Sappho, a Roman twist

It’s a rare and exciting moment when new fragments of ancient poetry are found. That would apply with any ancient poet, but when it’s a poet with instant name recognition far beyond academic circles, like the seventh/sixth-century-BC Sappho of Lesbos, we can all share the excitement. I have to confess, though, that this excitement, which I feel as much as anyone (Sappho has been very important in my research), troubles me. It’s not, as I say, that I don’t share it. But that’s the point. As Classicists we try to reconstruct a literary culture the vast majority of which, perhaps 90%, has vanished without trace. That raw fact has given our discipline what I can’t help seeing as a neurotic fixation with the stuff we don’t have, at the cost of what we do.

I am a case in point. In fact I’d say that my major vice as an academic and researcher is that I spend too much time hankering after literature that we can’t really know about, and in all likelihood never will. I’ve just sent off an article to a journal on a poem about the great Roman general Scipio Africanus the Elder by Quintus Ennius, written in the early second century BC. Very little of the Scipio survives. In fact, scholars can’t even decide how much of it does survive: some say we have three fragments of the poem surviving, others seventeen. But it seems I can’t resist the appeal of that superlatively brilliant nine-tenths of Classical literature that’s lost beyond recovery. Then again, I’ve also written a book on the Buddhas of Bamiyan, so I do have form.

Today I’m going to show immense self-discipline. I’m going to talk about Sappho, since she’s in the news, but my subject is poetry of Sappho that (more or less) survives, and its impact on some Roman poems that also survive. There will be, if I can hold the line, a minimum of that lovely speculation about stuff we can only speculate about. Watch me closely, though, and see if this dyed-in-the-wool fragment-fixated Classicist really can resist wild speculation.

Two, possibly three, poems of the Roman poet Catullus (11, 51 and 51b) are composed in the same metre as one of the new poems of Sappho, a system which came to be considered Sappho’s signature metre, and are named after her “sapphics” or the “sapphic stanza”. When Greek scholars long after Sappho’s death came to divide her poems into books, Book 1 of Sappho was entirely in sapphics, and that reflected and reinforced a strong association between the poet and this particular verse system. When Catullus, for the first time in Roman poetry, composes Latin sapphics, he’s consciously evoking the memory of Sappho.

Now, what I won’t do is hit you with the technicalities of this metrical system. Instead, here are two stanzas of English sapphics written by Timothy Steele, from “Sapphics against Anger” (in his collection Sapphics and Uncertainties: Poems 1970-1986). It’s actually a pretty simple scheme, three identical lines rounded off by a shorter fourth:

Better than rage is the post-dinner quiet,
The sink’s warm turbulence, the streaming platters,
The suds rehearsing down the drain in spirals,
                 In the last rinsing.
For what is, after all, the good life save that
conducted thoughtfully, and what is passion
if not the holiest of powers, sustaining
                 Only if mastered.

Poem 51 of Catullus, one of his poems in sapphics, is in fact a close imitation of a poem of Sappho. Very little of Sappho survives (hence the excitement when more is found), but we do have Catullus’ model, or most of it. It is now known as Sappho fragment 31, and it’s a remarkable poem in which Sappho describes her tortured emotions as she watches a woman she loves in intimate conversation with a man:

He seems to me equal to the gods, the man who sits opposite
you and listens up close to your sweet voice
and lovely laughter. Truly that sets my heart trembling in my
breast. When I look at you, even for a moment, then it is no
longer possible for me to speak;
my tongue has snapped, at once a delicate fire has stolen
under my skin, I see nothing with my eyes, my ears hum,
sweat pours down me, trembling seizes me all over, I am
greener than grass, and it seems to me that I am little short of
But all can be endured, since…

Catullus’ imitation of this poem in 51 seems to launch his anguished account, pursued over many poems, of his love affair with a woman whose real name was apparently Clodia (she came from a very senior aristocratic family), but whom he calls, in deference to Sappho, “Lesbia”, the woman of Lesbos. The term Lesbius, “Lesbian,” had many associations, some of which it still has now, but the women of Lesbos also had a reputation for being surpassingly beautiful, and that may be another implication here. But perhaps the main effect of giving the opening of a love affair this Sapphic character comes from the fact that Sappho was by general consensus the greatest love poet of antiquity. Catullus is making major claims for his affair with Lesbia.

If Catullus 51 marks the beginning of this relationship with Lesbia, poem 11 (his other poem in sapphics) seems to mark its end: Catullus’ poetry is not organised chronologically! Poem 11 is an embittered address to the poet’s friends Furius and Aurelius, in which Catullus asks them to deliver a short, blunt message to his faithless lover Lesbia. Here are the last three stanzas of the six-stanza poem:

Prepared as you are to face all these things alongside me,
whatever the will of the gods will bring,
deliver to my girl a short,
unpleasant message:
let her live, and good luck to her, with her adulterers,
holding three hundred at a time in her embrace
and loving not one truly, but again and again
bursting the guts of all,
and let her not count, as once she could, on my love,
which by her fault has fallen like the flower
on the edge of the meadow when
touched by the passing plough.

It’s been noted that Catullus’ poem reflects one version of the Roman process of divorce, the diuortium per nuntium, “Divorce by messenger”: Catullus’ friends deliver a verbal equivalent of his divorce papers to Lesbia. Now this relationship between Catullus and Lesbia was not a marriage but an affair. But just as Catullus builds it up at its onset as a love worthy of the inspiration of the greatest of all love poets, so also in Poem 11 he elevates it into something that can only be ended by the formality of a divorce.

Two more thoughts may help us appreciate what a devastating poem Catullus 11 is. One is that, to the Romans at least, Sappho seems to have been associated not just with love, but with marriage. There is a lot of debate about this among modern scholars of Sappho, but one suggestion might be that Sappho’s poem about the woman in intimate contact with a man is a oblique way of celebrating a bride at the point of marriage, in effect a form of public praise of the qualities that make her an ideal bride. If the Romans shared that understanding of Sappho’s poetry, and I think there’s reason to believe they did, it of course reinforces one implication of Catullus’ sapphic poems we’ve already mentioned. If Catullus 11 is couched in the language of divorce, it seems that Catullus 51, by virtue of its direct imitation of a poem of Sappho, carries implications of marriage. Some wild speculation there…?

My second point is a bit more firmly grounded. Sappho had a reputation in antiquity for the special character of her poetry. Like all lyric poets, but to an special degree, she’s associated with the quality of χάρις, charis, ‘charm’, which is simultaneously a quality of her poetry and a quality of the material her poetry (typically) dealt with. So one ancient commentator claims that Sappho “devoted all her poetry to Aphrodite and the Loves, making a girl’s beauty and charm the pretext for her songs”, and another says that Sappho, “when singing about beauty uses beautiful words.” In actual fact Sappho’s poetry would have been more diverse than this suggests, but what matters is the poetry for which she was most celebrated. Incidentally, charis is a quality the Greeks particularly associated with marriageable girls (the women of Sappho’s acquaintance married young), coincidentally or not.

Well, all of that may help us to understand the effect of Catullus 51, the opening poem of his affair, with its description of the effect on Catullus of Lesbia’s beauty and his intense desire for her. But it also helps us to appreciate the shattering power of the divorce-poem 11. Because the poem that describes the end of Catullus’ affair is in many ways as far removed from Sappho’s interests in “Aphrodite and the Loves” and “a girl’s beauty and charm” as one could imagine. The stanza containing Catullus’ message to Lesbia, his non bona dicta, “unpleasant words,” features adulterers, graphic sexual imagery, and an implication that Lesbia, far from being Catullus’ ideal woman, is a prostitute. Here’s the most offensive stanza, in Latin and English:

cum suis uiuat ualeatque moechis,
quos simul complexa tenet trecentos
nullum amans uere, sed identidem omnium
ilia rumpens,
let her live, and good luck to her, with her adulterers,
holding three hundred at a time in her embrace
and loving not one truly, but again and again
bursting the guts of all,

The content is unpleasant enough, but the style of this stanza is comparably rough, with language that has no place in respectable poetry (the ancients had strong views on this kind of thing) and lots of nasty collisions between words, nullum and amans, identidem and omnium, and across the line division between omnium and ilia: that last example would be pronounced something like omniuwilia, which apparently sounded as ugly to Romans as to us. And although these may seem quite subtle effects to us, a Roman reader would feel that the poetry here has a grubby, slovenly character, which is on the one hand true to the brutal picture of Lesbia he paints in it, but is also the absolute negation of the characteristic virtues of Sappho’s poetry, beauty and charm of expression and content.

It’s important to remember that here in Poem 11, as in Poem 51, Catullus is writing in sapphic metre, a poetic form that cannot fail to evoke the poet who gave the metre her name. But what is Catullus doing to this exquisite poetic form, so evocative of romantic love? It seems to me that by populating it with Lesbia and her three hundred lovers he’s doing the equivalent of what he says in another poem (37) he will do to Lesbia’s house, scrawling obscene graffiti all over the front of it: Catullus 11 is a brutal act of vandalism against the sapphic stanza and everything that it represents.

But then, I’m not sure there’s any better way to convey the bitterness of the breakdown of a love affair than by vandalizing the legacy of the greatest of all love poets, Sappho.

About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

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