In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Greek Poetry: Epigrams

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Texts
  • Commentaries
  • Inscriptions: Texts and Commentaries, All Regions
  • Inscriptions: Texts and Commentaries, by Region
  • Studies of Inscribed Epigram
  • Inscribed and Literary Epigram
  • Inscriptions, Thought, Reading, and Voice
  • The Epigram Book and Anthologies
  • Ergänzungsspiel
  • The Art of Variation
  • Epigrams on Poets
  • Riddles
  • Reception

Classics Greek Poetry: Epigrams
Ruth Scodel, Peter Bing
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 September 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0049


Very soon after Greeks adapted the Phoenician alphabet, they began writing inscriptions in verse, most often in elegiac couplets, to declare who made or owned precious objects, to accompany dedications in sanctuaries, and to provide information on funeral monuments. Scholars disagree about when it is appropriate to say that epigram is a truly literary form. Simonides’ name is associated with both inscribed poems and with obviously fictitious ones, but the authenticity of many is disputed; by the fifth century, though, a famous poet might compose epigram. By the fourth century BCE, poets composed works that were not intended for inscription but used the forms of inscribed epigram, while a few inscribed epigrams are signed by their authors. In the Hellenistic period, epigram became an independent and important genre. While many of its forms retained a connection to the tradition of inscribed poetry, erotic and symposiastic epigrams, with roots in elegy and lyric instead of inscription, were also important. Epigrams circulated in collections in which individual poems were artfully arranged, and there were probably multiauthor books and collections of various types. The artistic anthology, though, was created by Meleager of Gadara with his famous Garland, an anthology of as many as one thousand epigrams by himself and forty-six other poets, in the first century BCE. Meleager began a complex tradition of anthologizing. Philip of Thessalonica in the first century CE collected fifty-two epigrammatists. In the sixth century, Agathias anthologized recent and contemporary epigrams in his Cycle. In the tenth century, Constantine Cephalas assembled the great collection that became what we call the Greek Anthology. This comes down to us in two forms. The 1301 anthology of Planudes was published in 1494. The Palatine Anthology (AP) was rediscovered in 1606. Its fourth book contains the prefaces to the Garlands of Meleager and Philip and the Cycle of Agathias, and it is clear that Cephalas often directly followed these older sources in ordering the poems. In general, the Palatine Anthology is more valuable, because Planudes bowdlerized and rearranged, but Planudes preserves poems not in the Palatine, including ecphrastic epigrams (ecphrasis = the vivid evocation through language of an artifact, place, creature, etc., typically of an artwork); this material is sometimes included in editions of the Palatine as AP 16. Greek epigram has been extremely influential on poetry in European languages since the Renaissance.

General Overviews

Because the individual poems are so short and the field so wide, collections of articles can be the best introductions. For a quick introduction to the genre, Bruss 2010 or Gutzwiller 2007 would be helpful. For a richer introduction to the state of scholarship, Bing and Bruss 2007 is excellent, as are Henriksén 2019 and Kanellou, et al. 2019. Dihle 1968 gives an excellent sense of the issues before the recent revival of interest in the Hellenistic period. Fraser 1972 is a seminal and essential work on Hellenistic Alexandria that puts the Alexandrian epigrammists into this cultural context. Cairns 2016 likewise focuses particularly on the historical circumstances of Hellenistic epigram. Fantuzzi and Hunter 2004 is an important synthesis in Hellenistic poetry generally. Henriksén 2019 and Kanellou, et al. 2019 manifest growing interest in the intersection of literary and inscribed epigram, one of the most productive areas of research in recent years. See also the Oxford Bibliographies article on “Greek Inscribed Epigram” (by Andrej Petrovic and Ivana Petrovic).

  • Bing, Peter, and Jon Steffen Bruss, eds. 2007. Brill’s companion to Hellenistic epigram: Down to Philip. Brill’s Companions in Classical Studies. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    A collection of essays that present the state of the field in the study of epigram.

  • Bruss, Jon. 2010. Epigram. In A companion to Hellenistic literature. Edited by James J. Clauss and Martine Cuypers, 117–135. Chichester, UK: Blackwell.

    A good short introduction to the Hellenistic epigram.

  • Cairns, Francis. 2016. Hellenistic epigram: Contexts of exploration. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781316717479

    Critiques view that much Hellenistic epigram was purely literature, detached from real-life contexts, and proposes instead that most literarily transmitted poems of the period were commissioned by real people for actual monuments, tombs, dedications, etc.; the burden of proof should be on those who consider such poems fictive. Though the author goes to extreme lengths to argue this position, resulting in sometimes dubious interpretations, but he is immensely learned and offers valuable observations on individual poems.

  • Dihle, Albrecht, ed. 1968. L’Épigramme grecque. Entretiens Hardt 14. Geneva, Switzerland: Fondation Hardt.

    A collection of papers with the ensuing discussions. While the field has moved since this volume, these essays were important and help define later discussions.

  • Fantuzzi, Marco, and Richard Hunter. 2004. Tradition and innovation in Hellenistic poetry. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A broad study; the section on epigram emphasizes the relations between Hellenistic literary epigram and epigraphical practice.

  • Fraser, Peter M. 1972. Ptolemaic Alexandria. Vol. 1, 553–617. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Despite its old-fashioned approach, an important discussion of the rise and flourishing of the epigram in Alexandria.

  • Gutzwiller, Kathryn. 2007. A guide to Hellenistic literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470690185

    The section on epigram (pp. 106–120) is a good introduction.

  • Harder, M. Annette, Remco F. Regtuit, and Gerry C. Wakker, eds. 2002. Hellenistic epigrams. Hellenistica Groningana 6. Louvain, Belgium: Peeters.

    A particularly important collection of essays, especially on the relationships between epigram and other genres.

  • Henriksén, Christer, ed. 2019. A companion to ancient epigram. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

    A helpful starting place to see how epigram studies have developed since Bing and Bruss 2007. The volume covers a larger time span, extending to Late Antiquity, and includes Latin epigram as well as Greek. There is also increased focus on inscribed epigram.

  • Kanellou, Maria, Ivana Petrovic, and Chris Carey, eds. 2019. Greek epigram from the Hellenistic to the early Byzantine era. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A wide-ranging collection of essays covering a broad chronological spectrum and reflecting vital issues in current epigram studies.

  • Livingstone, Niall, and Gideon Nisbet. 2010. Epigram. Greece and Rome, New Surveys in the Classics 38. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A chronological survey of both Greek and Latin epigram, with an especially interesting chapter on the reception of epigram in 19th-century England.

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