Stop Talking: An Epigram of Palladas

E.J. Hutchinson

Not much is known about the Greek epigrammatist Palladas of the 4th century AD, and most of what we do know comes from his own poems, about 150 of which survive in the so-called Greek Anthology.

We pause here for a word from our sponsors. Which is to say, I should give some details about the Greek Anthology. An “anthology” (Greek ἀνθολογία) is literally a gathering of flowers. In its literary usage, this means, one infers, that poems are flowers – a whimsical thought – and, if you put enough of them together, you get a collection, that is, a bouquet. There have been many such collections over the centuries, all the way back to the Hellenistic Age (i.e. from the late 4th cent. BC); but what we mean by the “Greek Anthology” is a combination of two manuscripts, the Anthologia Palatina (University of Heidelberg, Codex Palatinus graecus 23, 10th cent.) and the Anthologia Planudea (Venice, Biblioteca Marciana, Codex Marcianus graecus 481, written by Maximus Planudes in 1301), which have a good deal of material in common but are not identical. In its current form, the Greek Anthology consists of 16 books of epigrams arranged by theme, e.g., Christian epigrams (Book 1), amatory epigrams (Book 5), dedicatory epigrams (Book 6), convivial and satirical epigrams (Book 7).[1] These 16 books comprise thousands of poems.[2]

Fresco of the goddess Flora, 1st cent AD (from Stabiae, near Pompeii, and now in the National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy).

Ok, back to Palladas. What do we know about him besides his name and his general (speaking of flowers) floruit?[3] We know that he was a grammarian; we know that he lived in Alexandria; we know that he was a pagan; and we know that he was angry.

He could also be savagely funny. Neil Hopkinson has called the “poetic voice” of Palladas “black, bitter, and cynically humorous,” going on to say that “his brief poems satirize and reflect with disillusion on human ambitions and beliefs, and on life in general.” [4] “Evergreen,” in the parlance of our times.

More expansively: Palladas wrote on a number of topics, all of which he saw through his stubbornly jaundiced eye. These include: women and the teaching of grammar (he has a lot of problems with both, and tends to address them through arch allusions to the poems of Homer); the vicissitudes of fortune; life and death; wealth and poverty; corrupt politicians; self-knowledge.

Colophon to the editio princeps (first printed edition) of the Greek Anthology, based upon the collection of Maximus Planudes and edited by Janus Lascaris (Venice, 11 August 1494).

Many a student of the ancient languages, and perhaps some teachers too, will sympathize when Palladas says in one poem (Greek Anthology 9.17), that “syntax is killing me” (σύνταξις γὰρ ἐμοὶ καὶ θάνατον παρέχει). The fan of rock and roll may hear a premonition of the opening of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ when, in 10.82, he wonders whether life is just an insubstantial fantasy (ὄνειρον εἰκάζοντες εἶναι τὸν βίον). Those of us with imposter syndrome feel the sting of 11.305, in which the poet pillories a grammarian who pretends to be a Platonist while understanding neither grammar nor Platonism.

Palladas also touched not infrequently on religious questions. As Alan Cameron detailed almost  six decades ago,[5] Palladas’ poems are a treasure-trove for the analysis of the fraught and fertile relationship between paganism and Christianity in late antiquity – just the sort of dynamic recently discussed in Antigone by Simon Goldhill. A discussion of that dynamic is not my purpose at present, but do see 9.528 on the “museumification” of pagan statues in a Christian house.

Harpocrates, the Greek god of silence, engraving by Jan Harmensz. Muller, 1593.

My focus here is instead on Palladas as a humorist. As I said, he could be savagely funny; I want to share one instance of that humor that is especially well tailored to our social media age of instant and unthinking reactivity, whose source in man’s chronic logorrhoea Palladas accurately diagnosed.

We all know – at least I hope we do – that silence is golden. The problem is that, as Palladas was well aware, we have far too little of it. “Words, words, words,” as Hamlet says to Polonius; that’s what we have. They are mostly meaningless gestures into the void, as one person after another posts quixotic “takes” on every current event and non-event that flashes across the screen. But take heart: it was like that in Palladas’ day, too. We’ve just developed the technology to make it more unbearable and socially dangerous. And as we become more and more a pseudo-serious and screeching online version of Domitian’s delatores (denouncers/informants), we become – and this is perhaps the worst part – less and less funny. Palladas is here to help.

For Palladas satirizes this penchant of ours[6] for ruinous verbosity on more than one occasion. One of my favorites, 11.300, makes silence an analogue of philosophy as described by Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo 64a: silence, that is, is a practice for death. 

The text of 10.46 (lines 3 to 6 in the photograph) in the 10th-century Palatine Anthology (University of Heidelberg Cod, Pal. graec. 23, p.496).

Below, I have translated a slightly longer poem that trades on a more explicitly philosophical quip. The poem in question, Greek Anthology 10.46, consists of two elegiac couplets about that neglected virtue, viz not talking, and its corresponding vice, viz talking. As satirical wit ought to, the poem punctures our prolix pretensions, taking its cue from the Superintendent of Silence himself, Pythagoras (c.570–490 BC)), who administered a regime of enforced reticence over his taciturn pupils, as Diogenes Laertius reports: “For five whole years [his disciples] had to keep silence, merely listening to [Pythagoras’] discourses withotut seeing him, until they passed an examination, and thenceforward they were admitted to his house and allowed to see him.”[7]

I said I have translated it, but really I have “translated” it (for I have taken some liberties),[8] into unrhymed iambic pentameters (i.e. blank verse). (I have previously translated another poem of Palladas, not funny at all.) It is a small thing, this tiny poem by a minor poet, and yet it illustrates – human nature being what it is – the constancy of man across time and space, not least in his foibles and flaws.

Statue of Pythagoras, 12th century (archivolt above south door of west portal, Chartres Cathedral, France).

Douglas Adams, in fact, would send up the very same defect a millennium and a half later in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (Book 2 of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, 1980):

It is worth repeating at this point the theories that Ford [an alien who had sojourned on Earth] had come up with, on his first encounter with human beings, to account for their peculiar habit of continually stating and restating the very very obvious, as in “It’s a nice day,” or “You’re very tall,” or “So this is it, we’re going to die.”

His first theory was that if human beings didn’t keep exercising their lips, their mouths probably shriveled up.

After a few months of observation he had come up with a second theory, which was this – “If human beings don’t keep exercising their lips, their brains start working.”

In fact, this second theory is more literally true of the Belceberon people of Kakrafoon.

The Belceberon people used to cause great resentment and insecurity among neighboring races by being one of the most enlightened, accomplished and, above all, quiet civilizations in the Galaxy.

For this “offensively self-righteous and provocative” behavior, the Belceberons receive a severe punishment from a Galactic Tribunal: telepathy. Adams only trod on a jocular trail blazed by Palladas, who did it (funnily enough) with far fewer words.

And with that, I, too, have talked plenty. Here’s the poem; I hope you enjoy it.

       “Stop Talking”

Ἡ μεγάλη παίδευσις ἐν ἀνθρώποισι σιωπή·

   μάρτυρα Πυθαγόραν τὸν σοφὸν αὐτὸν ἔχω,

ὅς, λαλέειν εἰδώς, ἑτέρους ἐδίδασκε σιωπᾷν,

   φάρμακον ἡσυχίης ἐγκρατὲς εὑρόμενος. [9]


“Go get a PhD in shutting up”—

So says Dr Philosophy himself,

Pythagoras the Wise, who, knowing how

To talk, instructed others to be dumb.

“Eureka!” was his cry, “I’ve found the drug

That keeps you high on tranquil peace of mind!”


Great throngs were more than happy to oblige,

Misunderstanding what his counsel meant.

E.J. Hutchinson is an Associate Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College (Hillsdale, MI), where he also directs the Collegiate Scholars Program. His research focuses on Classical reception in Late Antiquity and Early Modernity.

Further Reading

In addition to the items mentioned in Notes 2–5 below, readers interested in exploring the poems of Palladas further are encouraged to consult the Loeb volumes of the Greek Anthology, which are conveniently in the public domain. (A full list of freely available Loebs can be found here.) Each of the five Loeb volumes of the Anthology contains an “Index of Authors” at the back, so simply find the entry for “Palladas” and go from there. There are poems by Palladas in Books 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, and 16. Even better would be to flip around the Anthology at random, because it holds many dusty treasures beyond Palladas himself that have intrigued and inspired both readers and writers for centuries.


1 I’ve borrowed the “titles” for the books from the Loeb edition (LCL vols 67–8, 84–6, ed. W.R. Paton, Heinemann, London/Cambridge, MA, 1916–18).
2 For the vines that supplied the flowerets in this paragraph – the harvest of which is much greater than I have indicated – see Enzo Degani, “Anthology, A-H,” in Brill’s New Pauly,  vol. 1, H. Cancik and H. Schneider eds; English trans., C.F. Salazar and D.E. Orton eds. (Brill, Leiden, 2002) 726–30), and Claudia Rapp, “Greek Anthology,” in A. Grafton, G.W. Most and S. Settis eds., The Classical Tradition (Harvard UP, Cambridge, MA, 2010) 410–11. See also Alan Cameron, The Greek Anthology: From Meleager to Planudes (Oxford UP, 1993).
3 On this question, we can be more precise: we can place him in the second half of the 4th century. See Maria Grazia Albiani, “Palladas,” in Brill’s New Pauly, vol. 10, H. Cancik and H. Schneider eds; English trans., C.F. Salazar and D.E. Orton eds. (Brill, Leiden, 2007) 390–1… Or maybe we can’t! The traditional dating has recently been challenged: see now Kevin W. Wilkinson, “Palladas and the Age of Constantine,” Journal of Roman Studies 99 (2009) 36–60, who argues that our poet should be placed around AD 259–340.
4 Neil Hopkinson, “Palladas,” in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth eds. (3rd ed., Oxford UP, 1996) 1100. The entry is, like the poems of Palladas, brief. With the exception of the bibliography (which has been updated to include the article cited in n.3), it remains the same in the most recent edition of the OCD.
5 Alan Cameron, “Palladas and Christian Polemic,” Journal of Roman Studies 55 (1965) 17–30.
6 I insist on dehistoricizing Palladas’ target, for the foolish verbosity of mankind is, or ought to be, “a truth universally acknowledged,” as Jane Austen put it in the first sentence of a book that is – not coincidentally, as it happens – about pride.
7 Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, 8.10, tr. R.D. Hicks. Aulus Gellius givens a slightly different account in Attic Nights 1.9 (the period of silence varied depending on the student; the minimum period was two years), and includes a sentence that is well worth pondering: “But when [his students] had learned what is of all things the most difficult, to keep quiet and listen, and had finally begun to be adepts in that silence which is called ἐχεμυθία or ‘continence in words’, they were then allowed to speak, to ask questions, and to write down what they had heard, and to express their own opinions.” (tr. J.C. Rolfe).
8 A more literal translation will be provided in a note below.
9 I print the text as found in Vol, 4 of Paton’s Loeb, where his prose translation runs as follows: “Silence is men’s chief learning. The sage Pythagoras himself is my witness. He, knowing himself how to speak, taught others to be silent, having discovered this potent drug to ensure tranquillity.”