(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Meleager c. 140 b.c.-c. 70 b.c.

(Full name, Meleagros of Gadara, son of Eukrates) Greek poet and anthologist.

As a poet, Meleager brought formal perfection and the irony and melancholy of frustrated desire to the genre of the epigram. As an anthologist, he gathered epigrams dating from the seventh century b.c. through his own time into a collection called the Stephanos (Garland). Although his is not the only such collection, it is valued because it is extensive, containing some 4,000 lines. In the tenth century a.d. the Byzantine anthologist Kephalas incorporated the poems from Meleager's Garland into his collection called The Palatine Anthology, also known as The Greek Anthology, the collection of Greek lyrics that preserved them for later ages.

Biographical Information

Little is known about Meleager. He was born in Gadara, now Jordan, under Hellenic rule. His father, Eukrates, was probably a well-to-do Syrian, and Meleager was probably bilingual, speaking Syrian and Greek. He grew up in the Phoenician coastal city of Tyre, but spent much of his adult life on the island of Kos in the southwest corner of Asia Minor, where he compiled his anthology, wrote the 134 epigrams that have survived, and apparently composed essays, which are not extant.

Major Works

Meleager combined psychological subtlety, tonal dexterity, and vibrant images of light, flowers, and insects (in one epigram he asks a mosquito to be the messenger to his unfaithful beloved) to express love and longing in verses that equally treat heterosexual and homosexual love, promiscuity, infidelity, and jealousy. In the introduction to the Garland, Meleager refers to his collection of poems as a bouquet or garland of flowers—probably the first writer to use that metaphor.

Critical Reception

Meleager is a poet whose works chiefly appeal to poets and scholars. His influence can be seen in the work of Catullus and the Roman elegists, and, centuries later, in the lyrics of Robert Herrick. In the 1830s, J. H. Merivale, in an edition of The Greek Anthology, wrote of Meleager that “as a … composer of Epigrams,” he was “very far superior to” the authors he included in the Garland collection. Some 140 years later, scholar and translator Peter Jay wrote of him, “Meleager's poetic authenticity lies in the mastery of every aspect of his medium.”

Principal Works

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Collections from the Greek Anthology by the Late Rev. Robert Bland, and Others: A New Edition Comprising the Fragments of Early Lyric Poetry, with Specimens of All the Poets Included in Meleager's Garland 1833

The Poems of Meleager (translated by Peter Whigham and Peter Jay) 1975

J. W. MacKail (essay date 1890)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: MacKail, J.W. Selected Epigrams from the Greek Anthology Edited with a Revised Text, Introduction, Translation, and Notes, pp. 12-13, 33-36. London, New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1890.

[In the following excerpt, MacKail characterizes Meleager as a Greek epigrammatist whose Asiatic influences and detailed descriptions of the nuances of love set him apart from his contemporaries.]

From the invention of writing onwards, the inscriptions on monuments and dedicated offerings supplied one of the chief materials of historical record. Their testimony was used by the earliest historians to supplement and reinforce the oral traditions which they embodied in their works. Herodotus and Thucydides quote early epigrams as authority for the history of past times;1 and when in the latter part of the fourth century b.c. history became a serious study throughout Greece, collections of inscribed records, whether in prose or verse, began to be formed as historical material. The earliest collection of which anything is certainly known was a work by Philochorus,2 a distinguished Athenian antiquary who flourished about 300 b.c., entitled Epigrammata Attica. It appears to have been a transcript of all the ancient Attic inscriptions dealing with Athenian history, and would include the verses engraved on the tombs of celebrated citizens, or on objects dedicated in the temples on public occasions. A century later, we hear of a work by Polemo, called Periegetes, or the ‘Guidebook-maker,’ entitled περì τῶν κατὰ πόλεις ἐπιΦραμμάτων.3 This was an attempt to make a similar collection of inscriptions throughout the cities of Greece. Athenaeus also speaks of authors otherwise unknown, Alcetas and Menetor,4 as having written treatises περì ἀναθημάτων, which would be collections of the same nature confined to dedicatory inscriptions; and, these being as a rule in verse, the books in question were perhaps the earliest collections of monumental poetry. Even less is known with regard to a book ‘on epigrams’ by Neoptolemus of Paros.5 The history of Anthologies proper begins for us with Meleager of Gadara.

The collection called the Garland of Meleager, which is the basis of the Greek Anthology as we possess it, was formed by him in the early part of the first century b.c. The scholiast on the Palatine ms. says that Meleager flourished in the reign of the last Seleucus (ἡκμασεν ἐπì Σελεύκου τοῦ ἐσχάτου). This is Seleucus vi. Epiphanes, the last king of the name, who reigned b.c. 95-93; for it is not probable that the reference is to the last Seleucid, Antiochus xiii., who acceded b.c. 69, and was deposed by Pompey when he made Syria a Roman province in b.c. 65. The date thus fixed is confirmed by the fact that the collection included an epigram on the tomb of Antipater of Sidon,6 who, from the terms in which Cicero alludes to him, must have lived till 110 or even 100 b.c., and that it did not include any of the epigrams of Meleager's townsman Philodemus of Gadara, the friend of L. Calpurnius Piso, consul in b.c. 58.

This Garland or Anthology has only come down to us as forming the basis of later collections. But the prefatory poem which Meleager wrote for it has fortunately been preserved, and gives us valuable information as to the contents of the Garland. This poem,7 in which he dedicates his work to his friend or patron Diocles, gives the names of forty-seven poets included by him besides many others of recent times whom he does not specifically enumerate. …

We possess about a hundred amatory epigrams by [Meleager]. Inferior perhaps in clearness of outline and depth of insight to those of the Alexandrian poet Asclepiades, they are unequalled in the width of range, the profusion of imagination, the subtlety of emotion with which they sound the whole lyre of passion. Meleager was born in a Syrian town and educated at Tyre in the last age of the Seleucid empire; and though he writes Greek with a perfect mastery, it becomes in his hands almost a new language, full of dreams, at once more...

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Alan Cameron (essay date 1968)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Cameron, Alan. “The Garlands of Melaeger and Philip.” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 9, no. 3 (autumn 1968): 323-31.

[In the following essay, Cameron considers the order in which Meleager collected his poems, and the headings he utilized in his Garland.]

The principal sources used by Constantine Cephalas for the Anthology of which the greater part is preserved in the Palatine and Planudean Anthologies were the Garland of Meleager (put together in the last decade or so of the second century b.c.),1 the Garland of Philip (some time probably not too long after a.d. 53)2 and the Cycle...

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Sonya Lida Tarán (essay date 1979)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Tarán, Sonya Lida. “Erotic Epigrams: The Motif of Ganymede.” In The Art of Variation in the Hellenistic Epigram, pp. 7, 28-40. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1979.

[In the following excerpt, Tarán explores how the story of Zeus and Ganymede serves as a model for Meleager's accounts of his own desire in his erotic epigrams.]

In the twelfth book of the Anthology there appears a small group of Hellenistic pederastic epigrams in which the ἐρώμενος is in one way or other compared with Ganymede. Each poet deals with the motif in his own manner and with a different degree of elaboration and originality, but a close interpretation of the texts seems to show...

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Sonya Lida Tarán (essay date 1979)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Tarán, Sonya Lida. “Erotic Epigrams: The KΩMOΣ and the ΠAPAKΛAYΣITYPON.” In The Art of Variation in the Heroic Epigram, pp. 52, 92-114. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1979.

[In the following excerpt, Tarán provides a close reading of several of Meleager's epigrams, focusing on his unique combination of traditional Greek motifs. Tarán also traces the influence of preceding epigrammatists on the author.]

In his commentary on Herodas 2.34, Walter Headlam1 describes in these words the Greek and Roman custom of the κῶμος: “The practice of young men in the evening after their wine (when sufficiently drunk) sallying forth alone or in bands ἐπì...

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Kathryn J. Gutzwiller (essay date 1998)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Gutzwiller, Kathryn J. “Meleager.” In Poetic Garlands: Hellenistic Epigrams in Context, pp. 276-301. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

[In the following excerpt, Gutzwiller considers Meleager as a poet and as an anthologist, and discusses the principles he used to determine the sequence of poems in his Garland.]

Our biographical information about Meleager comes primarily from his four self-epitaphs.1 He was a native of Gadara in Palestine, spent his youth in Tyre, and settled in later life on the island of Cos, where he composed his Garland.2 From the fringes of Syro-Phoenician culture, he thus moved progressively...

(The entire section is 11211 words.)

Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


Consiglio, Anthony. “Why Teach Meleager?” Classical World 92, no. 2 (November/December 1998): 159-62.

Discusses the value and methodology of teaching Meleager to high school students.

Murgatroyd, Paul. “The Sea of Love,” in Classical Quarterly, n.s. XLV, no. 1 (1995): 9-25.

Traces the use of the metaphor “the sea of love” by Greek poets, including Meleager.

Rubin, Nancy Felson, and William Merritt Sale. “Meleager and Odysseus: A Structural and Cultural Study of the Greek Hunting-Maturation Myth.” Arethusa, 16 no. 1-2 (spring-fall 1983): 137-71.


(The entire section is 90 words.)