Questioning authenticity and plausibility: Sappho, Anacreon, Theognis & the Transmission of Greek Poetry

From William A. Percy
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It is often the case that writers are appreciated as much for who they are as for what they wrote. Such “vulgarity of ‘human interest’,” as Nabokov once referred to it[1] , can sometimes lead to even cult like worship of a writer, occasionally growing so fierce that it is their character and biography– or at least such as they are imagined– which become more prominent than their actual work. As Mary Lefkowitz has noted, "Criticism of creative art seems curiously dependent on biography."[2] Classics has a bizarre relationship with this dependence: the abundance of biographical writing and character study about ancient writers belies the extreme paucity of biographical information for these people. Often we lack anything verifiable proving that these “writers” ever existed, an issue most obvious with Homer. Lefkowitz has masterfully laid out the case for the extent of speculation and out and out fiction in such “biographies” in her seminal work, The Lives of the Greek Poets.[3] The effusive stream of biographical information, private papers, and more reliable anecdotal evidence of modern authors, particularly from the nineteenth century on, has fueled a sort of retroactive need to implant biographies of ancient authors in a way which can only be artificial and unfounded, Lefkowitz has shown.

This need for biographies also stimulates the need to consolidate, clarify and expand these writers’ corpuses. The more poems attributed to an author, the better, particularly for those who still wish, in spite of Lefkowitz’s Lives, to draw biographical information from the poetry itself. But how do we attribute works to a particular person? What guarantees their authenticity? Of course we have a number of poems whose authorship can be verified with at least some relative certainty when their lines are quoted by another ancient writer, but this is no sure guarantee, as proved my misquotes. For many other poems we have to rely on the, at best, far more imperfect science/art of philology. The relatively recent discoveries from Oxyrhynchus have yielded what appear to be newly discovered works from famous writers and has birthed in the last century or so a whole new round of textual analysis, and so classical philology continues to have a role to play in dribs and drabs as the good classicists at Oxford sort through all those papyri.

There is one fundamental flaw with the such textual analysis in philology, particularly with the archaic lyric poets. Philology often works on the assumption that we can trust that those specific people, whom we call "Archilochus," "Sappho," "Anacreon," or "Theognis," existed just as for so long, we trusted that there was a blind bard called Homer. There are real problems with this assumption. Professor Percy, a dedicated attendee of the humanities seminars in the classics run by Greg Nagy at Harvard more than a decade ago, open to all outside professors, though rarely attended by any except those invited to speak, learned in these meetings, as well as elsewhere in Nagy’s writing, his assertion that before Pindar and his contemporaries Simonides and Bacchylides, poetry was transmitted orally. It was not the case that there was no writing at all – take the Peisistratid edition of Homer for example – but simply that poets did not live in a culture where literary work was saved on papyrus, which did not happen routinely until the early part of the fifth century BC. The first recorded mention of any book comes from Plato’s Apology, in which Socrates mentioned that one could buy Anaxagoras’ work for a drachma. Before being written down, poems would have most frequently been transmitted at symposia and less frequently at professional performances. After one particular seminar Percy asked Nagy whether it was the case then that there was no possible way to prove that any line now attributed to Sappho was actually hers. Nagy unequivocally stated that such was the case. By extension, we can see why the same argument applies to all the poets antedating Pindar. Knowing most of archaic Greek poetry as we do, only as it has come down to us in scraps and shards, and knowing that those scraps and shards began their lives as unwritten poems passed around the Greek world from mouth to mouth, then how can we feel comfortable ever stating that a particular poem truly belongs to a particular author, especially when we can’t even say with any real certainty that such a person ever existed!

As with many branches of humanism, literature and history seem to require iconic characters on whom great works and deeds can be hung. In history, people have a hard time examining great battles, constitutions, treaties, or other events without great figures to drive the action. What is Salamis without Themistocles? Sparta without Lycurgus? In literature, it is hard to believe that people would enjoy reading a large collection of anonymous poetry. Not knowing who wrote what, whether they came from one person or many, what time periods they were composed in and what circumstances inspired the content can be a real preventative for many people to unlocking the beauty and grandeur in a work. Therefore we have these so-called “authors,” whom we suppose sang particular poems, and using that claim as a basis, philologists “prove” authorship by comparisons in diction, meter, content, and other compositional elements to create their so-called corpuses.


  1. Lecture on Anna Karenina, in Lectures on Russian Literature. Harcourt, Inc, 1981. p. 138
  2. Heroines and Hysterics. Duckworth Press, 1981. p. 59
  3. John Hopkins, 1981
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