“Yo, I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want”
-Spice Girls, “Wannabe,” 1996 A.D.
Philodemus 11.34 (Greek Anthology)
White violets and songs to the lyre,
Wines from Chios and myrrh from Syria,
Drinking parties and writhing harlots—
No thanks. Not again. I would lose my mind.
But wreaths of narcissus, put ‘em ‘round me.
Give me a taste of what the flute can do.
Rub my limbs with crocus-scented oils,
And soak my pipes with Mytilene wine.
Oh, and bring me a wife, a virgin and shy.
Λευκοΐνους πάλι δὴ καὶ ψάλματα, καὶ πάλι Χίους
οἴνους, καὶ πάλι δὴ σμύρναν ἔχειν Συρίην,
καὶ πάλι κωμάζειν, καὶ ἔχειν πάλι διψάδα πόρνην
οὐκ ἐθέλω: μισῶ ταὺτα τὰ πρὸς μανίην.
ἀλλά με ναρκίσσοις ἀναδήσατε, καὶ πλαγιαύλων
γεύσατε, καὶ κροκίνοις χρίσατε γυῖα μύροις,
καὶ Μυτιληναίῳ τὸν πνεύμονα τέγξατε Βάκχῳ,
καὶ συζεύξατέ μοι φωλάδα παρθενικήν.
A former dean of mine once sent an email to the faculty announcing a large grant to the college by a local business, providing for endowed chairs in the liberal arts. He had the temerity to announce in the very same email that he was giving himself one of these chairs. And he had a chair made with an inscription. The following is a slightly more humble epigraph.
Constantinus of Sicily, Greek Anthology 15.13
“If you are wise, sit on me. But if you’ve tasted the muse
Only with the tip of your finger…..
Move far away and find a different seat.
I am a chair who bears the burden of men who seek wisdom.”
Anonymous epitaph for Democritus, Greek Anthology 7.56
“This was the source of Democritus’ laughter, as he would say immediately:
‘Did I not say, while laughing, that everything is laughter in the end?
For I too, after my boundless wisdom and ranks of
So many books, lie beneath a tomb as a joke.’ ”
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.
Didyme has captured me with her eyes,
Alas! And I melt like wax before a flame
When I behold her beauty.
And if she’s black, so what?
Coals are too, and yet when we heat them
They glow like rose petals.
This epigram owes its fame chiefly to its eroticization of what, based on her/ name and her color, is presumed to be an African woman. But in a poem that is almost wholly conventional, the racialized woman, and the speaker’s justification of her, are poetic conventions too. If anything does distinguish the poem, it might be it’s prurience.
Most of the epigram’s conventional elements are easily identified: the eyes as instruments of bewitchment (Ibycus Fr.287); the lover’s liquefaction in the presence of desire (Alcman Fr.59a and Sappho Fr.112); eroticizing of skin color, albeit white skin (Rufinus 5.60 and Dioscorides 5.56 in the Greek Anthology [GA]); and the lover as inflaming the beloved (Rufinus 5.87 GA), when not the other way around.
Conventional also, though less obviously so, is the beloved’s roseate glow. In 2 epigrams about sexual intercourse (5.54 and 5.55 GA), Dioscorides describes a woman’s buttocks as “rose-like” in color. Rufinus describes the vagina as rose-like in its glow (5.36 GA) and uses “rose” as a euphemism for vagina (5.36 GA). So when Asclepiades suggests that the stimulated woman–and stimulation is what “heat them” references–glows red, the change in coloration is not to her skin in general, but to her sex organs.
What about her African name and dark skin? Scholars have pointed out that the name Didyme was quite common for Egyptian women in the period, and so we can read its use here as stereotypical (i.e., conventional). And as for Didyme’s dark skin, consider these lines by Philodemus (5.132 GA) who worked after Asclepiades:
If she’s Opician, and named Flora, and doesn’t sing Sappho’s songs,
No matter, even Perseus desired Indian Andromeda.
The English might not convey the extent to which the form of these lines–an objection and an answer to the objection–is nearly identical to “And if she’s black, so what? / Coals are too.” What structures the couplet in both Philodemus and Asclepiades is εἰδὲ . . . καὶ (“and if . . . even”, or translated differently, “and if . . . also”). “If she’s Opician” (from Opicia, the area around Naples) is modeled on “if she’s black” in Asclepiades. “Even Perseus” (or “Perseus too”) is modeled on “coals too” (or “even coals”) in Asclepiades. Perseus’ lover is marked as non-Greek and presumably brown just Asclepiades’ lover is non-Greek and black. If Asclepiades ‘invented’ the use of this form for racialized erotic content, then the tradition absorbed it and made it conventional, just as he himself had absorbed the tradition’s conventions.
“Lathrian, please take this from the wanderer, the pauper,
The man of little flour, Leonidas, as thanks:
Moist cakes of barely and well-stored olive oil,
Along with this green fig straight from the tree.
Lady, take these five grapes from a cluster good for wine
And this final libation from the bottom of the cup.
And if you save me from hateful poverty as you saved me
From sickness, expect a young goat too.”
“I was struck immobile from my hips to the bottom of my feet
Completely denied my life’s work for so long,
Halfway between life and death, Hades’ neighbor,
Merely breathing, but a corpse in every other way.
But wise Philippos, whom you view in the picture,
Brought me back to life by healing the dread disease.
And Antoninus walks on the earth again as before!
I tread on it with my feet and I feel whole.”
Contemporaneous with any number of erotic epigrams collected in the Greek Anthology are the spells, rituals, and hymns of the Magic Papyri from Greco-Roman Egypt.
As these examples show, the epigrams and magic spells sometimes have nearly identical concerns: disrupting the beloved’s sleep or manipulating her dreams. Both epigram and magic spell seem a form of consolation for the frustrations of unrequited love. Yet I think it can be said of the epigram that it disciplines the sentiment with meter.
The magic spell, in contrast, seems an ongoing and futile acting-out. Also, the magic spell has this contradictory character: the lover bewitched by the beloved’s natural charms (her beauty, mind, character, or what have you) must resort to the supernatural to bewitch her in turn. The supernatural might represent awesome power, but its invocation underscores the insufficiency, the relative poverty, of the lover’s own means (his beauty, mind, character, or what have you). And of course the lover’s overvaluation of the beloved is also on display: he thinks only the gods are a match for her!
This perverse epigram in the form of a sepulchral inscription is preserved without attribution in the Greek Anthology.
7.179 (Greek Anthology)
Even now, from beneath the earth, master,
I’m steadfast in my devotion to you,
Just like in the old days.
I haven’t forgotten how you got me
Back on my feet, three times, when I was sick.
Now you’ve laid me under this sheltering
Cover, which declares: Manes, a Persian.
You did right by me, master, and for that
You’ll have slaves who are indebted to you
And who are all the more eager to serve.
Plato on the Docile Slave. For Plato the problem of slavery isn’t ethical, but practical: how to make a human being “readily accept the condition of servitude” (ῥᾷον δουλεύσειν) and become “as docile as possible” (εὐμενεστάτους)? (Laws 777d and 776d, respectively). To accomplish this, he counsels “the best strategy is to treat them properly” (εἰς δύναμιν ὅτι μάλιστα, τρέφειν δ᾽ αὐτοὺς ὀρθῶς), by which he means masters should not physically injure their slaves (Laws 777d). Plato’s assumption is that “kind” treatment would induce obedience.
Aristotle on Asian Slaves. For Aristotle, non-Greeks comprise “a community of slaves, male and female alike” (ἡ κοινωνία αὐτῶν δούλης καὶ δούλου) and Greeks are their rightful masters (Politics I.1252b7-8). But Asians come in for particularly harsh judgement: “Concerning the people of Asia, although they are intelligent and capable, they lack spirit, and as a consequence they are always ruled over and enslaved (τὰ δὲ περὶ τὴν Ἀσίαν διανοητικὰ μὲν καὶ τεχνικὰ τὴν ψυχήν, ἄθυμα δέ, διόπερ ἀρχόμενα καὶ δουλεύοντα διατελεῖ [Politics VII. 1327b27-28]).
The Idealized Slave: There’s congruence between Plato’s exhortation to good treatment (his admonition against injury) and the epigram’s account of the master nursing the sick slave. Also, the epigram’s slave isn’t just docile, but ideally so. We can say that if there were two routes out of slavery, manumission and death, the master denied the slave the former, but this fictional slave denied himself the latter. Even death is not the end of his happy servitude. It’s no wonder that the grave marker identifies him as Persian–his race (γένος), according to Aristotle, marked him out for servitude. The epigram is a fantasy about servitude, and it’s as distasteful as Plato’s and Aristotle’s views.
“The truth of the matter is that–by an exorbitant paradox–I never stop believing that I am loved. I hallucinate what I desire. Each wound proceeds less from a doubt than from a betrayal: for only the one who loves can betray, only the one who believes himself loved can be jealous…”–Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse.
Dioscorides 5.52 (Greek Anthology)
We swore a mutual oath to Eros,
And based on that oath, Sosipater
Placed his loving trust in Arsinoe.
But she is false, and her oath is empty,
While his love, nonetheless, abides intact.
What the gods can do, hasn’t yet been done:
O Hymenaeus, chant sorrowful songs
At Arsinoe’s latched door, condemning
The betrayal that is her marriage bed.
“Dâmis built this grave for his battle-fierce but dead
Horse, after murderous Ares pierce his chest.
The blood spurted black from his thick-hided skin
And he dyed the earth with his painful life’s blood.”
“Your courage, Proarkhos, killed you in the fight and dying
You put the home of your father Pheidias into dark grief.
Yet this rock above you sings out a noble song:
That you died in a struggle for your dear homeland.”