Tuesday, April 2, 2013


Matylda Obryk, Unsterblichkeitsglaube in den griechischen Versinschriften. Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte, Bd 108. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2012. Pp. xii, 255. ISBN 9783110281774. $112.00.

Reviewed by Thomas Miller, Princeton University (tmmiller@princeton.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


As its title suggests, this book is a study of metrical inscriptions from the ancient Greek world that refer to immortality. The bulk of the work is a selection of 64 funerary epigrams. Included for each is a restored Greek text (cited from the latest published edition), a limited apparatus, a line-by-line German translation, brief comments on epigraphic and linguistic issues, and an interpretative discussion. The collection is followed by a synoptic analysis (55 pp.) of the conceptions of immortality found in the epigrams.

Although Obryk is interested in understanding the "Glaubenswelt" and the "Mentalität" of the Greeks, in her introduction she expresses appropriate reluctance about using the epigrams as evidence for popular (let alone individual) belief. The topoi that the inscriptions rely on must nonetheless have resonated in and influenced "das kollektive Bewußtsein" (p. 2). After a summary of the status quaestionis, she lays out her criteria for inclusion in the collection. The notion of Unsterblichkeit is interpreted quite broadly, to mean any kind of survival after death (including e.g. survival only in the memory of the living). The inscriptions (only epigrams actually preserved on stone are included) come from all over the Mediterranean world (mainly Asia Minor, Egypt, and Rome). Dates range from 432 BCE to 480 CE, with a strong slant towards the later end of this period: only two of the inscriptions are Classical and at least half are securely dated to the second century CE or later. Christian epigrams are excluded, although there is one uncertain case and several that originate in a Jewish milieu or at any rate demonstrate familiarity with the Septuagint.

The inscriptions are organized into six chapters according to (loose and sometimes overlapping) thematic categories. I will briefly summarize each.

The first chapter, "Feststellung der Dualität des menschlichen Wesens," presents eleven epigrams that in various ways conceive of the living human being as a body and a soul that are separated at death. Most intriguing is the famous inscription from a public monument in the Kerameikos at Athens to those who fell in the battle of Potidaea at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, according to which the souls of the dead are received by the αἰθήρ, their bodies by the earth.

The second chapter, "Mythische Bilder als Träger des Unsterblichkeitsglaubens," offers twenty inscriptions loosely unified by their allusion to mythological traditions. One group portrays the deceased as joining the society of the gods, usually in some subordinate rank (e.g. a dead boy will be a new Ganymede, a doctor's son will complete his training from Asclepius himself). Another group refers (sometimes merely in passing) to a mythical location for the afterlife (e.g. Hades, Elysium).

The third chapter, "Konditionale Unvergänglichkeit," brings together a rather diverse group of nine inscriptions that all somehow make the immortality of the deceased explicitly dependent on deeds and virtuous qualities in this life. In one interesting case, the goddesses Dike and Moira take a woman from late antique Aphrodisias up into heaven because of her hospitality and pious deeds, while leaving her body in the grave together with her already deceased husband. The immortality in question may also be merely in memory: warriors from Hellenistic Miletus, for instance, are promised just ἀθάνατος μνήμη.

The nine inscriptions of the fourth chapter, "Katasterismos und das Firmament als Zufluchtsort," place the deceased among the stars of the night sky. The first two inscriptions, in which Obryk notes the apparent influence of the Phainomena of Aratus, give relatively precise celestial locations, but more often the starry heaven is spoken of more vaguely as a destination for the dead. Obryk interestingly contends that the stellar conception of immortality is "diesseitsbezogen, da der Himmel der Sterne sinnlich wahrnehmbar ist und somit kaum als Jenseits bezeichnet werden kann" (p. 197, cf. 95). But the occasional equation of the heavens with Olympus suggests that a more mythologized conception is at least sometimes in play (cf. Chapter 2).

The unity of the fifth chapter, "Einflüsse der Kulte und der Philosophie," is based on a (to my mind somewhat overstated) denial of a sharp distinction between religious cults and philosophical systems in the ancient Greek world. Obryk first offers six inscriptions that refer to the motif of "the water of life" in explicit or implicit connection with the cult of Isis and Osiris. These texts (some of which also draw on "Orphic" traditions about the afterlife, and only two of which actually come from Egypt) are evidence of a fascinatingly complex syncretism. Next are two inscriptions for deceased followers of Dionysus. Finally there are four inscriptions that show traces of the influence of philosophical thinking about immortality, all from the imperial period. Let me discuss these in slightly greater detail.

In the first,1 Obryk detects "platonisches Gedankengut" in the phrases ψυχὴ γὰρ ἀείζως, ἣ τὸ ζῆν παρέχει καὶ θεόφιν κατέβη and σῶμα χιτὼν ψυχῆς, but admits – rightly, given the brevity and lack of precise textual correspondences – that they "setzen nicht zwangslaüfig eine eingehende Kenntnis der platonischen Schriften voraus" (pp. 137-138). A fragment of Empedocles (DK 31 B 126) mentioned only in passing in a footnote seems a closer parallel for the second phrase than the Platonic passages that Obryk discusses. She sees the second and third inscriptions as influenced by Pythagoreanism (or rather Neopythagoreanism). The second2 speaks of the soul as ἀθανάτην κἀγήραον but trapped τύμβῳ εἰν ἀλάῳ (according to the conjecture of Rohde, who compared Vergil's carcere caeco). The third3 is a metrically imperfect couplet expressing an agnostic attitude about the possibility of reincarnation: "If it is possible to be born again, sleep will not hold you for long, but if it is not possible to come back, then sleep will be eternal." The fourth inscription4 comes from the grave of the Neoplatonist philosopher Syrianus, teacher of Proclus – a rather special case. These four examples suggest that distinctively philosophical engagement with questions of soul and immortality had relatively little broad cultural impact, at least as far as the tradition of pagan funerary epigram goes. As Obryk elsewhere puts it: "Die Seelenkonzepte großer Denker, wie unter anderem die von Platon oder Plotin, haben die in den Inschriften vorkommenden Seelenvorstellungen nur in einem ziemlich geringen Umfang beeinflußt" (p. 158).

In the sixth chapter, "Leugnung der Unsterblichkeit," Obryk offers three epigrams that explicitly deny the existence of an afterlife. Though couched in non-technical language, such epitaphs may be inspired by the tradition of myth- criticism or by Epicureanism. Obryk emphasizes that, despite a perspective diametrically opposed to that of the other texts in the collection, these inscriptions are still intended to provide consolation to those still living.

As this summary has indicated, the inscriptions collected here reflect an extremely broad range of conceptions and topoi. Sorting this out is the task of the second part of the book, which has in turn two main divisions. Obryk first discusses the subject or bearer of existence after death ("Mittler der Unsterblichkeit"). In about half of the selected inscriptions this is explicitly said to be the soul (usually referred to as the ψυχή), which is, however, variously conceived of (as an unindividuated life-force, as a shade-like counterpart to the living human, as the true self or even the divine element in a person). Obryk next turns to the nature of immortal existence ("Qualitäten der Unsterblichkeit"). Where is the deceased located? (The grave? Hades? The heavens?) And what is the deceased doing? (Continuing to exercise their earthly profession? Or enjoying a new life serving the gods?) Obryk's ultimate conclusions are not revolutionary: she emphasizes the overall lack of dogmatic tendencies in Greek religious thought, pointing in particular to the coexistence of "Diesseits" and "Jenseits" in conceptions of the afterlife.

Obryk rejects attempts to find patterns of development through time or regional tendencies: "Die meisten Vorstellungen existieren ungestört nebeneinander" (p. 155). This is surely to be explained in part by the choice to focus on metrical inscriptions, which, as she elsewhere notes, are clearly influenced by a conservative tradition of literary formulae and conventions. In general, the restricted range of evidence considered by Obryk means that intellectual and cultural historians interested in using epigraphic evidence to approach questions of belief and mentality should still consult Richmond Lattimore's Themes in Greek and Latin Epitaphs (Urbana, IL, 1942), which deals with Greek and Latin inscriptions in both verse and prose and includes a section on Christian epitaphs. Lattimore's method, however, is to offer only brief citations from various inscriptions to illustrate topoi. Obryk's different manner of presentation allows us to actually read the epigrams as artistic wholes. The inscriptions collected here are, in my view, worthy of this attention: they are hauntingly beautiful texts that challenge our distinction between the literary and the non-literary and offer us a fascinating glimpse into ancient lives at a uniquely humane and vulnerable moment.

In the second part, the book's origin as a doctoral dissertation (Cologne, 2010) is sometimes visible. The discussions of individual inscriptions under the various headings seem repetitive after the commentaries in the first part, and the expository structure sometimes feels labored. The volume is generously provided with indices (locorum, graecitatis, nominum, originum, rerum), as well as two tables giving the date and origin of the inscriptions and their numbers in other collections. In both tables inscription E12 (the Syrianus epitaph) is erroneously listed as D8. The volume is to my eye otherwise accurately printed and handsomely produced, as befits its high price.


1.   E9, in Obryk's numbering, from Sabini, 1st/2nd century CE. Peek, Griechische Versinschriften I: Grabepigramme 1763 = IG XIV 2241.
2.   E10, from Rome, 180-250 CE. Samama, Les médecins dans le monde grec 481 = IG XIV 1424.
3.   E11, from Smyrna, 2nd century CE. Merkelbach-Stauber, Steinepigramme aus dem griechischen Osten 05/01/63.
4.   E12, from Athens, ca. 437 CE. IG II/III2 13451.

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