Comfort Classics: Gideon Nisbet





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 (, 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.



13 thoughts on “Comfort Classics: Gideon Nisbet

  1. I’ve always remembered the one about the rose:
    Τὸ ῥόδον ἀκμάζει βαιὸν χρόνον· ἢν δὲ παρέλθῃ.
    ζητῶν εὐρήσεις οὐ ῤόδον ἀλλὰ βάτον.

    Α rose blooms for a short time; once it’s passed,
    If you search for it, you will find not a rose but a thorn.

    I remember it from Nairn & Nairn’s Greek Through Reading, which, apart from JACT’s Reading Greek, is the best on learning Classical Greek.


  2. I’m sure it didn’t! But it works for me as a lovely instance of the tempus edax rerum type of thought.


  3. AP11.53, from the sympotic epigrams. Very fine! I suspect Nairn and Nairn didn’t mention it was homoerotic? but I’d love to learn otherwise


  4. After managing to dig out N & N, I can confirm no mention of any erotic element, but in a footnote, Meleager is quoted as saying Σαπφοῦς βαιὰ μὲν αλλὰ ῥόδα of Sappho’s poems, which is quite neat.


    1. ‘Of Sappho just a few, but hers are roses’ is a line from the elegiac poem written by Meleager to introduce his ‘Garland’, the first of the prototypes that eventually mulched down and became the Greek Anthology. Cephalas presented the prefaces from his three most important prototypes (Meleager, Philip, Agathias) as Book 4 of the Anthology.

      Meleager’s preface runs to 58 lines, in elegiac couplets (N&N’s footnote is from line 6). It develops the conceit of the ‘Garland’ as a collection skilfully woven together out of various species of flora. To be an ‘anthologist’ is to be a picker and arranger of flowers (anthoi), and Sappho’s roses are interwoven with (among many others) Damagetus’ violets and Asclepiades’ anemones.

      Garlands were a standard prop for party-goers at the symposium, where by now epigram had found a secure home as part of the evening’s literary entertainment. If a real-life garland-maker took Meleager’s list of poets as a literal recipe, the resulting garland would be cumbersome to wear, and perhaps painful — the invective iambics of Archilochus, for instance, are represented by spiky cardoons.

      Flowers could stand not just for poetry but also for youthful sex appeal, and Meleager ended his ‘Garland’ with two poems that reminded his readers of his homoerotic inspiration: a poem equating handsome boys to flowers, and a dedication to Diocles, the young man whose beauty had inspired him to weave it. These are 12.256-7 in the Anthology as we have it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I should add that anyone who’d like to browse the Anthology will find all five volumes of the old Loeb available for free on, along with many other Loebs of similar vintage (i.e., out of copyright).

    The version on Loebolus is by W. R. Paton. He was a very capable reader of the Anthology, but was more inclined to censorship than would be the case today, so the more sexually explicit poems get bowdlerised or translated into Latin rather than English. Let’s not look gift horses in the mouth, though — and anyway, that kind of censorship is historically fascinating. A later edition (1950s or so?) was revised to give a full translation, and now the whole five volumes are getting a major overhaul by the excellent epigram scholar, Jon Steffen Bruss.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for that excellent context! So did these collections come about because of the solidifying of the reading habit? And did their use mean that a symposium had become more self aware, even kind of “ironic”, ie “I’m inviting you to my symposium so bring your collection and also we’ll extemporize in the style of Anacreon tonight”, or was there always an element of this ( thinking that they used drinking vessels with sympotic scenes reflecting their own and Plato’s Symposium seems very self aware)?

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    1. “These collections” — hmmm, slightly complicated to answer, because readers might take it to mean one of several things:

      -The first *collections of epigrams* weren’t literary at all — the modern scholarly consensus, which I’m sure must be right, it that epigrams first started being gathered systematically into books very early in the Hellenistic Agee, when scholars associated with places such as the Library of Alexandria began harvesting them from genuine inscriptions in places such as Olympia, Delphi, etc;
      -The first *authored books of epigrams* were by early-ish Hellenistic poets such as Callimachus and Posidippus. We’ve quite a lot of epigrams surviving from around that time (first half of the third century BC);
      -The first *anthologies of poems out of those books* were Hellenistic too. Meleager’s ‘Garland’ is far and away the most famous, but probably wasn’t the first.

      …but still, yes, all of these must have to do with the spread of literacy and, along with it, habits of literariness.

      As for the symposium being or becoming self-aware and developing an ironic commentary on itself, I’d say you are dead right in pointing to the vase-painter’s repertoire of sympotic scenes that reflect the symposium straight back at the diners who see and handle those cups, jugs, and mixing-bowls. And in literature, I’d say it’s there already too — archaic lyric was already telling its symposiasts to drink up and make merry, because life was short and no-one knew what tomorrow might bring (beyond a hangover).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Cheers! As Pindar never said, if I fire enough arrows at the target, one’s bound to hit! But just to take further advantage of your knowledge, where do you think a collection like Stobaeus’s comes in? Is it a kind of further progression of the anthological collection habit or even a kind of reaction against the incursion of Christianity?


  7. Replying to Frederick’s query about Stobaeus — I know nothing about Stobaeus! But the urge to compile a commonplace-book for private satisfaction, or an educational miscellany to guide the coming generation, can’t have been a new one.

    What I think is different with anthologising epigram is that each poem you include is typically *both* an extract from a larger work (the original author’s poetry-book), in which it was placed with some care and participated in a dialogue with the epigrams around it; *and* a whole and self-contained (albeit tiny) work of literature.

    It’s incomplete, *and* complete; and when the anthologist fits it into a new context s/he makes it part of a completely *different and new* literary work, by putting it into dialogue with new neighbours that supply a fresh thematic context, and perhaps also within a different overarching structure.

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