Greek Literary Epigram conference at UCL

Recent scholarship has witnessed an escalating interest in the study of Greek literary epigram. UCL has responded to this trend by collecting some well-known scholars in the field together in North London. This is a report of the conference by Sam Hayes.

I’m going to be honest here. I’m primarily a Latinist (focussing on Martial at the moment), and while I do have a fair bit of Greek under my belt it desperately needs dusting off and a bit of revitalisation. Thus, when I arrived in UCL last week for the Greek Literary Epgiram conference, I was a little bit nervous of saying something that was more than a little bit stupid, or worse, not getting anything from the experience. I am happy to say, however, that I was very wrong! The conference (healthily attended by 60 delegates) was very welcoming, aided in no small way by the efforts of the organising team: Chris Carey, Maria Kanellou and Ivana Pretrovic.

I could not possibly hope to give a detailed summary of each and every paper, but it was a mark of success for the speakers, and the organising committee who selected them, that there were only a couple of papers that I didn’t follow (simply through a lack of general knowledge on the subject). I will, though, try to give a general overview of some of my favourite papers. Favourite, because they correlated most closely to my own investigations into Latin epigram, and helped me to think more laterally about the genre as a whole. I apologise in advance if I misrepresent any views given by scholars in their papers.

Joseph Day kicked off the conference with a resounding paper on the links between literary epigram and its inscriptional predecessor. Though he only recently made the transition to literary epigram from his ample career examining inscription, he gave a masterly reading of the poems of books 6 & 7 of the Greek Anthology. Most exciting, perhaps, was his consideration of the topos of an epigram to be split into two voices: one would ask what this monument or stone was, and the second would explain what was written there and its context. Day hypothesised that a similar readership was present in Ancient Greece, though the question of literacy was contested by others present (though personally I liked the idea).

The second panel was concerned with “Hellenistic Epigram as Text”, and chimed rather strongly with my own research interests. Andrej Petrovic considered the idea of paraliterary epigram – epigram composed outside of the normal literary tradition – and the roles it played in society. Three functions of papyri were found: aides-memoires for a symposium; preparation for inscription; and exercises for school. The trend for sequential reading was considered, due to the presentation of subtitles in manuscripts – rather than finding a mixture of topics or authors, we find the same theme varied upon with the subtitle of ἅλλο. If readers were used to a series of epigrams with the heading ἅλλο repeated, on the same topic or by the same author, this could help to explain the structure of the Greek Anthology.

Next came Kristoffel Demoen, who explored the “bookishness” of authors and texts. Epigrammatists frequently toyed with the idea of inscription as text (epigram originated as inscription after all), but we also find bookish epigrams immediately before or after the text they describe, as a sort of summary. Demoen also announced that he was working on a project to digitise the poems, giving a searchable database with a full apparatus for each poem. The website is www.dbbe.ugent.be, and expects to be up and running by the end of 2014.

On the second day, Regina Höschele, attempted to reconstruct the structure of the Garland of Philip. In the Greek Anthology, we find references to two Garlands (collections of epigrams), one collected by Meleager, and the other by Philip. Höschele theorised that, as we have a long section of epigrams by the poets present in the Garland of Philip within book 9 of the Greek Anthology (poems 217-227), as well as elsewhere, that their supposedly alphabetised structure was arranged by first letter of the epigram, rather than the first word. This arrangement would not have been difficult for Philip to work with, and helped him to produce many intertextual links between authors that may not originally have been present. This alphabetisation can still be seen in the Anthology, and while much of the Garland is lost, we can still see some of the original structure in these remnants.

The final day was begun by Ivana Petrovic, who raised spirits to a new height with the exploration of the performance context of Greek scoptic epigram. A jovial tone was reached through exploration of Greek jokes relating to flatulence (with a Serbian example joyfully received). The focus of this paper was Greek epigram in the Roman world (to an extent), as Lukillios and Nikarchos wrote in the First Century AD for Roman audiences. The symposium was seen as a potential origin (one of many ancestors) for the scoptic tradition, and the so-called Cup of Nestor could preserve an example of a poem told at banquet preserved through inscription. The actions of Trimalchio in the Satyricon also suggest the approach of recitation followed by inscription or writing-down to record these poems.

The programme itself was somewhat of a triumph; broad and varied, yet never thin on the ground. After three days, having entered with a very sketchy knowledge of Greek literary epigram,  I felt like I had been taken very firmly (yet carefully) by the hand and shown through nearly a thousand years of poetry. Each panel was well attended, and at the end of every paper dozens of questions were asked. It was particularly heart-warming to watch the experts in the field raising their hands and saying “have you read this epigram? It would agree with your point!” Citations were written down, and then the conversation would move on. That, I think, is the most lasting memory of the conference. It felt formal, official, and highly scholarly (the names on the delegates list also correlated quite well with many of the papers’ bibliographies), but it was also a friendly environment, full of excitement and an air of exploration. The accessibility of the papers was fantastic, as was the technological side of things. Even though the projector failed halfway through one paper, the presentation was carried on and followed avidly by the audience.

For those who could not attend in person it will no doubt be great news that the organisers will be uploading all of the recorded papers (with the speaker’s permission, of course) to YouTube, and that a book will hopefully be on its way soon. None of us, as Chris Carey remarked, should have to wait for our whole lives for a publication to be produced. In this space I could not give the full programme, but a copy of it is still available (as of the time of writing) on the UCL website (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/classics/events/conferenceSept2013).  Well attended, well presented, and with lively interaction, I know that this conference will stay with me for a long time to come.

Sam Hayes is currently about to embark on a PhD course at the University of Exeter on Martial’s Epigrams You can find Sam via Twitter @SamHayez.

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