Whether we know it or not, we love epigrams. Whether we like it or not, the ancient epigram has never left us, although we may have left the term ‘epigram’ behind, except when scholars talk about it. The epigrammatic style has always been one of the most popular: concise, funny, incisive. Not anyone can do it, but everyone loves it.
The epigram can be lighter than a milligram in size and heavier than a hectogram in effect. This alone, I think, guaranteed its survival, from Ancient Greece to the Twitterised West. We keep saying and hearing that the pen is mightier than the sword. If other styles and genres of writing are like heavy artillery, then the epigram is the shuriken, the ninja star of writing, clean, energy efficient and exact.
The epigram, scholars assure us, is the only European literary genre born as a specifically written type. If epic and lyric poems, drama, history, and all other genres had had an oral existence before they were captured in writing, the epigram has always been written. It’s in its name, epi-gram, over-written. That is because the earliest epigrams were votive offerings or funeral dedications engraved in stone, in lapidary style, we might say (from the Latin lapis for rock).
If there was any ancient writing medium subject to character limit, that was stone, and this is the reason why the first characteristic of the epigram is its concision.
The earliest epigrams were Greek, but the best ones were Roman. These were often obscene, satirical and achieved an effect that few other texts ever could. Here’s an example from Martial, the Roman epigrammatist extraordinaire:
“Until recently, Diaulus was a doctor, now he’s an undertaker.
He is still doing, as an undertaker, what he used to do as a doctor.” (1.30)
The Greek and Roman epigrammatists have long been dead. So has William Blake and Emily Dickinson, who also wrote some fine epigrams. But, as it is usually (though not always) the case, the genre outlives the author. In our time, we may not find epigram-wizards like Martial or Dickinson, but we have Twitter. Tweets are not carved in stone, but the platform’s distinctive character limit arguably pulls the genre into the long tradition of the European epigram. Tweets are always concise, often mordant, sometimes vicious, or at least the best, most engaging tweets are. They are ninja stars more than deliberative invitations – concision was never welcome in court. And finally, tweets are more in line with the Greek epigram than we think. The primary setting for the ancient Greek epigram was the symposium, the private dinner party where friends (or people who started as friends, anyway) exchanged one- or two-liners in playful, or sometimes flag-waving manner, around food and wine. Does it sound familiar?