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.


  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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