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An epigram is a brief, clever, and usually memorable statement. Derived from the Greek: ἐπίγραμμα epigramma "inscription" from ἐπιγράφειν epigraphein "to write on – inscribe",[1] this literary device has been employed for over two millennia.

The Greek tradition of epigrams began as poems inscribed on votive offerings at sanctuaries – including statues of athletes – and on funerary monuments, for example "Go tell it to the Spartans, passer-by ...". These original epigrams did the same job as a short prose text might have done, but in verse. Epigram became a literary genre in the Hellenistic period, probably developing out of scholarly collections of inscriptional epigrams.

Though modern epigrams are usually thought of as very short, Greek literary epigram was not always as short as later examples, and the divide between "epigram" and "elegy" is sometimes indistinct (they share a characteristic metre, elegiac couplets); all the same, the origin of the genre in inscription exerted a residual pressure to keep things concise. Many of the characteristic types of literary epigram look back to inscriptional contexts, particularly funerary epigram, which in the Hellenistic era becomes a literary exercise. Other types look instead to the new performative context which epigram acquired at this time, even as it made the move from stone to papyrus: the Greek symposium. Many "sympotic" epigrams combine sympotic and funerary elements – they tell their readers (or listeners) to drink and live for today because life is short.

We also think of epigram as having a "point" – that is, the poem ends in a punchline or satirical twist. By no means do all Greek epigrams behave this way; many are simply descriptive. We associate epigram with 'point' because the European epigram tradition takes the Latin poet Martial as its principal model; he copied and adapted Greek models (particularly the contemporary poets Lucillius and Nicarchus) selectively and in the process redefined the genre, aligning it with the indigenous Roman tradition of 'satura', hexameter satire, as practised by (among others) his contemporary Juvenal. Greek epigram was actually much more diverse, as the Milan Papyrus now indicates.

Our main source for Greek literary epigram is the Greek Anthology, a compilation from the 10th century AD based on older collections. It contains epigrams ranging from the Hellenistic period through the Imperial period and Late Antiquity into the compiler's own Byzantine era – a thousand years of short elegiac texts on every topic under the sun. The Anthology includes one book of Christian epigrams.


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