Though Sappho’s ‘Brothers Poem’ contains many familiar features—an invocation to a female divinity, expressions of personal anxiety, and gnomic reflections on the human and the divine—the absence of erotic love makes it difficult to compare the Brothers Poem to other poems in Sappho’s corpus. As a result, domestic affairs, sibling affection, and ‘The Brothers’ have dominated many discussions of this new fragment. In contrast, this paper attempts to highlight a different aspect of Sappho’s poetry, namely the political, public dimension of many of Sappho’s poems, including the new Brothers Poem. Though some excellent analyses of the poem have been published or are forthcoming (Ferrari 2014, Kurke 2016, Stehle 2016), even discussions engaging with the civic world in the poem situate Sappho in the “intimate domestic sphere of the family” (Kurke 2016.5). This paper offers an original literary analysis of the poem as a whole, argues for a stronger political reading of the poem, and tentatively proposes that the political strife of archaic Mytilene is the source of the speaker’s anxiety for her family.
First, I set out in brief my approach to the issue of the poetic persona in lyric, the performance context of Sappho’s poetry, and the poet’s social status. Next, I review the evidence for a political, public reading of Sappho’s poetry, an angle of Sappho’s corpus that has received little attention (with the exception of excellent discussions in Williamson 1995.84-89, Wilson 1996.172-185, and Parker 2005). This introductory section concludes with a reevaluation of Sappho fr.5 (on hopes and fears for a brother), which has been supplemented by the recent publication of papyri from the Green Collection (Burris, Fish, and Obbink 2014).
Next, I turn to the Brothers Poem itself, to demonstrate how an alertness to political discourse can enrich our reading of the poem. I argue for a reading that divides the poem into three broad movements, in order to trace how the speaker shifts her attention from Charaxos’ survival (5-13), to the family’s prosperity (13-20), to Larichos’ maturation (21-24). Within each of these movements, specific aspects of Sappho’s language and imagery reveal a background of political strife and aristocratic apprehensions.
In the first movement, the speaker rebukes an interlocutor and indirectly prays to Hera for the safety of Charaxos and her family (5-13). The prayer gradually emerges from a dramatic crescendo of infinitives that culminates in a wish that Charaxos returns “and finds us unscathed” (13 κἄμμ’ ἐπεύρην ἀρτέμεαϲ). A study of the rare word ἀρτεμήϲ (‘unscathed’), attested only three other times in extant archaic poetry (Il. 5.515, 7.308, and Od. 13.43), demonstrates that ἀρτεμήϲ conveys a sense of amazement and relief following extreme peril. The second movement contains reflections on the gods and reversals of fortune (13-20). Though Ferrari rightly recognizes that τὰ δ’ ἄλλα (13) signals a shift from the basic safety of her family to the family’s prosperity, the center of the poem is not merely “a more general reflection on the human condition” (Ferrari 2014.3-4). The storm metaphor (15-16) and excursus on Zeus’ supreme influence (17-20) are closely linked, through logical cues and verbal echoes, to the speaker’s decision to surrender her family’s prosperity to the gods (13-14). The speaker looks forward to a future in which, by Zeus’ goodwill, her family is prosperous again (19 μάκαρεϲ, 20 πολύολβοι). The third and final movement comprises the speaker’s hopes that Larichos will grow up to be a man one day, and thus relieve the poetic ‘we’ of their anguish (21-24). An analysis of literary parallels for the speaker’s hopes that Larichos “raises his head” (21 ϝὰν κεφάλαν ἀέρρη) and “becomes a man” (22 ἄνηρ γένηται) reveals that prosperity, political influence, and prestige are at stake. I suggest that the source of this anxiety for her family’s financial and political prosperity was Mytilene’s turbulent political scene, which drove many aristocratic families into poverty and exile, and lurks within Sappho’s storms.