Hellenistic epigrams sing sexual allure of old women

for Archaenassa epigram on old woman and young flower

In the Hellenistic period of western Eurasia, epigrams became a highly elaborated literary form.  No longer confined to funerary inscriptions on stone and the oral conviviality of symposia, carefully written epigrams formed authored collections that circulated on papyrus.[1] Readers of these epigrams were surely learned and cultured.  They were probably relatively wealthy.  Hellenistic epigrams that sing the sexual allure of old women suggest that a significant share of women were among the learned, cultured, and relatively wealthy readers of Hellenistic epigrams.

Charito has completed sixty years, but still the mass of her dark hair is as it was, and still upheld by no encircling band those marble cones of her bosom stand firm. Still her skin without a wrinkle distils ambrosia, distils fascination and ten thousand graces. Ye lovers who shrink not from fierce desire, come hither, unmindful of her decades. [2]

An epigram praising the old courtesan Archeanassa from Colophon has even more literary merit than connoisseurs of Hellenistic epigrams have generally recognized.  Asclepiades of Samos, a leading Hellenstic epigrammatic poet who wrote early in the third century BGC, almost surely authored this epigram:

I hold Archeanassa, the courtesan from Colophon; sweet Eros sits even on her wrinkles. Ah, lovers who plucked the fresh flower of her youth when it was first budding — what a pyre you came through! [3]

Whether the speaking voice of the epigram is Archeanassa’s funerary stele or a lover of the aged Archeanassa isn’t clear.  That ambiguity echoes the love/death experience that the epigram ascribes to the lovers of the young Archeanassa. The mixed metaphor for the young Archeanassa, a “fresh flower” with sexual allure burning like a pyre, appealingly resolves with age into the sweet, pure sexual allure of the aged Archeanassa.

Two Greek scholars writing about the third century GC attributed the Archeanassa epigram autobiographically to Plato.  Recent scholarship has convincingly argued on grounds of language and style that Plato did not author the Archeanassa epigram.[4] The attribution to Plato seems to have come from a common form of popular literature: “an ancient scandal sheet that claimed to reveal the sexual indiscretions of famous persons.”[5] The scandal sheet’s attribution of the Archeanassa epigram to Plato is insightful as well as sensational.  A plausible Greek etymology of Archeanassa of Colophon is “the first (womanly) snare at the summit.”  Thus Archeanassa of Colophon was a linguistically appropriate mistress for Plato, the eminent philosopher of first causes.  Archeanassa of Colophon almost surely wasn’t a real person.[6]  That’s an important insight for understanding the epigram about Charito.

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[1] Gutzwiller (1998) provides a thorough scholarly review of the historical development of epigram.

[2] AP 5.13, by Philodemus of Gadara, early 1st century BGC. The original Greek is in verse. Other ancient epigrams praising the sexual allure of old women are AP 5.48, 5.62, and 5.282.  Aristophanes, Women in Parliament (Ecclesiazusae) 980 ff., provides a sharply contrasting ancient Greek depiction of the sexual allure of old women.  Roman love elegy represents women’s aging harshly and bluntly, as does Horace’s Epodes 8. See also the warnings on old age in Ovid, Ars Amatoria Bk. 3, ll. 15-76. The Bedouin poem of Buthaynah and Jamil in love and aging, in contrast, seems to have some echoes of AP 5.48.

[3] AP 7.217, trans. Sens (2011) p. 278. The original Greek is in verse. The phrase “Eros sits” could alternately be translated as “Eros sat.”

[4] Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Book III – Plato, sec. 31, attributes the epigram to Plato, via Aristippus.  Athenaeus of Naucratis also quotes the Archeanassa epigram and attributes it to Plato.  See Deipnosophistae, Bk. XIII, c. 56, trans. Yonge (1854), v. III, p. 940.  AP attributes the epigram to Asclepiades.  Ludwig (1963) argues convincingly that the ascription to Plato is false.

[5] Gutzwiller (1998) p. 254, n. 55,  Ludwig (1963) p. 62.  Diogenes, Lives, Plato (3.29) describes this work as by Aristippus and entitled “On Ancient Luxury.”  This Aristippus is not plausibly Aristippus of Cyrene and is not plausibly known.  Gutzwiller (1998), p. 254, n. 55, suggests that Aristippus was probably a forger’s assumed name.

[6] Sens (2011) pp. 281-2 notes that Archeanassa is a “rare name” that is attested only in a Sappho fragment and an inscription from Rhodes.  Id. observes:

Nothing is known about Archeanassa apart from the — probably spurious — claim by Athenaeus and Diogenes Laertius that she was Plato’s girlfriend, and given that the Sapphic resonance of the name makes it appropriate for a woman of amatory prowess, there is little reason to suppose that she was a real person.

Ludwig (1963) notes that names associated with Plato —  Agathon, Phaidros, and Xanthippe — were used in epigrams falsely attributed to Plato, and that those names probably helped to support that attribution.  The etymology of Archeanassa of Colophon probably functioned similarly.


AP: Paton, W.R. 1920. The Greek Anthology with an English Translation. London: William Heinemann (vol. I, bks. 1-6; vol. II, bks. 7-8; vol. III, bk. 9; vol IV, bks. 10-12; vol. V, bks. 13-16). (epigrams indicated AP {bk}.{epigram # within bk})

Gutzwiller, Kathryn J. 1998. Poetic garlands: Hellenistic epigrams in context. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press.

Ludwig, Walther, 1963.  “Plato’s Love Epigrams.” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies. 4:2 (Spring) pp.59-82.

Sens, Alexander. 2011. Asclepiades of Samos: epigrams and fragments. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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