Latin epigram

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The use of metrical inscriptions in Latin is attested from the second half of the 3rd cent. bc. The two oldest epitaphs in the tomb of the Scipios are in Saturnians, and limit themselves to a sober indication of the name, career, achievements, and civic virtues of the subject, in accordance with traditional Roman models for the praise of the great. More elaborate are the two Scipionic inscriptions in Saturnians, c.150, which lament figures whose early deaths prevented their attaining glory. There is little trace of Greek culture or style in these early epitaphs, but the Latin taste for such verbal effects as alliteration and antithesis is much in evidence.

Ennius introduced into Latin not only the hexameter but also the elegiac couplet (see metre, greek, 3–4), the usual metre of Greek epigram. All the extant epigrams of Ennius preserve the norms of Roman honorific inscriptions. Two refer to the tomb of Scipio Africānus. The sober, monumental solemnity, the recall to communal values (Ennius celebrates his role as poet of Roman glory), and the usual verbal effects of archaic Latin style recall the Scipionic inscriptions, but the metre, the density of expression (three of the epigrams consist of a single couplet), the motif of the dead man speaking in the first‐person from his tomb and declining lament, the elevated conception of the poet's role, and the fact that he dedicates an epigram to himself as poet—all these are to be explained by Ennius' grafting of Hellenistic Greek culture onto the Roman tradition. Inscriptional verse, esp. epitaphs, continued to develop. There is clear evidence for a degree of professional composition, using a repertory of formulae and motifs dealing with the dead, their virtues, their survival through renown or the affection of their loved ones, and the loss felt at their departure.

From the end of the 2nd cent., the band of Greek intellectuals attached to the great Roman families began to include epigrammatists, whose poems served as a cultured accompaniment and ornament for the lives of their patrons. The epigram now became the ideal genre for the leisure hours of the refined upper‐class amateur. This composition of everyday minor verse at Rome increased in the time of Caesar and Augustus. It was still practised by Greek epigrammatists living in Roman high society, and it was an important element in the work of Catullus and the other ‘new’ poets, who wrote short poems to accompany gifts, to console or thank, invite or congratulate, to celebrate (seriously or humorously) the most diverse events of the society in which they lived, and to engage in polemic and invective on public or private matters. The Catullan or neoteric ‘revolution’ was the use of this genre and language to express an intensely personal emotional world and to affirm a system of values in which even the smallest day‐to‐day event, rather than being merely the subject of amateur versifying, became the occasion for poetry of the highest level. In this way, Catullus gave dignity to Roman minor verse, and became its classic practitioner. He never uses epigraphic forms: they are avoided even in the poems for the death of his brother (101) and the sparrow (3).


Subjects: Classical Studies.

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