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‘Even When Sappho is Sung’: Taste in Sapphic and Anacreontic Performance in Early Imperial Symposia

David F. Driscoll

UC Davis

This paper addresses the represented performance of Sappho and Anacreon in the early Roman Empire. Despite considerable scholarship on the performative nature of the Second Sophistic (e.g. Gleason 1996, Schmitz 1997, and Whitmarsh 2001), including analyses of theatrical performance and pantomime (Webb 2008, 2017; Lada-Richards 2004, 2013), little attention has been paid to the imperial performance of archaic lyric poets (though see Yatromanolakis 2008: 81-8; Bowie 2006; Rutherford 2012). As part of a larger project to understand engagement with lyric poetry as an expression of aesthetic taste in early imperial literary symposia (particularly Plutarch’s Quaestiones Convivales), this paper shows that taste in these poets differs from other lyric poets because of its perceived link to performance by non-professionals. The paper falls into two parts: in the first part, I survey the performance of Sappho and Anacreon in imperial sympotic texts, showing how elite symposiasts are expected to be able to perform them, unlike other poetry; in the second part, I show how two different elite characters in the QC value Sappho differently in their hierarchies of taste depending on whether they participate in performance.

First, I examine the performance of Sappho and Anacreon in sympotic texts. The singing of lyric and other poetry is largely done in sympotic texts by professionals like the musician Erato (e.g. QC 9.1.736e; cf. 1.4.622a, 7.8.712f, Gell. NA 19.9), and singing by laypeople only found in memories of ancient symposia (e.g. the scolia at QC 1.1.615b-c; cf. 9.1.736f). Uniquely in Plutarch and his contemporaries, Sappho and Anacreon are sung by male non-professionals, both in symposia (QC 7.8.711c, Ael. fr. 187) and in other small group settings (Amat. 763a); surprisingly, choral singing of Sappho by women is confined purely to the imaginary (e.g. Philostr. Imag. 2.1). The difference is brought out in the case of Plutarch’s patron, Sossius Senecio. Otherwise austere in his tastes, Senecio authorizes the communal singing of Sappho at his symposium (QC 1.5.622c: παρὰ Σοσσίῳ Σαπφικῶν τινων ᾀσθέντων). For him it is a question of appropriate response: in the grip of great joy, especially that caused by love, ‘men of taste’ (1.5.623b: χαρίεντες) do not jump up and dance like pantomimes but instead sing μέλη. Senecio’s approval of the performance of Sappho and Anacreon bucks the prevailing trend. Performance by non-professionals is generally disapproved of, but in this case Senecio prefers the recitation of Sappho and Anacreon to the performance of pantomime, a more severe transgression of taste.

Second, through two examples of lyric taste I demonstrate how performance of Sappho is implicated in varying hierarchies of taste in these symposia. The professional musician and musical theorist Erato’s careful framing of his unique quotation of Sappho associates the practice of quotation with social hierarchy: Erato wishes to avoid the impression of acting like a low-status grammarian (3.1.646e: οὐ γάρ εἰμι γραμματικός) of the sort who might quote epinician poetry, and instead “seem[s] to remember” (μεμνῆσθαί μοι δοκῶ) Sappho. In associating Pindar with grammarians (tendentiously) and choosing to quote Sappho instead, this musical performer suggests a personal hierarchy for lyric poets in which Sappho resides above Pindar. Conversely some austere characters reject Sapphic performance. The Stoic Philip quotes and approves of Plato (7.8.711d) but objects to the sympotic performance of Plato, with its attendant molding of voice and motion (7.8.711c: ὑπόκρισις… φωνῆς πλάσμα καὶ σχῆμα καὶ διαθέσεις). Justifying his disapproval of performance, Philip invokes his refusal to take part even in the singing of Sappho and Anacreon: “Since even when Sappho is sung and the verses of Anacreon, I think it best to set down my cup out of shame” (7.8.711d: ὅτε καὶ Σαπφοῦς ἂν ᾀδομένης καὶ τῶν Ἀνακρέοντος ἐγώ μοι δοκῶ καταθέσθαι τὸ ποτήριον αἰδούμενος). Philip singles out Sappho and Anacreon but inverts Erato’s hierarchy by disapproving of their performance. Characters hence differ in their taste in participating in performance but agree that the imperial reception of Sappho and Anacreon depends on performance.

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Literature of Empire

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