Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.10.23

Stefano Caciagli, Poeti e società: comunicazione poetica e formazioni sociali nella Lesbo del VII/VI secolo a. C. Opera vincitrice del premio Giuseppe Cevolani per il 2011. Supplementi di Lexis, 64.   Amsterdam:  Adolf M. Hakkert editore, 2011.  Pp. 357.  ISBN 9789025612726.  €84.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Hendrik Selle, New York (

Who were the girls whom Sappho addressed in her poems and what was the nature of their mutual relationships? Holt Parker’s article “Sappho Schoolmistress” (TAPA 123 (1993) 309-351) has revealed how shaky the grounds are on which we base our imagination of this social phenomenon in sixth century Lesbos. Stefano Caciagli’s book, an edited version of his doctoral thesis for the University of Bologna, revisits Parker’s argument and, by nuancing and expanding its claims, strives to integrate it into traditional Sapphic scholarship. It is envisaged as a counterpart to Rösler’s classic study on Alcaeus, Dichter und Gruppe, to which it alludes in the title.

Even though a large part of the book is devoted to the presentation and discussion of existing scholarship, it contains important original thoughts. Caciagli regards the Sapphic group as the female equivalent of the hetairía with largely parallel structures and motives. Its functions, however, reflected the distinct social roles of women, most notably in its focus on weddings and festivals rather than political life. Both male and female hetairíai emerge as nothing other than the organisational form of a particular aristocratic clan and families related to it by marriage or proxeny. This argument is backed up with a detailed analysis of almost all major fragments surviving from Sappho, sometimes approaching a full commentary (e.g. pp. 137-148 on S. 2). While not all of it is new or convincing, Caciagli’s work is a valuable addition to the study of Aeolic poetry and its social context.

The book starts out by contrasting what it views as two schools of thought: on the one hand, the traditional view established by Welcker and Wilamowitz which sees Sappho as the leader of an institutionalised group of girls with a primarily didactic purpose. On the other, Parker’s study de-constructing the stuffy idea of the ‘schoolmistress’ and suggesting that the poet belonged to a circle of adult women chiefly united by erotic bonds. In Caciagli’s view, their respective cases can only be assessed by looking at both Alcaeus and Sappho in connection and by including historical evidence about social groups in other parts of archaic and indeed classical Greece. Like others, Caciagli bases his reading of the Aeolic poems on the principle of pragmatic interpretation: the first person singular is a statement by the individual poet, the first person plural refers to the historical group in which it was performed.

The enquiry which follows is divided into five, occasionally intersecting chapters covering (i) Alcaeus’ and Sappho’s communities, (ii) Places and occasions, (iii) Motives for the formation of the communities, (iv) Sapphic and Alcaic ideologies, and (v) Female and male hetairiai. The core of Caciagli’s argument is contained in the first chapter.

Beginning with Alcaeus, he presents the now conventional view that the poems were performed in a sympotic community, founded on long-term personal ties and including the poet himself as leader of the group. Caciagli then draws on a range of standard sources (Homer, Theognis, historians) describing similar social structures, for which some of them use the term hetairía. In his view, what emerges is a consistent type of ‘friendship’, characterised by a common age range, aristocratic background and a sense of lasting mutual loyalty. Similar to modern cliques, the age span is defined by generations: although the hetairía is divided into two sub- groups of younger and older members, each with a specific hierarchical, pedagogical and erotic function, a father and his son cannot belong to the same group at the same time.

These criteria are then retraced in Sappho’s poetry – including the presence of younger girls. Caciagli sensibly rejects Parker’s division of the poems into those destined for the privacy of Sappho’s coevals and others that were performed at public weddings, where adolescents would have been among the audience. The Sapphic group, it turns out, probably neither consisted of minors instructed by a single grown-up, as Wilamowitz believed, nor of consenting adults, as Parker argues. According to Caciagli’s reading of the fragments, prepubescent, adolescent and adult members were simultaneously represented in the group. This, in turn, raises important questions about the character of their mutual erotic relationships. Relying on the extremely scarce literary evidence of ‘Lesbian love’ in Greek literature and on his analysis of the poems, the author doubts the claim that the absence of men also removed the hierarchical asymmetry between lover and beloved typical of Greek society. Barring exceptions, the structure of the relationship seems to have been parallel to male pederasty.

The book goes on to investigate the occasions for which Sappho’s and Alcaeus’ communities used poetry. It groups them into three categories – cultic, private, and public, allegedly representing the basic functions of the hetairía as well as of Greek adult life in general, namely worship, symposium, and citizenship. While the setting of Alcaeus’ poems, with a few possible exceptions, is universally the symposium, Sappho’s work is seen as spanning all three spheres. S. 2, 96 and some others are placed in a religious context. S. 94 is interpreted as referring to the feminine equivalent of a symposium at Sappho’s home. The wedding poems represent the female side of public life, corresponding to the political activity of men. Caciagli suggests that Sappho’s group had a recognised social function at weddings in Mytilene. Whereas the Alcaean group was no less active in all of these three spheres, their use of poetry was confined to the symposium, which in the female group transcended all types of activities.

The study’s most individual hypothesis is contained in the third chapter. Asking what led to the creation of a specific hetairía, Caciagli finds it ‘hardly probable that relations of “friendship” were founded on free choice’ (p. 232). Such a group was, he argues, in fact the social manifestation of a particular aristocratic clan, held together by family ties and affiliation through marriage and proxeny. A hetairía is the ‘operative and leading wing of a family’ (p. 207). Every time Sappho or Alcaeus refer to rival individuals or groups, they mean clans opposed to their own in the struggle for political power.

The author then proceeds to decipher what he calls Alcaic and Sapphic ideologies. While the core values of Alcaeus are unexcitingly described as noble descent, wealth, fame, and power, for Sappho and the identity of her group Aphrodite seems to have enjoyed a special role. Following an elaborate string of indications based on the reference to Sappho’s brother Charaxus in Hdt. 2.134-5 and the presence of a temple of Aphrodite at Naucratis, he suggests that (i) the Sapphic group represented the female part of the Cleanactidae clan, (ii) Aphrodite could have been the clan’s tutelary deity, and (iii) the group assumed an institutional function in her temple worship.

In conclusion, Caciagli stipulates the concept of the ‘female hetairía’ — a group parallel to its male equivalent in structure including its erotic and pedagogical implications, but adapted to women’s different social roles in its function, which focused on the private sphere of weddings and feasts rather than the public sphere of political activity. Brief appendixes deal with ‘The history of Sapphic scholarship’, ‘The archaic history of Lesbos and Athens’, and ‘Age classes, education, and initiation in Sparta and Athens’.

While the thoroughness of the interpretation is much to this study’s credit, at times it places more of a burden on the fragments than they will reasonably bear. The author’s implicit assumption that all the poems were composed for a single ‘original’ occasion and can therefore be read literally does not allow for stylised or topical statements despite the indubitable distance between factual and poetic speech created, for instance, by the word ‘I’ in choral performance. A. 6 was probably not performed on a ship. For this and other reasons, the evidence for female symposia in S. 94 or for prepubescent members of the Sapphic group in S. 49 will leave many readers unconvinced.

The analysis of the concept of hetairía takes up a considerable portion of the book. Little, however, is said about the author’s methodology in using sources encompassing several centuries, places as diverse as Crete and Athens, and multiple literary genres. Without this, it is difficult to accept the premise that they all refer to the same consistent social phenomenon. There is in fact not much to suggest that the term hetairía was ever used in a clear-cut technical sense, or that there is a significant social continuum stretching from Achilles’ companions to the political club of Alcibiades.

But even if the diachronic and geographical persistence of this institution can be made plausible, the hypothesis that its primary uniting force was family ties does not hold much attraction. Modern friendship based on ‘free choice’ is not the only possible alternative. Proximity of place over an extended period of time and a shared social background are at least equally solid foundations for a group. If it is to provide for the initiation of adolescents, it would need to be distinct from the family. Moreover, choices ranging from erotic compliance to treason are only available to hetaîroi not bound together by birth.

Caciagli’s study takes a fresh look at Sappho’s poems through the prism of a markedly interdisciplinary approach, with frequent excursions into textual criticism, papyrology, religious studies and history. He makes a convincing case for the relevance of historical anthropology, including gender studies, for our understanding of Aeolic poetry. Unlike any other, the agonizingly fragmentary nature of the Sapphic corpus invites supplements from the imagination. Caciagli is conscious of the impact of our own social experience on the interpretation of the historical reality underlying these texts. Accordingly he presents his own, sometimes hypothetical, conclusions with adequate caution. Thus, his suggestion that Aphrodite may have been the tutelary deity of Sappho’s clan is unlikely to be the ultimate key to unlock the cipher of her life. Rather, his work confirms once more the impression, however unsatisfying, that such a key does not exist at all.

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