EPIGRAM

By epigram is meant either an inscription proper or a brief composition rising to the dignity of an autonomous poetic genre, and present in Greek and Latin literature with an extraordinary variety of motifs and formal expressions. The epigram, renewed in content no less than in modes of expression, appears in Christian antiquity mainly in its primary meaning of an inscription metrical or in prose, intended for incision or not, funerary epitaph or dedicatory in character. Leaving aside sepulchral inscriptions proper, which are covered in the entry Epigraphy, Christian, we will focus here on the literary epigram. The Christian literary epigram developed mainly after Constantine, in the East with Gregory of Nazianzus and in the West with Pope Damasus 366 384. Between 357 and 385 Gregory composed a group of Epitaphs in various meters elegiac distichs, hexameters, iambic trimeters, constituting a sort of Christian Spoon River E. Bellini. Recalling many dear departed friends, Gregory revived the themes of Greek poetry and Alexandrian epigrammatic poetry the transitoriness and unhappiness of human existence, the glory that accompanies one who in life has done deeds worthy of remembrance in the light of Christian hope.

In the West, the ancient Roman funeral elogium, rising to new literary dignity, was revived and Christianized with Damasus, the first great poet of the Theodosian era, whom Jerome Vir. inl. 103, 1 recalls as a writer of elegant verse. Damasus conceived the plan of seeking out, restoring and giving over to veneration almost all of the suburban monuments of the martyrs and popes of earlier centuries. He undertook excavations, restored catacombs and verified the authenticity of relics. In the process, he had the idea of increasing the fame of the monuments by having metrical elogia some current in the Christian communities, some composed ex novo incised on the restored loculi. The metrical tituli almost all Virgilian hexameters, incised in the marble by Furius Dionysius Philocalus, were a main attraction for pilgrims who at that time came to Rome from all over the empire and contributed to the spread of the cult of the martyrs. In addition to elogia we should recall the Versus ad fratrem corripiendum, an epigram not destined to be incised, which opens with an interesting reuse in a polemical setting of the incipit of Virgil’s first Eclogue Tityre, tu fido recubans sub tegmine Christi ~ Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi, and warns the sacerdotes dei against the dangers of profane poetry. The epigram in which Damasus demonstrates his capacity to use a linguistic code Virgilian bucolic poetry emptied of its original ideological values and rendered apt for expressing antithetical Christian values proved to be a subtle and effective tool of religious propaganda among educated persons. With his verses, Damasus undoubtedly contributed to defining a new Christian Romanitas.

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