ancient Greek inscriptions: some early content economics

Poets in ancient Greece were like opinion columnists in leading newspapers of the late twentieth century. The great epic poet Homer was the common teacher of praiseworthy behavior.  Epic poetry defined heroism, and the epic poet gave public prestige and dignity to events he deemed worthy for poetry.  To compose epic poetry required literacy, intensive study of past events and authorities, and mastery of dactylic hexameter couplets.  Few persons could plausibly aspire to write words that could measure up to a heroic standard:

Though deep, yet clear; though gentle, yet not dull;
Strong without rage, without o’erflowing full.[1]

Tragic and comic poetry were the featured form of speech at important civic festivals,  the City (Great) Dionysia and the Lenaea.  The most widely admired public teachers were poets.

However, in the common business of inscribing dedicatory, funerary, administrative, and honorific monuments, few paid the price of a poet’s services.  Of surviving inscriptions at the leading pan-Hellenic shrine at Delphi from the sixth century BGC through the third century GC, only about 1% of inscriptions are in verse.  In Athens, the share of verse inscriptions seems to have fallen with the development of democracy and Greek culture.  Surviving inscriptions up through the sixth century BGC are about 25% verse; from the fifth century BGC, about 8% verse; and from the fourth century BGC, about 4% verse. Moreover, verse inscriptions typically were not attributed to a poet, and the poets who composed verse epigrams were not well known.[2] A leading scholar of Hellenistic epigrams observed:

Throughout the genre’s history, moreover, many patrons did not trouble to hire professionals to compose their epigrams; they just did it themselves.  …

A striking example of poor yet plentiful, epigraphic verse, from the mid-third century B.C., is the series of poems inscribed at the sanctuary of Artemidorus of Perge on Thera.  It is hard to imagine that Artemidorus paid a professional to compose these.  If he did, he was badly swindled.[3]

Physical monuments are relatively expensive to construct.  Words inscribed in stone endure for a long time.  Most stone monuments in ancient Greece did not have great public importance.  The market-driving attribute of the words inscribed on most stone monuments was that the words satisfied well the patron’s interest. Words that the patron himself or herself wrote, or words that said in prose exactly what the patron wanted to be said, could do this better than could professional poetry.

Beginning at the end of the fourth century, verse epigrams became a focus of elite literary art.  One scholar has speculated:

What perhaps happened in the fourth century [BGC] was that inscriptional epigrams were collected for circulation as reading material for pleasure, as opposed to earlier professional use by stone-cutters.[4]

Epigram writers studied carefully the tradition of inscribed verse epigrams and artistically varied generic conventions.  Lucillius, a poet from the first century GC, mocked with a pseudo-funerary epigram what had become poets’ zeal for writing epigrams:

Although nobody has died here, wanderer,
Marcus the poet has constructed a tomb,
composed the following monostichic epigram and had it engraved:
“Cry for Maximus from Ephesus, twelve years old…”[5]

Part of the humor here is that, when writing epigrams became a literary art, funerary epigrams were written for persons who were still alive, like one might expect Maximus from Ephesus to be at twelve years old.

Collecting epigrams also became a highly valued literary activity. The Milan Papyrus has preserved a collection of verse epigrams, attributed to Posidippus, from the late third or early second century BGC.  About 40 BGC, Meleager of Gadara produced a famous collection of epigrams that he called a garland.  He thus analogized his collection of epigrams to interwoven, small, beautiful flowers.  Collecting epigrams remained an elite literary passion through to the Middle Ages.  A collection known as the Greek Anthology has been preserved in medieval manuscripts.  It represents about a thousand years of continuing elite literary work both in composing epigrams and in organizing and preserving epigrams from the past.

User-generated content and professional content have different values.  User-generated content best serves highly personal preferences.  Professional content is part of elite status competition and succeeds more broadly for socially structured pleasures.

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[1] From John Denham, “Cooper’s Hill.”

[2] See Peter Bing and Jon Steffen Bruss, “Introduction.” 2007.  Brill’s companion to Hellenistic epigram.  Brill’s companions in classical studies. Leiden: Brill, pp. 2-4.

[3] Id. p. 4, and p. 4, ft. 19. I’ve omitted an internal reference.

[4] Id. p. 7, ft. 26, quoting email from J. Lougovaya.

[5] Quoted and translated in Doris Myer, “The Act of Reading and the Act of Writing in Hellenistic Epigram.” 2007.  Brill’s companion to Hellenistic epigram.  Brill’s companions in classical studies. Leiden: Brill, p. 198.  Id. ft. 40 makes the point about the common practice in Lucillius’ time of funerary epigrams preceding the death of the subject.

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