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New Hellenistic epigrams about women

Provisional translations and notes by Mary R. Lefkowitz, Wellesley College

Translation and notes copyright © 2001 Mary R. Lefkowitz; all rights reserved.

Some of the 110 epigrams recently discovered on a papyrus will be of particular interest to students of the lives of ancient Greek women. The authors' names are not given, but two of the epigrams on the papyrus are known to have been written by the third-century B.C. poet Posidippus, a native of Pella in Macedonia, who spent much of his time in Ptolemaic Egypt; there are 24 epigrams of Posidippus in A.S.F.Gow and D.L.Page, The Hellenistic Epigrams (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1965). But because many of the epigrams lack the polish of Posidippus' other verses, it is possible that papyrus may be a collection of poems by various authors known as the Soros ("Heap").<1>

The epigrams are organized in the papyrus by subject matter. The poet or poets must have been widely known, since cities throughout the Eastern Mediterranean are mentioned in the poems. Nothing other than what the poet tells us is known about the people whose names appear in the poems selected here, with the exception of the four epigrams for Berenice II. For text and commentary, see the editio princeps, Posidippo di Pella: Epigrammi (P.Mil.Vogl.VIII 309), ed. Guido Bastianini and Claudio Gallazzi in collaboration with Colin Austin (Milan, Edizione Universitarie di Lettere Economia Diritto, 2001).

Gifts of Gem Stones

The stones described are semi-precious; the poet praises the quality of both stone and carving. For examples of carved gems, see D. Plantzos, Hellenistic Engraved Gems (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1999).

Timanthes carved this starry lapis lazuli, a soft Persian stone with golden flecks, for Demylus, and in return for a gentle kiss, gave it as a gift to dark-haired Nicaea of Cos (I 20-23).

On this famous stone...this gleaming beryl carries [the goddess] Iris...and the stone is mounted on Niconoe's golden necklace (?)...and the cube has been firmly fastened to a golden necklace on her bosom, a sweet brilliance on her breast (I 24-29).

Rolling golden stones down from Arabia to the sea, the river with its wintry torrents swifly carried (?) the stone with a color like honey; this the hand of Cronius carved. Set in soft gold the stone sets on fire Niconoe's necklace with its piercings, for the light of honey shines against the white skin of her breast (I 30-35).

Grave epigrams

Of the 20 grave epigrams in the papyrus only two are for men; the disproportionately high number of epigrams for women is unusual. Most of the themes on the epigrams for women are familiar: regret for death before marriage, sorrow for a mother who dies in childbirth, contrasts between young and old. The poet praises the women for longevity, the number of their descendants, and their piety. More unusual is the epigram in which a slave's masters boast that their beneficence was a greater reward to the deceased than liberty, and two epigrams that mention Sappho (VIII 24, IX 2).

For Nicostrate, an initiate, who joins other initiates in the Lower World:
Nicostrate came to the holy rites of the sacred initiates and to the pure fire of the hearth of Triptolemus, and the kindness of Rhadamanthys and Aeacus [welcomed] her into the home and gates of Hades.... she... who had seen [the crowd] of her children. This for mankind is always the gentlest harbor for sad old age (VII 14-19).

For Nico:
For the youngest of twelve children, a ... maiden, [the city of] Pella and the Bacchants have wept, alas, three times, since Fate has led Nico, the servant of Dionysus, down from the Bassaric<2> mountains (VII 20-23).

The name of the deceased is missing in the papyrus:
C...of Marathos [in Phoenicia] took her hands... from the loom only in her old age. She was eighty years old, but able to weave a delicate weft with the shrill shuttle. May the pious woman be happy after her labors, she who in her pure life saw the harvest of five daughters (VII 24-29)!

For Batis:
An old woman, I, Batis, spent my old age with infants, as a servant hired by Athenodice of Phocaea. I taught them to prepare wool, and varied yarns for their headbands, and the weaving of hair-nets; and then they were already going to the threshold of their bridal chambers, when they buried me, the old woman who instructed them in these mysteries<3> (VII 30-35).

For Onasagoratis:
This tomb holds Onasagoratis, who saw children and generations of children in succession, four times twenty in number. These eighty children cared for her when she was old, by their hands and their hearts (?). This woman, one hundred years old, the blessed daughter of Onasa, was placed by the citizens of Paphos in these ashes consumed by fire (VII 36-39, VIII 1-2).

For the slave Bithynis:
Goddess Themis, this tomb is a sufficient resting-place for wise Bithynis, a slave of worthy masters, for I did not strive for freedom, but I was well rewarded, and I have this memorial that is more enduring than liberty<4> (VIII 3-6).

For Hegedice:
Philaenium thus with her pipes...placed unfortunate Hegedice in this tomb, eighteen years old, with great sorrow...the shrill shuttles [have fallen] from the loom...the golden voice of the girl...remains in this dark chamber (VIII 7-12).

For Hedeia:
A dark cloud came upon this city, when Eetion placed his daughter in this tomb and mourned her death, calling upon his child Hedeia; Hymenaeus knocked at the door not of her marriage chamber, but of this tomb. This is a sorrow shared in the city. But let the tears and lamentations of those citizens suffice (VIII 13-18).

For Telephia:
"Weep and follow, stretch out your hands to the gods." This is what the women of Karyai<5> said of Telephia, at her tomb...and in the spring...bearing ... of the purple pasture, sing of the girl swift as the wind, and bound to your tears, let the songs of Sappho be sung, divine verses<6> (VIII 19-24).

For Calliope:
Calliope, you lie here, thus; your friends weep for you, maiden, and for the sad night festival, in which you –to your mother the fairest image sent by heavenly Aphrodite– fell from a high roof (VIII 31-34).

For Myrtis:
Earth, you are drenched with tears. For her brothers have buried with fire Myrtis, ten years old and unfortunate, of Cyrenean descent. But [her father?] Nicanor, alive and ignorant of her death has gone to other boundaries of the earth...(2 verses are missing) (VIII 35-38).

For Nicomache:
Everything that was Nicomache's, her playthings and the Sapphic talking upon talking<7> at dawn, Fate has come and taken away prematurely. The city of the Argives has lamented the poor girl's death, a shoot raised by the arm of Hera. Alas, the beds of the bridegrooms who hoped to marry her have remained cold (IX 1-6).

For an unnamed woman, who died in childbirth. The epigram may describe a representation of the dead woman and her son on a grave stele:
Five times during childbirth Eleutho raised her bow beside your bed,<8> but in the sixth childbirth you died, and your infant child perished on the seventh day while pursuing your swelling breast. A tear was shed for you both by the two caretakers of your tomb. Lady of Asia, the gods will care for your five children, and you also are caring for one child on your lap (IX 7-14).

For Philonis:
When Philonis was giving birth to a child a savage snake coiled over her head, a dark scaly thing; blazingŠ stretched itself toward her neck, and she reached out her hand to hide her child in her robes...and her limbs gave way in fear. You suffered grievously from the portent, lady, but your son survived and has in time turned gray (IX 15-22).

For Protis the lyre-player:
When Protis came to her bridal bed...but she came no longer... to the maidens' banquets, after playing the Boeotian nome...but she lived with her husband for...decades, and having seen her children happy with husbands, with a favorable wind she went off to the home of the pious (IX 23-28).

For Menestrate:
Fortunate Menestrate, as you grew happily old, you saw the whole eighth [decade of years]...and two generations of children set up a fitting tomb for you. You have the holy blessings of the gods. Dear lady, share the great [benefit] of a shining old age with those who pass by your holy grave (IX 29-34).

Epigrams in honor of Berenice II, for her chariot victories

As in the case of other women victors, the chariots were driven by professional charioteers and sponsored by their male relatives (see Women's Life in Greece and Rome, Ed.2, p.161). The speaker in the first epigram is Berenice II, wife of Ptolemy III Euergetes (pharaoh of Egypt 247-221 B.C.). She speaks of her husband's ancestors as though they were her own.

Tell of my glory, all you poets, ... to speak of what is well known, because my fame has an ancient lineage. My ancestor Ptolemy [I] won [an Olympian victory] with his chariot when driving his horse at the stadium at Pisa, and so did my father's [Ptolemy II Euergetes] mother Berenice [I], and again my father won, a king who took his name from a king. Arsinoe won all three chariot races in one contest...the holy family of women... a maidenly...saw these [glories] in chariot racing from one house and the prize-winning children of children. Sing, Macedonians, of the crown Berenice [II] won with her successful chariot (XII 20-33).

This poem describes the victories in the chariot races of Berenice II at Nemea, possibly in 249 or 247 B.C. Callimachus describes a similar victory (Supp.Hell. 254. 8-10).

The maiden queen with her chariot, yes, Berenice, has won all the crowns for chariot races in the games, from you, Zeus of Nemea. By the speed of her horses her chariot left behind the many drivers. And like...with slack reins<9> the horses came to the judges of the Argolid (XII 34-39).

An Isthmian victory...Berenice's...of the stadium..the Macedonian..daughter with her father Ptolemy was admired by the holy water of...Peirene,<10> and you alone, queen, proclaimed in the Isthmus how many times your house was victorious (XIII 9-14).

An Olympian victory. The verses are spoken by the statues of the horses who drew her chariot; they compare Berenice with the Spartan queen Cynisca's victory in the late 4th century B.C. (AP XIII.16=WLGR 202).

When we were still the horses of Macedonian Berenice, people of Pisa,<11> we brought her the crown of Olympic victory, which has well-known fame, and with it we took away the ancient glory of Cynisca in Sparta (XIII 31-34).


1 The Soros is mentioned in the scholion on Il.11, 101a, which derives from the commentary of the first-century B.C. scholar Didymus (Scholia ad Homeri Iliadem, ed. Erbse, III p. 144); see Alan Cameron, The Greek Anthology from Meleager to Planudes (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1993) 369-376.

2 Bacchants in Thrace, Phrygia, and Lydia were known as Bassarai or Bassarides (bassara=fox), from the fox-skin caps they wore in their rituals.

3 Cf. the memorial to her nurse Melitta from Hippostrate (CEG 571=IG II2. 7873=WLGR 379)

4 Loyalty and obedience were qualities owners valued in slaves, and the owners paid for this epigram; in the plays of Plautus loyalty usually works to the slave's advantage, even though ideally they would have preferred freedom; see K.R. Bradley, Slaves and Masters in the Roman Empire (New York, Oxford University Press, 1987) 37-39.

5 There was a famous temple of Artemis at Karyai in Laconia, whose priestesses were called karyatides, for whom the architectural columns that resemble maidens are named.

6 Plutarch (2nd c. A.D.) speaks of "the songs of Sappho [Sapphika mele] that entrance and enchant all who listen to them (de Pyth. Or. 397a).

7 In VIII 24 the poet speaks of "Sapphic songs" but here he appears to be talking about the informal conversation among young women described in Sappho's poems (e.g., F94 Voigt=WLGR #4) or dinners with female friends (cf. Pindar, Pythian 9.18-19).

8 Labor pains were believed to be cause by an arrow shot by Artemis, the goddess of childbirth, who can both save in her role as "Freer" (Eleutho) or kill (cf. Euripides, Hippolytus 166-168; Callimachus, Hymn 3.126-128).

9 "With slack reins" connotes "at top speed;" cf. Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus 900.

10 Peirene is a spring in Corinth.

11 Pisa, a spring, here stands for the whole town of Olympia.

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