In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Greek Inscribed Epigram

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • References and Resources
  • Epigram and Literacy
  • Archaeology of Epigram
  • Layout and Epigraphic Features
  • Inscribed Epigram and Other Literary Genres
  • Poets
  • Transmission: Collections of Inscriptional Epigrams on Papyri and Stone
  • Inscribed and Literary Epigram
  • Inscribed Epigram, History, and War
  • Language
  • Meter
  • Long and Short Epigrams

Classics Greek Inscribed Epigram
Andrej Petrovic, Ivana Petrovic
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0334


“Epigram,” (Gr. epigramma) is one of the terms that the Greeks employed, from Herodotus onward, for short verse-inscriptions, poems typically composed in hexameters or elegiacs in order to be inscribed, and as a rule originally associated with a particular object, occasion, and context (such as dedicatory, funeral, honorific, or sympotic). By the virtue of its metrical form it constitutes a category separate from the prose inscriptions, and by the virtue of its conciseness, its reliance on the object, and the occasion, it stands apart from other verse-inscriptions (such as metrical oracles, hymns, or aretalogies which in some cases may also have extraordinary length). The history of inscribed epigram started in the second half of the 8th century BCE and continued throughout the entirety of Greco-Roman antiquity. Inscribed epigrams are attested in significant numbers in all major areas inhabited by the Greeks, but also in remote areas of Asia and Egypt where Hellenization was relatively short-lived. Inscribed epigram flourished again during the Byzantine period, and the practice of carving epigrams on public monuments continued in Greece well into the modern period. These texts represent an invaluable source for literary, cultural, social, religious, art, and military history. From the Archaic and Classical periods, around 950 inscribed epigrams survive; from the Hellenistic period, based on the estimates, more than 1,500; from the later periods, and until the end of antiquity, several thousand poems survive. Poems are composed in a variety of meters, among which elegiac, hexameter, and iambic and trochaic tetrameter were most popular, but later texts also occasionally employ relatively less common meters such as Sotadeus or Priapeus. Some of the earliest inscriptional epigrams, attested on pottery, are composed in iambic meter and associated with the sympotic setting; in the course of early 6th century BCE, dedicatory and funerary epigrams, often consisting of a single hexameter, gain in numbers. From around the middle of the 6th century BCE, elegiac became by far the most dominant meter and would remain so until the end of Classical Antiquity. From the late 6th century BCE onward new epigrammatic genres appeared (such as, e.g., epigrams that are distinctly honorific in nature, which are sometimes called “epideictic”), and prose inscriptions of various genres increasingly find their counterparts in verse-inscriptions (such as, e.g., iamata, binding spells, or building inscriptions). From the 5th century BCE onward, professional poets are attested as authors of inscriptional epigrams. From the 4th century BCE onward, there is conclusive evidence of collections of inscribed poems. From the early 3rd century BCE at the latest, inscriptional epigram becomes a model for the by then fully established genre of literary epigram.

General Overviews

Due to the vastness of the topic, the chronological span of epigram, its manifold subgenres, and the lack of comprehensive text corpora covering the post-classical period, there can be no systematic book-length account of the entire corpus. For epigraphic matters generally, consult the Oxford Bibliographies article on Greek Epigraphy. For Greek epigram generally, see the Oxford Bibliographies article Greek Poetry: Epigrams. A novice in the field or an undergraduate student will be well-served by the succinct overview of inscriptional epigram in Livingstone and Nisbet 2010. Accessible and helpful, also for general audiences and undergraduate students, are the following encyclopedia entries: “epigram, Greek” in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, third edition, 1996, pages 535–536 (A. Cameron); “poetry, Greek, epigram” in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome, 2010, pages 372–375 (R. Höschele); “epigram” in Brill’s New Pauly, Volume 4, 2004, pages 1098–1106 (also available online, by subscription). For academic readers, Häusle 1979 provides a general survey and classification of early epigram and should be supplemented by more recent work conveniently published in edited volumes. Lausberg 1982 is valuable, but only discusses two-liners; Reitzenstein 1893 is still relevant, especially on the early collections of inscribed epigrams and the role of the symposium in the popularization of the genre. Raubitschek (in German) and Gentili (in Italian) in Gentili, et al. 1968 discuss the relationship between the epigram and its object and the relationship of epigram and early elegy. Robert 1948 discusses inscriptional epigram from the Roman period. Papers in Baumbach, et al. 2010 discuss the early history of the genre and the epigram’s literary, spatial, historical, and political contexts. The editors’ introduction and chapters by Day, Petrovic, Bettenworth, and Sider in Bing and Bruss 2007 provide complementary insight into the relationship between the inscribed and literary epigram, the early epigrammatic collections, and the transition of epigram from stone to scroll. Similarly, Fantuzzi 2004 connects inscribed and literary epigram and provides excellent remarks on their ongoing relationship and cross-fertilization in the Hellenistic period. Introduction and chapters by Sironen, Garulli, Day, Helly, Decourt, Rhoby, and Agosti in Santin and Foschia 2016 are on inscriptional epigram and cover a vast chronological span, from the Archaic period to the Byzantine. At the moment of the compiling of this bibliography, two further edited volumes with helpful overviews were scheduled to appear in 2019: Chr. Henriksén (ed.), Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Ancient Epigram, and M. Kanellou, I. Petrovic, and C. Carey (eds.), Greek Epigram from the Hellenistic to the Early Byzantine Era, published by Oxford University Press. Those looking for bibliography on a particular issue in L’année phiologique should look for carmina epigraphica.

  • Baumbach, M., A. Petrovic, and I. Petrovic, eds. 2010. Archaic and classical Greek epigram. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    The volume demonstrates that the dominant view of epigram as a genre that became literary and artistic only in the Hellenistic period needs to be revised and showcases the aesthetic and literary achievements of the early epigrams. Contributions by Trümpy (on dedicatory and sepulchral epigrams) and by Bowie (on narration) are particularly helpful for novices.

  • Bing, P., and J. S. Bruss, eds. 2007. Brill’s companion to Hellenistic epigram: Down to Philip. Brill’s Companions in Classical Studies. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill.

    Although primarily on the Hellenistic literary epigram and its influence, the introduction and chapters by Day, Petrovic, Bettenworth, and Sider discuss inscriptional epigram and its influence on literary epigram.

  • Fantuzzi, M. 2004. The epigram. In Tradition and innovation in Hellenistic poetry. Edited by M. Fantuzzi and R. Hunter, 283–349. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Primarily on Hellenistic book-epigram but contains excellent close-readings of a series of inscriptional poems demonstrating the cross-fertilization between literary and inscriptional epigram.

  • Häusle, H. 1979. Einfache und frühe Formen des griechischen Epigramms. Commentationes Aenipontanae 25. Philologie und Epigraphik 3. Innsbruck, Austria: Wagner.

    Succinct and now partly outdated, this was an early attempt to discuss inscribed epigram’s literary value. In German.

  • Lausberg, M. 1982. Das Einzeldistichon: Studien zum antiken Epigramm. Studia et testimonia antiqua 19. Munich: Fink.

    Excellent discussion, dedicated predominantly to single elegiac couplets. In German.

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

    Pp. 22–47 offer a basic introduction to inscriptional epigram.

  • Gentili, Bruno, Giuseppe Giangrande, Jules Labarbe, et al., eds. 1968. L’épigramme grecque. Fondation Hardt. Entretiens sur l’Antiquité classique 14. Vandoeuvres Geneva, Switzerland: Fondation Hardt.

    A series of essays followed by a transcript of ensuing discussions; especially valuable for the study of inscriptional epigram are chapters by Raubitschek (in German) and Gentili (in Italian).

  • Reitzenstein, R. 1893. Epigramm und Skolion: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der alexandrinischen Dichtung. Giessen: J. Ricker.

    Still valuable, especially on the early collections of inscribed epigrams and the role of the symposium in the popularization of the genre. (Reprint. Hildesheim: Olms 1970.) In German.

  • Robert, L. 1948. Epigrammes du Bas-Empire (Hellenica IV). Paris: Librairie d’Amérique et d’Orient, Adrien-Maisonneuve.

    Important study of inscriptional epigrams of the Roman period, with a detailed historical commentary on numerous texts.

  • Santin, E., and L. Foschia, eds. 2016. L’épigramme dans tous ses états: Épigraphiques, littéraires, historiques.

    Series of wide-ranging essays in English and French on inscriptional and literary epigram from its origins until the Byzantine period.

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