The word comes from the Latin epigramma, and this from the Greek ἐπίγραμμα (from ἐπί = on and γραμμα =, writing, letter), which means “inscription”. Its etymology refers to burial or votive inscriptions on stone or other material, naturally short
Later this kind of poems was trying other matters and appointed a short poem, usually of amorous and erotic theme, a kind of fictional recording. In the first century A.D. the subject matter is varied, especially satirical and social criticist.
In this type of poetry shines the Hispanic poet Marcus Valerius Martialis (40-104), born in Biblbilis (near to the present Calatayud) . He wrote more than 1,500 epigrams, mostly in elegiac couplets (disticha) (from Gr. δί-, two-and στιχον, groove, verse, verse), then, two verses, one hexameter and one pentameter).
Are well known these on erotic themes, sometimes obscene, but Martial tried all subjects and aspects of the life and customs of Roman society. His work is a document of great value to learn about various aspects of society and culture of century I in Rome. Let's say that your issues can be sweet as honey (mel); satirical as gall (fel), acids such as vinegar (acetum), funny and witty as salt (salt). Are these comparisons which from antiquity have been used to define these little poems and their subjects.
Thus, the epigram is a little poem which must have as characteristics identified by the old poets themselves as Martial himself: brevity, softness and sweetness, wit, ngenuity, mockery, acidity and pungency
Martial, himself, explains it on book 7, 25:
Although the epigrams which you write are always sweetness itself and more spotless than a white-leaded skin, and although there is in them neither an atom of salt, nor a drop of bitter gall, yet you expect, foolish man, that they will be read. Why, not even food itself is pleasant, if it is wholly destitute of acid seasoning; nor is a face pleasing, which shows no dimples. Give children your honey-apples and luscious figs; the Chian fig, which has sharpness, pleases my taste. (Martial, Epigrams. Book 8. Bohn's Classical Library (1897))
“Dulcia cum tantum scribas epigrammata semper
et cerussata candidiora cute,
nullaque mica salis nec amari fellis in illis
gutta sit, o demens, vis tamen illa legi!
Nec cibus ipse iuvat morsu fraudatus aceti,
Nec grata est facies, cui gelasinus abest.
Infanti melimela dato fatuasque mariscas:
nam mihi, quae novit pungere, Chia sapit."
Well, the Spanish Juan de Iriarte y Cisneros (Tenerife 1702 – Madrid 1771) was an important Latinist, Hellenist, bibliographer and poet with a huge work. Your favorite genre was the epigram and translated many of Marcial in verse, as well as other modern authors. He himself wrote many epigrams in Latin and theorized about the characteristics of these poems.
This important character perfectly defines what is an epigram on a known little poem, epigram also naturally:
Similar to Bee,
For that cause pleasure,
The Epigram must be:
Small, sweet and sharp.
A la Abeja semejante,
Para que cause placer,
El Epigrama ha de ser:
Pequeño, dulce y punzante.
These comparisons to define the epigram already were used in times of Martial. This epigram, which defines the essential characteristics of this literary genre (small, sweet and pungent or sharp) is well known by the reading public, better known by readers of any age than by the youngest of today, who barely memorize a literary text. What few know, then and now, is the Latin version of the author himself (Iriarte), the number CCLXVI, which entitled Epigrammatis dotes and it says:
Sese ostendat Apem, si vult Epigramma placere:
Insit ei brevitas, mel, et acumen Apis.
The more literal translation of which reads as follows:
If the epigram wants to please, be revealed as a bee;
It has to shut soon, honey and bee sting.
The same definition makes Martínez de la Rosa (1787-1862), poet, playwright and political liberal, somewhat later, in his Poetics, singing IV:
“Mas el festivo ingenio deba sólo
al sutil epigrama su agudeza:
un leve pensamiento,
una voz, un equívoco le basta
para lucir su gracia y su viveza;
y cual rápida abeja, vuela, hiere,
clava el aguijón y al punto muere”
"But the festive ingenuity should only
alertness to the subtle epigram:
a slight thought,
one voice, one mistake is enough
to show off their grace and vivacity;
and quick as the bee, fly, wounds,
stinger spikes and immediately dies "
In fact, they are these traditional definitions, requiring as "virtues" (a term more often than “dotes”, the "talent", used by Iriarte) from the epigram, especially brevity and wit, to which some add the softness and sweetness, which is characteristic honey.
We will post a few examples, drawn from the thousand and a half he wrote, to so the reader would be encouraged to make a complete reading of his work. (Translation from “Epigrams. Book 8. Bohn's Classical Library (1897)”)
Book VIII, No. 14. 5–6.
That your tender Cilician fruit trees may not suffer from frost, and that too keen a blast may not nip your young plants, glass frame-works, opposed to the wintry south winds, admit the sunshine and pure light of day without any detrimental admixture. But to me a cell is assigned with unglazed windows, in which not even Boreas himself would like to dwell. Is it thus, cruel man, that you would have your old friend live? I should be better sheltered as the companion of your trees.
Pallida ne Cilicum timeant pomaria brumam
Mordeat et tenerum fortior aura nemus,
Hibernis obiecta notis specularia puros
Admittunt soles et sine faece diem.
At mihi cella datur, non tota clusa fenestra,
In qua nec Boreas ipse manere velit.
Sic habitare iubes veterem crudelis amicum
Arboris ergo tuae tutior hospes ero.
Book V, No. 9
I was indisposed; and you straightway came to see me, Symmachus, accompanied by a hundred of your pupils. A hundred hands, frozen by the northern blast, felt my pulse. I had not then an ague, Symmachus, but I have now.
Languebam: sed tu comitatus protinus ad me
venisti centum, Symmache, discipulis.
Centum me tetigere manus aquilone gelatae:
Non habui febrem, Symmache, nunc habeo.
Book III, No. 87
Rumour says, Chione, that you have never had to do with man, and that nothing can be purer than yourself! And yet when you bathe, you veil not that part which you should veil. If you have any modesty, veil your face.
Narrat te, Chione, rumor numquam esse fututam
atque nihil cunno purius esse tuo.
Tecta tamen non hac, qua debes, parte lavaris:
Si pudor est, transfer subligar in faciem.
Book III, No. 89
Use lettuces, Phoebus, use laxative mallows; for you have a face like one suffering from constipation.
Utere lactucis et mollibus utere malvis:
nam faciem durum, Phoebe, cacantis habes.
Lib. I, 38
The book which you are reading aloud is mine, Fidentinus,
but, while you read it so badly, it begins to be yours.
Quem recitas meus est, o Fidentine, libellus:
Sed male cum recitas, incipit esse tuus.
Lib. I, 28
Whoever believes it is of yesterday's wine that Acerra smells,
is mistaken: Acerra always drinks till morning.
Hesterno fetere mero qui credit Acerram,
Fallitur: in lucem semper Acerra bibit.
Lib. I, 29
Report says that you, Fidentinus, recite my compositions in public as if they were your own. If you allow them to be called mine, I will send you my verses gratis; if you wish them to be called yours, pray buy them, that they may be mine no longer.
Fama refert nostros te, Fidentine, libellos
Non aliter populo quam recitare tuos.
Si mea vis dici, gratis tibi carmina mittam:
Si dici tua vis, hoc eme, ne mea sint.
Lib. II, 87
You say, Sextus, that fair damsels are burning with love for you—–for you, who have the face of a man swimming under water!
Dicis amore tui bellas ardere puellas,
Qui faciem sub aqua, Sexte, natantis habes.
And so till 1500 more…