long-lost Greek poems a fascinating challenge for classics prof
It’s easy to get wrapped up in a good book -- but 2,200 years is
a long time to spend clinging to the collected works of a Greek poet.
But that’s exactly what someone from ancient Egypt did, until his
mummified body was stolen from its tomb in 1992. Usually such an act is
blasted by academics as grave robbing. But in this case, the looting set
in motion a chain of events the led to one of the most significant ancient
literary finds in modern times -- and now it’s the task of a visiting
professor at BU to poetically translate it into English.
Discovered embedded in the mummy’s casing was a scroll containing
more than 600 lines of unknown poetry written by Posidippus, a prominent
author of epigrams who lived in the Aegean region from about 280 to 240
b.c. Frank Nisetich, a professor emeritus of classics at UMass-Boston
who teaches in the CAS department of classical studies, is translating
the newly discovered poems for an upcoming book entitled The New Posidippus:
A Hellenistic Poetry Book (Oxford University Press, 2004).
“Because mummies were made to last, some Greek literature was given
a better chance to survive because papyrus was used as insulation in their
decorations,” says Nisetich. “A lot of fourth-century b.c.
Greek poetry comes to us this way.”
Indeed, the preservation of the 112 “new” Posidippus poems
was purely accidental. The papyrus was really nothing more than trash
-- scrap paper -- that became a treasure when found two millennia later.
The mummy’s chest cover was made from cartonnage, a material like
papier-mâché, that contained the discarded scroll sheets.
Adorned with decorations, and painted red, white, and blue, the casing
was festooned with winged griffins, making it a target for tomb robbers.
The thieves, who snatched the chest cover and shopped it around the antiquities
market, didn’t realize how valuable the find really was. And when
it was bought by a bank representing scholars at the University of Milan
11 years ago for an estimated $1 million, no one knew that the poetry,
found when the layers of the cartonnage separated, was that of Posidippus.
“When scholars began translating the poems, they recognized a couple
of the epigrams as having been written by Posidippus because the same
ones were also preserved elsewhere,” says Nisetich. “They
began to suspect that the rest of them were written by the same person,
because they are in the same style.”
Previously, there had been only 24 known surviving poems from Posidippus.
The more than 60 scholars who had been reassembling and deciphering the
new work for a decade presented their translations in an international
conference at the University of Cincinnati last November. Most of them
believe that all the new poems were written by the epigrammatist from
Pella, who was writer-in-residence at the court of the Ptolemies at Alexandria.
The find is regarded as the oldest surviving collection of Greek poetry
by a single author, as well as one of the first poetry books ever written.
(Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey are older, but are epic single poems,
rather than collections.)
Although the text has been translated from the Greek, Nisetich’s
task is to render the literal translation from Greek to English with poetic
flourishes, taking what he describes as “dead as doornails”
text and putting it in poetic diction. “My job,” he says,
“is to feel the poetry in it.”
Nisetich, who spoke at the Cincinnati conference, was chosen to translate
Posidippus because of his 2001 translation of the Greek poet Callimachus,
who flourished about 250 b.c. and whose work was discovered in much the
same way as that of Posidippus. Nisetich’s The Poems of Callimachus
(Oxford University Press) was one of the London Times Literary Supplement’s
“International Books of the Year.”
rectangular holes in the Posidippus scroll were made for jewelry that
was placed on a mummy’s chest cover. “It’s my job
to make fragments speak,” Nisetich says. His full translation,
both of the Milan papyrus and of Posidippus’ other epigrams,
will appear in The New Posidippus: A Hellenistic Poetry Book (Oxford
University Press, 2004), edited by K. Gutzwiller. Photo courtesy of
Oxford University Press
When it comes to ancient Greek poets, Posidippus was hardly the cream
of the crop. Nisetich enjoys translating his epigrams, which describe
wonders of nature, gems, rocks, and weather omens, but he says that Posidippus
is no Callimachus. “Callimachus is to Hellenistic poetry as Shakespeare
is to Renaissance literature.”
However, Posidippus did have some undeniable talent. “One epitaph,
for example, about a young woman who died, is particularly moving,”
Nisetich says. It reads:
A dark cloud went through the city, when Eetion
groaned, putting his girl under this gravestone
and calling “Hedeia, my child!” The wedding god knocked
not at her bedroom door, but at her tomb
and [all] the city felt it. Let the [tears] and cries
of those who have lost her be enough.
Not everyone is convinced that Posidippus is the sole scribe of the new
poems. In fact, he wasn’t even credited in the original papyrus.
But the collection of poems doesn’t contain any markings to indicate
that it included other authors. How does Nisetich feel? Is it truly Posidippus?
“It’s probably all Posidippus,” he says with a shrug
and a smile. “Maybe two months from now I’ll have a stronger
feeling that it’s him.” In the meantime, between classes,
he is preoccupied with bringing the words of the third century b.c. poet
to life. “The poems are opening up all kinds of perspectives,”
he says, “not only on ancient Greek poetry and how early poetry
books were composed, but also on what daily life in Greek society at that
time was like. It’s an invaluable discovery.”
Posidippus wrote about such subjects as precious
stones, shipwrecks, and statues. Below are two poems translated
by Frank Nisetich, visiting professor of classics at CAS:
Timanthes carved it for Demylos -- this sparkling
lapis lazuli, rayed in gold, this semi-precious
Persian stone, and for a tender kiss the dark-haired
Coan Nikaia [wears it] now, the gift [of desire].
Wherever you hold Pythermos the good, who died
under the chill of Capricorn, cover him lightly,
black Earth. But if it’s you, Father of the Sea,
who keep him
hidden, put him out now, intact, on the bare sand
in full view of Kyme, giving, as you should, the dead
O Master of the Sea, back to his native land.