While papyri containing fragments of collections of poetry have been found in Egypt, the earliest known anthology in Greek was compiled by Meleager of Gadara, under the title Anthologia, or "Garland." It contained poems by the compiler himself and forty-six other poets, including Archilochus, Alcaeus, Anacreon, and Simonides. In his preface to his collection, Meleager describes his arrangement of poems as if it were a head-band or garland of flowers woven together in a tour de force that made the word "Anthology" a synonym for a collection of literary works for future generations.
Meleager's Anthology was popular enough that it attracted later additions.Prefaces to the editions of Philippus of Thessalonica and Agathias were preserved in the Greek Anthology to attest to their additions of later poems. The definitive edition was made by Constantine Cephalas in the tenth century AD, who added a number of other collections: homoerotic verse collected by Straton of Sardis in the second century AD; a collection of Christian epigrams found in churches; a collection of satirical and convivial epigrams collected by Diogenianus; Christodorus' description of statues in the Byzantine gymnasium of Zeuxippos; and a collection of inscriptions from a temple in Cyzicus.
The scholar Maximus Planudes also made an edition of the Greek Anthology, which while adding some poems, primarily deleting or bowdlerizing many of the poems he felt were impure. His anthology was the only one known to Western Europe (his autograph copy, dated 1301 survives; the first edition based on his collection was printed in 1494) until 1606 when Claudius Salmasius found in the library at Heidelberg a fuller collection based on Cephalas. The copy made by Salmasius was not, however, published until 1776, when Richard François Philippe Brunck included it in his Analecta. The first critical edition was that of F. Jacobs (13 vols. 1794-1803; revised 1813-17).
Since its transmission to the rest of Europe, the Greek Anthology has left a deep impression on its readers. In a 1971 article on Robin Skelton's translation of a selection of poems from the Anthology, a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement wrote, "The time of life does not exist when it is impossible to discover in it a masterly poem one had never seen before." Its influence can be seen on writers as diverse as Propertius, Ezra Pound and Edgar Lee Masters. Since full and uncensored English translations became available at the end of the 20th century, its influence has widened still further.
Such a composition must necessarily be brief, and the restraints attendant upon its publication concurred with the simplicity of Greek taste in prescribing conciseness of expression, pregnancy of meaning, purity of diction and singleness of thought, as the indispensable conditions of excellence in the epigrammatic style. The term was soon extended to any piece by which these conditions were fulfilled.
The transition from the monumental to the purely literary character of the epigram was favoured by the exhaustion of more lofty forms of poetry, the general increase, from the general diffusion of culture, of accomplished writers and tasteful readers, but, above all, by the changed political circumstances of the times, which induced many who would otherwise have engaged in public affairs to addict themselves to literary pursuits. These causes came into full operation during the Alexandrian era, in which we find every description of epigrammatic composition perfectly developed.
About 60 B.C., the sophist and poet, Meleager of Gadara, undertook to combine the choicest effusions of his predecessors into a single body of fugitive poetry. Collections of monumental inscriptions, or of poems on particular subjects, had previously been formed by Polemon Periegetes and others; but Meleager first gave the principle a comprehensive application.
His selection, compiled from forty-six of his predecessors, and including numerous contributions of his own, was entitled The Garland (Στεφανος), and in an introductory poem each poet is compared to some flower, fancifully deemed appropriate to his genius. The arrangement of his collection was alphabetical, according to the initial letter of each epigram.
In the age of the emperor Tiberius (or Trajan, according to others) the work of Meleager was continued by another epigrammatist, Philippus of Thessalonica, who first employed the term anthology. His collection, which included the compositions of thirteen writers subsequent to Meleager, was also arranged alphabetically, and contained an introductory poem. It was of inferior quality to Meleager's.
Somewhat later, under Hadrian, another supplement was formed by the sophist Diogenianus of Heracleia (2nd century A.D.), and Straton of Sardis compiled his elegant but tainted Μουσα Παιδικη (Musa Puerilis) from his productions and those of earlier writers.
No further collection from various sources is recorded until the time of Justinian, when epigrammatic writing, especially of an amatory character, experienced a great revival at the hands of Agathias of Myrina, the historian, Paulus Silentiarius, and their circle. Their ingenious but mannered productions were collected by Agathias into a new anthology, entitled The Circle (Κυκλος); it was the first to be divided into books, and arranged with reference to the subjects of the pieces.
These and other collections made during the Middle Ages are now lost. The partial incorporation of them into a single body, classified according to the contents in 15 books, was the work of a certain Constantinus Cephalas, whose name alone is preserved in the single MS. of his compilation extant, but who probably lived during the temporary revival of letters under Constantine Porphyrogenitus, at the beginning of the 10th century.
He appears to have merely made excerpts from the existing anthologies, with the addition of selections from Lucillius, Palladas, and other epigrammatists, whose compositions had been published separately. His arrangement, to which we shall have to recur, is founded on a principle of classification, and nearly corresponds to that adopted by Agathias. His principle of selection is unknown; it is only certain that while he omitted much that he should have retained, he has preserved much that would otherwise have perished.
The extent of our obligations may be ascertained by a comparison between his anthology and that of the next editor, the monk Maximus Planudes (A.D. 1320), who has not merely grievously mutilated the anthology of Cephalas by omissions, but has disfigured it by interpolating verses of his own. We are, however, indebted to him for the preservation of the epigrams on works of art, which seem to have been accidentally omitted from our only transcript of Cephalas.
The Planudean (in seven books) was the only recension of the anthology known at the revival of classical literature, and was first published at Florence, by Janus Lascaris, in 1494. It long continued to be the only accessible collection, for although the Palatine MS., the sole extant copy of the anthology of Cephalas, was discovered in the Palatine library at Heidelberg, and copied by Saumaise (Salmasius) in 1606, it was not published until 1776, when it was included in Brunck's Analecta Veterum Poetarum Graecorum.
The MS. itself had frequently changed its quarters. In 1623, having been taken in the sack of Heidelberg in the Thirty Years' War, it was sent with the rest of the Palatine Library to Rome as a present from Maximilian I of Bavaria to Pope Gregory XV, who had it divided into two parts, the first of which was by far the larger; thence it was taken to Paris in 1797. In 1816 it went back to Heidelberg, but in an incomplete state, the second part remaining at Paris. It is now represented at Heidelberg by a photographic facsimile.
Brunck's edition was superseded by the standard one of Friedrich Jacobs (1794-1814, 13 vols.), the text of which was reprinted in a more convenient form in 1813-1817, and occupies three pocket volumes in the Tauchnitz series of the classics.
The best edition for general purposes is perhaps that of Dubner in Didot's Bibliotheca (1864-1872), which contains the Palatine Anthology, the epigrams of the Planudean Anthology not comprised in the former, an appendix of pieces derived from other sources, copious notes selected from all quarters, a literal Latin prose translation by Jean François Boissonade, Bothe, and Lapaume and the metrical Latin versions of Hugo Grotius. A third volume, edited by E. Cougny, was published in 1890. The best edition of the Planudean Anthology is the splendid one by van Bosch and van Lennep (1795-1822). There is also a complete edition of the text by Stadtmuller in the Teubner series.
It would be hard to exaggerate the substantial value of the Anthology, whether as a storehouse of facts bearing on antique manners, customs and ideas, or as one among the influences which have contributed to mould the literature of the modern world. The multitudinous votive inscriptions, serious and sportive, connote the phases of Greek religious sentiment, from pious awe to irreverent familiarity and sarcastic scepticism; the moral tone of the nation at various periods is mirrored with corresponding fidelity; the sepulchral inscriptions admit us into the inmost sanctuary of family affection, and reveal a depth and tenderness of feeling beyond the province of the historian to depict, which we should not have surmised even from the dramatists; the general tendency of the collection is to display antiquity on its most human side, and to mitigate those contrasts with the modern world which more ambitious modes of composition force into relief. The constant reference to the details of private life renders the Anthology an inexhaustible treasury for the student of archaeology; art, industry and costume receive their fullest illustration from its pages. Its influence on European literatures will be appreciated in proportion to the inquirer's knowledge of each. The further his researches extend, the greater will be his astonishment at the extent to which the Anthology has been laid under contribution for thoughts which have become household words in all cultivated languages, and at the beneficial effect of the imitation of its brevity, simplicity, and absolute verbal accuracy upon the undisciplined luxuriance of modern genius.
The number of more or less professed imitations in modern languages is very large, that of actual translations less considerable. F. D. Dehèque's French prose translation, however (1863), is valuable. The German language admits of the preservation of the original metre--a circumstance advantageous to the German translators, Herder and Jacobs.
Robert Bland, Charles Merivale, and their associates (1806-1813), are often diffuse. Francis Wrangham's (1769–1842) versions are more spirited; and John Sterling's translations of the inscriptions of Simonides deserve high praise. Professor Wilson (Blackwood's Magazine, 1833-1835) collected and commented upon the labours of these and other translators, but included indifferent attempts of William Hay.
In 1849 Dr Henry Wellesley, principal of New Inn Hall, Oxford, published his Anthologia Polyglotta, a collection of the translations and imitations in all languages, with the original text. In this appeared some admirable versions by Goldwin Smith and Merivale, which, with the other English renderings extant at the time, accompany the literal prose translation of the Public School Selections, executed by the Rev. George Burges for Bohn's Classical Library (1854).
In 1864 Major R. G. Macgregor published an almost complete translation of the Anthology, a work whose stupendous industry and fidelity almost redeem the general mediocrity of the execution. Idylls and Epigrams, by Richard Garnett (1869, reprinted 1892 in the Cameo series), includes about 140 translations or imitations, with some original compositions in the same style.
Further translations (selections) are:
An agreeable little volume on the Anthology, by Lord Neaves, is one of Collins's series of Ancient Classics for Modern Readers. The Earl of Cromer found time to translate and publish an elegant volume of selections (1903).
Two critical contributions to the subject are the Rev. James Davies's essay on Epigrams in the Quarterly Review (vol. cxvii.), especially valuable for its lucid illustration of the distinction between Greek and Latin epigram; and the brilliant disquisition in J. A. Symonds's Studies of the Greek Poets (1873; 3rd ed., 1893).