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Dark Sappho:The “Method of Chamaeleon” in P.Oxy. 2506

Mark de Kreij

Stockholm University

In Hellenistic scholarship, the study of lyric poetry was intrinsically connected with attempts at reconstructing the lives of its authors. For example, the peripatetic and Alexandrian scholars used Athenian archon lists, later linked to Olympiads (Timaeus FGrHist 566 F 12), as does the author of Pindar’s biography in P.Oxy. 2438 (see De Kreij 2017). In addition, they may have had access to information transmitted in manuscripts or local inscriptions. From the very beginning, however, Lives of Greek poets depended to a great extent on what can be gleaned from their poems (see especially Lefkowitz 1981, revised in 2012). After discussing the conservation and re-edition of P.Oxy. 2506 fr. 48, I will demonstrate how its author employs exactly this procedure with regard to Sappho’s life.

An impediment to our understanding of this method, commonly named after the peripatetic scholar Chamaeleon, is the dearth of extant lyric poetry. If we take the Life of Pindar as an example again, the only quotation from his poetry adduced to supply specific information (the names of his daughters) is from an otherwise unknown Pindaric poem (F 116 S.-M.).[1] In the case of Sappho this lack is felt even more keenly, and the discovery of the Brothers poem (P.Sapph.Obbink, see Obbink 2014) provided welcome new material.

After publication there was some scepticism about the authenticity of the papyrus, based partly on the fact that it seemed to fit our limited knowledge of Sappho’s family almost too well. In fact, it is not at all surprising to find new poetry that supports one of the most-cited facts in Sappho’s biographical tradition (Hdt. 2.135, P.Oxy. 1800, P.Oxy. 2506, Ath. 13.596b-d). We might hypothesise that the more solid a piece of information is in a biographical tradition, the more likely we are to have or find the poetic source that gave birth to it.

P.Oxy. 2506 fr. 48 appears to concern exactly such topics: in the top half of col. ii, the biographer discusses the names of Sappho’s parents, supporting his claims with quotations from her poetry. Unfortunately, the broken papyrus does not allow us to identify the Sapphic fragments, or perhaps they are unknown, but the relationship between biography and quotation emerges. In the third column of fr. 48, the author turns to Sappho’s brothers. The column is lamentably broken, but the publication of P.Sapph.Obbink allows for a better understanding of its pieces (cf. Ferrari 2014 and Peponi 2016).

Near the bottom of column ii, I believe to have identified part of a new Sapphic fragment. The wording of the fragment, its echoes in the biographical tradition, and a hint in a scholion to Luc. Im. 18 provide the basis for my claim that this fragment is the source for the idea that Sappho was “small and dark of complexion”. Until now, scholars have assumed that this piece of information, which recurs in most biographical sources, originated from one of the (at least) six comedies written about her (see Yatromanolakis 2007).[2] However, I will argue that it is not hard to imagine a poetic context for Sappho to describe herself as unattractive.


[1] Two further quotations are adduced: one incipit of a dated ode in order to establish Pindar’s year of birth, and one quotation of a passage that is representative for Pindar’s thought.

[2] Ameipsias fr. 15 K.-A., Amphis fr. 32 K.-A., Antiphanes fr. 194, 195 K.-A., Ephippus fr. 20 K.-A., Timocles fr. 32 K.-A., Diphilus fr. 71 K.-A.

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Culture and Society in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Egypt

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