Compiègne, France/The Bridgeman Art Library


Primary Works

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Page, Denys, ed. Poetae melici Graeci: Alcmanis, Stesichori, Ibyci, Anacreontis, Simonidis, Corinnae, poetarum minorum reliquias, carmina popularia et convivialia quaeque adespota feruntur. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962.Find this resource:

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Powell, J. U., ed. Collectanea Alexandrina: Reliquiae minores poetarum Graecorum aetatis Ptolemaicae, 323–146 A.C., epicorum, elegiacorum, lyricorum, ethicorum. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925.Find this resource:

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Ian Rutherford


Greek “pastoral poetry,” also known as “bucolic poetry” (boukolika poiēmata or epē), refers to a poetic type whose origins lie in the generic innovations of Theocritus of Syracuse in the early third century bce and whose latest examples can be dated roughly to the early first century bce. It is unknown when the Greek label for the genre became current and what its original definition was; when the word appears in Theocritus’ poems, boukolikos (as well as its cognates) refers literally to the poems’ content—herdsmen and their lives, especially their singing—without any evident metapoetic reference to their genre.

The most distinctive features of poems in this tradition are hexameters, Homeric dialect mixed with Doric, and a flexible but recognizable repertory of themes and narrative forms that often look back to those attested first in the work of Theocritus. Ancient scholars recognized a canon of bucolic poets consisting of Theocritus, Moschus of Syracuse, and Bion of Smyrna; the relevant poetry of all three comes down to us in the same collections, except for the fragments of the latter two, whose works are much less well preserved than those of Theocritus. The bucolic manuscripts also preserve a number of unattributable poems, most of them allied to Moschus and Bion in their formal features (dialect, diction, and metrical style) and themes; ascribed by early modern editors to one or another of the named three, they are still referred to within square brackets as [Theocritus] 8, [Moschus] 3, and so on. The only additional text likely to qualify for this tradition is the very fragmentary poem represented by Supplementum Hellenisticum 902, which is Hamburg Papyrus 2.201.

The Origins of Bucolic.

Theocritus’ diverse and adventurous output includes versions of lighter dramatic literature, particularly mime (short scenes of lively dialogue or monologue by persons of ordinary status), provocatively cast in epic meter and language, with a Doric dialectal element (idylls 1–7, 10, 14, and 15—the label “idyll,” Greek eidyllion, was first applied to the poems in late antiquity). These poems of Theocritus are characteristic Alexandrian confections, comparable especially to Herodas’ contemporary iambic versions of mimes. Idyll 11 similarly adapts into Doric hexameters a myth first known from fourth-century dithyramb, that of the Cyclops and Galatea. Theocritus’ mimelike poems include urban settings and persons, but even more often they depict the lives (and loves and singing) of herdsmen and other rustic characters. Idylls 8, 9, and 21 are generally seen as the imitations closest in style (and thus perhaps in time) to the Theocritean originals, certain of whose features they consolidate and normalize—and they strikingly innovate on this norm. Their dramatic dialogue is framed and even intercut by explanatory narrative. The speakers in 21 are fishermen. Idyll 8 introduces a stretch of elegiac couplets. Both 8 and 9 treat the legendary singer Daphnis—handled within characters’ speech in Theocritus 1 and 7—as a character himself, a herdsman on a par with the others. In these two poems, Theocritean realism and irony yields to more sentimental characterization that diminishes the herdsmen's distance from readers; the two poems share this feature, as well as others, with idyll 6.

Later Bucolic.

Moschus, a pupil of the grammarian Aristarchus, must have flourished around the mid-second century bce. His longest surviving work is a mythological hexameter poem in Homeric dialect, Europa, and an epigram of his is also extant; his bucolic—that is, Doric hexameter poetry—comprises Runaway Love and three fragments preserved in the anthology of Stobaeus. Bion of Smyrna seems to have followed him, but he evidently lived before the mid-first century because Catullus (c.84–c.54 bce) imitates the poem on Bion's death (compare Catullus 5.5–6 to [Moschus] 3.103–104). Extant are eighteen fragments (likewise from Stobaeus, except for one from the anthologist Orion) and the Epitaph on Adonis. Here and there the fragments of both Bion and Moschus show pastoral themes, including dialogue by rustic characters (Moschus fragment 1, Bion fragment 2) and references to rustic deities (Moschus fragment 2), the crafting of a panpipe (Bion fragment 5), and the loves and songs of herdsmen (Bion fragments 9, 10, and 11). Bion fragment 16 attests a version of the myth of the Cyclops and Galatea. The characterization in these fragments seems consonant with the tendencies of idylls 8 and 9, as does their light, conventionalized Doric. Moschus’ Runaway Love and Bion fragment 13 (probably whole) represent a new type of bucolic poem, reminiscent of Hellenistic epigram and the Anacreontea. In the first, Aphrodite treats Eros as a runaway slave, crying his recognizable traits (each one of which corresponds to a feature of love) and promising a kiss to the finder. In the second, a young bird-catcher is warned away from Eros, whom he deludedly has been trying to catch. These allegories—told with punchy epigrammatic concision—are complemented by [Theocritus] 19, on Eros’ misadventure with a bee; running in tears, he is finally reproached by Aphrodite, “Are not you small, too, yet capable of dealing great wounds?” A similar fable about Eros features in Bion fragment 10 (cf. 9 and 14).

Bion's Epitaph on Adonis, possibly along with the poem represented by his four preserved lines on Hyacinthus (fragment 1), likewise represents a widening of the bucolic repertory: the poem is a mythological vision, confusedly voiced by a narrator sometimes reporting events, sometimes instructing Aphrodite in the mourning of her lover. Dominated by the lamentation of Aphrodite but incorporating other details of the Adonis ritual, the poem participates in the mimetic tradition exemplified by Callimachus’ Hymns 2, 5, and 6 and ultimately by Archaic choral lyric—but unlike those compositions it sets us not amid the festival, but at the very scene of the festival's origin. The Epitaph's formal features (Doric hexameters identical in style with those of Bion's other work) and close engagement with Theocritus 1 and 15 situate it within bucolic. Its tone, both passionate and restrained, is unique in Greek poetry. Unique also is Bion fragment 8, an agonized self-questioning that directs a sub-philosophical diatribe on the vanity of human effort against the Hellenistic ideal of poetic labor. If these are the words of a herdsman-poet in the bucolic mold, their personal scrutiny and pessimism are unparalleled in the extant tradition.

The later anonymous poems include variations on pastoral dialogue. The Little Herdsman ([Theocritus] 20) and Lovers’ Talk ([Theocritus] 27) differently represent the love lives of young herdsmen; Lovers’ Talk innovates formally not merely by framing its characters’ dialogue with narrative (at least at the end; the opening is lost), but also by casting it in stichomythia, reminiscent of drama: a fresh generic mixture. In the incompletely preserved Epithalamius of Achilles and Deidameia ([Bion] 2) one herdsman's invitation to another to sing—couched in evocatively Theocritean language—leads to a myth of Achilles on Scyros, whose compressed scale and concern with the amorous margins of heroic legend recall the typically Hellenistic miniature epic. Most notable, both as a statement of poetics and as an influence on later poetry, is the Epitaph on Bion, usually labeled “[Moschus] 3” because of an early modern misreading that made Bion and Theocritus contemporaries. In this lament by a self-proclaimed Italian epigone, Bion becomes a herdsman-poet typical of bucolic, assimilated to his own characters. The biographical reading of fictional pastoral song recalls Theocritus 7—which teasingly invites us to see its narrator Simichidas as just such a poet as Theocritus himself was—and was productive in the Latin reception and later. The poem's codification of pastoral motifs offers a powerful rereading of the tradition that it looks back upon. Finally, [Theocritus] 23 (The Lover) relates the suicide of an unsuccessful lover and the due demise—by a falling statue of Eros—of his cruel beloved; its formulation of an economy of love and death harks back to Moschus and Bion. In general, late bucolic is fascinated with themes of death, desire, and belatedness in various configurations.

The Later Reception.

The first signs of ancient scholarship on and conceptualization of bucolic poetry come with the work of Artemidorus and Theon in the first century bce. What remains of ancient criticism—traceable chiefly in the scholia on Theocritus—shows a tendency to derive the genre itself from the herdsmen's songs and customs that are often its content—perhaps an irresistible extension of the biographical reading that some bucolic texts invite. The bucolic handling of herdsmen and their lives influenced other literature in the Hellenistic and later periods, notably Longus’ prose romance Daphnis and Chloe. Virgil introduced the tradition to Latin. His Eclogues, which frequently echo Theocritus and other Greek bucolic poets and most often involve pastoral dialogue, also take further the generic experimentation and interplay of narrative modes on which the Greek type was founded and that successive Greek practitioners had restlessly continued.


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J. D. Reed

Epinician Poetry

Athletic competitions in the ancient world took place within a religious context and were charged with great social and political prestige. Success in the competitions was celebrated in a number of ways, including civic honors, dedications of statues, inscriptions, and poetic compositions, the most striking example of the last being the lyric songs produced in the first half of the fifth century bce by the poets Pindar and Bacchylides. Almost all the so-called epinician odes, or victory odes, of Pindar included in the Alexandrian edition of his poems were transmitted through medieval manuscripts: forty-five odes corresponding to three books and almost two-thirds of a fourth, one book for each of the Panhellenic athletic festivals. Pindar's is the only collection that has survived the general wreckage of ancient Greek lyric poetry. Around fifteen epinicia of Bacchylides are known, more or less whole, mainly thanks to papyri published since the late nineteenth century.

History and Characteristics.

These odes were performed with musical accompaniment at the place of the athletic festivals, at the time of the victor's return in his hometown, or on a later anniversary, and they were performed again on other occasions. In many cases a group of singers and dancers was involved in the performance: the group is referred to as a kōmos, a term often used in sympotic contexts and suggesting informal festive celebrations. The poets themselves used terms derived from kōmos to refer to the odes: epikōmios (of, at, or for a kōmos) or enkōmion (hence the modern English word “encomium”). Some of the odes, perhaps those meant for a performance immediately after the victory, were quite short. Others were up to a few hundred lines long. In all cases they rank among the most sophisticated products of Greek literature for their language, style, and metrical structure. Praise of the victors—mainly aristocratic and wealthy members of local elites, kings, tyrants, and their courtiers—and of their family and homeland expands into general reflections on glory, success, human nature, and mortality, with the religious context of the festival and, often, mythical narrative playing an important part.

Pindar presents these lyric celebrations as the reenactment of similar songs performed already in mythical times (Nemean Odes 8.50ff. and Olympian Odes 10.76–84), but it is not clear how old this tradition actually was. It is certain that Simonides, Bacchylides’ uncle and a person about a generation older than Pindar, had composed victory odes. In the Alexandrian edition of Simonides’ poems the victory songs were arranged according to the athletic disciplines of the victory, suggesting that perhaps he composed fewer odes for the Panhellenic festivals. Only very few quotations and papyrus fragments survive.

It has been suggested that the fragmentary remains of a papyrus commentary on some lost lyric poems (Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 26.2637, PMGF [Poetarum melicorum Graecorum fragmenta, edited by Malcolm Davies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991– )] S 220 and 221) may preserve traces of victory songs attributable to the poet Ibycus, who was active in southern Italy and on the island of Samos in the earlier part of the sixth century. Another fragment of a poem attributed to Ibycus (Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 26.2735, PMGF S 166), apparently in praise of a young man, mentions athletic contests in Sparta, while a further fragment of the same papyrus (S 176) has a narrative section on a mythical athletic competition. This reasonably suggests that Ibycus may have already composed victory songs, but the evidence is too lacunose and ambiguous to be certain.

A less elaborate form of lyric celebration in Pindar's time (Olympian Odes 9.1–4) and later (Callimachus, fragment 384.39 Pfeiffer) was provided by the singing of a short refrain, attributed to Archilochus (active around the mid-seventh century bce; fragment 324 West), for a sort of hymn in honor of Heracles and Iolaus; here the sound of the lyre was imitated by the singers with the onomatopoeic word tenella, and the name of the victor was not apparently mentioned.

Other minor poets are likely to have composed victory odes during the fifth century, but none has survived apart from Olympian Ode 5, attributed by some scholars to a Sicilian poet rather than to Pindar himself. In the latter part of the fifth century the genre seems to have been still practiced at least in certain circles: the lyric poet Diagoras of Melos, better known for his atheism, composed a poem in praise of his lover Nicodorus of Mantinea, a famous boxer and lawgiver (PMG [Poetae melici Graeci, edited by Denys Page (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962)] 738), and ancient sources quote a lyric encomium (attributed by some to Euripides) praising the politician Alcibiades for having come in first, second, and fourth at the Olympic games, where he had entered with seven chariots (PMG 755–756). But on the whole the singing of lyric epinicia seems to have gone out of fashion after this period.


A parallel, not necessarily alternative poetic medium for the celebration of athletic success was provided by inscriptional epigrams. These are attested already at least in the sixth century and often accompanied the dedication of statues and other votive objects, occasionally very lavish and impressive ones. The scope of the earlier epigrams—some of which were also preserved in literary anthologies, with the attribution to well-known authors such as, especially, Simonides—is very limited compared to that of the victory ode, often providing the barest factual information. From the third century on, when royal families of the Hellenistic kingdoms, local potentates, and members of the international elite profusely invested in the athletic competitions, the older festivals continued to thrive, and several new ones were added. Celebratory epigrams became longer and more sophisticated, their themes and style revealing an impressive mix of continuity and change when compared to those of the Archaic period.

Many such epigrams have been preserved on stone, some in books, and a recently published late third century bce papyrus roll with a collection of epigrams thought to be mainly or entirely by the poet Posidippus of Pella contains a section of eighteen poems for victories in equestrian races. In several cases the winners are male and female members of the Ptolemaic family, the Macedonian royal house of Egypt. Poem 78 BA—that is, in Posidippi Pellaei quae supersunt omnia, edited by Colin Austin and Guido Bastianini (Milan: LED, 2002)—is a poem of fourteen lines in which Berenice (either the real daughter of Ptolemy II or, less likely, Berenice II of Cyrene, the dedicatee of one of Callimachus’ epinicia) announces her own victory and provides a list of those of her ancestors. The poem opens with an invitation to all aoidoi (poet-singers) to tell her glory, and it closes with an invitation to the Macedonian women (this is the most usual meaning of Maketai) to sing of her crown (a similarly ambiguous apostrophe closes the funerary epigram 51 BA). The written text evokes a sung performance—the way in which the Classical victory ode was presented—but this time, a performance of women for a woman victor. The tradition went on well into the imperial period. In the first century ce we even find, among the poems of a certain Lucillius preserved in the Palatine Anthology, several epigrams based on the parody of inscriptions celebrating athletic victories.

Callimachus’ Epinicia.

Grander epinician poems were composed by Posidippus’ contemporary Callimachus of Cyrene. We have sizable fragments of two of them, both, like most of the poems, in elegiac distichs: one for a Nemean victory of Queen Berenice II, which opened the third book of Callimachus’ Aetia and was a few hundred lines long (a new fragment was published in 2008: Papiri della Società Italiana 15.1500), the other (around seventy-five lines long) for a certain Sosibios, either the very powerful minister of Ptolemy IV, of rather dubious fame, or his grandfather. These are extremely sophisticated poems, inventively elaborating elements traceable to the Classical victory ode and to the epigraphic tradition. The poem for Sosibios includes both a section spoken by the victor himself (as in a few Pindaric passages, according to ancient interpreters) and also several other sections spoken by different voices, including possibly votive objects, in the manner of the shorter epigrams. The poem also evokes the celebration of previous victories by a kōmos with the informal song of Archilochus and praises the victor in terms very close to those used in inscriptions for public benefactors.

Another poem, in iambic trimeters and included in Callimachus’ book of Iambics (as number 8: only the first line is preserved), was in honor of a victor from the island of Aegina, homeland of many patrons of Pindar and Bacchylides, bearing the telling name of Polycles, “the very famous.” A recently discovered papyrus with a list of words from another of Callimachus’ lost poems intriguingly includes terms that seem to evoke both Olympia and its games and names of places and people in the Seleucid Empire. It has been conjectured that this might have been another poem for the royal house, celebrating both athletic and military achievements.


Bernardini, Paola Angeli. “Epinici e iscrizioni agonistiche: Un percorso da ricostruire.” In Poesia e religione in Grecia: Studi in onore di G. Aurelio Privitera, edited by Maria Cannatà Fera and Simonetta Grandolini, pp. 29–41. Naples, Italy: Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane, 2000.Find this resource:

Bernardini, Paola Angeli. “La storia dell’epinicio: Aspetti socio-economici.” In Studi Italiani di Filologia Classica, ser. 3, 10 (1992): 965–978.Find this resource:

Bremen, Riet van. “The Entire House Is Full of Crowns: Hellenistic Agōnes and the Commemoration of Victory.” In Pindar's Poetry, Patrons, and Festivals: From Archaic Greece to the Roman Empire, edited by Simon Hornblower and Catherine Morgan, pp. 345–375. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. On Hellenistic epinician poems, with previous bibliography, including that on the New Posidippus.Find this resource:

D’Alessio, Giovan Battista, ed. Callimaco. 2 vols. 4th ed. Milan: Biblioteca Universale Rizzoli, 2007. A Greek edition of Callimachus that includes the most recent papyrus fragments of his epinicia, as well as a translation, introduction, and notes in Italian.Find this resource:

Ebert, Joachim. Griechische Epigramme auf Sieger an gymnischen und hippischen Agonen. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1972.Find this resource:

Köhnken, Adolf. “Epinician Epigram.” In Brill's Companion to Hellenistic Epigram: Down to Philip, edited by Peter Bing and Jon Steffen Bruss, pp. 295–312. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2007.Find this resource:

Robert, Louis. “Les épigrammes satiriques de Lucillius sur les athlètes: Parodie et réalités.” In L’épigramme grecque: Sept exposés suivis de discussions, pp. 179–295. Entretiens sur l’Antiquité Classique 14. Geneva, Switzerland: Fondation Hardt pour l’Étude de l’Antiquité Classique, 1968.Find this resource:

Thomas, Rosalind. “Fame, Memorial, and Choral Poetry: The Origins of Epinikian Poetry, an Historical Study.” In Pindar's Poetry, Patrons, and Festivals: From Archaic Greece to the Roman Empire, edited by Simon Hornblower and Catherine Morgan, pp. 141–166. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Giovan Battista D’Alessio

Elegiac Poetry

Elegy is a genre of Greek poetry (and subsequently Latin poetry) defined by its metrical unit: a distich (couplet) comprising a dactylic hexameter (catalectic) followed by a pentameter consisting of two hemiepes (each a unit of two and a half dactyls). Elegeion, first attested in the late fifth century bce, is the metrical term for an elegiac couplet or for the pentameter alone; its plural, elegeia, can also be applied to a poem in that verse, as can the later substantive elegeia (first appearing in Aristotle), which in turn also could be used to denote the genre. Elegos is the earliest attested term in that family (586 bce), appearing in an inscription recorded by Pausanias for the songs with which Echembrotus won at the Pythian Games; it is only an assumption that his elegoi were in elegiacs.

Elegy's traditional incipit is considered to be 680–650 bce; the founder of the genre was contested by ancients, Archilochus of Paros or Callinus of Ephesus being the earliest of those adduced. This incipit may, however, have had more to do with the dissemination of writing, because the first verse inscriptions (epigrams) are similarly dated; it is likely that the genre was already well established by the time of our earliest extant poets. The genre is Ionian, apparent both in its dialect, which shares much with epic, and in its earliest proponents: even the Spartan Tyrtaeus (fl. 640–637 bce) writes in predominantly Ionic exploring the same themes as his Ionian peers, though local dialect features are likely to have been suppressed in an Ionic-to-Attic redaction. Greek elegy was a flexible genre, its poems variable in length—as short as one couplet or as long as two books—and addressing a wide range of human experience, from the personal to the political, and apparently excluding only the explicit sexual narratives and outright abuse that characterized iambos; the specific, and eventually prevailing, association with lament is first attested only at the end of the fifth century, but even then lament was not exclusive to elegy (lyric meters were more common), nor is lament ever more than a subcategory of elegy in extant Greek and Latin verse.

Occasion and Performance.

The primary performance context for extant Archaic and Classical elegy was the private elite drinking party, the symposium, during which elegy was one of the genres performed by symposiasts for their fellow drinkers as they reclined or sat around a mixing bowl (krater), which stood in the middle (es meson) as a focal point for social equals. The elegy could also accompany the outdoor drunken revelry (kōmos) that followed. Elegy was sung—aeidein (to sing) is the verb consistently associated with it—and the aulos (reed pipe) seems to have been the instrument of choice for accompaniment (several elegists are also said to have been an aulētēs, or aulos player). Elegy's etymology may well even be related to the Armenian term for pipe, elegn, reflecting the Eastern origin of the aulos. Elegy seems to have been well suited to the dynamics of performance at the drinking party: accompaniment by aulos required a separate instrumentalist and therefore called for no particular musical expertise on the part of the singer. Likewise the dactylic formulaic basis of the verse, akin to epic, made poetry easy to compose, remember, or adapt at symposia in response to the songs performed by others, and such recomposition-in-performance may well in part explain some textual variants in the collection of elegiac verse that goes under the name of Theognis of Megara (the so-called Theognidea). The presence of alla and de (“but,” “and/but”) in many of the first lines of extant fragments may well have functioned to connect the performing symposiast's song to that of the previous, elaborating on or capping its predecessor.

Elegy seems also to have been performed at public festivals (Pausanias 10.7.5–6; [Plutarch] De musica 1134a), and Ewen Bowie's argument that historical narratives of some length characterized this elegy seems confirmed by the discovery of fragments of Simonides commemorating the battle of Plataea in terms that elevate it to epic status. Other candidates for this monumental elegy seem to deal with the history of an early colony or city-state: Archaeologia of the Samians (two books) of Semonides of Amorgos, Mimnermus’ Smyrneis, Tyrtaeus’ Politeia (or Eunomia), Xenophanes’ two thousand verses on the foundation of Colophon and colonization of Elea, Panyassis’ Ionian history in seven thousand lines. These poems no doubt had a commemorative function, but they may also have been exhortatory, a reminder of past deeds that current audiences should endeavor to honor through their own actions.

Elegy was the meter of choice in another public genre, inscribed funerary and dedicatory epigram, where it replaced hexameter early on, perhaps owing to the closure provided by the pentameter. That many inscriptions from different provenances share conventions and formulas confirm elegy's status as a Panhellenic genre.

Poets and Subject Matter.

The voice of the early elegist spoke to the group—fellow symposiasts (or festival participants)—as a soldier-citizen and man, conveying martial and ethical exhortation (hypothēkai) or reflecting on aspects of human existence (aging, friendship, erotics, grief). The elegist espoused views on appropriate behavior both within and outside the symposium, offered political commentary or social and philosophical critique, or recounted mythical or historical narratives, though these narratives were enlisted to provide exempla to exhort or as a means to memorialize and re-perform group identity.

Some three thousand elegiac lines are extant from the Archaic and Classical periods: fourteen hundred of these belong to a collection ascribed to Theognis of Megara (c.600–590 bce) but contain the (unattributed) lines of other elegists; the remaining verses were either quoted by other authors or appeared in collections such as that of Stobaeus. Because all the poems are excerpted on the basis of an author's particular interest (historical, philological, thematic, or didactic), no poem is known to be complete unless it is an inscription. This selective transmission presents us with little more than a caricature of a poet and his oeuvre: the cynical poet-warrior Archilochus disavowing traditional values, discarding his shield to save his skin; Callinus and Tyrtaeus exhorting their audiences to battle with stirring Iliad-style paraeneses or narrating the military conflicts of their respective cities; Mimnermus of Colophon (fl. 632–629 bce) composing erotic verses and darkly tinged reflections on mortality; Solon (first half of the sixth century), at once a poet and a lawgiver of Athens, delivering his moral and political philosophical exhortations; the rabidly aristocratic Theognis, inveighing against his increasing isolation amid social and political changes detrimental to his class; Xenophanes of Colophon (fl. 540–537 bce), critic of Homer, Hesiod, and traditional social and religious conventions.

But even the extant fragments defy simple stereotyping: Archilochus poignantly expresses communal grief over those who died at sea, Mimnermus alludes to early history and myth, and a vivid description of a boy's thighs reveals an erotic Solon. At the same time, interpretation of our fragments must integrate their content with their performance context: singing martial exhortation (the most prevalent subgenre of elegy) at the private elite symposium may function to transform symposiasts into epic heroes for the evening, while other fragments locate the singer and his cohort on a ship at sea, a frequent topos for the symposium, and indeed for the city, of which the symposium is sometimes configured as a microcosm. Role playing in sympotic verse is a norm, beginning from the very moment when a singer adopts the poet's “I.” Stories of Tyrtaeus’ verse being sung on military campaign, moreover, or of Solon performing his Salamis in the Agora (even if these are embellishments by later tradition) indicate an awareness of the political dimensions to the performance of elegy, as does the collection of Theognis’ verse in fifth-century Athens, where it seems to have presented symposiasts with a conservative alternative to the politics of their own polis. The little that survives shows the elegists engaged with one another: Solon explicitly corrects Mimnermus, and other fragments show a high level of intertextuality with Tyrtaeus and Theognis on critical issues in Archaic politics.

Several elegists also composed iambics, hexameters, or both, genres with which elegy bears affinities. The subjects and language of elegy frequently overlap with those of iambos, though elegy is never as coarse, presumably because of its kinship with the more elevated genre of epic, which it manifests both in theme and in formula, most evidently in martial paraenesis. Yet in contrast to epic, extant elegy is more political and immediate, grounded in real life or narrating myth for some purpose more directly related to its audience. The interpretation of these differences nonetheless remains contentious: a dominant approach for much of the twentieth century used an alleged transition from epic to elegy to posit evolution in the concepts of individuality as seen in the stance of the poet, and communal ties and obligations were seen as being foregrounded in the poets’ chosen topics. These perceived contrasts have much to do with differences in genre, however, and particularly differences in performance context: not only can elegy's derivation from epic not be assumed—they are likely cognate genres, reciprocal in their influence—but the poetry of Homer and the elegists thrived contemporaneously.

By the late fifth-century elegy, some distinctive trends become apparent: a greater reflexivity about itself as genre and about the topoi of sympotic verse; a strong association, in Athens at least, with more elitist, oligarchic politics—the elite symposium as venue of the political hetaireiai (drinking clubs)—as seen in the elegist and political figure Critias and in the popularity of Theognis, the collection(s?) of whose verse was likely made during this period, forming the basis of the Theognidea; and the beginning of a more bookish, literary form as occurs in the two-book poem of Antimachus’ Lyde, which was the forerunner of Hellenistic developments in elegy.

Hellenistic and Latin Elegy.

As far as can be outlined from fragments, book titles, testimony, and later reception, Greek elegy in the Hellenistic period self-consciously recombined and elaborated on strains already established as dominant by the late Classical period: lament (Philitas’ Demeter) and extended catalogs of tales (e.g., Hermesianax's Leontion, Nicander's Ophiaca), often erotic and mythological (Phanocles’ Erotes, Alexander Aetolus’ Apollon, Callimachus’ fifth Hymn), but also etiological (Callimachus’ Aetia, with its homage to Mimnermus). Elegy was also used for didactic poetry (Nicander's Cynegetica). At the same time, epigram became a full-fledged literary genre, appearing in collections, usually upholding the pretence of being an actual inscription (Posidippus of Pella).

Latin elegy became marked in the late Republic as a genre of love poetry. Poets organized into books series of poems composed around a named puella (mistress), defining their chosen subject of love against epic's more weighty concerns, self-consciously mixing Roman values with Greek literary models, both Archaic and Alexandrian. Gaius Cornelius Gallus, none of whose poetry survives, was considered the founder of Latin elegy, and he was followed by Catullus, Tibullus, and Propertius. Ovid experimented with the genre: no longer merely the Amores’ lover of Corinna, he adopted a didactic stance as teacher of love and its remedies (Ars amatoria, Remedia amoris), created the elegiac epistle (Heroides), and drew on the Hellenistic etiological tradition to catalog the events of the Roman religious calendar (Fasti). After Ovid, elegy flourished chiefly as literary epigram, reaching its pinnacle with the vituperative Martial.


Primary Works

Gentili, Bruno, and Carlo Prato, eds. Poetarum Elegiacorum Testimonia et Fragmenta. Leipzig, Germany: Teubner, 1988.Find this resource:

Gerber, Douglas E., ed. and trans. Greek Elegiac Poetry from the Seventh to the Fifth Centuries B.C. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

West, Martin L. Iambi et Elegi Graeci. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.Find this resource:

Secondary Works

Aloni, Antonio. “Elegy: Forms, Functions, and Ways of Communicating.” In Cambridge Companion to Greek Lyric, edited by Felix Budelmann, pp. 168–188. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Bowie, Ewen L. “Early Greek Elegy, Symposium, and Public Festival.Journal of Hellenic Studies 106 (1986): 13–35.Find this resource:

Gentili, Bruno. Poetry and Its Public in Ancient Greece. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985, pp. 32–35.Find this resource:

Gerber, Douglas. “Early Greek Elegy and Iambus 1921–1989.Lustrum 33 (1991): 7–225 and 401–409.Find this resource:

Gerber, Douglas. “Elegy: Introduction, Callinus, Tyrtaeus, Mimnermus, Solon, Theognis, Xenophanes.” In A Companion to the Greek Lyric Poets, edited by Douglas Gerber, pp. 89–132. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1997.Find this resource:

Irwin, Elizabeth. Solon and Early Greek Poetry: The Politics of Exhortation. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

West, Martin L. Studies in Greek Elegy and Iambus. Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 1974. See pages 1–21.Find this resource:

Elizabeth Irwin


The word “epigram” denotes a text that is “written upon” something—from epi, “on,” and graphein, “to write”—that is, an inscription. The word's etymology correctly points to the origins of the genre, whose beginnings seem approximately to coincide with the advent of the Greek alphabet: as archaeological finds show, epigrams were chiseled (anonymously) on tombstones and votive offerings from the eighth century bce onward. In both these places they served a pragmatic function: commemorating the dead or explaining the circumstances of a dedication. An intriguing exception to the mainly honorific purpose of inscribed epigrams—one of their primary goals was to secure everlasting fame (kleos)—is offered by the Ischia Cup, which belongs to the world of the symposium and may well be the oldest surviving object inscribed with a Greek text (735–720 bce). The cup's three verses wittily evoke the enormous cup of Nestor mentioned in the Iliad (11.632–637), contrasting Nestor's cup with the tiny vessel and its aphrodisiac powers. This inscription with its epigrammatic pointe avant la lettre is, however, an isolated phenomenon.

The Origin of the Genre.

Initially the word epigramma was used with reference to both verse and prose inscriptions, but its meaning soon narrowed to inscribed poems. Whereas early epigrams were primarily written in hexameters, the elegiac distich—that is, a combination of hexameter and pentameter—became the standard metrical form. Brevity and pointedness, which today count among epigram's essential features, did not always play so crucial a role, but the limited space provided by the stone and other materials made a certain conciseness of expression necessary and may thus be considered an important factor in the development of the genre.

Unlike other poetic forms such as epic, lyric, and drama, which originally were all tied to oral performance, epigrams were, right from the start, written texts, publicly displayed but designed for individual readings by passersby, not for recitals in front of a large audience. Paradoxically (at least from a modern viewpoint), this very writtenness contributed to the general perception of epigrams as Gebrauchstexte (pragmatic or functional texts), not as literary objects in their own right, and the majority of verse inscriptions are, indeed, extremely formulaic and stereotyped, particularly during the Archaic period. However, the strategies by which epigraphic poems try to attract the reader's attention and stage their own reception can be rather subtle. Modern speech-act theory has proved to be very fruitful in the analysis of inscribed epigrams, which often feature speaking objects, explicit addresses of travelers, and an elaborate system of deictic references. In many ways these written texts imitate oral speech situations and engage their audience in a complex act of reading (the poem) and viewing (the monument or other object)—a procedure that Joseph Day aptly characterizes as “epigraphic performance” (p. 32).

The genre's prominence seems to have grown quite a bit in the wake of the Persian Wars, presumably because the Greeks felt a particular need to commemorate their victory over the dreaded enemy from the East. In a famous passage the historian Herodotus (c.484–c.430/420 bce) quotes three epigrams on the Battle of Thermopylae (480 bce), in which three hundred Spartans found their death while heroically fighting against the invading Persian army (Herodotus 7.228). As it happens, one of these poems may well be called antiquity's most renowned text (Greek Anthology 7.249): “Oh stranger, bear this message to the Spartans that we lie here, obedient to their orders.” The Greek Anthology (on which see below) attributes the epigram to Simonides of Ceos (c.556–468 bce); Herodotus himself gives no such information, but he indicates that one of the other epitaphs comes from Simonides. In any case, Simonides is a crucial figure in the history of the genre, because a collection of poems gathered from stone or literary sources, which can be regarded as a forerunner of later epigram books, circulated under his name. The precise nature of the so-called Sylloge Simonidea is hard to determine, but it seems likely that it was initiated at some point in the fourth or third century and then grew.

Hellenistic Epigrams.

Whoever was responsible for first gathering Simonidean inscriptions (whether or not they were actually by him), the formation of this collection is indicative of a gradually changing attitude toward epigrams, an attitude that by the third century bce led to a new conceptualization of the genre: during the early Hellenistic Age, authors started composing epigrams for aesthetic purposes, many of which were never intended for inscription, but rather were conceived solely for the written page. This does not mean, of course, that texts stopped being inscribed, but the term epigramma could henceforth also apply to a poem that merely pretended to be chiseled on stone.

Writing fictive epitaphs and dedicatory epigrams, Hellenistic and later authors frequently explored the nature of epigraphic speech acts and played with the conventions of inscriptional poetry. In doing so, they must evoke the (imaginary) material setting through their verbal art and make the reader see in his fantasy what a passerby would see in front of his eyes. Because the information given within the confines of an epigram tends to be rather scarce, the reader is often confronted with the task of having to supply a lot by himself; to use the term coined by Peter Bing, one might say that the reader is invited to engage in the challenges of a complex and witty Ergänzungsspiel (game of supplementation). Among the early composers of such “literary” or “book” epigrams are several female poets: Anyte of Tegea and Moiro of Byzantium (both fl. c.300 bce) and Nossis of Epizephyrian Locri (fl. 280 bce). The most popular and influential, however, was Leonidas of Tarentum (fl. second quarter of third century bce). Around one hundred epigrams are preserved under his name; largely these focus on the lives of the lower classes, presenting epitaphs and dedications “commissioned” by fishermen, farmer, weavers, and the like.

Significantly, the Hellenistic period also saw the genesis of a new epigram type: amatory and sympotic themes, which so far had been the prerogative of lyric and elegiac poetry, entered the world of the epigram and began to be cast in the form of what used to be inscriptional verse. One of the most prominent figures among early erotic epigrammatists is Asclepiades of Samos (probably born c.330 bce), whose poems vividly describe his passion for various women and boys, often lamenting the pains of love as well as rejoicing in its sweetness. This multiplicity of desires is quite typical of amatory epigram and may be associated with the variety of addressees and voices inherent in the genre right from its start.

Callimachus (c.305–240 bce), the leading poet of the Hellenistic Age, experimented with both fictive inscriptions and erotic, more specifically pederastic, epigrams. Considering the crucial role that small and refined forms play in Callimachean aesthetics, it is easy to see why epigrams would particularly appeal to this author and his contemporaries. In addition, the close relation of epigram and writing must have been alluring to Hellenistic poets, who distinguish themselves by a heightened awareness of the text's materiality and who self-consciously reflect the bookishness of the age in their writings. Many of them were also active as scholars in the Library at Alexandria, where they collected, classified, and edited, inter alia, the works of earlier poets. Thus it seems only natural to assume that they would also create editions of their own poems, not least of their epigrams.

Epigram Books.

In recent years various scholars have shown how important a role the medium of the book plays for the interpretation of poems, whose semantic potential is significantly modified and enhanced by the surrounding context—a hypothesis that in the case of Hellenistic epigrams is not unanimously accepted. Alan Cameron, for instance, vehemently argues against the assumption that epigrams were written for books; instead, reviving a theory first put forth by Richard Reitzenstein (1891), he considers the symposium to be epigrams’ primary setting and even envisages ex tempore recitations. Yet although such short poems are, no doubt, suitable for entertaining guests at a symposium, we need not go so far as to deny the possibility of epigrams composed for and artfully arranged within books.

Unfortunately, no such single-authored collection has survived through the manuscript tradition; the majority of Hellenistic epigrams are preserved by the Greek Anthology, which goes back to a Byzantine collection put together around 900 ce with the help of ancient anthologies. However, as Kathryn Gutzwiller (Poetic Garlands) has convincingly demonstrated, traces of the original books can still be found in the Greek Anthology. Moreover, the spectacular discovery of a papyrus in the 1990s (P. Mil. Vogl. 8.309), edited in 2001 by Guido Bastianini and Claudio Gallazzi, has brought to light an arrangement of more than one hundred poems by the epigrammatist Posidippus of Pella, who was active as a poet in the first half of the third century bce and is explicitly characterized as an epigrammatopoios (epigram writer) by an inscription from Thermum (c.276/275).

Not everyone agrees on the nature of this collection: though the communis opinio regards Posidippus as its author, a few still deny that all the epigrams are by him. And although various scholars argue that the arrangement of the poems goes back to the author, others prefer to attribute it to a later editor. In any case the layout of the papyrus came as a big surprise, because it contains several thematically arranged sections, which are separated from each other by headings such as lithika (poems on gemstones), oiōnoskōpika (bird signs), anathematika (dedications), and so on. Some of these categories are quite unusual, and the thematic focus of the collection on (pseudo-)inscriptional poetry, often concerned with Ptolemaic topics, hardly conforms to the image of the poet that had been derived from his previously known epigrams, most of which are erotic.

Epigram Anthologies.

This should caution us against assuming that the epigrams transmitted through the Greek Anthology reflect all aspects of a given author or the genre, which as a whole was probably much richer than we can tell. Around 100 bce, Meleager of Gadara created an anthology entitled Stephanos (or Garland), in which he combined poems of earlier and contemporary Hellenistic authors with his own. The Garland, which was enthusiastically received in Rome, plays a crucial role in the history of the genre, not least because Meleager's aesthetic and thematic preferences shaped the generic conceptions of later poets. Brevity, for example, became increasingly important after Meleager, especially in the Garland of Philip (c.40 ce), and it is not unreasonable to assume that there had been many longer poems that were not included in Meleager's collection.

Philip's Garland contains, inter alia, epigrams by Greek poets writing in a Roman environment, such as the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus of Gadara (c.55 bce) or Crinagoras of Mytilene (b. c.70/65 bce), who frequently address Roman citizens. In the first century ce, poets—most prominently Lucilius (c.60 ce) and Nicarchus (c.80 ce)—started to focus on satirical topics, which through the reception of the Latin poet Martial (c.40–103 ce) came to be most closely associated with the epigrammatic genre in modern European literature. Also active in the first century ce was Rufinus, to whom the Greek Anthology attributes around forty highly erotic epigrams, followed by Strato of Sardis, who wrote a collection of pederastic poems entitled Paidikē Mousa. Last but not least, the Greek epigram experienced a renaissance in the sixth century ce when Agathias edited an anthology called Kyklos (Cycle), which combined poems of his contemporaries with his own.


Primary Works

Austin, Colin, and Guido Bastianini, eds. Posidippi Pellaei quae supersunt omnia. Milan: LED, 2002. An edition of all of Posidippus’ poems with English and Italian translation.Find this resource:

Bastianini, Guido, and Claudio Gallazzi, eds. Posidippo di Pella: Epigrammi (P. Mil. Vogl. 8. 309). Papiri dell’Università degli Studi di Milano 8. Milan: LED, 2001. The editio princeps of the new Posidippus with commentary and facsimile.Find this resource:

Floridi, Lucia, ed. Stratone di Sardi: Epigrammi. Alessandria, Italy: Edizioni dell’Orso, 2007. An edition of and commentary on Strato's Paidikē Mousa.Find this resource:

Guichard, Luis Arturo, ed. Asclepíades de Samos: Epigramas y fragmentos. Sapheneia: Beiträge zur Klassischen Philologie 10. Bern, Switzerland: Lang, 2004. An edition of and commentary on Asclepiades’ epigrams.Find this resource:

Hansen, Peter Allan, ed. Carmina Epigraphica Graeca. 2 vols. Berlin and New York: W. de Gruyter, 1983–1989. An edition of Greek epigraphic poetry from the eighth to the fourth century bce.Find this resource:

Merkelbach, Reinhold, and Josef Stauber, eds. Steinepigramme aus dem griechischen Osten. 4 vols. Stuttgart, Germany: Teubner, 1998–2002. An edition with German translation of stone epigrams from the Greek East.Find this resource:

Peek, Werner, ed. Griechische Vers-Inschriften. Vol. 1:Grab-Epigramme. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1955.Find this resource:

Secondary Works

Bing, Peter. “ ‘Ergänzungsspiel’ in the Epigrams of Callimachus.Antike und Abendland 41 (1995): 115–131. Reprinted in Peter Bing, The Scroll and the Marble (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008), pp. 85–105.Find this resource:

Bing, Peter, and Jon Steffen Bruss, eds. Brill's Companion to Hellenistic Epigram Down to Philip. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.Find this resource:

Cameron, Alan. Callimachus and His Critics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Day, Joseph W. “Poems on Stone: The Inscribed Antecedents of Hellenistic Epigram.” In Brill's Companion to Hellenistic Epigram Down to Philip, edited by Peter Bing and Jon Steffen Bruss, pp. 29–47. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.Find this resource:

Fantuzzi, Marco, and Richard Hunter. “The Epigram.” In their Tradition and Innovation in Hellenistic Poetry, pp. 283–349. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. This book is a revised and expanded translation of the authors’ Muse e modelli: La poesia ellenistica da Alessandro Magno ad Augusto (Rome: Laterza, 2002).Find this resource:

Gutzwiller, Kathryn J. Poetic Garlands: Hellenistic Epigrams in Context. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Gutzwiller, Kathryn J., ed. The New Posidippus: A Hellenistic Poetry Book. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Höschele, Regina. Verrückt nach Frauen: Der Epigrammatiker Rufin. Classica Monacensia 31. Tübingen, Germany: G. Narr, 2006.Find this resource:

Meyer, Doris. Inszeniertes Lesevergnügen: Das inschriftliche Epigramm und seine Rezeption bei Kallimachos. Stuttgart, Germany: Steiner, 2005. A study on Callimachus’ reception of inscriptional epigrams.Find this resource:

Nisbet, Gideon. Greek Epigram in the Roman Empire: Martial's Forgotten Rivals. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Regina Höschele

The Iambic Tradition

The “iambic tradition” refers broadly to a style of Greek poetry characterized by satire, personal mockery, obscenity, and picaresque narrative. In antiquity the term iambos was often used loosely for any poetry that was vituperative or satirical, although a discrete canon of early Greek iambographic poets arose who served as models for other kinds of poetry that might display satirical or vituperative tendencies. Relatively little iambographic verse survives from the Archaic and Classical periods, although enough survives to suggest that the genre was quite varied: in addition to satire and mockery, such poets often told comic stories, incorporated elements of animal fable, engaged in literary parody, or addressed friends with apparent seriousness.

Three iambographers have come down to us largely in fragmentary form from the Archaic period: Archilochus of Paros and Semonides of Amorgos, both from the seventh century bce, and Hipponax of Ephesus, active in the sixth century bce. For later periods of antiquity Archilochus and Hipponax were considered the iambographers par excellence: Hellenistic Greek poets of the third century bce such as Callimachus in his collection of iamboi or Herodas in his mimiamboi (mime iambics) and Roman poets of the first century bce such as Catullus and Horace in his Epodes all self-consciously looked to the Archaic Greek iambos as paradigmatic for their own experiments with the genre.

The term “iambic” is also applied to the type of poetic meter commonly used by the archaic iambographers. This meter featured a succession of “iambs”—an “iamb” is a metrical foot consisting of a short syllable followed by a long syllable. Aristotle claimed (Poetics 1448b33) that the meter got its name from being used for satirical poetry—implying that the term iambos (or iambeion) initially referred to a type of poetry and only later referred to a meter. In fact the original meaning of the term iambos is uncertain because there are few attestations before the Classical period, though the term does first appear in Archilochus (fragment 215W) in reference to a poetic type, not a meter.

A story told in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, which scholars date to either the seventh or sixth century bce, has suggested to some a ritual connection between the comic invective of iambos and the cult of Eleusinian Demeter. At lines 198–210 of the hymn a servant named Iambe teases Demeter, devastated by the abduction of her daughter Persephone by Hades, in an attempt to lighten her mood. This episode of bantering abuse and obscenity (aischrologia), as the hymn implies, eventually was incorporated into the ritual worship of the goddess. The verbal connection between Iambe's name and iambos is certainly significant, but it remains unclear whether the poetic iambos had its actual origin in cultic ritual, or whether Iambe herself was named for a preexisting poetic form that featured the kind of comic aischrologia that she directs at Demeter in the hymn.

In addition to the iambic trimeter, Greek iambographers composed in a variety of other meters as well. Archilochus, for example, also used trochaic tetrameters and several epodic forms; Hipponax preferred a variation on the iambic trimeter known as the choliambos (limping iambos), so named because the final foot—normally an iamb (a short syllable followed by a long)—ended in a spondee (two long syllables) or a trochee (a long syllable followed by a short), which gives the line a halting, heavy quality. Not all Greek verse written in the iambic meter belonged to the iambos genre: Solon (c.630–c.560 bce) wrote serious political poetry in iambic trimeters, for example, and by the fifth century this meter had become standard for the nonlyric parts of Athenian drama.

Content and Performance.

Considerable debate exists over the dynamics and interaction of content and performance in the early iambos. Both Archilochus and Hipponax repeatedly attacked specific targets by name in their poetry, but the intentions and effect of their personal quarrels are elusive. Who was the intended audience? Were the targets insiders or outsiders of the poet's social group? And were the attacks intended as a type of benign comic “roasting,” or as an attempt to marginalize and demean the targets in the eyes of their contemporaries? Much depends on how literally the poet's “I” is taken, because this purports to represent the poet's subjectivity and routinely claims that its narrative is autobiographical.

Earlier generations of scholars tended to take the poetry at face value, locating in Archilochus and Hipponax archaic forms of “personal,” confessional writing. More recent approaches, however, emphasize the force of genre and performative occasion on the particular ways in which the iambographers represented their relationships with their targets. It is likely that early iamboi were performed either at symposia or at other, even more public festive, possibly ritual, occasions, and some scholars have suggested—though the evidence is at best highly inferential—that such performances might even have been proto-dramatic, that is, featuring the poet impersonating characters in performance, possibly even in costume. Whatever exact form early iambic performances took, however, it seems clear that the poems themselves represented far more than the poet's unmediated personal animosities.

Both Archilochus and Hipponax attacked a variety of people, but in antiquity each was famous for a single bête noire, a person with whom he was embroiled in a scandal. In Archilochus’ case it was a man named Lycambes, the father of a woman, Neoboule, to whom Archilochus was once betrothed. When Lycambes for some reason called off the wedding, Archilochus composed various poetic attacks on him and his daughters, including Neoboule herself (fragments 30–87W). The longest fragment that survives of Archilochus, thirty-five lines of papyrus text (Kölner Papyri 58, which is fragment 196aW) in an epodic meter, is an extended rant against Neoboule while the speaker attempts to seduce another woman, probably Neoboule's sister.

Hipponax's poems against his main target, the sculptor Bupalus (a known historical figure), are even more fragmentary than Archilochus’, but they also involve a perceived slight. Ancient accounts of the relationship between the two men say that Hipponax was indignant at an unflattering sculpture that Bupalus had made of him and that his indignation inspired the poet's iambic wrath. Although no evidence from the fragments themselves mentions this specific incident, Bupalus comes in for mockery in other contexts with some frequency (e.g., in fragments 1, 15, 19–20, and 86W). Hipponax, like Archilochus, combines high and low diction to create a poetic genre of mixed registers, sometimes self-consciously literary—as with frequent allusions to, and parody of, Homeric epic—sometimes coarsely obscene and malicious. The fragments of Hipponax in particular suggest a colorful, rambunctious world of shady characters and outré encounters. Consider, for instance, fragment 92W, a first-person narrative in which the speaker apparently describes in scatological detail his participation in a ritual to restore his sexual virility.

The only other iambographer to survive from the Archaic period, Semonides of Amorgos, has left a poem of a rather different sort, a comic rant against women. This work was inflected by traditions of animal fable and satirical strands of earlier didactic poetry, such as Hesiod, and its invective is generalized rather than personal. But it shares with Archilochus and Hipponax a fondness for comic vitriol.

Renewed Interest.

Very few iamboi survive from the time of Hipponax through the Classical period (fifth and fourth century bce), although a few names have survived, such as Ananius—roughly contemporary with Hipponax and sometimes confused with him in antiquity—and Hermippus, who also composed comic drama in fifth-century Athens. Indeed there was a natural affinity between Athenian comedy and the archaic iambos as genres of mockery and abuse. Aristophanes’ comic dramas, for example, were notorious for many of the poetic hallmarks that are associated with iambos—comic obscenity, literary parody, personal abuse, political and social satire—and it is likely that the other poets of Old Comedy at the end of the fifth century were similarly influenced by the iambic tradition. Aristotle mentions the “iambic form” (iambikē idea) of Old Comedy at Poetics 1449b7–8, by which he likely refers to its penchant for mockery and abuse, although some scholars have argued that “iambic” here refers to the episodic, desultory qualities of the Archaic iambos, which might also have characterized Old Comedy in its earlier stages.

The iambos became more or less moribund after the fifth century, but renewed interest in its Archaic forms arose in the Hellenistic period. Writing in the third century bce, Callimachus opened his book of thirteen iamboi with the resurrection of Hipponax, brought back to life in the poem to offer advice to quarreling scholars. These poems are highly fragmentary as well, but it is clear that even though Callimachus obviously took Hipponax as his iambic mentor, his own iamboi were more varied and experimental in tone, subject, and meter; iambos 13, for instance, answers critics who accused Callimachus of polyeideia, “composing in many literary forms.” Thus Callimachus’ iamboi are highly stylized exercises in an Archaic poetic tradition. In addition to invective, Callimachus’ iamboi also included didactic animal fable (2, 4), talking statues (7, 9), a birthday poem (12), and other miscellaneous literary subgenres.

The iamboi of Hipponax also served as inspiration for the mimiamboi of Herodas, also writing in the third century bce. These poems—eight survive in the fragments of a single papyrus—were short dramatic mimes in choliambic meter, probably, though not certainly, for reading rather than for performance. The choice of meter clearly signaled their affiliation with Hipponax (made explicit in the last lines of mimiambos 8), and many other aspects of the poems owe much to the archaic iambos, such as their occasional obscenity, scenes from low life, and bawdy humor. Two other poets of the third century bce, Cercidas and Phoenix, were evidently also part of the Hellenistic revival of iambic poetry, although only a handful of fragments survive from each of them. Ancient testimony suggests that they were drawn especially to the didactic and moralizing elements that characterized iambic satire.


Bartol, Krystyna. Greek Elegy and Iambus: Studies in Ancient Literary Sources. Poznan, Poland: Uniwersytet im. Adama Mickiewicza w Poznaniu, 1993.Find this resource:

Cavarzere, Alberto, Alessandro Barchiesi, and Antonio Aloni, eds. Iambic Ideas: Essays on a Poetic Tradition from Archaic Greece to the Late Roman Empire. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.Find this resource:

Gerber, Douglas, ed. A Companion to the Greek Lyric Poets. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1997. See pp. 43–88.Find this resource:

Gerber, Douglas, ed. and trans. Greek Iambic Poetry: From the Seventh to the Fifth Centuries BC. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. Greek text and English translation.Find this resource:

Kantzios, Ippokratis. The Trajectory of Archaic Greek Trimeters. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2005.Find this resource:

Rosen, Ralph M. “The Hellenistic Epigrams on Archilochus and Hipponax.” In Brill's Companion to Hellenistic Epigram, edited by Peter Bing and Jon Steffen Bruss, pp. 459–476. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.Find this resource:

Rosen, Ralph M. Old Comedy and the Iambographic Tradition. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988.Find this resource:

Rotstein, A. The Idea of Iambos from Archilochus to Aristotle. Forthcoming.Find this resource:

West, Martin L. Studies in Greek Elegy and Iambus. Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 1974. See pages 23–28.Find this resource:

West, Martin L., ed. Iambi et elegi graeci ante Alexandrum cantati. 2d ed. 2 vols. Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. Greek text with Latin commentary.Find this resource:

Ralph M. Rosen

Greek Women Poets

Although ancient Greek societies were largely patriarchal, references in Greek (male) texts to women as practitioners of literature strongly suggest that a tradition of female authorship flourished from the Archaic Age into the Hellenistic period. A canonical roster of women poets was first compiled by the scholars of Alexandria and was in circulation by the time of Augustus in imperial Rome. Despite the extremely fragmentary nature of the extant poetry written by women in ancient Greece, it is possible to glean from their work a distinct creative tradition. Through their innovative reworkings of myth and their appropriations of male literary forms, Greek women poets uncovered their own art forms within established literary genres.

For the most part Greek women occupied marginal positions in society. In spite of the formal exclusion of women from the public domain in Greek society, there is evidence to suggest that women poets had some familiarity with male literary culture. Even in Archaic and early Classical Greece, where adult women were segregated from the larger public sphere except on ritual occasions, there are indications that women might have produced their own discourses in isolation.

Greek women poets wrote their verses primarily for oral performance at public occasions such as ceremonies, rituals, and banquets. Their extant lyrics represent only a very small portion of what they actually wrote. Much of what we have today of their work comes from short pieces of their poetry quoted by grammarians or from fragments recovered from scraps of papyri.

After Sappho (fl. c.610–c.580 bce), the earliest extant women poets are from the Classical Age, yet Corinna is the only one of that period for whom we have more than a few lines. Although her dates cannot be definitively resolved, more scholars tend toward placing Corinna in the fifth century bce. This date is in keeping with ancient writers who considered Corinna to be a contemporary of the poet Pindar and possibly his literary rival. Although Corinna wrote five books of lyric poetry, only small fragments of her work survive, including substantial portions of three poems. Corinna's poetry appears to consist mainly of narratives dealing with local Boeotian myths and legends. Her poems were composed for public choral performance that celebrated local rituals and transmitted communal values through retelling familiar stories.

Several scholars have argued that Corinna's mythological narratives refashion male traditions of choral lyric and foreground female figures and experiences, possibly suggesting that her poems were composed primarily for female audiences. In one of her fragments Corinna explicitly states that she transforms traditional tales for the “white-robed women of Tanagra” and that “stories from her fathers’ time will be adorned through her art” for an audience of young women. In another of her fragments Corinna presents a singing contest between the Boeotian mountains Cithaeron and Helicon. The winning song focuses on the tale of Rhea and Cronus, a tale that draws on Hesiod's version of the story in the Theogony. Yet rather than accentuating Zeus’ triumph over his father, as Hesiod does, Corinna underlines and, indeed, celebrates the “great honor” from the gods that Rhea obtains because of her heroic action in saving her son Zeus through her ability to outwit Cronus. Thus Corinna's version of this well-known story may be said to offer a distinctly feminine perspective.

The work of the Hellenistic women poets represents the largest and most diverse surviving body of women's poetry from Greek and Roman antiquity. In this period women were offered new opportunities for education, often being rewarded for their talents with prizes, state decrees, and even political rights. The most popular poetic form during this period was the epigram, a form that was originally confined to inscriptions on tombstones. But Hellenistic epigrams came to treat a range of subjects and were no longer necessarily used as actual inscriptions. In the work of the three main extant female poets of this period—Erinna, Nossis, and Anyte—we see epigrams that treat a number of themes such as lamentation, love, and pets.

Erinna, a mid-fourth-century poet, was celebrated in antiquity nearly as much as Sappho was. Three epigrams attributed to Erinna all focus on women; two of these epigrams concern the death of Erinna's childhood friend Baucis. But it appears that Erinna was most famous for her three-hundred-line hexameter poem referred to as “The Distaff.” Except for a few lines, this poem was lost until 1928 when a papyrus was found containing fifty-four partially intact lines. “The Distaff” is a lament for Baucis; Erinna weaves together reminiscences of their shared childhood with expressions of grief for the loss of her friend to both marriage and death. Like Sappho, Erinna invokes the memory of the beloved friend and commemorates the shared activities of women's lives.

Nossis’ epigrams (300 bce) also focus on the world of women. Nearly all of her twelve extant epigrams are centered on the worship of female deities, and they seem to reflect a specifically female world. Many scholars believe that her poems address female companions, emphasizing their shared domestic concerns and suggesting a cultural environment set apart from a male-dominated social order. The bulk of Nossis’ surviving poetry consists of dedicatory epigrams that honor gifts made by women to goddesses. Some of these poems describe portraits of women, likenesses that convey their beauty, gentleness, and nobility. Like Sappho, Nossis creates in her epigrams a warm and vivid poetic persona. Indeed, she explicitly identifies Sappho as her literary model and, like Sappho, links herself closely to Aphrodite, asserting in one epigram that eros can offer unmitigated pleasure.

Of all the extant poetry by Greek women, more of Anyte's poetry survives than of any other woman poet besides Sappho. Twenty-one epigrams have been attributed to Anyte. Writing around 300 bce, Anyte wrote her poems within the form of traditional epigram and largely confined herself to its dedicatory and funereal genres. Yet she introduced important innovations into the epigram that appear to have had a significant impact on later writers—particularly her pet epitaphs and her pastoral poems. She seems to have been one of the first Hellenistic poets to describe bucolic settings in the context of the epigrammatic style. She also helped to develop in innovative ways the funereal genre. Her laments for slain warriors and young women who died before marriage evoke profound pathos. Anyte also composed epitaphs for pets, displaying a unique ability to blend the personal and domestic with the epic language of Homeric verse. Epigram 10, her lament for a puppy killed by a snake, offers a striking illustration of this:

  • You perished, even you, once beside a many-rooted bush,
  • Locris, swiftest of noise-loving puppies, into your nimble limb a speckle-necked snake put such harsh poison.
This epigram recalls directly Andromache's lament for Hector in Homer's Iliad. Thus Anyte playfully characterizes the perished puppy as a great hero who has given his life to protect his homeland. On the one hand, this serves to elevate the ordinary activities of everyday life to heroic stature, and on the other hand, it deflates the solemnity and grandeur associated with heroic lament. One may argue that Anyte's pet epitaphs most show her inventiveness, in that they play with the seriousness and solemnity of the traditional epigram.
Poetry, GreekClick to view larger

Poetess. Portrait of a young woman, identified as Sappho. Roman fresco, Pompeii. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, Italy/Scala/Art Resource, NY


Greene, Ellen, ed. Women Poets in Ancient Greece and Rome. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005.Find this resource:

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Rayor, Diane. Sappho's Lyre: Archaic Lyric and Women Poets of Ancient Greece. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.Find this resource:

Snyder, Jane McIntosh. The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1989.Find this resource:

Ellen Greene