Abstract: Alphabetic Images in Ancient Greece: the Hellenistic Technopaegnia

The book I came to CHS to complete, “Graphic Art: Alphabetic Images in Ancient Greece,” examines mixed-media contexts in which the materiality of the Greek alphabet is significant. This study underscores how Greek poets and craftsmen alike sustained an intermedial dialogue from the 8th century BCE on, and elaborates the role of writing on statues and pots, on the dramatic stage, and on the page. My work-in-progress presentation at the beginning of this fellowship year focused on the aesthetics of the earliest Greek inscriptions; for the end-of-year research symposium I come full circle with a presentation of my latest material, the Hellenistic technopaegnia. In particular, I am interested in how these pattern poems imitate, subvert, and literally re-shape established literary and material traditions from the Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods alike.

More specifically, my paper treats the Hellenistic technopaegnia as critical discourses on ancient literary and visual culture by focusing on the control they exert over their audience’s gaze. Far more significant than mere word games, these poems all at once invite, re-direct, and frustrate the reader’s conventional modes of viewing; I investigate their methods and motivations for doing so.

The very language of the technopaegnia dramatizes moments of viewing: the Syrinx opens with the command to the reader, λεῦσσέ με, “gaze upon me,” and concludes with the single paradoxical word νελεύστῳ, “invisible,” that both makes visible the complete image of Pan’s instrument and completes the sense of Simias’ poem (AP 15.24.1; 20).

The form of the poems also controls the reader’s vision, e.g. Simias’ Axe and Egg require the reader to begin from the paired outer lines and successively move inward to make semantic sense of their words (AP 15.22; 27); the reader decoding the poems’ verbal and visual riddles cannot help but deconstruct the order of the image to read the lines in their proper order. Indeed, this poetry is so keen to problematize viewing that its authors exploit meter to visual, rather than strictly aural or generic ends.

Through such complex verbal-visual machinations as these, the technopaegnia engage with and innovate on the histories of inscribed and literary epigram, and simultaneously take on the histories of displaying and collecting crafted objects. I demonstrate how the epigrams’ images embody the Hellenistic literary aesthetic in the visual. I also suggest that their authors join the Hellenistic vogue of creating new contexts for viewing art objects, now framed and displayed within the margins of the page rather than the columns of a temple or the halls of a Ptolemaic palace. By acknowledging the ways the technopaegnia unsettle the acts of viewing and of reading, I aim to situate them within the Hellenistic “culture of viewing” as well as within the long trajectory of word-image exchanges with which they engage.