Models of Virtue, Models of Poetry: The Quest for “Everlasting Fame” in Hellenistic Military Epitaphs

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Abstract

Although the surviving Hellenistic encomiastic poetry in hexameters and elegiac couplets is mostly devoted to kings and queens, the literary genre Epigram, both in its inscriptional and in its bookish form, flourished in the same period as an agile vehicle for celebrating military, agonistic and civic arête of individuals, either citizens of independent poleis or subjects of the Greek-Macedonian dynasties. By the 3rd century BC the so called Sylloge Simonidea, a collection of famous military epitaphs by -or attributed to- Simonides, was circulating outside mainland Greece, offering a model (one among many) for the epic praise of the dead in a short inscriptional form; epitaphs for men deceased in battle are already common in the archaic and classical period, but in the Hellenistic era they multiply in every geographical area conquered by Alexander and his successors. Homer, defined in an Hellenistic epigram ἡρώων κάρυκα ἀρετᾶς μακάρων τε προφήταν (IGUR IV 1532,1 = A.P. VII 6,1), also remained a main source of inspiration for epigrammatists praising the war dead; even when the epitaph is not attributed to a professional poet, or when the versifiers is not particularly good, this does not erase the idea that the epigram is nonetheless a form of epos capable of immortalizing the deceased: the Homeric formula καὶ ἐσσομένοισι πυθέσθαι in fact resurfaces in epitaphs the most diverse areas of the Roman empire, as well as other statements on the survival of kleos. This paper, as a part of a long-term research on Hellenistic military epitaphs, will explore the lexicon of glory and fame (doxa, kudos, kleos, pheme, phatis, geras etc.) in this corpus, in relationship with the archaic and classical literary tradition, and will compare the eulogistic strategies employed by epigrammatists with the ones featured in the best examples of Alexandrian court poetry. In fact, in the Hellenistic kingdoms the ultimate glory of a military victory belonged exclusively to the king, as often stated by encomiastic poetry and dedicatory epigrams (it is his kalon geras, as stated in an dedication from a Cyrenean soldier). Not all these epigrams celebrate high ranking officials and affluent citizens: affordable but effective, very simple verse inscriptions, generally of one or two elegiac couplets, sing the praises of soldiers who apparently were of more modest social rank. The topic of the survival of fame after death is also related to the role of the epigrammatic poet and his status in the Hellenistic society. In the aition of the tomb of Simonides, Callimachus fr. 64 Pfeiffer teaches us that the incorporeal voice of the poet may live on even after his tombstone has been destroyed: the theme of the immortal glory, independent from the material support of the poem celebrating it, is one of the most frequent in epitaphs for soldiers, e.g. the epitaph for a man called Epigonos, stating that Time will not cancel virtue (with a possible hint to the famous poem for the dead of the Thermopylae by Simonides); in the funerary inscription for a Phanias, on the other hand, the homeland takes the role of the poet in “kerussein” (advertising), the virtue of the deceased to the posterity. The long tradition of the epigram, its pervasiveness in all the areas of the Hellenized Mediterranean and its versatility as a poetic genre make it an ideal means to explore the survival and the evolution of the concept of kleos in the post-classical world.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCelebrity, Fame, and Infamy in he Hellenistic World
Pages37-69
Number of pages33
Publication statusPublished - 2020

Keywords

  • Fame
  • Hellenistic
  • Homer
  • epic
  • epigram

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