Joel sings “love is a battlefield” at every department holiday party, and yet no general ever says at muster, “troops, war is loving.” We don’t, that is, ordinarily reverse the terms of a metaphor. In practice, one term stands still and the other term does the work of elucidating it.
But what if metaphor flowed both ways (metaphorically speaking), such that on one occasion X elucidated Y, and on another occasion Y elucidated X? That is what we find in the Greek Anthology when we compare epigrams across their sepulchral and amatory boundaries.
It’s a dissonant reading, but one we’re justified in making when topoi arranged to make a poem about death are rearranged to make an equally effective poem about love. Furthermore, I think we can say that when responsibility for clarifying terms (love, death) passes back and forth between the terms themselves, the end result is a body of poems whose referents are one another.
Here are two pairings of an amatory and sepulchral epigram. In the first, it is the imagery of the sea, and in the second the imagery of robbery, that are employed to account for the phenomenologically distinct experiences of loving and dying. With each pairing, try to think not only of how death is a metaphor for love, but how love is a metaphor for death:
 The Sea
Bitter wave of desire,
Restless winds of jealousy,
And a wintry sea of celebrations:
Where to, am I being carried?
Since my heart’s tiller swings this way and that,
Will I see that tender Scylla again?
The East wind’s savage, sudden gusts,
Night, and waves from Orion’s dark setting
Did me in: I, Callaeschrus, lost my hold on life
While sailing in the middle of the Libyan sea.
Tumbling about in the water, prey for fish,
I died. And so, this gravestone is a liar.
Here I am, a wretched man three times over:
Overpowered by a thief’s violence,
Prostrate, and wept for by no one.
Diophanes of Myrina 5.309
A thief three times over,
That’s what Desire should really be called:
He’s watchful, he’s brazen, he strips you bare.
κῦμα τὸ πικρὸν Ἔρωτος, ἀκοίμητοί τε πνέοντες
ζῆλοι, καὶ κώμων χειμέριον πέλαγος,
ποῖ φέρομαι; πάντῃ δὲ φρενῶν οἴακες ἀφεῖνται,
ἦ πάλι τὴν τρυφερὴν Σκύλλαν ἐποψόμεθα;
Εὔρου με τρηχεῖα καὶ αἰπήεσσα καταιγίς,
καὶ νύξ, καὶ δνοφερῆς κύματα πανδυσίης [p. 150]
ἔβλαψ᾽ Ὠρίωνος: ἀπώλισθον δὲ βίοιο
Κάλλαισχρος, Λιβυκοῦ μέσσα θέων πελάγευς.
κἀγὼ μὲν πόντῳ δινεύμενος, ἰχθύσι κύρμα,
οἴχημαι: ψεύστης δ᾽ οὗτος ἔπεστι λίθος.
ἐνθάδ᾽ ἐγὼ λῃστῆρος ὁ τρισδείλαιος ἄρηι
ἐδμήθην κεῖμαι δ᾽ οὐδενὶ κλαιόμενος.
Diophanes of Myrina 5.309
τρὶς λῃστὴς ὁ Ἔρως καλοῖτ᾽ ἂν ὄντως:
ἀγρυπνεῖ, θρασύς ἐστιν, ἐκδιδύσκει.
Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.