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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Texts and Commentaries
  • Inscriptions
  • Inscription and Origins
  • Inscriptions, Thought, and Voice
  • The Epigram Book and Anthologies
  • Ergänzungsspiel
  • The Art of Variation
  • Epigrams on Poets
  • Reception

Classics Greek Poetry: Epigrams
Ruth Scodel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • 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 5th century, though, a famous poet might compose epigram. By the 4th 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 1st century BCE. Meleager began a complex tradition of anthologizing. Philip of Thessalonica in the 1st century CE collected fifty-two epigrammatists. In the 6th century Agathias anthologized recent and contemporary epigrams in his Cycle. In the 10th 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; 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 Gutziller 2007 would be helpful. For a richer introduction to the state of scholarship, Bing and Bruss 2007 is excellent. 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. Fantuzzi-Hunter 2004 is an important synthesis in Hellenistic poetry generally.

  • 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.

    NNNA 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.

    NNNA good short introduction to the Hellenistic epigram.

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

    NNNA 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.

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

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

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

  • Gutzwiller, K. 2007. A guide to Hellenistic literature. Oxford: Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470690185

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

  • Harder, M. A., R. F. Regtuit, and G. C. Wakker, eds. 2002. Hellenistic epigrams. Hellenistica Groningana 6. Louvain, Belgium: Peeters.

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

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

    NNNA 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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