Classics professor Regina Höschele is providing a new perspective on our literary past.
By analysing epigrams as books, rather than individually, her research has exposed previously unseen connections between epigrams and has demonstrated that when analysed collectively, they are more valuable than originally thought.
According to Höschele, epigrams are “very little poems” that first appeared in the eighth century BC, inscribed on tombstones or votive offerings. In fact, “some of the earliest texts in all of western literature are epigrams,” Höschele explained. Over time, these inscriptions evolved to become more elaborate and by the Hellenistic age in the third century BC, poets were writing epigrams for books. Authors began playing with the conventions of epigraphical poetry and some poems even started to develop erotic shadings only seen previously in the form of song.
Höschele said epigrams have been catalogued and preserved by academics for hundreds of years and were extremely popular in the Renaissance but for a long time they weren’t taken seriously because they paled in comparison to the works of “true classics,” such as Homer. However, in recent years, the classics community began to recognize that there was more to these poems than previously thought.
Höschele is part of a new generation of researchers who believe that epigrams were artfully arranged in books by their authors, adding to their significance; a single epigram read alone may seem unremarkable, but a collection of epigrams presented as a group brings new dimension to their content.
It is also important, Höschele said, to understand that “the authors arrange the poems in a way that presupposes [the] linear reading” of a papyrus scroll, which, unlike modern books, reveals its text in a very specific order as it is gradually unrolled. Höschele explained that a linear reading not only shows “how the poet plays with us” but it also demands a certain level of reader intelligence and becomes “an intellectual game.”
Her latest research, some of which was published in the 2007 winter issue of Transactions of the American Philological Association, focuses mainly on largely unknown post-Hellenistic authors who helped to stretch the boundaries of the epigram tradition; she is the first to extensively study the first century AD poet Rufinus.
But not all academics agree with Höschele’s interpretations. There is no proof that epigrams were arranged by their authors to produce subtle subtexts and the books in which these poems originally appeared have all been lost. Yet Höschele feels that “some epigram sequences are just so sophisticated that I cannot imagine that it’s coincidence.”
Despite her skeptics,Höschele said that she will continue to work to uncover the nuances of these poems that were not only “a major part of intellectual life for many centuries” but also belonged to one of antiquity’s most popular genres.