Take what you have while you have it: you'll lose it soon enough.

A single summer turns a kid into a shaggy goat.

-- Anonymous Greek epigram

Pure Pagan, selected and translated by Burton Raffel, is a small, superb gathering of seven centuries of Greek poems and fragments. Raffel adds titles to otherwise untitled pieces and translates with great transparency. He concentrates on figures who have rarely been translated into English, such as Anyte (early third century B.C.), Phocylides (mid-sixth century B.C.) and Terpander (mid-seventh century B.C.), and culls gems from the 4,000 poems that constitute The Greek Anthology.

The Greek poets, many of them anonymous, had a special gift for poignant inscriptions, such as this two-line epigram by an unknown author:


Once corpses left the city behind them, dead,

But now the living carry the city to her grave.

The Greek term epigramma means "inscription," and, indeed, the epigram began as a poem compressed enough to be carved onto the limited space of a monument, a tombstone or the base of a statue. Precision of language has always been the hallmark of the form. Some of the anonymous Greek epigrams have the elements of proverbial or commonplace wisdom:

Message to the Living

I'm dead, but waiting for you, and you'll wait for someone:

The darkness waits for everyone, it makes no distinctions.

Plato delivered a similar message to the living in this well-balanced, closely reasoned epitaph, which has the same shine as his prose:

An Epitaph

I am a drowned man's tomb. There is a farmer's.

Death waits for us all, whether at sea or on land.

Simonides took this sort of deeply measured inscriptional epigram to its peak in such short poems as the one Raffel entitles "Sailors":

These men lying here were carrying honors to Apollo.

One sea, one night, one ship carried them to their graves.

The epitaph ("[writing] on a tomb"), an abbreviated or foreshortened elegy, is one of the types that the Greek poets perfected. These poems were suitable for placing on gravestones, though it's evident this was often never really intended. The idea of a commemorative poem on a tombstone addressed to a passerby served as an enabling fiction, and it fostered a type of a lyric that was short, pithy and summative.

Theodoridas wrote:

An Epitaph

This is a drowned man's tomb. Sail on, stranger,

For when we went down the other ships sailed on.

And here is how Antipater of Sidon eulogized a dead soldier. This poem is no doubt as relevant and newsworthy today as when it was written, sometime around 120 B.C.


Amyntor, Philip's son, lies in this Lydian soil.

His hands were full of iron war.

No sickness led him into the darkness:

He died holding his shield over a wounded friend.

(All quotations are from "Pure Pagan: Seven Centuries of Greek Poems and Fragments," selected and translated by Burton Raffel. Modern Library. Translation copyright © 2004 by Burton Raffel.)