Dead Dramatists Society

1§1 In his cycle of five epigrams on dramatic poets, Dioscorides assembles a “dead dramatists society” whose curious and unprecedented inclusion of both archaic and contemporaneous figures—Thespis, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Sositheus, and Machon—has fascinated modern scholars of Hellenistic literature. In recent studies on Hellenistic epigram and Alexandrian stylistics, this unusual series has attracted a number of mentions and several more developed commentaries (including those of Marco Fantuzzi, Jerry Clack, and most recently, Évelyne Prioux). To formulate possible motivations for and responses to these epigrams, however, we need to look beyond their novelty value and expand our understanding of the limited historical information we have on them. In monumentalizing these dramatists in fictional epitaphs, this cycle participates in the poetic-scholarly engagement with the past characteristic of the Hellenistic period. Its arrangement into linked diptychs forms a selective genealogy that doubles as literary critique; Dioscorides justifies his choice of poets by classifying all of them as “innovators” in drama, while paradoxically praising their work for its archaic or archaizing style. To unite them under this peculiar redefinition of innovation, he establishes a continuum between the archaic and the contemporary (3rd century BC) dramatists while entirely dismissing the era of dramatic development during the 4th century BC, a technique characterized as a “floating gap” by Jacqueline Klooster in her recent book. This cycle of epigrams, forming both a literary history and a monument to praiseworthy dramatists, can ultimately be read as Dioscorides’s response to Hellenistic anxieties about relevance and continuity with a bygone era. To achieve the greatness of the past, he argues, emulate it.

1§2 The poetry of the Hellenistic era is characterized by an intense, uniquely diachronic preoccupation with the literature of the past. Unlike in the classical and archaic periods—from which we have only a few specialized instances of discussion on poetics—the Hellenistic poets were constantly engaged in reflecting on and representing the poets of the past, their putative predecessors, against whom they would evaluate and define themselves.[1] This antiquarian fixation can be traced to a corresponding cultural and political shift that occurred in Greece after the conquests of Alexander the Great. Alexander’s subjugation and unification of the Greek city-states dismantled the classical model of poetic performance, the agonistic festival, disengaging poetic production from affiliation with a polis. Poetry—and theater, in particular—was thus reoriented from the political toward the personal and the individual.[2] Following this dissolution of former political institutions and the resultant departure from former poetic institutions, Hellenistic poets were left to grapple with the task of connecting themselves to a distant classical past of “greats” that seemed out of reach.[3] 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. As a response to these Hellenistic anxieties, the genre of epigram naturally flourished in the 3rd century B.C. Having evolved from an inscriptional form to a hybridized literary genre that received elements of sympotic, erotic, and epic poetry, the epigram was uniquely capable of employing its “memorializing impulse,” as identified by Peter Bing, in the analysis and praise of canonical authors in other genres. Such idiosyncratically Hellenistic motives lie at the heart of this epigrammatic cycle on dramatists by Dioscorides.

1§3 We have very little biographical information on Dioscorides; he is dated as a late 3rd century BC Alexandrian and apparently worked exclusively in epigrams, of which forty-one survive to us through the Palatine Anthology. He seems to have first conceived of the innovative use of the epigram as literary history.[4] The canonical dramatists Thespis, Aeschylus, and Sophocles appear as characters in these fictional epitaphs, strikingly juxtaposed with the portrayal of dramatists who were quasi-contemporary to Dioscorides, Sositheus and Machon. These epigrams participate in the literary tradition of ethopoiia which was well-established during the Hellenistic era, ventriloquizing dead dramatists to represent themselves and their accomplishments in fictional epitaphs and inscriptions.[5] By appealing to its own history as inscribed monument, this sort of epigram readily reimagines itself as a poetic monument to archaic figures. In this cycle, Dioscorides employs the epigrammatic genre’s inherent capacity to monumentalize for multiple purposes: to establish a literary history of the dramatic genre, to assert his standards of stylistic excellence, and to express praise of the new through praise of the old.

1§4 Each of the five epigrams 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 comedy writer Machon standing alone.[6] Dioscorides’s consciousness of a Greek literary heritage is evident in his deliberate 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 translate to 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.

1§5 The first couplet is devoted to Thespis and Aeschylus, consisting of two epigrams that are six lines each:

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.

A.P. 7.410[7]
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.

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.

A.P. 7.411
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.

1§6 The first epigram establishes Thespis as the inventor of tragedy and the creation of the tragic subgenre as a kind 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)—imply that (the fictional) Thespis is speaking to the reader from beyond the grave, extolling the originality of his own achievements. The poem opens and concludes with compound forms of the verb πλάσσω, ἀνέπλασα (1) to describe Thespis’s status as originator of tragedy; conversely, μεταπλάσσουσι (5) is used 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 ekphrastic tone to the entire epigram. Tragedy here acquires 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 indicates that the “innovations” of future tragedians, his literary heirs, are merely variations on his work. Yet both the νέοι and Thespis are described as doing something new, as he claims that he has introduced 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.[8]

1§7 The second epigram, centered on the tragedian Aeschylus, caps the first by also beginning with the name of Thespis, reiterating his role as inventor in the history of tragedy. It also reprises the language of invention and discovery from the final line of A.P. 7.410, where the later ages of tragic development are said to προσευρήσει different innovations, by acknowledging Thespis’s originality in calling his work a εὕρεμα. Dioscorides draws a direct link between the two epigrams by portraying Aeschylus as ‘maturing’ the invention of Thespis to τελειοτέρους (2), a comparatively more perfected state. This contribution, which is at the same time framed as innovation, refers to his improvements upon the poetry and stage effects of Thespis. 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. The metaphor of carving and plastic arts from the previous poem is resumed here in the characterization of Aeschylus as ὁ μὴ σμιλευτὰ χαράξας/ γράμματα (4-5);[9] it is as if Thespis has handed down a physical piece of artwork to Aeschylus, who reforms it with less finesse than perhaps future tragedians might exercise, but nevertheless elevates the original, primitive tragic form.[10] Again the line between ‘archaic’ and ‘innovative’ 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 developments on his predecessor’s 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.

1§8 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 nexus of 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, as the second epitaph notes. His relation to Sositheus, however, is unmistakably founded upon their common status as satyr dramatists. Their epitaphs are respectively spoken by a pair of satyr statues who stand guard over the dramatists’ fictional tombs and convey their achievements to passersby.

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.

A.P. 7.37
“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 refined purple robe. When he died, I stopped my nimble dancing foot here on the tomb.”
“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.”

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.

A.P. 7.707
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.

1§9 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. With this poem, we have returned to the form of the fictional epitaph which was briefly abandoned in the Aeschylus epigram. A.P. 7.411 does not read clearly as epitaph, with the absence of conventionally sepulchral language or an explicit allusion to a tomb. Aeschylus is addressed in the second person by the narrator, rather than vocalizing his own achievements or lending his voice to another first-person representative like Sophocles’s satyr statue, perhaps to maintain his occupation of an intermediate stage of development between Thespis and Aeschylus which would be difficult to subjectively represent as in A.P. 7410. The landscape imagery of the “rustic woodlands” and “winter-swollen torrent” introduced with Aeschylus is also resumed here, as we interpret the two satyr dramatists—with their satyr statues as proxies—through a stylistic urban/rustic dichotomy that maps onto the physical landscapes of town and country. Sophocles is said to have brought the satyr (drama) from its rustic origins in Phlius, the native city of Pratinas, an early tragedian contemporaneous with Aeschylus who introduced satyr play as a dramatic form distinct from tragedy. Sophocles’s achievement lies in his refinement of satyr play from its primitive state under Pratinas, as metaphorically expressed by his transformation of the satyr into gold and clothing him in a λεπτὴν . . . ἁλουργίδα (5). The characterization of Sophocles’s style as λεπτὴν is highly charged. Λεπτότης was a key component in the terminology of Hellenistic aesthetic and literary criticism; “subtlety” and “brevity” became positive qualities during this time while “gravity” and “excess” were disparaged.[11] Dioscorides’s favorable evaluation of Sophocles thus borrows from the scholarly language of contemporaneous poetic discourse.

1§10 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 Sositheus’s tomb is contrasted with Sophocles’s satyr, who is ἐν ἄστει / ἄλλος (1-2). Phlius is again invoked in this epigram, but this time as the destination rather than the point of departure. 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 definitions 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 that Sositheus is working in the Hellenistic period, the renewal of the archaic and canonical now qualifies as highly innovative, implying that the state of drama intervening period between Sophocles and Sositheus must have been “old-fashioned and dull.”[12] The comparison between Sophocles and Sositheus thus does not rest on an equivalence of the reforms they introduced to satyr drama, but rather on the similarly innovative nature of their contributions at different points in time. Unlike the previous one, this diptych is fascinatingly triangulated between Sophocles, Sositheus, and the figure of Pratinas who hovers in the background of both poems. Sophocles and Sositheus compose diametrically opposite variations on the original rustic theme established by Pratinas. The paradox at the heart of Dioscorides’s definition of ‘innovation’ is most evident here, as it is attributed on the one hand to the sophisticated refinement of Pratinas’s satyr play and on the other to the imitation of and return to Pratinas’s rustic style. It is clear, then, that the contemporary Sositheus is being praised for imitating not Sophocles, as Klooster suggests, but rather the archaic father of satyr play, Pratinas.[13] The parallel structure of these epigrams does not establish a stylistic equivalence between the two satyr play dramatists, but rather locates them at distinct and opposite points of development from the same origin. By concluding with the epitaph to Sositheus, Dioscorides makes his literary preferences quite clear: the emulation of the archaic is the gold standard of poetry.

1§11 The final, singular epigram is devoted to the contemporary comic poet, Machon, who is praised for importing Attic Old Comedy to Alexandria.

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.

A.P. 7.708
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.”

1§12 The interest in the origins of literary forms expressed in the previous diptych 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 for which he has already praised Sositheus.[14] The claim of the πρέσβυς that comic wit endures just as much in Alexandria as in Athens authorizes the link of relevance that Dioscorides has attempted to forge through this epigram between archaic comedy and the present. Through his praise of Machon, Dioscorides offers a positive model of archaizing innovation for contemporary dramatists. To re-animate the styles and techniques of past venerated poets constitutes innovation; to merely plagiarize or clothe one’s work in a “recycled” garment is not.[15] Machon’s chreiai, a series of invective comic anecdotes, reflect the style of Old Comedy rather than the New Comedy of Menander in their concentration on real, everyday individuals.[16] The affiliation of Machon with Old Comedy points to Aristophanes as a potential archaic counterpart whose epigram is perhaps lost to us, a possibility reinforced by language used elsewhere in Dioscorides’s cycle. As Prioux notes, “Le motif d’Eschyle « qui n’a pas réalisé des gravures bien ciselées » rappelle en effet les Grenouilles d’Aristophane où la subtilité excessive, sophistique et sophistiquée des œuvres bien ciselées d’Euripide est raillée et où la palme revient aux œuvres « augustes » d’Eschyle.”[17] The Hellenistic reclamation of λεπτότης as a positive quality of literature which we see expressed in A.P. 7.37 seems to follow from Aristophanes’s criticism in The Frogs of the lightness of Euripides’s style in contrast with the elevated diction of Aeschylus. Under Dioscorides, however, λεπτότης assumes the positive connotations consistent with the preferences of the Hellenistic period and is now attributed to Sophocles rather than Euripides. The epigram on Machon possibly reflects Dioscorides’s appreciation of lightness with the invocation of κούφη κόνι in the first line, the remaining caretaker and representative of this comic writer’s legacy.

1§13 Jacqueline Klooster’s characterization of the temporal manipulation that Dioscorides employs in this literary cycle as a structural “floating gap” 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.[18] As we see in Dioscorides’s cycle, the floating gap defines genealogies and histories only by their extremities. It unites living memory with the far removed era of origins, while omitting the intervening sequence in order to form a continuum between the two poles. This sort of historical revisionism allows for the chronological progression of events to be rearranged, bringing selected moments into sharp relief and inserting new continuities between them. When applied to a genealogy, the floating gap is able to draw a direct line of descent between previously only distantly related figures, elevating the present through a manufactured claim of inheritance from the past. The resultant history overlooks previous successions to privilege a notion of the past as both developmentally and monumentally significant for the present.

1§14 This is precisely the model of history that Dioscorides takes up in his literary praise and critique of contemporaneous and canonical dramatists, and this is precisely the view of history that best suits the Hellenistic agenda and corresponds with the nature of epigram. The poetic project of praising archaic styles and glorifying a canon is inherently historical. Given the Hellenistic motivation to contemplate the past and resolve the place of the present in history, historiographical selectivity must come into play. In Dioscorides’s cycle, the endpoints of stages of literary development are each defined by an emblematic dramatist who becomes constitutive of the work of the succeeding dramatist and therefore of the next era of dramatic history. The pair of epigrams on Sophocles and Sositheus best illustrates this technique 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 when Sositheus returns it to the style of Pratinas in the 3rd century.[19] 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.

1§15 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.[20] According to papyrological evidence from the Hellenistic era, “members of the cultivated public were very fond of Euripides; they read Aeschylus rarely, and Sophocles even more infrequently.”[21] The evidence from school papyri reinforces this conclusion, demonstrating an “absolute preference for Euripides.” Though we have no information on Dioscorides’s reception, his apparent contradiction of the popular opinion of the Hellenistic literary elite suggests that his stylistic preference for archaizing innovation might have been unpopular or novel at the time. The decision to omit Euripides is also a testament to the highly idiosyncratic and selective nature of Dioscorides’s definition of innovation. Euripides, as a prominent advocate and frontrunner in the revolutionary New Music movement during the late 5th century BC, would certainly by any normal usage of the term qualify as an ‘innovator.’ He is observed to have exercised far more variety and novelty in genre, plot, and meter than his predecessors; the late writer pseudo-Psellus claims that Euripides was the first to use an extensive range of notes at wide intervals and modulation in his music.[22] His technique of breaking from the conventional coordination of musical pitch with word pitch was modern and transgressive, much to the enjoyment of popular audiences. Such hardcore music, however, was intolerable to more conservative listeners: “Liberated from tonic constraints, these [melodies] would have appealed to younger ears less attuned to traditional forms, but they struck traditionalists as lacking propriety and discipline—at best an unwelcome modernism, at worst a symptom of barbarity and licentiousness.”[23] Perhaps the antiquarian Dioscorides felt the same way. His implicit rejection of Euripides and his modernizing innovations from his “dead dramatists society” emphasizes his continual insistence on a return to archaic styles and techniques. We are reminded that Dioscorides cheats somewhat with his definition of innovation, distorting it to uphold stylistic archaism and dignifying the present only through its relevance to the past.

1§16 Dioscorides not only reimagines the origins of dramatic form, but also forges a retroactively justified place for the literary present by restaging it as the afterlife of archaic drama. His standard for dramatic excellence lies in the notion of innovation. In chronicling a miniature history of innovation, Dioscorides himself undertakes a very innovative project. He offers a survey of dramatic history in three subgenres while promoting a (potentially unpopular) archaizing aesthetic masquerading as innovation. He critiques not only the poetic past and classical standards of tragedy, but also contemporary criticism on drama. He elides archaism with modernity, asserting his ideals for the present through a fictionalized “self-representation” of ancient authors. Such an undertaking is greatly enhanced by the inherent qualities of the epigram genre. The ekphrastic language naturally assumed by epigram as well as its epitaphic origins cause the reader to consider the archaic dramatist as a deceased historical figure, and to evaluate his work as a poetic monument. At the same time, it immortalizes the contemporaneous dramatist and grants him historical significance by praising his adherence to the standards of his forebears. Because of its natural self-consciousness, the epigram is uniquely capable of examining other genres, especially in the hands of the Hellenistic poets who cultivated its hybridization. The epigrams in Dioscorides’s cycle exhibit a high degree of generic fluidity, fusing poetry and history to critique drama. By expressing his praise in verse, Dioscorides is able to take creative approaches toward the representation of temporality and memory, while the historical nature of the work allows him to inscribe his stylistic preferences on a projected narrative of literary progress. As this cycle demonstrates, the epigram lends literary and historical authority to the poet, qualifying him to critique poetics, poetry, and poets of any age and genre.

1§17 In these ways, the cycle epitomizes the fundamental concerns of the Hellenistic era and displays the broad metapoetic potential of the epigram genre. In the metaphorical landscape of dramatic tradition in which these fictional epitaphs are situated, forward progress is continuously refashioned as a return to origins. This “nostalgic and historicizing approach”[24] re-envisions the various dramatists building upon each other and deliberately looking backwards for models of poetic excellence. By including contemporary figures whom he claims are renewing the archaic tradition of drama, Dioscorides both pays homage to the poetic excellence of a bygone era and asserts that it still persists in Hellenistic poetry. Doubling as stylistic critique and literary history, this cycle of epigrams contributes a novel and remarkable defense of archaism to the academic dialogue of Hellenistic literary scholars. In doing so, it is valuable to modern scholars as well, deepening our understanding of the reception of drama during the Hellenistic period.

[1] Klooster 2011: 2.

[2] Zanker 2015: 47. “Poetry is now preserved or written to be appreciated anywhere in Greek-speaking lands. The shift of focus to private and personal universalities is an important facet of the Hellenistic aesthetic: audiences participated on a personal, rather than a political level bound to any one city-state.”

[3] Klooster 2011: 4 and Campbell 2013: 15.

[4] Fantuzzi 2007: 487.

[5] Klooster 2011: 25.

[6] Scholars have entertained the possibility that there was a now-lost counterpart to the Machon epigram, as I will later explore. Prioux posits that such an epigram might have established Aristophanes as Machon’s predecessor.

[7] All translations are mine.

[8] Campbell 2013: 87.

[9] Prioux 2016. “On est ici proche de l’idée d’une peinture qui ne serait pas « léchée ».”

[10] Perhaps the language of χειμάρρῳ δ᾽οἷα καταρδόμενα is a stylistic comment on Aeschylus’s tendency toward elaborate, dense language, which can be difficult to read. One is reminded of Horace’s famous comparison of Pindar to a mountain torrent (“monte decurrens velut amnis”) in Odes 4.2.

[11] Zanker 2015: 52.

[12] Klooster 2011: 153.

[13] Klooster 2011: 152. “Although some lines of this latter epigram are corrupt, it seems very clear that Sositheus is praised as an imitator of Sophocles. Indeed, his exact imitation of Sophocles makes Dioscorides regard him as a poet of the same stature and importance.”Zchol

[14] Prioux 2016.

[15] Klooster 2011: 154.

[16] Klooster 2011: 154.

[17] Prioux 2016. “The motif of Aeschylus, ‘he who engraved letters not well chiseled,’ in fact recalls The Frogs of Aristophanes, where the excessive, sophistic, and sophisticated subtlety of Euripides’s well-chiseled works is mocked and the honor is given to the ‘august’ works of Aeschylus.”

[18] Klooster 2011: 23.

[19] Prioux 2016.

[20] Sistakou 2016: 55.

[21] Cribiore 2005: 198.

[22] D’Angour 2017: 435-6. The late source used is from On Tragedy 5.39.

[23] D’Angour 2017: 441.

[24] Klooster 2011: 150.



Campbell, Charles. 2013. Poets and Poetics in Greek Literary Epigram. PhD diss., University of             Cincinnati.

Clack, Jerry. 2001. Dioscorides and Antipater of Sidon: The Poems. Wauconda.

Cribiore, Raffaella. 2005. Gymnastics of the Mind: Greek Education in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt. Princeton.

D’Angour, Armand. 2017. “Euripides and the Sound of Music.” A Companion to Euripides (ed. Laura K. McClure). West Sussex.

Fantuzzi, Marco. 2007. “Epigram and the Theater.” Brill’s Companion to Hellenistic Epigram (eds.          Peter Bing and John Steffen Bruss). Leiden.

Gow, A. S. F. and D. L. Page. 1965. The Greek Anthology, Hellenistic Epigrams. Cambridge.

Klooster, Jacqueline. 2011. Poetry as Window and Mirror: Positioning the Poet in Hellenistic Poetry. Leiden.

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.

Zanker, Graham. 2015. “The Contexts and Experience of Poetry and Art in the Hellenistic World.” A Companion to Ancient Aesthetics (eds. Pierre Destrée and Penelope Murray).  West Sussex.

Leave a Reply