The Greek Figure Poems. Hellenistica Groningana, 19 – Bryn Mawr Classical Review (2023)

Tucked away in the fifteenth book of the Palatine Anthology ( AP 15.21–2, 24–7) are six extraordinarily challenging poems. What is so fascinating about the epigrams is not only their verbal riddles but also their visual games. By varying their metre and verse-lengths, these ‘picture-poems’ demand to be both read and seen: they figure text metamorphosing into image, and image metamorphosing into text.

In his new edition of the six so-called technopaegnia, Jan Kwapisz has provided a detailed philological commentary, complete with some broader reflections about the origins, functions and interrelationships of this self- declared ‘mini-genre’ (p.30). Kwapisz’s project, derived from a 2009 Warsaw doctoral thesis, is intended as ‘a basic research tool’ – ‘a modern commented edition… [to] address the whole range of problems that the student of these difficult poems has to face’ (p.7). The resulting book has three structural parts: first, a broad introduction to Greek picture-poetry (discussed under ‘origin’, ‘date and authorship’, ‘Nachleben’, ‘shape’, ‘metre’, ‘dialect’, ‘ancient collection’ and ‘MS tradition’: pp.1–56); second, a critical text (with English translation and detailed apparatus (pp.59–72); and third, a commentary on each example (pp.73–190). Since the introduction effectively doubles up as conclusion, the present review reverses that structure, first surveying Kwapisz’s readings, and then returning to some broader interpretive issues.

Kwapisz’s commentary begins with the three poems attributed to ‘Simias of Rhodes’ (dated to the late fourth or early third century BC: cf. pp.21–3). Dealing first with the ‘Axe’ ( AP 15.22), Kwapisz draws out the poem’s interest both in minor epic heroes (in this case, Epeius), and in their ‘arms and armour’ (p.75). Such concerns will prove a benchmark of later Hellenistic poetry, Kwapisz rightly reminds us. But the ‘preliminary comments’ insists on Simias’ poetic priority, so that the Axe in fact foreshadows later Callimachean and Theocritean poetic agendas (p.77; cf. pp.21–23, and 88–9 on v.7). The commentary is particularly strong on the poem’s ludic structure, which proceeds from apparent dedicatory anathematikon, through bombastic epic pastiche, to hymn honoring Athena. One wonders, though, whether Simias’ handiwork might hide an additional riddle besides. Among the most puzzling aspects of this poem, after all, is its presentation:1 in order to make logical sense of the ‘axe’, readers have first to read the opening line, then the last, repeating the process until they reach the final two verses at the center (cf. pp. 34–5). To my mind, such deceptive outward appearances find knowing precedent in the most famous artefact of Epeius’ epic axe – the wooden horse that duped viewers into overlooking the contents concealed within.2

Whereas Simias’ Axe is presented as a ludic and allusive homage to Greek epic, his Wings of Eros ( AP 15.24) is said to function as a ‘very short literary treatise on the dual nature of Eros’ (p.91). Kwapisz convincingly demonstrates how ‘Simias’ idée fixe in this poem is Eros’ duality’ (p.105), drawing attention to the various nods to Plato and the Platonic tradition. But one might be tempted to take his reading a step further: for what better way to express the duality of Love than through Eros’ combined visual and verbal presentation – as iconic presence hidden behind opaquely riddlesome puns?

Scholars will be especially grateful for the new edition of Simias’ third and most ‘eccentric’ (p.107) poem, ‘scrambled’ (p.106) into the shape of an egg ( AP 15.27). Kwapisz dedicates more space to this poem than to any other, but is refreshingly up-front about remaining quandaries (‘I feel no wiser after a few months, or even years’, as p.122 confesses of vv.9–10). Two insights seem particularly important. First, Kwapisz draws systematic attention to the poem’s oral as well as visual effects (hence the multiple allusions to sound and song: cf. p.107, along with notes on pp.114, 124, 137). Second, and related, Kwapisz suggests that this poem might not have been intended as a technopaegnion at all; rather, he speculates, it was perhaps forced into the collection at a later date, sometime before the second century AD (pp.35–37; 106–108). ‘The decision whether the Egg was originally a figure poem should belong to the reader of this book, not to its author’, p.37 concludes.

There can be no doubting the expediency of this argument: from a textual critical perspective, it gives Kwapisz free rein to emend at will, without overly worrying about spatial layout (p.108). To my mind, though, the Egg ’s inherent difficulties are much like those of Simias’ Axe. Like the Axe, this figurative layout can only work for readers who proceed ‘antithetically’ (for the term, already used by Hephaestio in the second century AD, see pp.34–37). And yet, as Christine Luz has recently argued, such tensions between visual layout and verbal form develop other riddlesome references: while equating the acts of viewing and reading, both poems simultaneously pitch image and text against one other, and in the most self-conscious of ways.3 For this reader, the Egg neatly tallies with other technopaegnia, despite its textual problems.

The Syrinx ( AP 15.21) – dubbed the ‘most ingenious poem in the collection’ (p.138) – is important for Kwapisz’s larger arguments about origins and anthologization. For all the poem’s virtuoso games with Theocritean metre, vocabulary, and poetic themes, Kwapisz favours the communis opinio in discrediting Theocritus’ authorship; instead, he tentatively looks to Lycophron (whose name ‘should be added to the list of suspects’: pp.29; cf. pp.138–40). Two hypotheses follow: first, that the poem might have served as a sphragis for an early edition of the Idylls (pp.23–29, 47–50, 138–141); and second, that it subsequently functioned as ‘as a magnet drawing together all of the technopaegnia ’ (p.47).

Although the final two poems share a related ‘altar’ shape ( AP 15.25–26), Kwapisz rightly emphasizes their different derivations and chronologies. On the one hand, the Doric Altar attributed to Dosiadas (Munatius of Tralles?: p.28) is shown to be ‘largely dependent on the Syrinx ’ (p.163), while nonetheless alluding to the metre and language of Lycophron’s Alexandra (cf. pp. 27–28). On the other hand, the Ionic Altar of Besantinus (‘presumably Lucius Iulius Vestinus’, p.177) is shown to nod to the full gambit of earlier technopaegnia. If both the poem’s shape and final verses allude to the Doric Altar, its fifth line hides an allusion to the pseudo-Theocritean Syrinx (pp. 155, 184); at the same time, the poem’s polymetric play, closing metrical arrangement and poetological reflections all echo Simias’ earlier Hellenistic examples (pp.45, 178, 186–7).

Such brief overview can hardly do justice to the richness of Kwapisz’s discussions. Throughout, the book balances macroscopic comment with close attention to philological detail: the result will be essential reading for anyone interested either in the technopaegnia, or more generally in Hellenistic ‘book culture’ (p.19). Kwapisz’s insistence on the poems’ combined visual and oral effects proves particularly stimulating: ‘I find it thought-provoking to consider what it would mean to hear a figure poem’ (p.19), as Kwapisz puts it.

Inevitably, however, the book develops some themes more extensively than others. Since the volume looks set to become a standard reference work, I end with two issues that might benefit from further reflection in the future. The first concerns the relationship between these poems and (what have come to be known as) ‘ecphrastic’ Hellenistic epigrams.4 For all Kwapisz’s interest in the intersections between ‘figure poems’ and other Hellenistic genres, the book slightly underplays the associations with epideictic epigrams on artworks; indeed, Kwapisz explicitly speculates that Simias’ poems might have formed part of a self-standing book of Paignia – a collection that ‘was different from his book of Επίγραμματα [ sic ]’ (p.17). Whatever we make of the poems’ subsequent collection and arrangement, I would suggest a much closer epigrammatic affiliation: the games with the ‘ventriloquist’ first-person voice, and not least their playful deictic references (cf. e.g. pp.78–9, 93–4, 153–4, 166, etc.), seem very much in keeping with the conceits of epigrams on (in)visible objects; the crucial difference, of course, is that the technopaegnia promise to visualize (quite literally) the objects to which they verbally allude.

The second (and related) issue concerns the broader archaeology – no less than legacy – of the technopaegnia within ancient discourses about words and images. Reading Kwapisz’s discussion of ‘origin’ (pp.8–21), one might almost think that these poems were an exclusively Hellenistic phenomenon. But it would be mistaken, I think, to overlook their ancestry: if the poems grow out of a Hellenistic obsession with collapsing writing and drawing (γράφειν),5 that obsession has a long history in the Greek world.6 In order to understand the ‘origins’ of this ‘mini-genre’, it also seems important to compare related phenomena. Kwapisz acknowledges as much when he mentions, in passing, an ‘affinity’ with the Tabulae Iliacae (p.31). But other materials might prove no less helpful here: scratched graffiti arranged into pictorial forms,7 for instance – even whole poems, again preserved in the material record, inscribed into figurative shapes;8 later, in the early fourth-century, Optatian Porphyry’s Latin adaptations provide some of our best evidence for how the Greek technopaegnia were subsequently read – evidence to which, I think, future scholars might profitably return.9

Because Kwapisz’s predominant interest lies in the philology of the six technopaegnia, he is less concerned with their broader cultural and intellectual contexts. Ultimately, though, what is perhaps most fascinating about these poems is their refusal to remain ‘purely’ philological – their importance not only for literary critics, but also for historians of ( inter alia) ancient visual culture.10 Thanks to Kwapisz’s careful commentary, scholars are now better placed to bridge that disciplinary divide.


1. There is a substantial bibliography on the presentation of Simias’ poems: e.g., S. Strodel, Zur Überlieferung und zum Verständnis der hellenistischen Technopaegnien (Frankfurt am Main, 2002), esp. pp.48–130; cf. L. A. Guichard, ‘Simias’ pattern poems: The margins of the canon’, in M. A. Harder, R. F. Regtuit and G. C. Wakker (eds.), Beyond the Canon (Leuven, 2006), pp.83–103.

2. On Epeius’ horse as an object ‘whose external appearance belied its internal reality’, see D. T. Steiner, Images in Mind: Statues in Archaic and Classical Greek Literature and Thought (Princeton, 2001), p.83, n.16.

3. C. Luz, ‘Das Rätsel der griechischen Figurengedichte’, MH 37 (2008): 22–33; eadem, Technopaignia: Formspiele in der griechischen Dichtung (Leiden, 2010), pp.327–253.

4. Much of the burgeoning bibliography on Hellenistic ‘ecphrastic epigram’ goes unreferenced: e.g. S. D. Goldhill, ‘The naïve and knowing eye: Ecphrasis and the culture of viewing in the Hellenistic world’, in S. D. Goldhill and R. G. Osborne (eds.), Art and Text in Ancient Greek Culture (Cambridge, 1995), pp.197–223; K. J. Gutzwiller, ‘Art’s echo: The tradition of Hellenistic ecphrastic epigram’, in M. A. Harder, R. Regtuit and G. C. Wakker (eds.), Hellenistic Epigrams (Leuven, 2002), pp.85–112; A. Petrovic, ‘Kunstvolle Stimme der Steine, sprich! Zur Intermedialität der griechischen epideiktischen Epigramme’, A and A 51 (2005): 30–42; É. Prioux, Regards alexandrins: histoire et théorie des arts dans l’épigramme hellénistique (Leuven, 2007); M. Squire, ‘Reading a view: Poem and picture in the Greek Anthology ’, Ramus 39 (2010): 73–103.

5. See the superlative analysis of I. Männlein-Robert, Stimme, Schrift und Bild: Zum Verhältnis der Künste in der hellenistischen Dichtung (Heidelberg, 2007).

6. One might well remember the inscriptional games of Attic vase-painting: cf. F. Lissarrague, ‘Paroles d’images: remarques sur le fonctionnement de l’écriture dans l’imagerie attique’, in A.-M. Christin (ed.), Ecritures II (Paris, 1985), pp.71–95; Un flot d’images: une esthétique du banquet grec (Paris, 1987); R. Osborne and A. Pappas, ‘Writing on archaic Greek pottery’, in Z. Newby and R. Leader-Newby (eds.), Art and Inscriptions in the Ancient World (Cambridge, 2007), pp.131–155; A. Manuwald and B. Manuwald, ‘Bilder zu Texten – Texte als Bilder: Griechische Vasenbilder und Figurengedichte’, in D. Boschung and H. Hellenkemper (eds.), Kosmos der Zeichen: Schriftbild und Bildformel in Antike und Mittelalter (Wisebaden, 2007), pp.163–185.

7. See especially M. Langner, Antike Graffitizeichnungen: Motiv, Gestaltung und Bedeutung (Wiesbaden, 2001).

8. E.g. a sibilant pair of serpentine couplets from Pompeii ( CIL 4.1595 (= CLE 927): cf. G. Wojaczek, ‘Schlüssel und Schlange: Zwei figurale Texte aus Antike und Mittelalter’, Würzburger Jahrbücher für die Altertumswissenschaft 14 (1988): 241–252; Langner, op. cit., pp.27–29.

9. Cf. M.-O. Bruhat, Les carmina figurata de Publilius Optatianus Porfyrius: la métamorphose d’un genre et l’invention d’une poésie liturgique impériale sous Constantin (unpub. PhD diss. Paris IV, 1999), pp.45–75. Kwapisz mentions Optatian in his introduction (pp.10, 19, 31, 35, 48; cf. p.178). But Optatian’s specific allusions, I think, have an additional importance for tracing the technopaegnia ’s late-antique reception: consider, for example, how Optatian’s Altar begins by echoing Dosiadas’ poem ( vides ut ara stem, 26.1 [Polara]; cf. ἐς γὰρ βωμὸν ὁρῇς με, AP 15.25.7).

10. Still fundamental here is J. Onians, Art and Thought in the Hellenistic Age (London, 1979), pp.95–118, esp. 108–115.

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