In a more elegant age, authors composed epigrams in classical Latin and Greek to grace their new books. Here’s a nice example that hasn’t been read in nearly 500 years.
In his 1529 collection of translations from Lucian, Vincent Obsopoeus includes a half dozen dedicatory epistles to different patrons. One such is a lighthearted letter to Michael Mastaller, a jurist of Nuremberg about whom history has recorded nothing at all.
The letter introduces Obsopoeus’ translations of five short essays by Lucian: (1) Herodotus vel Aetion, (2) Zeuxis vel Antiochus, (3) Harmonides, (4) Hippias vel Balneum, and (5) Allocutio vel Bacchus. The double titles are because #1 contains a description of a famous painting by Aetion, #2 one by Zeuxis, and #4 a praise of Hippias, an architect-engineer (μηχανικός), as well as the bath house he designed. In #5, Bacchus’ army discovers an intoxicating spring of water.
The best of these pieces, by far, is #2; it should be on any short list of required Lucian reading, and repays serious thought. The rest aren’t worth a second read (#4 isn’t even considered authentic today).
Obsopoeus’ epigram is in epic Greek, the kind you’d find in Homer or Hesiod, but it’s light and fun in its tone. Much as he does in the cover letter for the second edition of The Art of Drinking, in this epigram, Obsopoeus plays on the contents (τιμή) and titles (οὔνομα) of the five translations he’s sending.
To Michael Mastaller,
ὄφρα σὺ ἡμετέρων τιμήντε καὶ οὔνομα δωρῶν εὖ εἰδῇς, Μιχαὴλ, εὖρυ κλέος νομικῶν, σοι δύο μὲν πίνακας γραφέων κλύτα ἔργα παλαιῶν, καί νυ σὺν Ἡροδότῳ πέμψαμεν Ἀντίοχον. εἶτα καὶ αὐλητὴν τῆς ποικιλοτέρπου ἀοιδῆς 5 εἰδότα τοι πάσης μείλιχον Ἁρμονίδην. τοῖς ἐπέθηκα κάλην μὲν ἐϋπήκτου βαλανοῖο οἰκοδομὴν σὺν τῷ τέκτονι δαιδάλεῳ. ὑδάτιον δὲ στρατος ἕπεται βρομΐοιο γελοῖος ὅν γε περ εἰς Ἴνδους ἤγαγε κισσοκόμης. 10 ταῦτα δὴ αὐτομάτως ἐπιμείλια σοι νῦν ἔπεμψα· τῶν πέμψ' οἷός τ' ἦν οὐδὲν ἀπειρότερον. ταῦτα γὰρ ἀνθρώπων πάντων φρέσιν ἐστιν ἀγαστά εἰκόνες, αὐληταὶ, σκῆπτρα, λοετρὰ, στράτοι, ἀλλὰ περὶ πάντων ἣν μὲν ταῖς ἔννεα μουσαῖς 15 δείκνυσιν εὐφυΐαν πάνσοφος Ἡρόδοτος. ὅντινα δ' οἶσθα πότ' ὡσπερ ἐμ' εὐμεγάδωρον; ἄνακτας ὁς σοι σκηπτοῦχους καί τε δίδωμι στράτους καὶ τ' ἄλλ' ὅσσα βροτῶν τέρπουσιν ἀκήδεα θύμον είκόνας, αὐλητὰς, θέρμα λοετρὰ, βίβλους. 20
Typos: I’ve corrected ἄγαστα to ἀγαστά in line 13 and ὀστράτους to στράτους in 18.
Just so's you know the value and names of the gifts that I've sent you, Michael, o far-reaching glory of lawyers! : --First, two artworks (famous!) by ancient painters, and, what's more, Antiochus and Herodotus! --Next, the musician who knows the entire, splendidly 5 varied song, namely, gentle Harmonides. --To them I've added a beautiful building: the finely-constructed Bath and its ingenious craftsman. --Also, in pursuit of a little water goes the gay army of Bromius, which the ivy-crowned god led to the Indians. 10 These are the squibs, then, that I've now chosen to send you; they're the least inexperienced, least unending ones I was able to send. These are the things, you see, which the hearts of all men find admirable: paintings, musicians, scepters, baths, and soldiers, but above all, the goodness [talent? grace?] that clever Herodotus shows the nine muses. 15 Have you ever met anyone as generous as me?! -- me, who's giving you sceptered kings, and armies, and everything else that delights the carefree hearts of mortals: paintings, musicians, hot baths -- and books. 20
Note: In line 12, the last word ἀπειρότερον can either mean (1) inexperienced or (2) unending. Since Obsopoeus calls his efforts Luciani lucubratiunculas in the prefatory letter, he’s apparently punning on both to say these five translations are (1) amateurish and (2) Lucian’s shortest pieces — the latter of which is true.
(For an earlier Greek epigram about Lucian by Obsopoeus, see here.)