In literature, an epigraph is a short quotation, often from a classical or Biblical source, which appears at the beginning of a work such as a novel, poem, or non-fiction book. It can serve a number of purposes, either calling to mind similar themes in the literary canon or serving to establish a contrast. In some works, this may be no more than a line or two, while in others, it can be a lengthy quotation or even an entire poem.
Epigraphs taken from classical or Biblical sources were frequently left in the original language in older works. For instance, the epigraph to Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, published between 1759 and 1769, is a quotation from Epictetus presented in the original Greek. Authors assumed that their readers would be sufficiently well-educated to understand the quotations or, if not, that they would enjoy finding out the meaning of the epigraph. Modern authors usually, but not always, translate their epigraphs into the language of the book. For instance, the epigraph to Robert Graves's 1979 novel I, Claudius is a quotation from Tacitus, presented in English.
An epigraph can sometimes be directly related to the subject of the novel. The quotation from Tacitus which begins I, Claudius, for example, is directly related to the reign of Claudius. In other cases, however, the relevance is less immediately obvious, as in the case in Tristram Shandy, where the reader only gradually begins to see how the epigraph relates to the novel itself.
False epigraphs are found in a number of novels. These are quotations from authors or sources which do not exist. For example, the epigraph which begins F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby is by Thomas Parke D'Invilliers, a character in the novel rather than a real person. This tactic is especially common among science fiction and fantasy authors who use quotations from their invented settings to provide an additional feeling of depth and realism. Isaac Asimov frequently used invented quotations from reference works in his science fiction novels, while author Tim Powers quotes extensively from the work of fictional poet William Ashbless.
Outside the field of literature, the term has a slightly different meaning. In archaeology and architecture, an epigraph is a short inscription carved on a building or monument. The study of these inscriptions is called epigraphy, and forms the basis for, among other things, modern understanding of the language of the ancient Maya.