Starting with Anacreon while preparing a compendium of essays on Sappho and her ancient reception

2021.02.06 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. In consultation with the editorial team of Classical Inquiries, I am preparing to submit to them, for a hoped-for free-standing online publication, a compendium of my published essays on the topic of Sappho’s ancient reception. In essays I have published more recently on this vast topic, especially in Classical Inquiries, I have tried to track, more thoroughly than in my less recent essays, other topics that are at least in part relevant to my overall project, which aims to reconstruct not some hypothetical prototype of Sappho’s supposedly original text but, instead, what I am calling the “ancient reception” of Sappho’s songs as they were being performed in earlier phases and as they were being performed or read in later phases and as they were being merely read as texts in still later phases. When I say “ancient” here, I am referring, in the most general terms possible, to a premodern era extending from the late seventh century BCE all the way to the early Byzantine era, where intellectuals like Paul the Silentiary (“Paulus Silentiarius”), who lived in the late sixth century CE, were still imitating what they were reading in their transmitted texts of Sappho. To be contrasted is today’s impoverished state of affairs, where all we have left of the ancient textual tradition is a frustratingly small number of quotations found either in other ancient texts or in fragments of papyri dating from Hellenized phases of Egypt. My project aims at reconstructing considerably more than the textual remnants, concentrating on what I have just defined as her “ancient reception.” For this kind of reconstruction, as I said at the beginning, I need to delve into other topics—which may not always be relevant to what little has actually survived directly from the songs of Sappho but which can still lead to a fuller understanding of the overall reception of her songmaking. In this essay, I track one such topic, which centers on questions about sexual preferences or attractions as expressed or at least implied by female beauties in the poetics of Sappho. And I start by focusing on a song attributed to Anacreon, an old male poet who was supposedly in love with Sappho—according to at least some ancient traditions about the lives of Sappho and Anacreon.   

Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), Anacreon and a Young Woman. Paris, musée national Eugène Delacroix. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

§1. Why do I start with a song of Anacreon and not with some surviving song of Sappho as I begin to track the topic of female sexual preferences and to consider how this topic applies to the songmaking of Sappho? My answer is simple: given that my aim is to analyze the ancient reception of Sappho, I consider my choice of Anacreon to be most appropriate. The song of Anacreon that I am about to quote and translate is, I argue, the second-earliest attested reference to the songs of Sappho. I have presented an earlier version of this argument in another essay (Nagy 2007:226–246, linked here), where I also argued that a song of Alcaeus, reportedly a contemporary of Sappho, is the first-attested reference to her. I have my reasons, however, for choosing not Alcaeus but Anacreon here, since the second of the two poets, conventionally dated almost a century after the reported life and times of Sappho, is a bridge for her later reception in Athens, whereas no such claim can be made for the first poet.

§2. Here, then, is the song of Anacreon, which is my starting point for analyzing the ancient reception of Sappho:

σφαίρῃ δηὖτέ με πορφυρέῃ 
βάλλων χρυσοκόμης Ἔρως 
νήνι ποικιλοσαμβάλῳ 
συμπαίζειν προκαλεῖται. 
ἣ δ’ (ἐστὶν γὰρ ἀπ’ εὐκτίτου 
Λέσβου) τὴν μὲν ἐμὴν κόμην 
(λευκὴ γάρ) καταμέμφεται, 
πρὸς δ’ ἄλλην τινὰ χάσκει.

Once again [dēutethis time with a purple ball I am hit
—it was thrown by the one with the golden head of hair, Eros,
and—with a young girl wearing pattern-woven sandals
—to play-with [sun-paizein] her does he [= Eros] call on me.
But, you see, she is from that place so well settled by settlers,
Lesbos it is. And my head of hair,
you see, it’s white, she finds fault with it. 
And she gapes at something else—some girl. 

Anacreon F 358 in PMG (ed. Page)

§3. This song is quoted in a context that has much to tell us about the reception of not only Sappho but also Anacreon himself. The context is provided in a source dated to the second/third century CE, Athenaeus (13.598b-c), who stages a learned discussion about the poet Hermesianax of Colophon (early third century BCE). This poet refers to the love professed for Sappho by Anacreon. The poem of Hermesianax describes Sappho as an aēdōn ‘nightingale’ (F 7 49 ed. Powell), the most beautiful of all the women of Lesbos, and it goes on to tell how a lovelorn Anacreon often journeyed from Samos to Lesbos in seemingly vain attempts to succeed in winning her love (F 7 50–57 via Athenaeus 13.598c). After the quotation of the poem by Hermesianax comes to an end in the text of Athenaeus (13.599b), the learned discussion turns to a questioning of what the poet says about Anacreon. It is claimed that Hermesianax made a big mistake by ‘synchronizing’ Anacreon with Sappho:

ἐν τούτοις ὁ Ἑρμησιάναξ σφάλλεται συγχρονεῖν οἰόμενος Σαπφὼ καὶ Ἀνακρέοντα, τὸν μὲν κατὰ Κῦρον καὶ Πολυκράτην γενόμενον, τὴν δὲ κατ’ Ἀλυάττην τὸν Κροίσου πατέρα. Χαμαιλέων δ’ ἐν τῷ περὶ Σαπφοῦς καὶ λέγειν τινάς φησιν εἰς αὐτὴν πεποιῆσθαι ὑπὸ Ἀνακρέοντος τάδε·

In these lines Hermesianax is making a mistake in thinking that Sappho and Anacreon are contemporaries. For he [= Anacreon] lived in the time of Cyrus and Polycrates while she [= Sappho] lived in the time of Alyattes the father of Croesus. But Chamaeleon in his work On Sappho [F 26 ed. Wehrli] even says that the following verses were composed by Anacreon and addressed to her [= Sappho].

And it is in this context that Athenaeus quotes the song of Anacreon that I have just quoted.

§4. But now things get more complicated. In the text of Athenaeus, we now read further about the source just mentioned, Chamaeleon of Heraclea Pontica, who is dated to the fourth/third centuries BCE. In his work On Sappho (F 26 ed. Wehrli), as we have just seen from Athenaeus, Chamaeleon interpreted what we know as Song 358 of Anacreon to be the words of the poet’s declaration of love for Sappho. After quoting the words supposedly spoken by Anacreon in professing his love, Chamaeleon then quotes the words supposedly spoken by Sappho in talking back to Anacreon (Adespota 35 = F 953 in PMG ed. Page):

καὶ τὴν Σαπφὼ δὲ πρὸς αὐτὸν ταῦτά φησιν εἰπεῖν·

κεῖνον, ὦ χρυσόθρονε Μοῦσ’, ἔνισπες 
ὕμνον, ἐκ τᾶς καλλιγύναικος ἐσθλᾶς 
Τήιος χώρας ὃν ἄειδε τερπνῶς 
πρέσβυς ἀγαυός.

He [= Chamaeleon] says that Sappho says back to him [= Anacreon]:

It was that particular song, I tell you, you Muse wearing the golden pattern-weave. Yes, you spoke
that particular humnos. It came from the noble place of beautiful women, 
and the-man-from-Teos [= Anacreon] sang it. It came from that space. And, as he sang, he did so delightfully, 
that splendid old man. 

Adespota F 35 in PMG (ed. Page)

The discussion about Anacreon and Sappho in Athenaeus now concludes:

ὅτι δὲ οὔκ ἐστι Σαπφοῦς τοῦτο τὸ ᾆσμα παντί που δῆλον. ἐγὼ δὲ ἡγοῦμαι παίζειν τὸν Ἑρμησιάνακτα περὶ τούτου τοῦ ἔρωτος. καὶ γὰρ Δίφιλος ὁ κωμῳδιοποιὸς πεποίηκεν ἐν Σαπφοῖ δράματι Σαπφοῦς ἐραστὰς Ἀρχίλοχον καὶ Ἱππώνακτα.

That this song does not belong to Sappho is clear to everyone. And I think that Hermesianax was simply being witty in talking about this passionate love. Diphilus, the poet of comedy, composed a play called Sappho [Poetae Comici Graeci V F 70 ed. Kassel–Austin], in which he made Archilochus and Hipponax lovers of Sappho.

Athenaeus 13.599c

§5. In my earlier work on this staged musical “duet” between Anacreon and Sappho, I compared another tradition about another such “duet”—this one, between Alcaeus and Sappho (Nagy 2007:219–221, linked here). I epitomize here my argument. I start with a fragment of poetry quoted by Aristotle (Rhetoric 1.1367a) and generally attributed to Sappho (F 137). The fragment reveals a dialogue in song—a duet, as it were. This musical dialogue features, on one side, Alcaeus in the act of making sly sexual advances on Sappho and, on the other side, Sappho in the act of trying to protect her honor by cleverly fending off the predatory words of Alcaeus. I argue that the notional composer of this dialogue in song was Alcaeus, and that the song is representing Sappho in the act of responding to him. Here is the dialogue as quoted by Aristotle:

τὰ γὰρ αἰσχρὰ αἰσχύνονται καὶ λέγοντες καὶ ποιοῦντες καὶ μέλλοντες, ὥσπερ καὶ Σαπφὼ πεποίηκεν, εἰπόντος τοῦ Ἀλκαίου
θέλω τι εἰπῆν, ἀλλά με κωλύει αἰδώς, 

αἰ δ’ ἦχες ἐσθλῶν ἵμερον ἢ καλῶν   
καὶ μή τι εἰπῆν γλῶσσ’ ἐκύκα κακόν 
αἰδώς κέν σε οὐκ εἶχεν ὄμματ’, 
ἀλλ’ ἔλεγες περὶ τῶ δικαίω.

Men are ashamed to say, to do, or to intend to do shameful things. That is exactly the way Sappho composed her words when Alcaeus said:
{He:} I want to say something to you, but I am prevented by shame [aidōs] …
{She:} But if you had a desire for good and beautiful things
and if your tongue were not stirring up something bad to say,
then shame [aidōs] would not seize your eyes
and you would be speaking about the just and honorable thing to do.

“Sappho” F 137 via the quotation of Aristotle Rhetoric 1.1367a

In terms of my argument, we are dealing here not with competing songs composed by competing composers but with competing traditions in the actual performance of these songs. I omit in this epitome my typological comparisons with other “boy-meets-girl” songs of courtship or pseudo-courtship. 

§6. Having epitomized my interpretation of the passage where Aristotle quotes Alcaeus in the act of speaking to Sappho, who then speaks back to Alcaeus, I now return to Hermesianax of Colophon (early third century BCE), who actually compares the sexualized pairing of Anacreon and Sappho with another such pairing, of Alcaeus and Sappho (Nagy 2007:229–230, linked here):

Λέσβιος Ἀλκαῖος δὲ πόσους ἀνεδέξατο κώμους, 
Σαπφοῦς φορμίζων ἱμερόεντα πόθον 
γινώσκεις 

How many ensembles-of-comastic-singers [kōmoi] did Alcaeus of Lesbos greet 
as he played out on his lyre a yearning [pothos]—lovely [himeroeis] it was—for Sappho 
—you know how many (such ensembles) there were.

Hermesianax F 7 47–49 (ed. Powell) via Athenaeus 13.598b

This testimony, by way of Hermesianax of Colophon, indicates that Alcaeus was well known for singing not one but many love songs that were directed at Sappho—and that they were performed in the Dionysiac context of the kōmos, which refers to ‘a singing and dancing ensemble of revelers’, as I would define the word programmatically.

§7. The case of the musical dialogue between Anacreon and Sappho differs in one most crucial way, however, from the corresponding case of the musical dialogue between Alcaeus and Sappho. I epitomize what I argued at length in the essay I have already cited (Nagy 2007:232–233, linked here): in the case of Anacreon and Sappho, it is clear from the dating of these two figures that they cannot be contemporaries. That is why modern editors assign to the category of “Adespota” the words reportedly spoken by Sappho in response to Anacreon. So, these words attributed to Sappho are officially declared to be inauthentic. And this modern judgment is in agreement with the ancient judgment expressed in the learned discussion of Athenaeus (13.599c). Modern editors have not dared to go so far, however, when they pass judgment on the words reportedly spoken by Sappho in response to Alcaeus, since in this case the ancient world considered these two particular figures to be contemporaries. That is why the words attributed to Alcaeus and Sappho cannot be so easily dismissed. Or, at least, they cannot be dismissed on the basis of chronological considerations. Accordingly, editors are willing to allow for the possibility that Sappho herself composed such a dialogue, even though they are generally unwilling to identify the speakers of the dialogue as Alcaeus and Sappho.

§8. So, for modern editors of Sappho, a “responding song” supposedly addressed by the persona of Sappho to Anacreon is even more problematic than the same kind of song involving Alcaeus instead of Anacreon. And yet, for purposes of tracing the ancient reception of Sappho, the role of Anacreon is even more important than the role of Alcaeus, since, as I started to say already at §1, the songmaking of Anacreon was a bridge for the reception of Sappho’s songs in Athens. Or, to say it better, perhaps: his songmaking was the point of entry for the songs of Sappho—and even of Alcaeus—into a new historical context, which is, Athenian reception. That is what I have argued at length in earlier work, that Anacreon was in fact a pivotal figure when it comes to the reception of Sappho and Alcaeus in Athens. It got started in earnest when Anacreon was relocated from Samos to Athens in 522 BCE, after the collapse of the maritime empire of Polycrates in Samos (again, Nagy 2007:226, linked here; further argumentation in Nagy 2018.12.06 §§20–27, linked here, with reference to a printed essay, Nagy 2019).

§9. Here I stop to make a point about my methodology in analyzing the received texts of figures like Anacreon, Alcaeus, and Sappho. The traditions of “responding songs,” as where “he” sings to “her” and “she” sings back to “him,” can be analyzed as historical evidence not about the actual lives of poetic figures such as Anacreon or even Sappho and Alcaeus but, rather, about the reception of songs attributed to these figures. The aetiologizing or even mythologizing of poetic figures such as Anacreon, Sappho, and Alcaeus can be viewed as an aspect of their reception by way of hearing their songs being performed and re-performed through the ages. For more on my methodologies in analyzing “Lives of Poets” traditions, especially with regard to Homer, I cite, as an introduction, my presentation in Classical Inquiries (Nagy 2015.12.18, linked here).

§10. So, where do we go from here? To start—or, better, to re-start—I note simply that Athens became, historically, a point of no return for the ongoing reception of Sappho’s songs and of Sappho herself as a poetic persona who kept getting mythologized and re-mythologized on the basis of what her re-performed songs were thought to be saying about her. As we saw already at §4, where I quoted the learned discussion in Athenaeus (13.599c), Sappho as a female poet became a love-object, as it were, in mythologized traditions about the lives of male poets who were imagined as her contemporaries and whose songs were likewise performed and re-performed in public, not only in such private contexts as we see in a multitude of ancient references to partying at symposia. To highlight a most telling example of a public context, Athenian comedy, I quote again here my translation of the relevant wording in Athenaeus (again, 13.599c): ‘Diphilus, the poet of comedy, composed a play called Sappho [Poetae Comici Graeci V F 70 ed. Kassel–Austin], in which he made Archilochus and Hipponax lovers of Sappho’. It is in this kind of historical context that we need to rethink the content of a song like the one I quoted at §2, the song of Anacreon about a girl from Lesbos (PMG  F 358 ed. Page). An admirable example of such rethinking is an essay by Kate Gilhuly (2015), who focuses on this particular song of Anacreon. In her essay, she highlights femininity itself as the essential element of Sappho’s poetics, and such highlighting is I think a most sensible perspective for analyzing the sensuality and, yes, sexuality that keeps on radiating in Sappho’s songs. 

§11. In my own previous work on the song of Anacreon that I quoted at §2 (again, PMG  F 358), I noted the significance of the word dēute ‘once again this time’ at the beginning of the song, since this word resonates with the use of the same word three times in Song 1 of Sappho (Nagy 2015.12.31 §13, linked here; relevant remarks by Claude Calame 2016.01.18, linked here, with reference to Nagy 2015.11.05, linked here). As I argued, this word signals a poetics of re-experiencing unique moments of one’s own past personal experiences of erotic love—by way of hearing would-be unique re-performances of the song—or, in later phases of reception, by way of would-be unique re-readings. Another signal of such erotic moments in this song of Anacreon is the reference to the delicate leather ‘sandals’ that are ‘pattern-woven’—as signaled by the noun sambalo– and by the adjective poikilo– (ποικιλοσαμβάλῳ). These sandals are gracefully worn by the girl from Lesbos—who can be pictured as dancing with the purple ball that now gets re-directed at the old man targeted by the adolescent cupid, Eros. It is Eros who redirects the action, tossing the girl’s purple ball at the old man—as if the girl didn’t toss it herself—tempting the poet to feel wistfully playful as he gazes at the female beauty. That the girl is pictured as dancing can be inferred by looking at a comparable picturing, in a song of Sappho (F 39), of a girl wearing sandals held together by beautiful leatherwork, of luxuriant Lydian manufacture, which is likewise described as poikilo-, ‘pattern-woven’: πόδας δὲ ποίκιλος μάσλης ἐκάλυπτε, Λύδιον κάλον ἔργον ‘her feet were hiding under pattern-woven [poikilo-] footwear [maslēs], beautiful handiwork, made in Lydia’. In the poetics of Sappho, the eroticism of a girl’s feet in motion, as she dances, is made explicit in Song 16, where the female speaker yearns to see once again this time the gracefully dancing feet of Anaktoria, with her ‘lovely step’ (ἔρατόν ,,, βᾶμα, line 17): she is now gone, no longer to be seen, but the fond vision of her gracefully dancing feet can be revisited again and again in song. On the eroticism of a girl’s feet as partially hidden or unhidden by beautiful sandals, I compare the Hellenized Egyptian “Cinderella story” retold by Strabo (17.1.33 C808; the story is also attested in the so-called Varia Historia of Aelian, 13.33), which I have analyzed in an essay about a famed courtesan named Rhodōpis, whose name means ‘she with the looks of a rose’ (Nagy 2015.07.01, linked here). In the course of my analyzing this story, I highlight a detail about the sandal of Rhodōpis, which is the “glass slipper,” as it were, of this “Cinderella”: the sandal of Rhodōpis is swooped up by a flying eagle while she is bathing naked, and the eagle flies off and drops the sandal in the lap of the king, who falls in love with the unknown girl who wore it, since he so admires the shape of the sandal, which shows a rhuthmos, as Strabo calls it, conveying the beauty of the girl’s dance-steps. 

§12. Before I go further, I need to stop and think more about the Athenian phase of Sappho’s reception. I especially need to think more about the pictures painted in Athens by the so-called Meidias Painter, that master of visual art who lived around the same time as such masters of verbal art as Aristophanes. I find that the pictures of the Meidias Painter, which I have been tracking in a number of recent essays for Classical Inquiries (starting with Nagy 2020.11.06), have been most revealing in helping me appreciate the esthetics of femininity conveyed in the poetics of Sappho. Also helpful in this regard are the picturings of femininity in masterpieces of verbal art such as the Lysistrata of Aristophanes, and I have been amassing in my recent essays a cumulative bibliography that tracks some but hardly all of the relevant research on topics of femininity and sexuality in the historical context of Classical Athens. In essays still to come, I plan to keep supplementing my cumulative bibliography with the help of colleagues like Natasha Bershadsky, Kate Gilhuly, and many others, I hope. For now, however, I end by highlighting three relevant works that I hope to address sooner than later in my upcoming essays. These works are essays by Sarah Stroup (2004), Sue Blundell and Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz (2008), and Laura McClure (2015). Each one of these authors has something relevant to say about questions that I raise in my essay here. And these authors raise their own relevant questions. For example, why is it that the Lysistrata of Aristophanes does not ridicule hetairai as hetairai (Stroup 2004:42, McClure 2015:54–55)? And here is a related question: was there, in classical Athenian verbal or visual art, really a distinction between homoeroticism and heteroeroticism in viewing the attractions of female beauty (Blundell and Rabinowitz 2008)? Such questions are relevant to my own question: how can such considerations help us better understand the Athenian reception of Sappho’s songs? In terms of the essay that I have presented here, my own answer, still tentative, is that these songs signaled an eroticism that was enticingly unpredictable for would-be male lovers—and, I suspect, for would-be female lovers as well. 

Photo via Flickr.

For bibliographical references, see the dynamic Cumulative Bibliography here.



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