Dead Dramatists Society – The Epigram as Literary History in Dioscorides
1¶ The poetry of the Hellenistic era is characterized by an intense, uniquely diachronic preoccupation with the literature of the past. Far from the few specialized instances of discussion of poetics during the classical and archaic periods, the Hellenistic poets were constantly engaged in reflecting on and representing the poets of the past, their putative predecessors, against whom they would evaluate their own contemporaries. Both Campbell and Klooster locate the cause of this conservative fixation in a corresponding cultural and political shift that occurred in Greece after the conquests of Alexander the Great. In the wake of the realization that the dissolution of former political institutions also signaled a departure from former poetic institutions, Hellenistic poets were left to grapple with the burden of connecting themselves to a distant past of “greats” that seemed out of reach. They composed verses that were part poetic innovation, part literary critique in order to comprehend the canonical tradition that they immersed themselves in, facilitated by access to the Library of Alexandria. Under these circumstances, the genre of epigram naturally flourished in the 3rd century B.C. as a response to this Hellenistic anxiety. Having evolved from an inscriptional form to a hybridized literary genre that received features of sympotic, erotic, and epic poetry, the epigram was uniquely positioned to apply its “memorializing impulse,” a term coined by Peter Bing, toward the analysis and praise of canonical authors in other genres.
2¶ These fundamentally Hellenistic inclinations animate a cycle of epigrams on dramatic authors by Dioscorides, an epigrammatist active in the latter half of the 3rd century BC who first conceived of the innovative use of the epigram as literary history. The canonical dramatists Thespis, Aeschylus, and Sophocles are introduced as characters in these epigrams, strikingly juxtaposed with the portrayal of dramatists who were quasi-contemporary to Dioscorides, Sositheus and Machon. These epigrams fall within the well-established practice of ethopoiia during the Hellenistic era, ventriloquizing dead dramatists to represent themselves and their accomplishments in fictional epitaphs and inscriptions. By appealing to its own history as inscribed monument, this sort of epigram readily reimagines itself as a poetic monument to archaic figures. But what is incredibly novel about this series is how Dioscorides employs the epigrammatic genre’s inherent capacity to monumentalize for multiple purposes: to establish a history of literary forms, to present his standards and models of stylistic excellence, and to express praise of the new through praise of the old.
3¶ Each epigram in Dioscorides’s cycle is assigned to a dramatist, and the cycle is organized into two sets of couplets respectively concerned with different subgenres—Thespis and Aeschylus with tragedy, Sophocles and Sositheus with satyr play—with the epigram on the contemporary comic poet Machon standing alone. His awareness of the Greek literary heritage is emphasized by the explicit pairing of the dramatists into forebear and descendant. Collectively, these epigrams portray the development of drama as identified by its moments of “innovation,” represented by the dramatists who drove its evolution. Yet, paradoxically, his conception of innovation in the present seems to hinge upon imitation of the archaic inventors. In this way, Dioscorides manipulates poetic temporality to construct an imagined literary genealogy between past and present dramatists. At every stage in this process, he induces us to look simultaneously forward to a new poetic “innovator,” and backward at the previous “innovator” whose work formed the ground on which the former was based.
4¶ The first couplet is devoted to Thespis and Aeschylus, consisting of two epigrams that are six lines each:
5¶ Θέσπις ὅδε τραγικὴν ἀνέπλασα πρῶτος ἀοιδήν
κωμήταις νεαρὰς καινοτομῶν χάριτας
Βάκχος ὅ τετριθῦν κατάγοι χορὸν ᾦ τράγος ἆθλων
χὠττικὸς ἦν σύκων ἄρριχος ἆθλος ἔτι
οἱ δὲ μεταπλάσσουσι νέοι τάδε μυρίος αἰών
πολλὰ προσευρήσει χἄτερα, τἀμὰ δ᾽ἐμά.
6¶ I, this Thespis here, was the first to fashion tragic song, introducing new pleasures for his countrymen, when Bacchus led the heavy-sounding dance for which the prize was still a goat and a basket of Attic figs. But if the newcomers are re-fashioning these things—an endless age will find many new innovations, but what is mine is mine.
7¶ Θέσπιδος εὕρεμα τοῦτο, τὰ δ᾽ἀγροιῶτιν ἀν᾽ ὕλαν
παίγνια καὶ κώμους τούσδε τελειοτέρους
Αἰσχύλος ἐξύψωσεν, ὁ μὴ σμιλευτὰ χαράξας
γράμματα χειμάρρῳ δ᾽οἷα καταρδόμενα,
καὶ τὰ κατὰ σκηνὴν μετεκαίνισεν. ὦ στόμα πάντων
δεξιόν, ἀρχαίων ἦσθά τις ἡμιθέων.
8¶ This is the invention of Thespis, but the games in the rustic woodland and these revels here Aeschylus elevated to a more perfected form, he who engraved letters not well carved, but as if swept along by a winter-swollen torrent, and he made innovations regarding stage effects. O mouth skillful in all ways, you were one of the ancient demigods.
9¶ The first of these two epigrams establishes Thespis as the inventor of tragedy and the creation of this subgenre as a type of innovation. The conventions of epitaphic language that are present in this epigram—the deictic ὅδε, the suggestion of monumental erection in ἀνέπλασα and of engraving in καινοτομῶν (2)—suggest that (the fictional) Thespis is speaking to the reader from beyond the grave, extolling the originality of his own achievements. The poem opens and ends with compound forms of the verb πλάσσω, ἀνέπλασα (1) to describe Thespis’s relationship to tragedy and μεταπλάσσουσι (5) to describe the future developments that the νέοι, new poets, will make to his work. The process of developing tragic song is metaphorically expressed as the artistic molding or fashioning of a material, which lends a distinctly ecphrastic tone to the entire epigram; tragedy here assumes the form of an aesthetic object that Thespis has skilfully created and fashioned, and the dramatists who will come after him will re-fashion it. In assertively laying claim to the invention of tragedy with his emphatic final words, τἀμὰ δ᾽ἐμά, Thespis simultaneously alludes to his literary heirs whose “innovations” are merely variations on his work. Yet both the νέοι and Thespis are described as doing something new, as he describes himself as introducing νεαρὰς… χάριτας (2). Rather than giving Thespis an anachronistic view of himself as an archaic poet, Dioscorides causes him to represent himself subjectively as the first of a line of innovators.
10¶ The second epigram, centered on the tragedian Aeschylus, caps the first by also beginning with naming Thespis, reiterating his role as inventor in the history of tragedy. Dioscorides draws a direct link between the two by portraying Aeschylus as ‘maturing’ the invention of Thespis to τελειοτέρους (2), a comparatively more perfected state. This contribution, which is simultaneously framed as innovation, refers to his “elevation” of the poetry of Thespis and stage effects. The compound verb used to describe this contribution, μετεκαίνισεν (5), from καίνω, “to make new” with the prefix μετα-, redoubles the emphasis on his innovation and recalls καινοτομῶν from the Thespis epigram. Though this epigram reads far less comfortably than its counterpart as epitaph, the metaphor of carving and fine arts from the previous poem is resumed here in the characterization of Aeschylus as ὁ μὴ σμιλευτὰ χαράξας/ γράμματα (4-5). Again the line between ‘archaic’ and ‘innovated’ is blurred; they effectively amount to the same meaning. Both Thespis and Aeschylus are praiseworthy because they have created something new, yet both are categorized as archaic. Though Aeschylus clearly comes after Thespis and the “innovative” nature of his work is emphasized, Dioscorides also describes him as ἀρχαίων…τις (6), signaling his inclusion in the canon of archaic dramatists. Thus the ending of this couplet invites the reader to look ahead to the next couplet.
11¶ The second diptych, consisting of two epitaphs of ten lines each, present Sophocles and Sositheus as the representatives of satyr drama. Sophocles serves as the point of connection between the two pairs of dramatists, as he overlaps between the two subgenres, being notable for his tragedies “Antigone” and “Electra” as much as for his satyr plays. His relation to Sositheus, however, is unmistakably founded upon their status as satyr dramatists, as the epitaphs are respectively spoken by a pair of satyr statues who guard the dramatists’ fictional tombs and convey their achievements to passersby.
12¶ τύμβος ὅδ᾽ ἔστ᾽, ὤνθρωπε, Σοφοκλέος, ὅν παρὰ Μουσῶν
ἱρὴν παρθεσίην ἱερὸς ὤν ἔλαχον,
ὅς με τὸν ἐκ Φλιοῦντος ἔτι τρίβολον πατέοντα
πρίνινον ἐς χρύσεον σχῆμα μεθηρμόσατο
καὶ λεπτὴν ἐνέδυσεν ἁλουργίδα. τοῦ δὲ θανόντος
εὔθετον ὀρχηστὴν τῇδ᾽ἀνέπαυσα πόδα.
ὄλβιος ὡς ἀγαθὴν ἔλαχες στάσιν. ἡ δ᾽ ἐνὶ χερσὶ
κούριμος, ἐκ ποίης ἥδε διδασκαλίης;
εἴτε σοὶ Ἀντιγόνην εἰπεῖν φίλον οὐκ ἄν ἁμάρτοις
εἴτε καὶ Ἠλέκτραν ἀμφότεραι γὰρ ἄκρον.
13¶ “O man, this here is the tomb of Sophocles, which I because of my dedication received as a sacred trust from the Muses. He brought me from Phlius, still trampling on a threshing-board, transformed my oaken shape into gold, and clothed me in a delicate purple robe. When he died, I stopped my nimble dancing foot here on the tomb.”
14¶ “Lucky that you obtained a good post. But the mourner’s mask in your hand, from what drama do you procure it?”
“Whether it pleases you to say either Antigone or Electra,
you would not be wrong; for both are superlative.”
15¶ κἠγὼ Σωσιθέου κομέω νέκυν, ὅσσον ἐν ἄστει
ἄλλος ἀπ᾽ αὐθαίμων ἡμετέρων Σοφοκλῆν,
Σκιρτὸς ὁ πυρρογένειος ἐκισσοφόρησε γὰρ ὡνὴρ
ἄξια Φλιασίων, ναὶ μὰ χορούς, Σατύρων
κἠμὲ τὸν ἐν καινοῖς τεθραμμένον ἤθεσιν ἤδη
ἤγαγεν εἰς μνήμην πατρίδ᾽ ἀναρχαίας
καὶ πάλιν εἰσώρμησα τὸν ἄρσενα Δωρίδι Μούσῃ
ῥυθμόν, πρός τ᾽αὐδὴν ἑλκόμενος μεγάλην
† ἑπτά δέ μοι ἐρσων τύπος οὐχερὶ καινοτομηθείς
τῇ φιλοκινδύνῳ φροντίδι Σωσιθέου.
16¶ And I, Skirtos the red-bearded, care for the body of Sositheus, just as in the town another of my kin cares for Sophocles, for he, a man worthy of the Phliusian Satyrs, was decked in ivy—truly, by the choruses—and led me, raised by this time in novel customs, to ancestral memory and returned to ancient ways, and once more I forced the masculine rhythm on the Doric Muse, drawn to his great voice, begun anew by the daring thought of Sositheus.
17¶ The epigram on Sophocles picks up the process of the development of tragedy from Aeschylus; whereas the latter contributed a comparatively more developed form, Sophocles has achieved the superlative ἄκρον (10), the full potential of tragedy with his “Electra” and “Antigone.” The landscape imagery introduced in the Aeschylus poem is also resumed here, as we begin to view the situation of the two satyr dramatists—with their satyr statues as proxies—through a dichotomy between rustic and urban. Sophocles is depicted as having brought the satyr (drama) from its rustic origins in Phlius, the native city of Pratinas, one of the earliest tragedians. His achievement lies in his refinement of satyr play, as metaphorically expressed by his transformation of the satyr into gold and clothing him in purple.
18¶ The urbane elegance for which Sophocles is praised is inverted in the epigram to the contemporary Sositheus, who is praised for doing precisely the opposite: returning the refined satyr to its rustic origins in Phlius. The satyr who tends to his tomb is contrasted with Sophocles’s satyr, who is ἐν ἄστει / ἄλλος (1-2). Pratinas is again evoked in this epigram, but this time as the destination rather than the point of departure. Working in the Hellenistic era, Sositheus embraces the ancestral roots of satyr play by restoring it to an archaic, “masculine” aesthetic, and is praised as ἄξια Φλιασίων (4), in accordance with both the heritage of the genre and the conservative sensibilities of the Hellenistic era. Just as in the previous couplet, the natures of the archaic and the new are confounded. Rather than being characterized solely as an imitation of the archaic, Sositheus’s revival of old satyr drama conventions is actually described as φιλοκινδύνῳ φροντίδι (10), a daring innovation. Given the contemporary context in which Sositheus is working, the renewal of the archaic and canonical now qualifies as highly innovative, implying that whatever the state of drama was in the intervening period between Sophocles and Sositheus must have been “old-fashioned and dull.” The comparison between Sophocles and Sositheus thus does not rest on an equality of the kinds of transformations they introduced to satyr drama, but rather on the similarly innovative nature of their contributions at different points in time. In the figure of Sositheus, Dioscorides makes his literary preferences quite clear: the emulation of the archaic is the gold standard of poetry.
19¶ The final, singular epigram is devoted to the contemporary comic poet, Machon, who is praised for importing Attic Old Comedy to Alexandria.
20¶ τῷ κωμῳδογράφῳ, κούφη κόνι, τὸν φιλάγωνα
κισσὸν ὑπὲρ τύμβου ζῶντα Μάχωνι φέροις
οὐ γὰρ ἔχεις κύφωνα παλίμπλυτον ἀλλά τι τέχνης
ἄξιον ἀρχαίης λεἰψανον ἠμφίεσας
τοῦτο δ᾽ ὁ πρέσβυς ἐρεῖ Κέκροπος πόλι, καὶ παρὰ Νείλῳ
ἔστιν ὅτ᾽ ἐν Μούσαις δριμὺ πέφυκε θύμον.
21¶ Light dust, may you bear living, contest-loving ivy over the tomb of Machon, the comic poet,
for you do not hold a twice-washed garment, but you put on some worthy remnant of ancient skill. The old man will say this: “City of Cecrops, even by the Nile it happens that sharp thyme grows among the Muses.”
22¶ The interest in the origins of literary forms expressed in the Sositheus/Sophocles epigrams reappears here in the discussion of Machon. Just like his fellow contemporary, Sositheus, Machon is symbolically awarded ivy and praised as ἄξιον (4) for his “innovative” archaism. In his inclusion of another contemporary poet in the cycle, Dioscorides reiterates his defense of the archaic aesthetic he has already praised Sositheus for. Machon’s chreiai, a series of invective comic anecdotes, reflect the style of Old Comedy rather than New Comedy because they addressed real individuals. It is also in this epigram that Dioscorides more fully reveals his positive model of archaizing innovation. To re-animate the styles and techniques of past venerated poets is innovation; to merely plagiarize, or to metaphorically clothe oneself in a “recycled” garment is not.
23¶ Thus Dioscorides situates his history of the dramatic tradition in a landscape in which forward progress is continuously refashioned as a return to origins. Tradition provides the standards for which his approval of the contemporary dramatists is justified. This “nostalgic and historicizing approach” re-envisions the various dramatists building upon each other and explicitly looking backwards for models of poetic excellence. The separate discourses on tradition and innovation are intertwined and equated.
24¶ Klooster’s identification of the temporal manipulation that Dioscorides employs in his literary cycle as a “floating gap” structure is essential to understanding his engagement with the past. A theory of cultural memory first developed by Jan Vansina and later adapted by Jan Assmann, it is here used by Klooster as a model for the relationship between Hellenistic poets and their past. Memory is divided into three chronological successions: living memory, or the immediate recent past; the distant intermediate past or “floating gap”; and the very distant or mythical past in which the origins of traditions are located. Genealogies and histories are defined by their extremities; the living memory and the far removed era of origins are united, while the intervening sequence is omitted in order to form a continuum between the two poles. It looks backward over successions to privilege a notion of the past that is constantly formative of the present.
25¶ This is precisely the model of history that Dioscorides takes up in order to enact his literary praise and critique of contemporary and canonical dramatists, and this is precisely the view of history that best suits the Hellenistic agenda and aligns with the nature of epigram itself. The poetic project of praising archaic styles and glorifying a canon is inherently historical. Paired with his personal project to contemplate the past and resolve the place of the present in history, the selectivity necessary for historiography must come into play. In Dioscorides’s history, the pair of epigrams on Sophocles and Sositheus best exemplify the involvement of the floating gap. The claim of Sophocles’s satyr that he “stopped” (ἀνέπαυσα) his foot upon his tomb at his death represents the threshold of the mythical past. The development of the art of the satyr play is arrested at the death of Sophocles and only resumes its course when Sositheus returns it to the style of Pratinas in the 3rd century. There is an explicit break in relevance with the entire putative middle of the history of satyr play; only the extremes, embodied by Sophocles and Sositheus, are mentioned. It is the erasure of the distant past which enables the marriage of the mythical past and the present and posits continuity between them. Founding figures anticipate future development and innovation; later dramatists look backward to acknowledge them as their stylistic models; the intervening poetic figures are quietly overlooked. The absence of Euripides speaks loudly. Sophocles and Aeschylus were actually read infrequently in the time of Dioscorides, yet it is these two tragedians that he chooses to promote at the exclusion of the third tragic triumvir, Euripides—who was very well favored by the public in that time. The natural prejudice he demonstrates in his historical choices also has the power to manipulate the true circumstances of the present.
26¶ Dioscorides not only reimagines the origins of dramatic form, but also forges a retroactively justified place for the literary present by restaging it as drama’s new afterlife. His standard for dramatic excellence lies in the notion of innovation. In chronicling a miniature history of innovation, he himself must be conscious of his own very innovative undertaking. He offers a survey of dramatic history in three subgenres while promoting the virtues, both original and renewed, for modern relevance. He critiques not only the poetic past and the classical standards of tragedy, but also contemporary reception of the same tragic works. He boldly elides archaism with modernity, representing his ideals for the present through a fictionalized “self-representation” of ancient authors. He exercises incredible generic fluidity, fusing poetry and history to critique the genre of drama. By versifying his praise, he is endowed with the ability to take creative approaches toward the representation of temporality and memory, while the historical nature of the work allows him to justify his stylistic preferences on a projected narrative of literary progress.
27¶ This undertaking would only have been possible through the form of Hellenistic epigram. The ecphrastic language naturally assumed by epigram as well as its “monumentalizing impulse” causes the reader to consider the archaic poet in question in the context of the deceased as a historical figure and to assess his verse as a poetic object. At the same time, it immortalizes contemporary poets by praising them according to the standards of their forebears. Because of its natural self-consciousness, the epigram is uniquely capable and fertile for examining other genres; its genre reflects the interest in hybridization that permeated the era in which it flourished. The epigram uniquely vests the poet with both literary and historical authority, qualifying him to critique poetics, poetry, and poets of any age and genre.
28¶ By using the epigram to create a literary history of drama, Dioscorides generates an incredibly multifaceted critique that serves a tripartite function: stylistic commentary, literary history, academic dialogue with contemporary scholars. In this innovation we can perceive not only a wish for continuity and relevance with the past, but also an aspiration to the sort of poetic perfection that had been achieved in a seemingly inaccessible legacy. By including contemporary figures whom he claims are continuing this project of literary development, Dioscorides both pays homage to the poetic excellence of a bygone era and asserts that it still persists in Hellenistic poetry. This cycle epitomizes the fundamental driving concerns of the Hellenistic era and the full metapoetic potential of the genre of epigram.
 Klooster 2011: 2.
 Klooster 2011: 4 and Campbell 2013: 15.
 Fantuzzi 2007: 487.
 Klooster 2011: 25.
 Scholars have entertained the possibility that there was a now-lost counterpart to the Machon epigram. Fantuzzi and Prioux both posit that such an epigram might have established Aristophanes as Machon’s predecessor.
 Campbell 2013: 87.
 Prioux 2016. “On est ici proche de l’idée d’une peinture qui ne serait pas « léchée ».”
 Klooster 2011: 153.
 Prioux 2016.
 Klooster 2011: 154.
 Klooster 2011: 154.
 Klooster 2011: 150.
 Klooster 2011: 23.
 Prioux 2016.
 Sistakou 2016: 55.
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Gow, A. S. F. and D. L. Page. 1965. The Greek Anthology, Hellenistic Epigrams. Cambridge.
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Prioux, Évelyne. 2016. “Une histoire des styles en épigrammes: essai de confrontation entre Posidippe et Dioscoride.” L’épigramme dans tous ses états: épigraphiques, littéraires, historiques (eds. Eleonora Santin and Laurence Foschia). Lyon.
Sistakou, Evina. 2016. Tragic Failures: Alexandrian Responses to Tragedy and the Tragic. Berlin: de Gruyter,