Although a poet of the second rank in a period of scant literary achievement, Leonidas of Tarentum is notable for his attention to classes of people who had been ignored before the Hellenistic era. He was greatly admired by later epigrammatists, as is shown by scores of imitations produced in subsequent generations. More than any other Hellenistic writer, Leonidas can be credited with the expansion of poetry’s vision to include the poor, the farmers, hunters, fishermen, tradesmen, merchant seamen, prostitutes, weavers, and others whose lives, although in no way remarkable, bore the common stamp of humanity in their labors. Although he did not limit his scope to the working world, Leonidas made proletarian life his special preserve, much as Theocritus made singing shepherds his poetic domain. Judging by the number of his immediate imitators, in fact, it would appear that Leonidas had a greater influence in his own time than the more celebrated Theocritus. When Vergil revived the pastoral, Theocritus had inspired barely two imitators (Bion and Moschus), whereas Leonidas’s followers, both before and after Vergil’s time, were legion.
The great paradox of Leonidas’s achievement is his remarkable affinity for elaborate language to describe simple people. His poetry is full of ornamental adjectives and novel compounds and is characterized by a vocabulary that appears nowhere else in ancient Greek. His style is commonly characterized as baroque, exuberant in its highly calculated arrangement of words and ideas. Leonidas is an excellent Hellenistic example of the phenomenon of a writer vastly popular and influential in his own time but virtually unread today. Modern estimations vary widely: Gilbert Highet has called him “the greatest Greek epigrammatist of the Alexandrian era, ” but C. R. Beye finds him “heavy-handed, pedantic, and [overly] detailed”; Marcello Gigante sees him as the high-minded prophet of a new egalitarian society, and A. S. F. Gow as “a competent versifier, [but] hardly ever more than that.” Whatever his merits as a poet, Leonidas deserves a careful reading by anyone who wishes to understand the dynamics of the age that gave classical Humanism its definitive shape.
For these reasons, Johannes Geffcken’s attempts to read historical allusions into Leonidas and Gigante’s discovery of revolutionary protosocialist sentiment in the epigrams has had a cool reception among students of Hellenistic poetry. Leonidas is anything but topical; his epigrams, although often ostensibly tied to specific events, such as a fisherman’s death or the dedication to Bacchus of some casks of wine, are almost always timeless or look back to an event in the distant past.
A small number of epigrams may be exceptional in this regard, such as a pair of quatrains dedicating spoils taken from Tarentum’s ancient enemies, the Lucanians (epigrams 129 and 131 in book 6 AP. and Leonidas 34 and 35 G.-P.), but Leonidas’s language is not specific enough to permit a definite dating within his probable lifetime; the epigrams may well be epideictic and patriotic rather than specific to a certain battle. An epigram on the occasion of Antigonus Gonatas’s defeat by Pyrrhus in 273 b.c.e. (Epigram 130 in book 6 AP. or Leonidas 95 G.-P.) is a much better candidate for specific contemporary dating, if the ascription to Leonidas is correct.
Of the poets and artists celebrated in some eleven epigrams, only one belongs to Leonidas’s own century: Aratus, the author of a poem on astronomy, the Phainomena, written shortly after 277 b.c.e. In his tendency to avoid the contemporary, Leonidas is like other poets of the third century: They preferred to write about the timeless or the mythical, and they tended to find only the poets and artists of earlier generations to be fit subjects for their praise.
This affinity with things set apart from the poet and his audience was not entirely new to Greek poetry; Homer wrote about events that took place nearly five centuries before his own time, and the Greek tragedians used even older myths for their plots. Yet the comedies of Aristophanes were unabashedly topical at the end of the fifth century b.c.e., and in the fourth century, Menander’s comedies were also set in contemporary times (although they were not as politically topical). A certain escapism distinguishes Hellenistic poetry from that of earlier periods. Although some of their classical predecessors had used remote settings and characters only as a background for the presentation of their own immediate concerns and controversies, the Hellenistic poets—Leonidas, Callimachus, Apollonius Rhodius, Theocritus—used similarly removed situations as a means of turning away from their own milieu, which held little interest for them, to worlds more to their liking.
Poetry as Craft
As a corollary of this impulse, art was cultivated for art’s sake rather than for the traditional purposes of education and inspiration. When it inspired, it inspired disengagement rather than the heroic commitment that was typical, say, of Sophoclean tragedy. Poetry came to be viewed more as a craft than as a vehicle for great ideas. The many epigrams that Leonidas and his contemporaries composed in praise of ancient poets and artists suggest something like a cult of the artist whose art transcends rather than reflects. At the same time, they felt inferior to the geniuses of the past, and, rather than try to compete with them in epic or tragic poetry, the better poets sought uncharted territory for themselves, new kinds of poetry in which they would not be in the shadow of the grand masters of the past. With something of a pioneering spirit, every poet of talent sought to bring his readers something new and distinctive. In this way, Hellenistic poetry was a means of escaping the past as well as the present.
Leonidas’s novel attention to common people attracted many imitators—and, one must assume, a large audience. Some of what he provided his readers is now found in “human interest” journalism: “Man Half-Eaten by Sea Monster Buried Today” (Epigram 506 in book 7 AP. or Leonidas 65 G.-P.), “Lion Takes Refuge with Herdsmen” (Epigram 221 in book 6 AP. or Leonidas 53 G.-P.), “Four Sisters Die in Childbirth” (Epigram 463 in book 7 AP. or Leonidas 69 G.-P.). Others are less sensational curiosities, such as a die carved on a gambler’s tombstone (Epigram 422 in book 7 AP. or Leonidas 22 G.-P.) or a fisherman who dies a natural death after a lifetime in a perilous trade (Epigram 295 in book 7 AP. or Leonidas 20 G.-P.).
Most of his subjects are bland in themselves: Three sisters dedicate their spinning and weaving implements to Athena on retiring from their labors (Epigram 289 in book 6 AP. or Leonidas 42 G.-P.); a gardener prays to the nymphs to see that his garden is well watered (Epigram 320 in book 9 AP. or Leonidas 6 G.-P.). The tone of such imaginary epitaphs and dedications is predictably calm; rarely does Leonidas inject the emotion expressed in Epigram 466 in book 7 AP. or Leonidas 71 G.-P., where a father grieves for his son, dead at eighteen. More often, there is a humorous note of mockery, as in the imaginary epitaph of a lady who drank too much and has a cup on her tomb: Her only regret in death is that the cup is empty (Epigram 455...
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Challenges of Translation
Without reading Leonidas’s epigrams in the original Greek, one is not likely to understand why they were read, copied, and imitated, even by generations whose tastes were not today’s, because so much of Leonidas’s art is invested in his use of language itself. The literary qualities most admired by Hellenistic readers and authors were highly formal, with relatively little emphasis being placed on the substance of a piece of writing. What mattered was not so much what one said, but how well one said it.
In translation, most of Leonidas’s poetry will seem intolerably bland—as it will even in Greek, so long as one reads for propositional content. To read Leonidas as his admirers did, one must read through...
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Clack, Jerry. Asclepiades of Samos and Leonidas of Tarentum: The Poems. Wauconda, Ill.: Bolchazy, 1999. A collection and translation of the complete extant works of these two Greek epigrammatists, who set the course for this particular genre of poetry. As the book points out, for Leonidas the poetic form of the epigram went beyond the purely personal feelings of the author and allowed for social commentary, often alluding to the suffering and miseries of the poor, the infirm, and the aged.
Fowler, Barbara Hughes. The Hellenistic Aesthetic. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989. A general survey of the artistic thought and movements of the period which produced Leonidas. Although slight in its...
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