Archaic and Classical Stone Epigrams: Ordinary, Extra-ordinary or Both?

In dealing with some core aspects of the classical world and its legacy (Attic drama; archaic epigrams collected in post-classical anthologies), I have become increasingly interested in epigrams on stone, and particularly in dedicatory epigrams on stone in the archaic and classical eras. Stone epigrams in fact combine in an unique way features regarded as “ordinary” and “extra-ordinary”, both by the ancient Greeks and by modern scholars, and I will be approaching them in this fashion.

During the archaic and classical period, epigrams were inscribed on stone or other durable materials; they were usually short, anonymous, and composed for specific occasions, mostly to serve as epitaphs or dedications. These distinctive features caused epigrams to be, on the one hand, “ordinary” and “formulaic” in their nature and their structure. To begin with, epitaphs and dedications were part of the ordinary life of a Greek citizen: for example, votive offerings were set up and dedicated on a regular basis in sanctuaries and other sacred spaces. Our museums are rich in votive and funerary monuments (mostly severed from their bases) and in inscribed bases (often severed from the statues they supported). A quick look at the first volume of the most recent edition of the Inscriptiones Graecae reveals that from Attica alone are preserved, so far, more than 230 epitaphs and ca. 510 dedications (in the period up to 403/2 B.C.). If one considers only verse-inscriptions, epigrams were basically of two types: epitaphs and dedications (in Attica more than 100 and 150, respectively). Secondly, archaic and classical inscribed epigrams had a standard structure and a highly formulaic character: they consisted of recurring, and in some cases mandatory, elements (the name of the deceased in epitaphs and of the dedicator in dedications); well-defined formulas (ὁ δεῖνα μ᾽ ἀνέθηκε in dedications, σῆμα τόδε in epitaphs); typical lexical items (e.g. δεκάτη, μνῆμα, some proper to a subgenre, say, to dedicatory epigrams and foreign to the other one, sepulchral epigrams). The linguistic form of archaic and classical Greek epigrams was usually the dialect of the dedicator himself, with external high-styled features of poetical models (epics, lyrics, elegy), often adapted to the local dialect. Also the visual aspect of dedications and epitaphs was mostly “ordinary” / “formulaic”: very often grave monuments and votive offerings supporting the inscriptions were somehow standard (e.g. a kouros for a young deceased, a bronze tripod by a victorious choregos); and, for the inscribed text, the local alphabet was usually employed, the disposition of the text on the stone was often predictable (e.g. on fluted columns the text ran downwards in the flutes; when the stoichedon style became the norm, most epigrams were engraved in this fashion).

On the other hand, stone epigrams are “extra-ordinary”, an unicum in the field of ancient studies. In fact, epigrams on stone were originally conceived to be engraved on their support: their information was conveyed by the interwined union of a material part, the physical monument, and an immaterial one, the poetical text engraved upon it. I find this very intriguing: in order to understand truly the message of the epigrams one must carefully “listen” and interpret all three languages through which epigrams spoke to their audience, that of art and archaeology (the dedicated, often artistically elaborated, object), that of epigraphy (alphabet used, form of the letters, disposition of the text on the stone) and that of literature (the local dialect embellished with features of poetic traditions). Therefore, I have embarked on a “multi-lingual” study of the artistic supports, the alphabet and the literary-linguistic form of the epigrams.

Moreover, the three different languages are, to me, a profitable means to investigate how epigrams tried to reach their two-fold audience, the god and the passers-by or, more broadly and more importantly, the patron’s fellow citizens. It is well-known that on some occasions, for example, dedicatory monuments were used to make their patron noticeable or even to make a political statement (the altar of Peisistratus, CEG 305; the Hermai of Hipparchus etc.). Since epigrams were “ordinary” and “formulaic” on several respects, I argue that some patrons of inscribed epigrams purposefully “inter-played” with the three available languages to differentiate their inscribed monuments from the standard ones, in order to stand out. The first means, in terms of timing and level, was the physical image of the monument (i.e. the language of archaeology and epigraphy); the second, and deeper, involved the literary form.

But this is the subject of another post, stay tuned!