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.”
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.
“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.”
“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.”
Does Charidas really lie dead beneath you?
“You mean Arimma’s son from Cyrenaica?
Then yes, he’s underneath me.”
O Charidas, what’s down there?
But what about the ways up?
Ah, nothing remains of us.
“What I’ve given you is my truthful account.
But if you want the pleasing version, here goes:
even small sums buy a big bull in Hades!”
Note: the final line of the Greek is likely corrupt, and therefore while I’ve followed Markovitch in assuming the questionable word is a reference to money (an “obol,” which I’ve freely rendered as “small sums”)–and amending the Greek to reflect that–others assume a reference to the bull’s place of origin (“Pella”).
Lady of the night,
Two-horned lover of nocturnal revels,
Shine, and as you beam through latticed shutters
Illume golden Kallistion.
There’s no wrong in a goddess watching
The doings of lovers.
To you, she and I are happy, I know, Selene.
For your soul was inflamed by Endymion too.
Note: Selene, the moon, is described as crescent shaped (“two-horned”). She fell in love with, and made love with, Endymion while he slept. The speaker of the epigram seems to suggest that he too will accost his beloved, Kallistion, while she sleeps.
Fancy lady, wait for me!
What’s your lovely name?
Where can I see you?
I’d give you what you want,
But you’re not talking.
Where will you be?
I’ll send someone with you.
You’re taken—is that it?
Snooty lady, take care.
You won’t even say “goodbye”?
I’ll come to you again and again—
I know how to soften
Even harder women than you.
Goodbye, lady, for now.
“Reverent Hera, who often comes down
From the sky to gaze upon your fragrant Lakinian home.
Take the linen robe which Theophilos, the daughter of Kleokha
Wove for you with the help of her noble daughter Nossis.”
“These weapons the Brettian men hurled down from their unlucky shoulders
As they were overcome by the hands of the fast-battling Lokrians.
They are dedicated here singing the Lokrians glory in the temple of the gods.
They don’t long at all for the hands of the cowards they abandoned.”
“There is nothing sweeter than love: all other blessings
Take second place. I even spit honey from my mouth.
This is what Nossis says. Whomever Kypris has not kissed,
Does not understand her flowers, what kinds of things roses are.”
“This frame has the picture of Thaumareta. The painter
Caught the form and the age of the soft-glancing woman well.
Your house dog, the little puppy, would paw at you if she saw this,
Believing that she was looking down at the lady of her home.”
“Even though he lies in the ground, pour out pitch
In the filthy mouth of Parthenius
Because he puked meaningless myriad floods on the muses
And his refuse of his repugnant poems.
”He was so absolutely crazy that he called
The Odyssey mud and the Iliad a mess.
That’s why he is chained by the dusky Furies
In the middle of hell with a dog collar on his neck”
The following poems are taken from the Greek Anthology.
“Grammarians, children of hateful Blame, thorn-worms
Book-monsters, whelps of Zenodotus,
Soldiers of Kallimakhos, a man you project like a shield
But do not spare from your tongue,
Hunters of grievous conjunctions who take pleasure
In min or sphin* and in asking if the Cyclops kept dogs,
May you wear out your lives, wretches, muttering over the abuse
Of others. Come sink your arrow in me!”
“Useless race of grammarians, digging at the roots of
Someone else’s poetry, luckless worms who walk on thorns,
Perverters of great art, boasting over your Erinna*,
Bitter, parched watchdogs of Kallimakhos,
Rebukes to poets, death’s shade to children learning,
Go to hell, you fleas that secretly bite eloquent men.”
“Goodbye, men whose eyes have wandered over the universe,
And you thorn-counting worms of Aristarchus.
What’s it to me to examine which paths the Sun takes
Or whose son Proteus was or who was Pygmalion?
I would know as many works whose texts are clean. But let
The dark inquiry rot away the Mega-Kallimakheis!”