What’s Up with Ancient Greek Epitaphs


Arts & Culture

Sleeping Girl, by Yiannoulis Halepas, 1878 [Photo: Nikos Vatopoulos]

There are epitaphs, there are epigrams, and there are epigraphs. Creates a lot of confusion. (The other case like this, for me, is friable, frangible, and fungible. I’ve given up all hope on that one.)

So try and concentrate. An epigram is, strictly speaking, a little poem that makes a point. It doesn’t necessarily dramatize; it doesn’t necessarily have an image. But it has to say something. This is an epigram:


One failure on
Top of another

Haikus are not epigrams. “Pigeons on the grass, alas” is not an epigram. It might be clearer to say an epigram doesn’t just make a point. An epigram scores a point.

An epigraph is one of those little quotations you see at the beginning of a novel or, say, a T. S. Eliot poem. The epigraph to Anna Karenina is from the Bible: “Vengeance is mine; I shall repay.” The epigraph to Jude the Obscure is “The letter killeth.”

Naturally, epigrams can be used as epigraphs, but let’s not even. This article is about epitaphs. An epitaph is a little dab of poetry that you stick on a gravestone. It doesn’t have to be about the deceased, but it usually is. Keats suggested a good one for himself, and they actually used it: “Here lies one whose name is writ in water.” That’s not really a poem, but it’s a little dab of poetry. It counts.

Epitaphs are a good idea. You got your block of stone, you got the cutter standing there, chisel in hand, waiting for what to put. One of God’s children has fallen; gotta write something. Give a précis of his or her life in four lines. Or say how the person died. Remind people they’re next. Anyhow, you have to say something.

The ancient Greeks loved this. They made zillions of these things. In fact, a very large chunk of the book we call the Greek Anthology is nothing but epitaphs.

What is the Greek Anthology? It’s this ridiculously comprehensive book of itty-bitty Greek poems. It’s divided into fifteen or sixteen “books.” The table of contents is a sketch. The level of agglutinative, improvised, cross-eyed incoherence is like something out of Borges. You remember that famous bit that knocked Michel Foucault half dead with pleasure, from the “Chinese” Encyclopedia of Celestial Wisdom or whatever—? Quote:

This book [The Order of Things, 1966] first arose out of a passage in Borges … [that] quotes a “certain Chinese encyclopaedia” in which it is written that “animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.”

Compare that with the TOC of the Greek Anthology:

1 Christian epigrams

2 Some guy’s description of certain statues

3 Inscriptions on some particular temple

4 Various prefaces to the collections that were raided to produce this one

5 Love and sex [*important]

6 Votive inscriptions

7 Epitaphs [*important]

8 The epigrams of “Gregory of Nazianzus” (whoever he was)

9 Figure-of-speech epigrams

10 Ethical ones

11 Funny ones, or ones on the theme “Let the good times roll”

12 Boy love [*important]

13 Metrical curiosities

14 Word games, riddles, prophesies

15 Miscellaneous

Also some versions have a sixteenth book of epigrams about paintings.

I know what you’re thinking. These “books” must be kind of short. Some of ’em are! But the epitaphs one (Book 7) is two hundred pages in the old Loeb translation. It’s four hundred if you count the Greek originals, en face. (No point in counting those, however, since nobody can read ’em.)

And what are those epitaphs like. Here, things get tricky. Most people who think they know the epitaphs in the Greek Anthology have read only selections, and the selections are misleading. They make you think Book 7 must be a compilation of austere and moving and above all authentic epitaphs—poems copied straight off roadside stones in Thessaly. That’s not what you find if you actually read the whole thing, floor to ceiling. The vast majority of epitaphs in the Greek Anthology are literary exercises. There was no stone, there was no corpse. It was like things now: there was a poet and there was a piece of paper. Unlike now, people understood meter.

If one were to construct a TOC just for Book 7, it would be even more of a mess than the TOC for the anthology as a whole. There would be sections on:

  • animals
  • insects
  • sailors swallowed by the sea
  • fools and unincorporated persons
  • children—specially unmarried girls
  • long-dead celebrities
  • whole armies
  • persons who deserved what they got

—and so on. Only a very, very few of these came out of (or could dreamily produce) emotions. For the most part, whatever merit the individual specimens have is confined to the recto pages in the Loeb.

I can replicate the loss effect. Look at this famous epitaph written by Robert Herrick in the early seventeenth century:

Upon Prew his Maid.

IN this little Urne is laid
Prewdence Baldwin (once my maid)
From whose happy spark here let
Spring the purple Violet.

That is a delicate little thing, not entirely convincing, but no matter: it has a loveliness that the native speaker of English senses on contact. A lot of the Greek stuff must seem more or less like that, in the original. So now look at its verso version, coined by me, off the top of my head:

This urn contains the ashes of Prudence Baldwin, who used to be my servant. May violets grow here.

See, this is why one turns those verso pages in a state of perpetually flagging attention. One is fatigued, trying to imagine the pleasures of the Herrick originals (as it were) in the equivalent of that emprosified piece of snake molt that I came up with.

Just the same, many poets have been inspired by the Book 7 epitaphs, sometimes in life-changing ways. Americanists might think of the Spoon River Anthology (which I really oughta read, one of these days)—but as for me, I always think of that inspired piece of French porn-poetry called The Songs of Bilitis. That book was originally passed off as a translation of an ancient Greek poet, contemporary with Sappho. Apparently plenty of people bought into the hoax; anybody can see why. The author, Pierre Louÿs, had the touch. Here’s a translation done by my teacher, Jane Miller, and Olga Broumas in 1985:


On the somber banks of Mélas, in Tamassos of Pamphylia,
I, daughter of Damophylos, Bilitis, was born. I rest far
from my country, you can see.
Very young I learned the loves of Adonis and Astarte,
the mysteries of the Syrian saint, and the death and return
toward Her-of-the-round-eyelids.
If I was a courtesan, what’s to blame? Wasn’t that my
female duty? Stranger, the mother of all things guides us.
Not to have gratitude isn’t prudent.
In gratitude to you who have stopped, I wish you this
destiny: may you be loved, not love. Good-bye. Remember in
your old age that you have seen my tomb.

See what Pierre Louÿs has done there? Everything in the style—the voice from beyond the grave, the reference to the circumstance of the reader actually standing before the grave—all that is very like the Book 7 epitaphs. Except it’s actually moving.

Here’s another item, also ten times better than almost anything in the actual Greek Anthology, done by a poet who, you can bet, knew what he was doing. Hello, Constantine Cavafy:


Out of talk, appearance, and manners
I will make an excellent suit of armor;
and in this way I will face malicious people
without feeling the slightest fear or weakness.
They will try to injure me. But of those
who come near me none will know
where to find my wounds, my vulnerable places,
under the deceptions that will cover me.
So boasted Aimilianos Monai.
One wonders if he ever made that suit of armor.
In any case, he did not wear it long.
At the age of twenty-seven, he died in Sicily.

That’s sickeningly good. And again, we observe the Greek Anthology style of boldly summing up somebody’s life in a few lines, but it’s better than most of the ancient stuff, ’cuz the irony at the end actually comes off. To go back to Borges, those last lines beautifully touch the same note as the flat and austere ending of “Funes, the Memorious”:

Ireneo Funes murió en 1889, de una congestión pulmonar.
[Ireneo Funes died in 1889, of a pulmonary congestion.]

It should be noted, though, that these modern pieces are even more artificial and made-up than their models. So, you should never forget: this is not about authenticity. It’s just about effective writing. The good epitaph poem requires neither corpse nor stone, and yet it requires something more than paper and poet.

Take care of yourselves.


NOTES: “Their Sex Life” is by A. R. Ammons. “Pigeons on the grass” is Gertrude Stein. “Vengeance is mine” is Romans 12:19. “The letter killeth” is II Corinthians 3:6. Foucault is quoting from Borges’s essay “El idioma analítico de John Wilkins.” The Cavafy translation is by Keeley and Sherrard.

Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.