Epigrams were originally brief verses inscribed on objects such as pottery, monuments, or tombstones. The earliest epigrams usually indicated who made the item, to whom it was dedicated, or whose grave it marked. Examples of these early epigrams date from the 700s B.C. However, by the 200s B.C., the epigram had developed into a popular literary form.
Some of the most common themes found in literary epigrams include reflections on love and romance, advice on life or morality, and political or social commentary. Whatever their subject, most epigrams shared several qualities in common. They were brief and composed of one or more couplets* but usually no more than five. They were witty, providing a humorous commentary on even the most serious subjects, including death and dying. They often made use of allusions—indirect references to their subjects—rather than addressing them directly.
One of the early masters of the art of the epigram was the Greek poet Leonidas of Tarentum, who in the 200s B.C. helped establish the style used by later writers. Perhaps the most important Greek epigrammatist (writer of epigrams) was Callimachus, whose work had a major influence on later Roman literature. While the epigram had become an important and respected literary form among the Greeks, it achieved widespread popularity among the Romans only with the writing of Catullus in the 60s B.C. The most successful Roman epigrammatist was Martial, whose 1,500 poems filled 15 volumes. Martial’s writings greatly influenced English and European poetry between A.D. 1550 and 1800. (See also Inscriptions, Monumental; Poetry, Greek and Hellenistic; Poetry, Roman.)
* couplet two successive lines of verse that form a unit and often have the same meter, or rhythm