The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Gideon Nisbet
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
The epigrams of the Greek Anthology.
When did you first come across the Greek Anthology?
My old undergraduate tutor, Ewen Bowie, steered me towards it when I was interested in doing postgrad but didn’t really know what kind of topic to go for. He’d fancied taking a run at the Anthology’s book of satirical epigrams, but had never found the time to get round to them. He reckoned they would suit my sense of humour – and also, I suspect, my short attention span.
Can you tell me a bit about this book and its context?
An epigram is a short poem, typically in elegiac couplets, and the Anthology contains about four thousand of them, plus some other bits and pieces. It’s truly massive. It was assembled in more or less its present form in the tenth century by a Byzantine scholar called Constantine Cephalas, who drew on a tradition of anthologisation going back at least as far as Meleager of Gadara in the first century BC. The story of how Cephalas’s Anthology came together, only to be lost and (mostly) eventually rediscovered, is dauntingly complicated; Alan Cameron tells it in his book, The Greek Anthology from Meleager to Planudes (1993).
The earliest epigrams of the Anthology are classical inscriptions rescued from authors such as Herodotus (Simonides, ‘Go tell the Spartans…’), but epigram branched out and became a literary genre in the early Hellenistic age, when they began to be performed at symposia and collected into authored books such as the recently rediscovered ‘Milan Posidippus’ papyrus. No other form of literature was as versatile – epigrams could be about practically anything – or as easy to break into; an aspiring writer only needed to stay in metre for a few lines, perhaps only a single couplet. So these little poems carried on being written in huge numbers, both for inscription and as literature, right through the Hellenistic and Roman periods, and far into late antiquity – the sixth century AD was an absolute hotbed of epigram-writing.
What is it about the Anthology that appeals to you most?
The Anthology’s versatility means that there is something there for pretty much everybody. Greek epigrams immortalised victories on the racetrack and battlefield – or in the bedroom; cracked jokes; posed riddles; chronicled lovers’ misfortunes; celebrated friendship, the rhythms of nature and the countryside, the satisfaction of a job well done… the list could go on. Last year I had the good fortune to spend several intensive months translating a large selection of its poems for the World’s Classics, which will be out this November under the title Epigrams from the Greek Anthology. It’s a classic that non-classicists have largely forgotten – the last selection on this scale was nearly a century ago – but that once had huge public appeal, and I hope my readers will see why.
Remember, epigrams began as inscriptions, and one place you keep on needing inscriptions is tombs and gravestones. In recent weeks, with a deadly pandemic cancelling all bets and unfinished business in grief already in hand, I have sought solace in going back to the Anthology and translating yet more poems, specifically from the gloomy fourth-century theologian, Gregory of Nazianzus. Gregory was a hugely important man in the history of the church, but he lost everyone he cared about, almost all to illness, often quite suddenly. Here’s an example (Greek Anthology 8.23), on a talented young friend who had everything to live for:
Though he had only twenty years, no more,
Euphemius flew to every Muse of Greece
And each of Rome, as no man ever flew
To any one of either. He burned bright:
A flash of brilliance and character.
Then he was gone. Alas, too quick comes death
When it is coming to the wonderful.
That one is in my World’s Classics selection, but I’ve been posting further versions on my academic blog (https://lectorstudiosus.blogspot.com), really just as a way to get things off my chest. A century ago, facing an existential threat, the Greek Anthology might have been pressed into service for much more public consolation: epigram’s efficacy at heroizing the dead and consoling the living made it the irresistible template for poets memorialising the Allied fallen of the First World War (there’s a very good book by Elizabeth Vandiver, Stand in the Trench, Achilles (2010), that will tell you all about this).
I’ve found real comfort in spending more time with Gregory. Still, I can’t help being a bit suspicious of the Anthology’s formerly much-vaunted efficacy as a balm to the soul, if only because it’s served that purpose for some utterly dreadful people in the past, as well as some amazing ones. An aptitude in translating Greek epigram used to be the hallmark of a classical education, and carefully pruned selections from the Anthology helped empire-builders unwind, casting a glamour of humane culture over some pretty inhumane deeds and attitudes. That’s one strand of the story I explored in my last big academic book, Greek Epigram in Reception (2013).
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I spend time with my amazing wife, and with the rest of my family when I can, which alas, isn’t now. I like to tinker with small projects around the house, and I love to cook. I play videogames and read comics, occasionally with a pretext of studying classical reception, but mostly just because I enjoy them. I ride motorcycles, not very well, with a particular weakness for Moto Guzzis; for years we used to take our dog to Italy and back twice a year by bike, though sadly he’s gone now and Italy isn’t really a prospect at the moment anyway. I can’t wait to be back there, eating lovely things and drinking wine with good friends, just like the Greek Anthology says I should.
Gideon Nisbet is Reader in Classics at the University of Birmingham. He is the author of Greek Epigram in the Roman Empire (2003), Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture (2006), Epigram (2009, with Niall Livingstone), and Greek Epigram in Reception (2013). He has translated Martial: Epigrams for Oxford World’s Classics (2015), and his translation of Epigrams from the Greek Anthology will be published in November 2020. He lives in Dublin.