Marilyn B. Skinner

To refer to this article, please cite it in this way:
Marilyn B. Skinner, "Introduction," Classics@ Volume 4: Ellen Greene and Marilyn Skinner, eds. The Center for Hellenic Studies of Harvard University, online edition of March 11, 2011.


Papyrological finds, no matter how momentous for papyrologists and other specialists studying the ancient world, ordinarily do not make international headlines. Yet M. L. West’s 2005 article in the Times Literary Supplement announcing the apparent recovery of a virtually intact poem by Sappho, only the fourth to have survived almost complete, was quickly picked up by newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, with follow-up mentions on poetry websites and even personal blogs. [1] In literary circles, it was a happening of the first order. To Sappho scholars, at least those of my generation, it is the trouvaille of a lifetime.

The “New Sappho,” as it immediately became known, is actually a collective designation for two of Sappho’s poems contained in fragments of a Hellenistic-era florilegium, one previously unknown and very lacunose, the other already partially preserved. In the short time since their initial publication in the Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, scholarly discussion of these texts has burgeoned. Articles addressing pertinent textual, philological, and metrical issues now appear on a regular basis and several elegant translations of the second poem, often labeled “the Tithonus poem,” are available in print and on-line. Subsequent publication of a third set of verses found on the same papyri, clearly of Hellenistic date but thematically linked to the two preceding texts, has extended the debate as experts attempt to determine their content and explain why and how the overall sequence of poems might have been assembled.

In January 2007, at the 138th annual meeting of the American Philological Association in San Diego, two separate panel sessions featured specialists in papyrology and archaic Greek poetry speaking on the “New Sappho.” The group of essays that follow are, with two exceptions, revised and expanded versions of papers originally presented at those sessions. While most of the contributors devote a large part of their attention to the particular challenges posed by the Tithonus poem, they range widely in their attempts to contextualize it and relate it to other poems in the Sappho corpus, and the diverse conclusions they reach are a reflex of the volley of questions the papyrus finds have provoked. Chief among such questions is the problem of the poem’s alternative endings. Addressing a chorus of young people (paîdes), the speaker laments her debilities—white hair, depressed spirits, weakened knees—then rhetorically checks herself: “Yet what can I do?” (allà tí ken poeíên?). Aging is part of the human condition. Even a goddess’ love could not preserve Tithonus from decay. The shorter version, which ends with that exemplum, seems to terminate in resigned acceptance of the human lot. If, on the other hand, the text went on for four more lines, as some suppose, it would conclude with a highly positive and affirmative statement: yearning after the beauty of the sun, the most luminous of objects, compensates for the losses of old age. Each ending provides a psychologically satisfying closure, but as philosophical responses to mortality the two differ profoundly. As some of our papers show, the position one takes on that specific question will have ramifications for interpreting several other Sappho texts as well.

Following this introduction, two essays deal with textual and paleographical features. Dirk Obbink, in “Sappho Fragments 58–59: Text, Apparatus Criticus, and Translation,” supplies us with a newly edited text and apparatus criticus of the three poems, incorporating all supplements and emendations proposed before posting. Obbink also reproduces, exempli gratia and for the reader’s convenience, West’s restored text of frr. 58–59 with his translation of the Tithonus poem, since other contributors frequently refer to it. In “The Cologne Sappho: Its Discovery and Textual Constitution,” Jürgen Hammerstaedt gives us a publication history and a summary of the papyrological issues, accompanied by photographs of the papyri. The fragments first edited and published by Gronewald and Daniel (2004a) are scraps from an early third-century BCE poetic anthology arranged by content, comprising passages dealing with old age and death, but also with music and poetic immortality. P.Köln 21351, a pair of fragments from adjacent columns, contains two poems of Sappho. Both are in the same aeolic metre, acephalous Hipponacteans with internal double-choriambic expansion: [2]

^hipp2c = x — ⏑ ⏑ — — ⏑ ⏑ — — ⏑ ⏑ — ⏑ — —

The second of these poems coincides with twelve verse endings previously known from the second-century CE Oxyrhynchus papyrus no. 1787, frr. 1 and 2, printed in the editions of Lobel (1925) and Voigt (1971) as Sappho fr. 58. With the new papyrus readings, five lines of poem 58 could be restored almost entirely. Subsequently another small piece from the same anthology, P.Köln 21376, was seen (Gronewald and Daniel 2004b) to supply the beginnings of three more lines immediately following the restored passage, thereby providing a substantially complete text of what had been lines 11 through 22 of fr. 58. After that a new poem commences in a different hand. Its dialect is not Aeolic and the metrical features also exclude the possibility of Sappho’s authorship. Published by Gronewald and Daniel (2005) as the “lyrischer Text” from the Sappho papyrus, it has already given rise to conflicting explanations of its genre and import.

Three successive essays investigate the unusually complicated problems of textual transmission. André Lardinois takes up the matter of where the “Tithonus poem” is supposed to end. Scholars agree that a new poem begins at P.Oxy. 58.11. Before the Cologne papyrus was published, it was also agreed that fr. 58 continued on after the Tithonus exemplum and presumably ended at line 26, four verses below, where Lobel in his 1925 edition marked a coronis (perhaps mistakenly). The gist of lines 25 and 26 was already known from a quotation of Clearchus transmitted in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae (15.687b), though the construction of the Greek in the final line, and therefore the meaning of the statement, was debated. In the Cologne papyrus, however, the second Sappho poem terminates with the Tithonus exemplum, at what is line 22 of fr. 58, and the “lyric text” follows. What we might seem to possess in the newly restored verses 58.11–22, then, is a whole twelve-line poem by Sappho, with only slight restoration needed at the beginning; West reckoned it complete, but others insist that the poem continued with the lines quoted by Clearchus. As yet there is no emerging consensus. Lardinois discusses the arguments for each ending and reviews external evidence from an epigram of Posidippus that may add weight to the claims for the longer version.

Lowell Edmunds posits the need to take formal conventions of Greek lyric into account when deliberating upon this question. Does the typical occurrence of the narrated mythical exemplum in comparable poetry show that the Tithonus exemplum can properly function as a closural device? The rhetorical structure in which such a paradigm is typically embedded requires that speakers return from the myth itself to point out its applicability to the immediate situation. The unusual use of imperfect éphanto at line 9 (frr. 58–59 Obbink) to introduce the Tithonus story, instead of the present tense of a verb of saying, suggests a contrast between what the speaker used to hear when young and what she now understands. That distinction might have been explicitly articulated in the closural “adversative statement” putatively represented by lines 23–26 of P.Oxy. 1787. However, Deborah Boedeker considers the likelihood of textual deviation arising from performance conditions, a possibility raised elsewhere. She notes that some medieval poetic traditions reflect the phenomenon of mouvance, whereby variations in oral performance create textual variations in manuscripts. Instead of postulating a single “original” text, we might adopt the premise that alternative forms of the same poem may have been circulating as early as the archaic period, each suited to particular performance contexts. Both versions, then, could be termed in some sense “authentic.”

The following four papers are chiefly concerned with relations among the texts on the papyrus. After surveying other fragments known to have come from books 3 and 4 of the Alexandrian edition of Sappho, Joel Lidov suggests that both the first and the second Cologne poems were forthright assertions of rewards after death earned by dedication to music in life. On that basis, he challenges previous supplements to the Tithonus poem and offers alternatives. In a succeeding essay, Lidov reviews evidence for the Alexandrian arrangement of Sappho’s poetry and makes observations on the unusual metrical features of the new Sappho poem. Connections between the first and second poems are also reinforced by Eva Stehle’s demonstration that both use the temporal markers nun and pota in the same way to indicate the speaker’s different relationships to present and past. The poems work together to create a chronological trajectory from mythic plenitude in the past, to the present in which song recreates the vanished past experience, and then, in future time, to the immortality conferred by song. Tithonus, on this reading, takes on a unique import as a foil for the singer whose art persists into old age. Dee Clayman concentrates upon determining the relationship of the third, unfortunately quite fragmentary, poem on the papyrus to the preceding Sappho selections. Earlier scholars (Gronewald and Daniel 2005; Rawles 2006b; Lundon 2007a) found no direct association with Sappho herself, but Clayman argues that, though really the work of a later Hellenistic author, it poses as Sappho’s own composition in which she is portrayed as undergoing the descent to Hades anticipated in the authentic poems.

The last three papers are concerned with larger interpretive questions: the effect of these poems upon our understanding of the rest of the Sappho corpus and their arguable role as performance texts in the light of the Greek oral poetic tradition. Ellen Greene, who regards the Tithonus poem as a philosophical pronouncement upon the human condition, examines the occurrence of other didactic statements by Sappho in the light of similar metaphysical statements attributed to Pre-Socratic thinkers. Hence even in the face of human mutability and loss, Greene argues, the poet articulates her coherent sense of transcendent experience, and even immortality, achieved through song. Conversely, an intertextual reading of the Tithonus poem against corresponding fragments of Mimnermus leads Marguerite Johnson to postulate a new intratextual reading of fr. 31 Voigt, in which the bodily transformation of the speaker might be deemed a consequence of geras as well as erôs. Finally, Gregory Nagy discusses the respective performance traditions in archaic Greece and classical Athens and how each might have influenced the form of Sappho’s texts. Existence of a long and a shortened version of the same song can be explained, he argues, by the differing conventions of the sympotic event and the citharodic competitions at the Panathenaia. These are just a few considerations that must be weighed as we debate the textual and literary problems surrounding these miraculously recovered lines.

As co-editors of this volume, Ellen Greene and I wish to express deep gratitude to the two anonymous referees for their many valuable suggestions. Thanks, too, to Mary Ebbott, Executive Editor of Classics@, for her patience and invaluable technical assistance, and to Gregory Nagy for his generous encouragement throughout. Jill Curry Robbins, the CHS Visual Resources Specialist, diligently tracked down and obtained permission for the requisite images. For photographs of P.Köln 21351 and 21376, we are grateful to the Institut für Altertumskunde, Universität zu Köln and the Curator of the Köln Papyrus-Sammlung, Dr. Robert Daniel. We are indebted to Dirk Obbink and the Imaging Papyri Project, Oxford, for images of the fragments comprising P.Oxy. 1787. Illustrations for Jürgen Hammerstaedt’s essay were supplied by Dr. Fabian Reiter, curator of the papyrus collection for the Ägyptische Museum und Papyrussammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, and by Christopher Naunton, Deputy Director of the Egypt Exploration Society. Professor John Tait, University College, London, kindly responded to Mr. Naunton’s inquiries on behalf of the project. For Gregory Nagy’s essay, Dr. Robbins drew the two illustrations of the Bochum vase, and Valerie Woelfel those of the Munich vase. Ellen Greene is extremely grateful for Jim Hawthorne’s support, and I am indebted to Ron Skinner, as always, for quick technological advice. Lastly, our deepest gratitude to our contributors: working with you all has been a pleasure and a privilege.


Gronewald, M., and R. W. Daniel. 2004a. “Ein neuer Sappho-Papyrus.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 147:1–8.

———. 2004b. “Nachtrag zum neuen Sappho-Papyrus.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 149:1–4.

———. 2005. “Lyrischer Text (Sappho-Papyrus).” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 154:7–12.

Lobel, E., ed. 1925. ΣΑΠΦΟΥΣ ΜΕΛΗ: The Fragments of the Lyrical Poems of Sappho. Oxford.

Lundon, J. 2007. “Il nuovo testo lirico nel nuovo papiro di Saffo.” I papiri di Saffo e di Alceo (ed. G. Bastianini and A. Casanova) 149–166. Studi e Testi di Papirologia, N.S. 9. Florence.

Rawles, R. 2006. “Notes on the Interpretation of the ‘New Sappho’.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 157:1–7.

Voigt, E.-M., ed. 1971. Sappho et Alcaeus: Fragmenta. Amsterdam.


[ back ] 1. West, M. L. “A New Sappho Poem.” Times Literary Supplement, June 25, 2005. Three major London newspapers carried the story: the Times (June 24, 2005:24), the Guardian (June 24, 2005:5), and the Daily Telegraph (June 25, 2005:3). In this country, the New York Times, the Seattle Times, and the Washington Post all announced the discovery. Poetry websites: and Blog discussion: see comments from posters at and

[ back ] 2. See Lidov’s two contributions to this volume. West terms the metre “hagesichorean” and abbreviates as “hag2c”.