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.

Of course, the need for great authors and their corpuses is not merely a modern affliction. We know of the great efforts at Alexandria to collect the poems of the nine lyric poets, including our authors in question. However, even then those poems were at least two centuries old and often closer to four or five centuries old, depending on the author. The works of Shakespeare today are all around four hundred years old, yet the provenance of many of his works have long been debated, and they were all written down and collected in folios during his life! The Alexandrians, with their fragments, quotations, copies and versions, had no such reliable material, and yet we trust them well enough!


For us as well as our ancient counterparts, it all comes back to Nabokov’s vulgarity of human interest and the obsession with creating a name, a face and a life for the works that we love. Because of her unique position in the history of literature, a prime example of this sort of obsession is Sappho. Emerging from a culture that essentially barred women from the public eye of art, scholarship or statecraft, her work appears as a rare gem in a male dominated chorus of early Western culture.

Amongst a number of Greek female poets you can count on one hand, the poetry of Sappho – or, at least, the poetry attributed to her – is the largest extant corpus of writing thought to have come from a woman, not only in her own archaic period, but in the ancient world for centuries to come. In addition to this, because some of it deals with the love between two women, it stands out as the earliest literary example of lesbian poetry. Her name is adjectivalized to mean lesbian, and of course the word lesbian itself exists because of her native island. Mix such socio-political significance with poetry that can be exceptionally beautiful, and it is not hard to see why the work claimed to be Sappho’s and moreover the multitudes of imagined biographies and character descriptions of Sappho, originating in antiquity but multiplying in modernity have attained such cult-like obsessions in the minds of many.

However, as Albert Einstein once warned, “The cult of individuals is always, in my view, unjustified.”[4] Not only unjustified, but misleading. Because of her unique place in the world, the biographies constructed about her, as well as her socio-political symbolism, are often more well known than any of her actual work. Like all of the archaic Greek lyric poets – except more so – Sappho is a figure about whom an astonishing amount has been written and assumed from a staggeringly small extant body of writing and the most contradictory biographical testimonia, any piece of which is suspect to begin with. We have not one verifiably complete poem, few complete stanzas even, and scraps of lines or phrases left to us which philological scholarship has deemed hers. We have two misleading biographical entries in the Suda, which give no clear or coherent picture of her life. We have miscellaneous ancient references to some of her words or lines, or certain – even in the ancient world – apocryphal elements of her biography, such as the famous story of how she threw herself off a rock for love of a handsome young ferryman, a story which is most likely tied to a myth. From this paltry aggregate of documentation, not only have many agreed on a general biography, but we have the ever suspicious and relatively uniform agreement about what poetry is hers. Regarding such conclusions made about Sappho’s biography, John Addington Symonds warned, "We know so very little, and that little is so confused with mythology and turbid with the scandal of the comic poets, that it is not worth while to rake up once again the old materials for hypothetical conclusions.”[5]

The same sentiment can be applied to conclusions made about what should and shouldn’t be credited to Sappho. As pointed out above, logic and historical evidence suggest that what we attribute to Sappho is not definitely hers. But because this created character – lesbian lover (now not only of girls but of silver age women), matronly schoolmistress, tragic-romantic, secretly pining, erotically burning wife and mother who wrote exceptional verse, pleaded daily with Aphrodite and lusted for the affections of women, all the while managing to kill herself over love for a young man – is almost an institution in which her poetry is inextricably bound, this sort of inquiry is neglected in order to maintain the cult surrounding her.

It is improbable that any major Greek poet before Pindar and his contemporaries Simonides and Bacchylides wrote their verses down. Following in the footsteps of his forebears Milman Perry and Alfred Lord, who asserted the orality of the Homeric epics before the Peisistratid edition, Nagy has explored this thoroughly, (see “Transmission of Archaic Greek Sympotic Songs: from Lesbos to Alexandria” as a good example ), and was the first to figure out that oral transmission was the first vehicle of preservation for the Greek lyric poets, rather than written, as had usually been mistakenly assumed previously. The poetry now attributed to Sappho would not have been committed to writing until she had long been dead, possibly in the late 5th century and perhaps first at Athens, where the “sacred” texts attributed to Homer were first codified in writing under the Peisistratids, and where Socrates could buy a philosophical treatise. One can easily adduce, since consigning Homer down correctly to the written word would have taken precedence over all other works, the writing down of the early lyricists occurred even later, possibly even after the Persian Wars. After that, the great codification of the poetry, parts of which may have been committed to writing in various other places, would have been under the editorship of the great scholars at Alexandria, at which point anything created by Sappho would have been more than three hundred years old.

Presumably there were debates in Athens and later at Alexandria about what was and wasn’t Sappho’s, as there had been about Homer. Yet, roughly 2600 years after Sappho would have sung what we call hers, based on debated Alexandrian books, which have long been nothing more than shredded remnants of disjointed fragments, there is certainly no similar debate over questions of her authorship. We are happy, without good evidence or scholarship based on anything more than highly educated guesswork, or on such finely tuned "ears" like those of Frankel, to accept the conclusions fed to us.


  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
  4. Ideas and Opinions. New York: Wing Books, 1954. p 4
  5. Studies of the Greek Poets, 1873. Quoted in Page, Denys. Sappho and Alcaeus: An Introduction to the Study of Ancient Lesbian Poetry. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1955.

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