Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.12.73

Ellen Greene, Marilyn B. Skinner (ed.), The New Sappho on Old Age: Textual and Philosophical Issues. Hellenic Studies 38.   Washington, DC:  Center for Hellenic Studies, Trustees for Harvard University Press, 2009.  Pp. vii, 213.  ISBN 9780674032958.  $19.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Elisabetta Pitotto, University of Turin (

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Table of Contents

The New Sappho on Old Age, edited by Ellen Greene and Marilyn B. Skinner, is a valuable collection of essays on the recently published Cologne papyrus 21351+21376 (III cent. B.C.).1

As was already the case for two previous volumes on the same subject,2 The New Sappho on Old Age turns its multi-authored nature to its full advantage: different approaches result in a complete, detailed and thorough survey on the new fragments and on the problems they raise as far as their text, textual transmission, contents and performative context are concerned.

After an introduction by Marilyn B. Skinner (pp. 1-6), who aptly summarizes the main issues at stake, the book begins with two essays on textual and papyrological features.

In "Sappho Fragments 58-59. Text, Apparatus Criticus, and Translation" (pp. 7-16), Dirk Obbink illustrates the Cologne lines and compares them to the ones registered in the previously known P. Oxy. 1787 (II-III cent. A.D.): the two scraps coincide in their middle sections ("Tithonus poem" = Sapph. fr. 58 V., ll. 11-22) but differ in their respective beginnings ("New Fragment" in P. Köln, ll. 1-8 col. I;3 "Success Poem" in P. Oxy. = Sapph. fr. 58 V., ll. 1-10) and endings ("Continuation 1" in P. Köln, ll. 9-21 col. II; "Continuation 2" in P. Oxy. = Sapph. fr. 58 V., ll. 23-26).

This partial overlapping is further discussed by Jürgen Hammerstaedt in "The Cologne Sappho. Its Discovery and Textual Constitution" (pp. 17-40). Before assessing the most debated readings with the help of photographic reproductions,4 this essay focuses on "Continuation 1": it displays a different hand from that of the "New Fragment" and the "Tithonus Poem" and, unlike the preceding Sapphic lines, features un-Aeolic dialect and meter. "Continuation 2" – which reflects upon abrosuna, light and beauty as means of enduring the prospect of old age and death – is also taken into account. Thus, some questions are posed around which a large part of the book will revolve: mainly, the very nature of the Cologne sequence and the reasons why it differs from the Oxyrhynchan one.

The three following essays – "The New Sappho Poem (P. Köln 21351 and 21376). Key to the Old Fragments" (pp. 41-57) by André Lardinois; "Tithonus in the "New Sappho" and the Narrated Mythical Exemplum in Archaic Greek Poetry" (pp. 58-70) by Lowell Edmunds; "No Way Out? Aging in the New (and Old) Sappho" (pp. 71-83) by Deborah Boedeker – deal with a possibility, which is particularly rich in implications, raised by the discovery itself of the Cologne papyrus: that of fr. 58 V. ending right after l. 22 (= "Tithonus poem" only) and not including the last four lines (= "Continuation 2").

Lardinois explains that different variants of a given song are likely to emerge especially in pre-Alexandrian testimonies such as the Cologne papyrus. Nonetheless, the comparison with the structure of frr. 16 and 31 V. seems to imply a longer version, with "Continuation 2" as part of a consolation song whose performance context is identified, exempli gratia, in the (semi)public occasion of a wedding banquet.

Narratological data and conventions become the main focus in Edmunds' essay. With the help of a whole set of appropriate comparanda the usual structure of exempla mythica is illustrated: the exempla start from the hic et nunc, tell the myth and then return to the present situation, on which the exemplum itself allows to shed more light. While such a circular scheme would be perfectly completed by "Conclusion 2", the functionality of the Tithonus story as closure remains questionable.

Boedeker's essay is centred on the performative context and its influence in determining variants of a same song . She argues that the Oxyrhynchan final stress on the satisfaction gained from abrosuna, light and beauty suits celebrations of divine benevolence, while the sadder note on which the "Tithonus poem" ends when taken alone, as happens in the Cologne papyrus, results in a poignant sympotic reflection on the difficulties of getting older. Neither sequence can claim to be the "original" one; they both represent "authentic variants" of a single Sapphic song, reperformed in different contexts and modified accordingly.

With the following four essays, the volume turns to investigating in depth the content of the Cologne texts. In "Acceptance or Assertion? Sappho's New Poem in its Books" (pp. 84-102), Joel Lidov stresses that, just like other poems supposedly coming from Books 3 and 4 of the Alexandrian edition of Sappho, the "New Fragment" is concerned mainly with the immortal glory that poetical activity grants to singers, both in life and after death. The identification of common thematic features in fragments sharing the same meter suggests further reflections: it is highly likely that the "Aeolic meter with choriambic expansion"5 was perceived as the most traditionally appropriate to celebrate poetry and its everlasting gifts.

Meter is the main focus of Lidov's second essay as well: in "Meter and Metrical Style of the New Poem" (pp. 103-117), the analysis of cuts and punctuation preserved in the "Tithonus Poem" unveils a carefully built construction, which moves from a variable beginning to an ending rhythmically articulated in full accordance with the expected patterns and therefore very clear in transmitting its message.

"“Once” and “Now”. Temporal Markers and Sappho's Self-Representation" (pp. 118-130), by Eva Stehle, points out the subtle interplay between the "Tithonus Poem" and the "New Fragment" created by the well crafted repetition of pota and nun. While the "Tithonus Poem" keeps one eye on the past and portraits the persona loquens as once young and swift, the "New Fragment" reflects upon the performance taking place now and describes it as a fundamental means of reaching immortal glory, in the present state as well as in future afterlife.6

With "The New Sappho in a Hellenistic Poetry Book" (pp. 131-146) by Dee Clayman, the volume faces a very complex issue: the relationship between "Continuation 1" and the preceding lines. Common references to music, afterlife and everlasting poetical glory should not be overlooked, in spite of "Continuation 1"'s un-Aeolic meter and dialect. On the contrary, the Cologne sequence as a whole might represent the remains of an Hellenistic anthology, based as such on the strong thematic connection between the texts which form it (see as a possible parallel the so called "new Posidippus", P. Mil. Vogl. VIII 309, end of III B.C.).

Last come three essays focusing on a more general reading of Sapphic corpus and tradition. In "Sappho 58. Philosophical Reflections on Death and Aging" (pp. 147-161), Ellen Greene sets Sapphic poetry against the broader background of pre-Socratic speculations on transience and permanence: Sappho too reflects upon these major philosophical issues, as is demonstrated by her dealing with death and poetic glory (see the analysis of fr. 58 V.) or with beauty, love and desire.

"A Reading of Sappho Poem 58, Fragment 31 and Mimnermus" (pp. 162-175), by Marguerite Johnson, argues the specific influence of Mimnermus on Sappho's frr. 31 and 58, even in a context such as the Ancient Greek one, based on a traditionally defined set of themes, images and formulae.

Finally, "The "New Sappho" Reconsidered in the Light of the Athenian Reception of Sappho" (pp. 176-199) by Gregory Nagy analyses the two sequences registered in the Oxyrhynchus and in the Cologne papyrus respectively as variants stemming from the reperformance of the same Sapphic poem in different times, places and contexts. The longer Oxyrhynchan song fits in a choral singing and dancing event such as the public festivals in Lesbos; the shorter Cologne version is more appropriate for relay performances in symposia and/or during the monodic competitions at the Panathenaia. Noteworthy in this respect is the feeling of truncation created by the somewhat open Cologne-ending on Tithonus: the final exemplum could be seen as an effective clue for the subsequent singer to step in, thus exemplifying that attitude of competition-in-collaboration which regulates the relay between different performers.

To sum up, each paper succeeds both in making brilliant points about the so far most debated questions related to the Cologne papyrus and in prompting further reflections, especially about the whole Cologne textual chain – "Continuation 1" included – as performative text, about the criteria underlying the compilation of both Cologne and Oxyrhynchus papyri or about the different conception of authenticity and authoriality perceivable in each scrap.

As a whole, The New Sappho on Old Age represents a very welcome contribution for scholars interested in different issues, from papyrology to textual restoration and from the interpretation of Sapphic poetry to the complex interplay between performance, performative context, variants and written registration.

Therefore, this book cannot but be highly recommended, all the more so if we consider three further reasons: the editing is very accurate, notwithstanding some minor inconsistencies unavoidable in a multi-authored volume;7 an index nominum et locorum (pp. 204-213) helps finding the passages of one's interest with ease; the price of the printed format and the forthcoming free version online make the volume very accessible.


1.   Editio princeps by M. Gronewald and R. W. Daniel: see "Ein neuer Sappho-Papyrus", ZPE 147, 2004, pp. 1-8; "Nachtrag zum neuen Sappho-Papyrus", ZPE 149, 2004, pp. 1-4; and "Lyrischer Text (Sappho-Papyrus )", ZPE 154, 2005, pp. 7-12.
2.   G. Bastianini – A. Casanova (a cura di), "I papiri di Saffo e Alceo". Atti del convegno internazionale di studi, Firenze, 8-9 giugno 2006, Firenze 2007; A. Aloni (a cura di), Nuove acquisizioni di Saffo e della lirica greca, Alessandria 2008.
3.   The first three lines, which preserve just two faded letters each, are not included in the given text.
4.   A survey which proves especially useful in the much debated question of l. 18: Hammerstaedt clarifies the surviving text and evaluates the proposed restorations accordingly, thus providing firm ground for further attempts at completing the passage.
5.   Lidov, p. 89, and Skinner p. 3; but for a different metrical approach, see B. Gentili – L. Lomiento, Metrica e ritmica. Storia delle forme poetiche nella Grecia antica, Mondadori 2003, pp. 172-173, and B. Gentili – C. Catenacci, Polinnia, G. D'Anna 2007, pp. 166-167.
6.   And indeed, as mentioned by Clayman on p. 132, so strong is the (narrato)logical connection between the two texts that, from the editores principes onward, many have believed they form one only song articulated in a proem and the subsequent reflection on old age: see e.g. M. Gronewald – R. W. Daniel, "Ein neuer Sappho-Papyrus", ZPE 147, 2004, p. 3; V. Di Benedetto, "La nuova Saffo e dintorni", ZPE, 153, par. 3; Aloni 2008, par. 2.3. and 3.2.1.
7.   E.g., not every contributor sticks to the naming used by Obbink in the first essay, which could generate initial uneasiness for readers unfamiliar with the Cologne sequence; or in the discussion of the already mentioned l. 18, Obbink (pp. 11-12) suggests a phi incompatible with extant traces according to Hammerstaedt (p. 26).

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