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.
Roman epigrams owe much to their Greek predecessors and contemporaries. Roman epigrams, however, were often more satirical than Greek ones, and at times used obscene language for effect. Latin epigrams could be composed as inscriptions or graffiti, such as this one from Pompeii, which exists in several versions and seems from its inexact meter to have been composed by a less educated person. Its content, of course, makes it clear how popular such poems were:
However, in the literary world, epigrams were most often gifts to patrons or entertaining verse to be published, not inscriptions. Many Roman writers seem to have composed epigrams, including Domitius Marsus, whose collection 'Cicuta' (now lost) was named after the poisonous plant Cicuta for its biting wit, and Lucan, more famous for his epic Pharsalia. Authors whose epigrams survive include Catullus, who wrote both invectives and love epigrams – his poem 85 is one of the latter.
The master of the Latin epigram, however, is Martial. His technique relies heavily on the satirical poem with a joke in the last line, thus drawing him closer to the modern idea of epigram as a genre. Here he defines his genre against a (probably fictional) critic (in the latter half of 2.77):
Poets known for their epigrams whose work has been lost include Cornificia.
In the early 20th century the rhymed epigram Couplet form developed into a fixed verse image form, with an integral title as the third line, when Adelaide Crapsey codified the Couplet form into a two line rhymed verse of ten syllables per line with her image couplet poem first published, 1915 in Rochester NY by The Manas Press. ON SEEING WEATHER-BEATEN TREES By the 1930s this five line cinquain verse form became widely known in the poetry of the Scottish poet William Soutar. Originally labelled epigrams but later identified as image cinquains in the style of Adelaide Crapsey. In the last decade of the 20th century the American poet Denis Garrison developed a two line 17 syllable variation of the image couplet with his , where euphony is the key component and a title thereto optional.
The term is sometimes used for particularly pointed or much-quoted quotations taken from longer works.