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“Hail, Caesar” said the parrot

The “Garland of Philip”, published around AD 40, contains numerous epigrams addressed to Roman patrons and members of the Imperial household. One of the authors included in Philip’s anthology is Crinagoras of Mitylene, who – as several inscriptions attest – served as ambassador between Rome and his native city. Among his texts we find mention of, for instance, Marcellus, Augustus, Cleopatra-Selene, Germanicus, and Tiberius.  In epigram AP 9.562 Crinagoras tells the following story:

Ψιττακὸς ὁ βροτόγηρυς ἀφεὶς λυγοτευχέα κύρτον
ἤλυθεν ἐς δρυμοὺς ἀνθοφυεῖ πτέρυγι·
αἰεὶ δ’ ἐκμελετῶν ἀσπάσμασι Καίσαρα κλεινὸν
οὐδ’ ἀν’ ὄρη λήθην ἤγαγεν οὐνόματος·
ἔδραμε δ’ ὠκυδίδακτος ἅπας οἰωνὸς ἐρίζων,
τίς φθῆναι δύναται δαίμονι “χαῖρ’” ἐνέπειν.
Ὀρφεὺς θῆρας ἔπεισεν ἐν οὔρεσι· ναὶ δὲ σέ, Καῖσαρ,
νῦν ἀκέλευστος ἅπας ὄρνις ἀνακρέκεται.

Man’s mimic, the parrot, left its wicker-work cage and went to the woods on flowery wings, and ever practising for its greetings the glorious name of Caesar, forgot it not even among the hills. So all the birds, quickly taught, came running in rivalry, who should be first to say “Greetings” to the god. Orpheus made beasts obey him on the hills; to you, Caesar, now every bird tunes up unbidden (transl. Gow-Page).

So much for silent walks through the woods – just imagine the noise caused by all the birds trying to outdo each other in greeting Caesar!  Now the question is: how are we to evaluate this piece of epigrammatic panegyric? Obviously Crinagoras’ anecdote of avian adulation does not want to be taken too seriously. But does it contain implicit criticism? Are people who hail Caesar (unbidden) any different from the birds of this epigram, which imitate a parrot, the very master of imitation?  Or are we rather invited to admire Caesar’s  powers, his magical effect on animals, which is compared to that of Orpheus? Ah, it’s complicated – or isn’t it…?

One Response to “Hail, Caesar” said the parrot

  1. We have to talk about it…

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