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Ants with a sweet tooth

Philip of Thessalonike not only collected the epigrams of other authors, but, like Meleager, he also wrote poems of his own. One that never fails to make me laugh tells the story of ants searching for honey:

Βωλοτόμοι μύρμηκες, ὁ γῆς στρατός, ἡνίκ’ ἔτενδε
γειομόρου μελιχρὴν σμηνοδόκου χάριτα,
μηνίσας ὁ πρέσβυς ἐς ὕδατα κρωσσὸν ἔβαψεν,
ἐνθάδε τοὺς ἀπὸ γῆς οὐ δοκέων πελάσειν·
οἱ δὲ νέας <κάρφας> ἀχυρίτιδας ἀντιφέροντες
αὐτοκυβερνῆται πρὸς κύτος ἐτρόχασαν.
ἦ ῥα φίλη γαστὴρ καὶ βαιοτάτους ἀνέπεισεν
ἐκ χθονὸς εἰς Νύμφας καινοτάτους ἐρέτας.

(AP 9.438)

When burrowing ants, that army of the soil, were nibbling at the bee-keeping farmer’s delicacy, the old man in anger plunged the pot in water, thinking that land-creatures would not approach there. But they brought a fleet of straw-husks against it, and ran to the jar self-steered. Their own belly taught even the tiniest things to take to water from land as new-style sailors (transl. Gow-Page)

And indeed: what doesn’t one do for the sake of a delicious dessert? By portraying the ants’ expedition as a military exploit – very fittingly the animals that gave their name to Achilles’ Myrmidons appear as warriors, the old bee-keeper is filled with Homeric mēnis in the face of their invasion – Philip wittily adapts epic themes to the epigrammatic form. Gow-Page call him “a dull writer”, some of whose epigrams “sound hitherto unplumbed depths of fatuity” (328). If that is so, I must confess that working on dull, fatuitous poems is a great thing.

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