CUP (2022) p/b 294pp £26.99 (ISBN 9781108926041)

In this collection (for the Green-and -Yellow series) of non-literary epitaphic poetry, the (recently retired) Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge introduces the reader to what is likely to be (for many) unfamiliar territory—and his selection of 81 poems is only a subset of the vast corpus of such poetry (even a glance into the ‘verse’ volume of W. Peek’s Attische Grab-Inschriften will show how many headstones are incomplete). The Introduction is essential reading; divided into five parts, it covers (1) Funerary Verse-Inscriptions, (2) The Style of Greek Epitaphic Verse, (3) Who Wrote Greek Verse-Inscriptions?, (4) Ideas of Death in Greek Verse-Inscriptions, (5) About This Edition.

The ‘epitaphic corpus’ of inscriptions may well total 50,000 or more, of which perhaps 5,000 were verse inscriptions. These numbers are far from certain; persuasive is the suggestion that the use of verse for private epitaphs was a sign of social or elite status, at least in the archaic and classical periods. This selection offers just 81, 47 for men and 34 for women, adding up in total to 716 lines. Although the earliest epitaphic poems are in hexameters, the elegiac couplet became by the 5th C BC the epitaphic metre par excellence (but with interesting variations, e.g. multiple hexameters before a pentameter, or even groups of successive pentameters). There is much more, including, say, late additions to the stone with resulting metrical nonsense, and H. courteously sums up: ‘the metrical practice of inscribed poetry can be seen to be looser and less regular than that of the “literary” poets’. Do not expect to find a ‘mute inglorious’ Callimachus! (In the elegiacs of poem LXVI, the last line is abruptly changed to an iambic trimeter, to accommodate the name Serapion, which could not be fitted into elegiacs: presumably Serapion, father of a deceased daughter, did not mind.)

The style of the verse often owes something to Homer, but of course the content is necessarily laid down (attributes and deeds of the deceased), and the language is generally spare and unadorned. Some life is often added via a ‘passer-by’ who is invited to view the stone, or even, on occasion, to engage in conversation with the deceased (is the Roman monumental ‘haec quam spectas aedesvel sim. a distant congener?). Dialect mixture is a feature—as it is in literary epigrams, where, of course, we depend on our manuscripts, and ‘alternative dialect forms are usually metrically equivalent’. Papyrus evidence suggests that dialect mixture ‘within single poems was an available poetic resource from the earliest period’.

Who wrote the verse inscriptions? Common sense argues that the stonemasons will have known suitable local bards, who will have been able to work, says H., from possibly widely circulated pattern-books or the like, into which the relevant name(s) and attributes could be inserted as appropriate. H. points out that Hecuba, in Troades (1188-91) called for just such a bard (Μουσοποιός) for Astyanax. H. comments that much of our inscribed verse offers a rather stereotyped view of the dead who are commemorated, and whose proclaimed virtues often strain credulity. but is this surprising? As H. says, ‘The dead are always held up as models to us’.

The ideas of the dead which the epitaphs offer tend to convey a veil of silence over what death actually entails, and what, if anything the dead experience: the least said about the experience of death, the better. Elysium and the Isles of the Blessed seem to have entered the epitaphic tradition at a rather late stage, though membership of particular religious groups may have conferred promises for an afterlife of εὐδαιμονία even in the archaic and classical periods. (From the literary epitaphs, is there anything bleaker than Callimachus, Epigram XV, which effectively promises extinction?). ‘Epitaphic verse of all periods offered a very partial and deliberate selection of ideas, often conflicting and inconsistent, which were communally held at any time about the dead and the underworld’. The same is true today.

The poems presented are in as close to a chronological order as can be established—they cover many hundreds of years—the object being ‘to make an inevitably small selection more accessible to readers with widely differing literary and historical interests, and widely different levels of linguistic attainment’. The text comes with a minimal apparatus criticus to show where a stone, say, has had to be supplemented—the relatively extensive apparatus for XLII is wholly exceptional, as the Commentary explains. Although, of course, no translation is provided, the language, though unfamiliar, is relatively straightforward, and at moments of doubt, the full and wholly admirable Commentary invariably comes to one’s aid (this reviewer had recourse to his LSJ on only one occasion).

Indeed it is surprising how much H. has found to say about these usually short poems. LXXIV is an outstanding example, discussing a ‘remarkable funerary structure in Sardinia’, which includes poems in both Latin and Greek; and LVI, though short, is far from straightforward to interpret; or again, XXVI provides an example of a poem where the necessary compression of the elegiacs, though clear at the time, is far from clear two thousand years later, and H. has to take us carefully through the text to reach conclusions which, though plausible, cannot be regarded as certain.

There are many examples of H.’s clarity of exposition. Again, where appropriate, H. points out breaches of standard literary metrical practice (e.g. Naeke’s Law in several places). But he does not comment on the opening line of LXXV (τὴν κυανῶπιν Μουσᾶν ἀηδόνα), which calls out for the uncommon coincidence of spondaic second foot and word ending, to be rewritten Μουσᾶν τὴν κυανῶπιν ἀηδόνα. A similar instance at IX, line 1, can also be easily ‘emended’ to produce a more euphonious rhythm, but of course in neither case is any ‘correction’ remotely justified).

H. pays a deserved tribute to his recently deceased colleague, Neil Hopkinson, whose excellent Green-and-Yellow commentary on A Hellenistic Anthology was reviewed here not long ago ( H.’s book includes maps showing the location of the epitaphs, Concordances, an Index of Passages Discussed and a Bibliography; at under £27 for the paperback edition, it represents extremely good value, and is strongly recommended.

Colin Leach