BMCR 2021.02.08

Studies in Sappho and Alcaeus

, Studies in Sappho and Alcaeus. Trends in classics. Supplementary volumes, 79. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2019. Pp. vi, 218. ISBN 9783110629835 €89,95.

Table of Contents

These fourteen essays are primarily detailed discussions of the papyrus text of individual poems, followed by explication of the poem as reconstructed. Several are on the new Sappho papyri of 2004 and 2014.[1] The last three chapters focus more on Alcaeus. (See the Preview for the list of chapters.) Tsantsanoglou examines images of the papyri online and sees (often “clearly”) traces of letters that others have not seen or have otherwise interpreted. I must leave it to papyrologists to comment on these. He then suggests supplements, sometimes exempli gratia, sometimes presented as reliable, together with parallels in form and usage. Tsantsanoglou has tremendous knowledge of ancient Greek linguistics and editorial histories, so text editors may find stimulating possibilities among his proposed readings and supplements.

I have reservations about this work, however. One is general: supplements that go beyond what the letter traces or the poets’ typical rhetoric strongly suggest are inherently speculative, raising the question of what use we should make of them. More specifically, I find Tsantsanoglou’s guiding principles problematic. He describes his approach in the Preface, saying that these essays “do not refrain from my usual positivistic policy,” and “it has been my conscious effort to avoid wide-ranging ventures and to restrict myself to concrete observations which help in constructing a stable text.” But an avowedly positivist approach means that assumptions about the nature of the poems are unexamined. In the case of Sappho, Tsantsanoglou introduces his controversial view of her poems without comment as patently correct—and with wide-ranging results, for it guides what he considers it possible for Sappho to say. Tsantsanoglou often uses “naturally” to describe an interpretation.

His framing assumption is that almost all of Sappho’s poetry is about her relationship with her “girls,” pupil-friends whose singing she directed and who formed her only meaningful social connections. He comments (157) that since she does not mention them in the Brothers Poem or 17 V, “it is natural that both were written in Sappho’s young age, before she had started her profession.” He speaks of her “utter loneliness” (24, 39) when (as he construes it) she is near death and the girls are insufficiently attentive.

Moreover, he refers (169) to the Lesbian poets’ “versifying scenes of their personal lives,” by which he means, especially in Sappho’s case, that the poems record a current mood or a quotidian “incident” (18)—that they are diary entries, in effect. He usually insists on a baldly literal meaning. He says, e.g., (140) on her 2 V: “Sappho’s metaphors are simple and straightforward, and her detailed description of a banquet scene could not possibly be assigned a figurative interpretation.” His is an extreme case of an approach that other papyrologists and text-editors have taken with Sappho, who as a female poet is imagined to depict her personal concerns without reflection. (In the case of the love poems, the intensity of her desire is taken to be the whole point.) I cannot give an overview of his many results in this limited space, so I have chosen passages in which these two major assumptions manifest themselves because I think it important to recognize their influence.

Chapter 5, co-written with Sotiris Tselikas, is on Sappho’s Kypris Poem (26 V, greatly augmented by P. Sapph. Obbink, plus Burris’ new join of 2017), a complaint addressed to Aphrodite.[2] In line 5 Burris’ text has: πα̣ . . άλοισ . μ’ ἀλεμάτω̣ς̣ δ̣α̣ΐ̣σ̣δ̣[ης. He suggests βάλοισα.[3]  Tsantsanoglou and Tselikas (75) argue that the first letter of . άλοισ . must be μ or λ, probably μ, and that it cannot be a participle because there is no room for α after σ. They print ’μάλοισι and explain it (76) as a “substantivized neuter” of the adjective ἀμαλός, (weak, soft), referring to the girls. They must describe it as neuter to avoid its being taken as masculine, yet the adjective has a feminine form, so why did Sappho not use that? (That Sappho “keeps both strings to her bow” is their answer, though they assume that Sappho’s target was female.) Why did she not use ἄπαλος, which has the same scansion? And this use of the dative of means is peculiar. Even should they be right about the letters, this explanation manifests a desire to introduce the girls into the poem.

In line 6 Burris proposes ε̣ιμερω<ι> (iotacistic ἰμέρωι) λυ . σα̣ντι· γονωμ.̣ They read εἰ μ’῎Ερω λῦ{ι}σ’· ἀντὶ γόνω με̣ σίν[νεαι, with εἰ as the “exhorting interjection” (77) and ἀντὶ γόνω explained as “in your offspring’s interest” (77-78). This jerky style may represent strong emotion, but it is not how Sappho expresses herself.

In Chapter 2, Tsantsanoglou discusses the “New Fragment” from the Cologne papyrus of 2004.[4] Only the right side of the papyrus is preserved, so half a line, more or less, of the last five lines of the poem, plus smaller portions of the three lines preceding them, is extant. The significant words give us the themes of festivity, “now” versus the time after death, honor, and singing to the harp. In lines 3-4 (Tsantsanoglou’s 6-7) the clearly-visible text has ] . νῦν θαλία γε[̣   /  ] . νέρθε δὲ γᾶς γε[̣. Line 6 also has νῦν for time on earth. It would seem that “now” and after death make a strong contrast. Tsantsanoglou remarks (30), “The poem has so far been interpreted—and accordingly supplemented—as a reference to the honour bestowed on Sappho after death,” and (31), “I believe that the few different readings I claim to have made allow a different interpretation, perhaps more appropriate to the situation implied.” (My italics.) The “situation implied” is the one that he constructs.

In accord with it, Tsantsanoglou separates νῦν from θαλία (30) by creating ὠ]ς̣ νῦν where other editors print ] . νῦν. His app. crit. (28) states, “]ς̣ is paleographically possible (a high trace which may belong to the top end of [lunate] ς) and sense-wise likely . . . .” (my italics).[5] “Sense-wise likely” again reveals his assumption that Sappho’s girls must be involved, for ὠ]ς̣ allows him to construe the poem as the moribund Sappho explaining to the girls that she wants them to hold a party around her—as they are doing now—when she dies.

At the beginning of the next line, which contains γέρας, he inserts πᾶκτιν, which makes of the γέρας something that the girls can give to her. For line 7 (Tsantsanoglou’s line 10) Obbink gives λιγύραν [α]ἴ κεν ἔλοισα πᾶκτιν without comment on [α]ἴ.[6] Tsantsanoglou (30) offers instead λιγύραν [δ]ῶ̣κεν ἔλοισα πᾶκτιν. He comments in the app. crit., “The tiny trace read as iota is too short for ι. It may well belong to a bottom tip of any short letter. I suggest the second curve of omega, because [δ]ῶ̣κεν is naturally (my italics) suggested by ἔλοισα.” Since the following line has ἀείδω most would probably find it more natural to suppose that Sappho is taking the lyre in order to sing. He translates his supplemented version thus, the last four lines exempli gratia (30):

 […] I wish […] that a festivity tak[es place] like now […]; and, under the earth, that Ι [kee]p with me [the paktis] to have it suitably as [my la]st gift of honour. [And let my beloved girls pl]ay (dance, have fun) [at my side (at my house)] as now that I am upon earth.” [Straightway Abanthis] took the clear-voiced paktis and gave it [to me]. [But I said “Keep it; slug]gish as I am, what I sing is reed songs (i.e., songs sung to the aulos).

(A slightly different version is given in Chapter 1.)

Tsantsanoglou thus interprets what looks like a hope for remembrance or an afterlife of singing as a fussy moment in a scene of festivity surrounding a dying woman.

In Chapter 10 on Sappho 17 V a different problem with positivism occurs, ignoring context. In line 1, ]α̣ναοισ is “quite clear,” he says (148).[7] He supplies Δ, and comments that “Danaans” “provides strong clues for the factual interpretation of the poem.” In line 6 he reads ῎Η[ραον], not Ε̣ἴ[̣λιον, denying (250) that iotacistic spelling was used in these papyri and adding that he has shown that the other possible example of it (Kypris Poem 6; see above) is to be differently construed. Therefore, the ἀέθλοις of line 5 here must be the athletic contests that the Greek army engaged in before praying for help in getting home. That destroys Sappho’s point that despite their success at Troy they needed Lesbian help in getting home.

In Chapters 12 to 14 Tsantsanoglou turns to Alcaeus and argues for a different location for the sanctuary of the three gods from the generally accepted one. He offers an edition of 129, 130a, and 130b that does not vary greatly from Liberman’s except in 130a, in which case he reads considerably more letters and constructs four-line stanzas to Liberman’s three-line stanzas. He misunderstands the oath in 129 V (177) as entailing death if one violates it and winning if one keeps it. In fact, the oath binds one not to betray comrades but rather either die or else win. To die is mentioned first because it is the essence of the commitment and what Pittacus ignored. The name Onymacles in 130b.9 is explained as Alcaeus’ alias while he was in hiding.

Two chapters discuss the organization of poems into books. In Chapter 6 Tsantsanoglou argues that the epithalamia were books seven and eight in the Alexandrian edition. Chapter 1 proposes that Sappho had a song cycle about her imminent death, book 9 of the Alexandrian edition. He adduces the vase in the National Museum of Athens (inv. # 1260) that depicts a seated woman reading a scroll, given the name Sappōs in the genitive, while three other women stand around her. “Sappho” looks down (at the scroll), so he describes her as mournful. The scroll contains “I begin with airy words” followed by letters hard to read. Tsantsanoglou takes “airy” as “gloomy” and uniquely (but perhaps rightly) reads σ in line 10.[8] By choosing ε for the largely-hidden letter under Sappho’s hand he gets στε̣ν[, which he completes as στενάχουσα (9-11). He takes the vase (6-8) to be illustrating the New Fragment and supplies Kallis, the name of a woman on the vase, to the text (replacing Abanthis; see above). He concludes (13), “The lamenting in the verse goes well with the moribund Sappho of the painting and of her funeral day poem [i.e., New Fragment].” But he himself has conjured up all three depictions of Sappho mourning. He also links 150 and 58.1-10 V as referring to the same “incident” (18). These, the Tithonus Poem, and 62, 63, and 65 V are assigned to book 9.

Nothing in 62 or 63 V suggests that death or the girls are involved. But, positivism abandoned, Tsantsanoglou outlines his conception of them. For example, apropos of 62 V he says (23), “Sappho seems to scold [her grown-up pupil-friends] for showing exceeding faintheartedness (‘you cowered’). The reference to bay laurel clears up the cause of their fear. They avoided calling on her fearing that they would find her on the deathbed, and bay laurel was supposed to have apotropaic qualities in ominous circumstances like that. . . . It is obvious that Sappho is resentfully mocking them.”

There are some good observations and suggestive ideas among the myriad detailed discussions, and as studies of the papyri the essays may offer useful suggestions. As a treatment of Sappho’s poetry they trivialize both it and her.


[1] See Obbink, D. 2009. “Sappho Fragments 58-59: Text, Apparatus Criticus, and Translation.” The New Sappho on Old Age: Textual and Philosophical Issues. Hellenic Studies 38, ed. E. Greene and M. Skinner, 7-16; Obbink, D. 2016. “The Newest Sappho: Text, Apparatus Criticus, and Translation. “The Newest Sappho: P. Sapph. Obbink and P. GC inv. 105, frs. 1-4, ed. A. Bierl and A. Lardinois, 13-33. Leiden: Brill. The 2004 papyri, P.Köln 21351 and 21376, were purchased in 2002, and the 2014 papyri, P. Sapph. Obbink and P. GC inv. 105, Frs. 1-4, were acquired after 2010. There is no clear documentation of provenance of these papyri prior to acquisition, or evidence that they were legally exported from their country of origin.

[2] Obbink 2016: 26-27; Burris, S. 2017. “A New Join for Sappho’s ‘Kypris Poem’, inv. 105 fr. 4 and P. Sapph. Obbink.” ZPE 201: 12-14. The fragment is printed in Obbink 2016: 28 as “New Fragment (unplaced).”

[3] Pre-join, Obbink 2016: 26 prints σ̣άλοισι.

[4] Obbink 2009: 10-11.

[5] See Hammerstaedt , J. 2009. “The Cologne Sappho: Its Discovery and Textual Constitution.” The New Sappho on Old Age, 39, fig. 22, for the trace.

[6] Obbink 2009: 10.

[7] Obbink 2016: 19 prints ] . . . οισ.

[8] See Yatromanolakis, D. 2007. Sappho in the Making: The Early Reception. Washington: Center for Hellenic Studies, 146-64, on this vase.