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The Reception of the New Sappho in Latin Literature

Llewelyn Morgan

Paper 4: The Reception of the New Sappho in Latin Literature

No sooner had new fragments of Sappho come to light, than Latinists were trying to gauge their impact on Roman poetry. This paper will assess the relevance of this new material for our understanding of Latin literature, in the process arguing that an important connection exists between Sappho’s Brothers Poem and what is arguably Horace’s greatest lyric of all, Odes 3.29.

I will begin by sketching (rapidly) the remarkably pervasive influence exerted by Sappho on Roman literature, using specific examples to illustrate the depth and detail of the Roman engagement with this poet. For example, Sappho fragment 31 is famously imitated by Catullus, and alluded to by Horace, but is also a tangible presence in Plautus, Valerius Aedituus and Lucretius. Both Statius and Juvenal engage creatively with the Sapphic tradition as they find it, while Catullus 11 is a masterpiece of formal impropriety which exploits a Roman perception of Sappho (constituted both by her poetry and a tradition of commentary represented by figures such as Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Demetrius) to represent his lover and his love affair as a ghastly inversion of the Sapphic romantic ideal. I shall draw particular attention to the resurrection by Catullus and Horace of the sapphic stanza. But I also want to highlight the value of [Ovid] Heroides 15 as testimony for Sappho’s poetry and the Romans’ perception thereof: as I shall illustrate, the nature of Sappho’s relations with her addressees, the relevance of marriage as a context for her love poetry, and the status and circumstances of her brother Charaxos (who is of central importance in interpreting the new fragments), all find useful elucidation in the ps.-Ovidian poem.

Turning to the new fragments, after summarizing the observations of Phillips and Hutchinson on points of contact between the Brothers Poem and Horace’s Soracte Ode, 1.9, I will follow up on a suggestion of Morgan (2014) that an even stronger similarity can be identified between Sappho’s poem and the last stanzas of Horace’s valedictory ode to his first collection (understanding 3.30 as a freestanding sphragis), 3.29. Like 1.9, 3.29 displays verbal parallels to the Brothers Poem, and shares a fatalistic ethos (and the metaphor of stormy weather for the inherent unpredictability of human life), but what 3.29 has in common with Sappho (and 1.9 does not) is a more overtly economic characterisation of the fickleness of fortune, ultimately realised in a developed association of the vicissitudes of life with the uncertainties of Mediterranean sea trade. Sappho’s brother Charaxos was of course a trader, and the influence of Sappho’s poem about her brothers is most obvious in the awareness that the Brothers Poem and Odes 3.29 share of the perils of maritime commerce—how fine a line separates the arrival of a ship laden with goods, and a ship that has gifted those goods to the avaricious sea.

To find parallels between these new fragments and the Soracte Ode is exciting enough. But to identify their presence in a poem with the formal prominence of Odes 3.29 is, I shall suggest, even more striking evidence of the centrality of Sappho to Horace’s conception of lyric poetry.  What would we find if we had all nine books of her poetry!

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New Fragments of Sappho

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