Thursday, February 15, 2001

New light shed on ancient poems

UC professor finds Greek epigrams collected earlier than thought

By Ben L. Kaufman
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        University of Cincinnati professor Kathryn Gutzwiller knew her next book would invite scholarly assault.

        In it, she argued that Greek epigrams — brief, early, written poems — first were collected by poets into scrolls shortly after 300 B.C.

        That was two centuries earlier than previously known collections, and 200 years is forever among classics scholars.

[photo] University of Cincinnati professor Kathryn Gutzwiller
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
        Two anxious years into her writing, the Fates intervened.

        Viennese curators had found a scroll of about 100 epigrams by Posidippus stuffed in a mummy's chest cavity — and a contract dated to what would be 183 B.C. was written on the back of one of the sheets of papyrus.

        “It legitimated the whole project,” Dr. Gutzwiller said.

        Armed with scholarly certainty and fortified by the Vienna evidence, Dr. Gutzwiller completed Poetic Garlands: Hellenistic Epigrams in Context ($45, University of California Press).

        Rather than provoke attacks, Garlands won the American Philological Association's top honor last month as the outstanding contribution to classical scholarship by a member during the past three years.

        Garlands was written for scholars, but it is accessible to the nonspecialist. When epigrams require elaboration, Dr. Gutzwiller provides it, as in this poem:

        That popular Nico promised to visit me tonight,
        even swore it by holy Thesmophorus.
        But she hasn't come and it's past midnight. Did she intend
        to perjure herself? Slaves, extinguish the light.

        This naive poet was headed for disappointment the moment he dated Nico, Dr. Gutzwiller said.

        “The ancient reader would recognize that an oath by the Thesmophoran Demeter to visit a lover was an oath that canceled itself out. .... The Thesmophoria was a women's festival from which men were excluded and so a time of sexual abstinence.”

        More than establishing the earlier date for creation of collections of epigrams, Dr. Gutzwiller said, “I've shown an interesting and valuable way of reading these poems by reconstructing their original context” as parts of the authors' collections.

        Anonymous Greek epigrams — written on tombstones and other monuments — arose before 600 BC.

        They are as brief and personal as the more famous Iliad or Odyssey are long and heroic.

        One, for instance, imagines a conversation between a young woman and a passerby who reads the poem over her grave:

        Who are you, lady, who lie under a Parian pillar?
        Prexo, Calliteles' daughter.
        From where?
        And who buried you?
        Theocritus, to whom my parents married me.
        How did you die?
        From childbirth.
        At what age?
        Childless then?
        No, I left behind Calliteles aged three.
        I hope for you he lives and comes to a great old age.
        And I, stranger, that Fortune be good to you.

        Shortly after 300 B.C., poets were abandoning anonymity, gathering their epigrams into scrolls and reading them aloud to invited audiences.

        Dr. Gutzwiller said epigrams can be very moving because “they appeal to a modern taste.”

        Then as now, they “appealed to the literary ethos of the age that turns to the personal.”


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