In this chapter I should like to introduce and exploit the riches of the Greek Anthology for evidence of Greek laughter and tears in the sixth century, when Paul the silentiarios wrote the epigram that contains the line: ‘Tantalus ever in tears’. These poems, collected in the Anthology, often known as Palatina from its survival in the palatine library of Heidelberg, make a fascinating source for late antique attitudes to laughter and tears. Like other intellectuals of the Constantinopolitan elite Paul combined many literary skills, including his poetic descriptions of extreme distress and pain that contrast with unbounded joy, nearly all provoked by love. This court official, whose duty it was to impose silence whenever the emperor appeared, also composed a wonderfully detailed description of the restored dome of Hagia Sophia at the rededication of the Great Church in 562. Many of his epigrams were included in the Garland put together by Agathias, a lawyer and historian, who also composed verses in this genre.
As Claudia Rapp has shown, the epigram was one of the most popular forms of literature in the mid-sixth century, possibly because these verses often contained amusing episodes drawn from daily life. They range from one or two lines to seventy-six; several by Agathias run to twenty to twenty-four lines. Many were written to adorn and explain statues and monuments, images of women, sculptures of chariot racers and mythological as well as contemporary individuals. The genre was ancient and had already clearly established rules for composition that were followed by all educated writers. Although there is a sharp drop in the composition of epigrams after the creative outburst of George of Pisidia in the early seventh century, the genre reasserted itself in the ninth century and the famous manuscript that preserves most of the Garlands, or Cycles, was put together in the 890s. Thereafter the form continued to be exercised by many writers.
Since the Anthology is divided into separate Garlands and they in turn are divided into different books, each collection has a particular character. Those of book 1, devoted to Christian epigrams, were copied from churches and dedication panels that praise the worthy motive of the patron. After short books that bring together the introductions to earlier collections, book 5 contains the amatory epigrams, where love predominates among some overtly sexual descriptions.