No Way Out? Aging in the New (and Old) Sappho

Deborah Boedeker

To refer to this article, please cite it in this way:
Deborah Boedeker, "No Way Out? Aging in the New (and Old) Sappho," Classics@ Volume 4: Ellen Greene and Marilyn Skinner, eds. The Center for Hellenic Studies of Harvard University, online edition of March 11, 2011.


I will not rehearse in detail the brief but exciting history of the “New Sappho” Cologne papyrus that was published in 2004 by Michael Gronewald and Robert Daniel, familiar as it is to readers of this volume. [1] Suffice it to say that P.Köln 21351 (with 21376), dated to the early third century BCE (Gronewald and Daniel 2004a:1), provides our earliest surviving text of Sappho, and to note that twelve of the 33 lines attested on this papyrus appear also in the much later P.Oxy. 1787, frr. 1–2. The latter was first published in 1922 (Grenfell and Hunt 1922:26–46, with Plate II) and is transmitted in modern editions as Sappho frr. 58–59 LP/V. [2] The Cologne and Oxyrhynchus texts of the repeated lines complement each other to the extent that it is now possible to read or restore them almost in their entirety; for convenience, I will call this composite ‘Passage X’.

These twelve lines, considered by some experts to represent a complete poem, are preceded in the Cologne papyrus by eight very fragmentary but apparently Sapphic lines in the same meter (Passage A), without any indication of a break in the text. They are followed by thirteen lines (Passage B), separated from what precedes by a koronis, and apparently written in a different hand. On metrical and linguistic grounds, Passage B could scarcely have originated with Sappho, as was maintained already by the original editors (Gronewald and Daniel 2004a:1, 2005), and has been confirmed by other scholars as well (e.g. West 2005:1; Rawles 2006; Hammerstaedt in this volume). In the Oxyrhynchus papyrus, written about five centuries later (third century CE), Passage X is preceded by ten lines (Passage M) and followed by seven (Passage N) that are not attested in the Cologne papyrus—all of them in the same meter and Aeolic dialect. The following table schematically represents these segments of the two papyri.

P.Köln 21351 + 21376P.Oxy. 1787, frr. 1–2
= Sappho frr. 58–59
Passage A (8 lines) Passage M (= Sappho fr. 58.1–10)
Passage X
(12 lines, attested in both Cologne and Oxyrhynchus papyri)
[Koronis] Passage B
(13 lines: not aeolic)
Passage N
(= Sappho fr. 58.23–26 + fr. 59)

Sapphic mouvance?

As mentioned above, the Oxyrhynchus fragments are printed in modern editions as Sappho frr. 58 and 59. A 16-line segment of this text, fr. 58.11–26, has generated a great deal of critical attention as a complete poem that reveals the speaker’s values, in which beauty, love, and refinement (abrosuna) trump the hardships of old age and perhaps even death itself. [3] All these interpretations depend on the relationship between X and the first four lines of N:

X: I am aging, alas, as all humans must, even Tithonus.

N: But I cherish abrosuna and, thanks to Eros, I have obtained
the brilliance and beauty of the Sun (or: thanks to eros of the
Sun, I have obtained brilliance and beauty).

Passage X taken by itself is a starker poem than XN, [4] one that perhaps better satisfies modern sensibilities. In Martin West’s words, “The final phrase gives a poignant edge to the whole… [Tithonus] lived on, growing ever more grey, frail, and decrepit, while ever beholding, and measuring himself against, the unfading beauty of his consort—even as Sappho grows old in the face of a cohort of protégées who, like undergraduates, are always young” (West 2005:6).

Whether Passage X is rightly considered a complete poem, however, has been questioned on several grounds. First, the original editors labeled its ending (ἀθάνατον ἄκοιτιν ‘immortal wife’) “sehr abrupt;” they assumed that for some reason the rest of the poem (by which they meant fr.58.23–26) was omitted in the Cologne papyrus (Gronewald and Daniel 2004a:2). Lowell Edmunds has put this suggestion to the test, arguing (against Bernsdorff 2005:2–4) that the reference to Tithonus attested at the end of X would be an unusual conclusion to an archaic poem that begins with an I-you deictic situation, as this one does with Sappho addressing the paides. Edmunds’ survey of archaic poetry and fifth-century tragedy indicates that it would be much more usual for the poet to come back, in his words, “either to the starting point of the deictic framework (I-you) of the opening or to some reassertion of herself by Sappho,” rather than to end, as does Passage X, with a distal mythological reference, in this case to Tithonus (Edmunds 2006:24; see also Edmunds, this volume). Fr. 58.23–26, which seems to return to the speaker’s perspective (perhaps as contrasted with that of Tithonus), would provide an ending far more typical of archaic poetic structure than do the last lines of Passage X. André Lardinois (in this volume) further argues that ending a poem with the abrosuna passage would conclude the reflection on old age with a note of self-consolation that is found also in two other Sappho poems, frr. 16 and 31. [5]

Second, Mario Puelma and Francesca Angiò (2005; contra, Di Benedetto 2006:10) have proposed that a recently-published Hellenistic epigram appears to allude to the combined Sappho text XN (i.e. to both fr. 58.11–22 and fr. 58.23–26), noting that the final couplet of Posidippus 52 A-B mentions both “old age” (γῆρας [6] ) and “the beautiful Sun” (κάλον ἠέλιον; cf. τὸ λάμπρον ἔρως ἀελίω καὶ τὸ κάλον λέλογχε, Sappho fr. 58.26):

ἀλλὰ σὺ γῆρας ἱκοῦ, κούρη· παρὰ σήματι τούτωι
σωρὸν ἐτέων μέτρει τὸν καλὸν ἠέλιον.

But you, maiden, arrive at old age; alongside this tomb,
for a mass of years, measure the beautiful sun.

Posidippus 52.5–6 A-B (my translation)

Lardinois (this volume) not only finds this epigram’s allusion to Sappho fr. 58 plausible, but astutely observes that in the immediately preceding epigram (Posidippus 51 A-B), a group of females is asked to sing “songs of Sappho” [7] at a young girl’s grave, a reference that, he believes, strengthens the likelihood of another Posidippean nod to Sappho in 52 A-B.

All this discussion of the different endings of Passage X and fr. 58 is aimed, at least implicitly, at recovering what Sappho originally wrote. I will resist focusing primarily on that question in this paper, however, despite its appeal and significance. In light of the textual evidence at hand, and at this relatively early point in our reflections on the New Sappho, I will instead consider whether the Cologne and Oxyrhynchus papyri reflect two different performance versions of a song attributed to Sappho—attested both as X (or perhaps AX) in the Cologne papyrus and as XN (or even MXN, as Preisshofen proposed) in the Oxyrhynchus. In other words, I want to entertain the possibility that this well-crafted, [8] memorable set of six couplets [9] on old age could have been performed both by itself and as part of a longer song or songs. [10]

Recent scholarship has focused on a variety of partial analogs to this phenomenon, found in other poetic works both ancient and medieval. Textual variations in manuscripts of medieval poetry and prose are explained as reflecting variations in the oral performance of those works. “New philologists” consider such divergences, nicely termed mouvance (see e.g. Zumthor 1994), as intrinsic to some medieval poetic traditions, rather than trying to reconstruct an “original” text from which all others are derived. [11] Gregory Nagy, moreover, argues that the Homeric epics were performed by oral poets well into the Hellenistic period, and that they too consisted not of an original text with its variants, but rather of the multiforms one would expect for a song that is continually being recomposed in performance. Nagy attributes to this practice the textual variants that are attested in scholia, in later citations, and in papyrus fragments of the epics, and argues that “canonical” textual editions of the Iliad and the Odyssey were fixed only by Hellenistic scholars (Nagy 1996; contra, Powell 1997).

Independently from arguments about performance and textualization of Homeric epic, we know that works attributed to Sappho (and other archaic poets) were reperformed in various contexts. [12] In light of this performance tradition, a degree of mouvance is readily conceivable for her songs as well. What we see with Passage X in the Cologne and Oxyrhynchus papyri is not the same, however, as the kind of variation seen in the Homer citations. Rather than variant readings of words, or the inclusion or omission of a line or two, we have a twelve-line passage that is repeated almost verbatim, as far as we can see in the extant texts, in two different poetic contexts. [13] (This much is true even if Passage X is a complete poem in itself, since it is surrounded by different lines in the two papyri.)

Repeated passages exist also in the corpora of other archaic Greek poets, including Solon, Theognis, and Alcaeus. [14] For a very brief example, consider the Theognidean couplet:

Νεβρὸν ὑπὲξ ἐλάφοιο λέων ὣς ἀλκὶ πεποιθώς
ποσσὶ καταμάρψας αἵματος οὐκ ἔπιον·
Like a lion confident in its strength, with my claws I seized
a fawn from under the hind, but did not drink its blood.

As a statement of action begun but not completed, these lines appear as Theognis 949–950, in a context that is possibly political and certainly gnomic; they appear again in an erotic context in 1278cd. However this is to be explained by the convoluted history of the Theognidean corpus, [15] the couplet evidently was (at some point) transmitted and read in two different textual contexts.

The Sapphic lines in question can also make sense in more than one configuration, as both their earlier and more recent (i.e. post-“New Sappho”) admirers have taught us, but they make a different sense depending on whether X is considered as an independent poem, as it might be in the Cologne papyrus, or as part of a longer composition, as it has long been thought to be in the Oxyrhynchus papyrus.

The main purpose of this paper is to consider this dual possibility from the perspective of a single line, one of the most striking in the passage (and one which the Cologne papyrus greatly expanded for us):

ἀγήραον ἄνθρωπον ἔοντ’ οὐ δύνατον γένεσθαι

for one who is human, it is impossible not to grow old

Passage X, line 8

I will first ask how that statement compares with other (at first sight quite different) adunata in the corpus of Sappho, and second, how it contributes to a reading of each of the arguably complete poems, X and XN.

Sapphic adunata

In view of Edmunds’ findings with regard to a poem’s return to the original deictic situation, it is significant that the story of the Atreids’ adunaton and prayer is framed by an invocation of Hera in the here and now of the speaker, presumably Sappho. The speaker begins by asking the goddess to appear to her (according to Milne’s convincing restoration of line 1), and ends, in good hymnic format, with a request that Hera now come to aid her, “according to the ancient precedent” (κὰτ τὸ πάλ[αιον· fr. 17.12). Despite gaps in the text, the implication is clear that the speaker too faces some difficult situation, and seeks the goddess’s help.

Fr. 17 thus resembles in its structure Sappho fr. 1, where Aphrodite is asked to release the character Sappho, once again, from the torments of unrequited love, just as she has done repeatedly in the past. That brilliant, ironically self-deprecating poem raises implicitly the theme of adunata, for a god is called upon and asked to bring about something that otherwise the speaker could not achieve, even though it is, she says, what “I most want to happen” (μάλιστα θέλω γένεσθαι , fr.1.17, cf. οὐ δύνατον γένεσθαι , Passage X, line 8). In fr. 1, just as in fr. 17, past invocations were successful: “If she runs away, she will soon pursue,” the poem’s Aphrodite said to its Sappho on an earlier occasion, “and if she does not love, soon she shall love even against her will” (fr. 1.21–24, Campbell trans.). The audience of fr. 1 is led to think that the speaker’s prayer will once again be effective.

The other example of a Sapphic adunaton, fr. 16.21–22, comes from another one of Sappho’s longest and most famous extant texts. The poem begins with the well-known priamel of favorite sights, leading up to the first-person generalization “but I say, the most beautiful thing is whatever one loves” (fr. 16.1–4). This opinion is illustrated by the example of Helen, who left husband and child to sail to Troy (16.5–12)—which reminds the speaker of the lovely but absent Anaktoria (fr. 16.15–20). After this, the text thins out and the meaning becomes less clear, but the phrase οὐ δύνατον γένεσθαι (“not possible to happen”: 16.21) is followed after a short gap by ἀνθρωπ[. . . π]εδέχην δ’ ἄρασθαι (“human being… pray to share…”: 16.22). Here too, a human impossibility is juxtaposed with, and perhaps overcome by, prayer.

Passage X, like frr. 1, 16, and 17, also presents a situation affecting the speaker. Here, she claims that the physical effects of old age have given her a heavy thymos (Passage X, line 5). [16] After saying that she often laments those symptoms, she asks rhetorically, “But what might I do?” (Passage X, line 7), and in the following line declares that no human being is able to avoid old age (ἀγήραον... οὐ δύνατον γένεσθαι ). As proof of this statement, the speaker offers Tithonus, who was not saved from old age even by the love of the goddess Dawn.

This conclusion, however, is counter to the pattern that seems to prevail in the other fragments of Sappho that mention or allude to adunata, in which the impossible is remedied (or at least remediable) by a god’s response to prayer. Is it possible that a remedy for this adunaton lurks even in Passage X? Richard Janko has suggested that Tithonos’ everlasting old age might be mitigated somehow by his immortal song (Janko 2005). A partial reprieve of the mythical comparandus might in turn suggest that the speaker-poet too would not simply grow old and die. But this reading assumes that the audience would draw on a particular extra-Sapphic variant of the story, which is attested only later, in which Tithonus becomes a cicada whose sound (unlike all the rest of him) does not fade away. [17] On balance, it seems to me more likely that Tithonus is here meant to serve as the extreme case, proving that no human can escape old age. Enamored Dawn made her Trojan prince immortal, and remains his immortal wife, but gêras seized him even so.

In another way too, the adunaton in Passage X is different from that in Sappho fr. 17 (and perhaps fr. 16 as well). It refers not to something “impossible” in present circumstances (such as the Atreids’ inability to sail from Lesbos), but to a general, permanent limitation of human nature: old age, the example of Tithonus shows, is more inescapable than death itself. In a twist from the version of this myth attested in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite (223–224), here no blame is imputed to Dawn for “forgetting” to ask Zeus for Tithonus’ agelessness as well as immortality; Passage X implies that there was nothing anyone could do about it.

A similar, general limitation on human nature may be attested in another Sappho fragment, if any one of several plausible supplements in line 12 is correct: [18]

]ὄδος μ[έ]γαν εἰς ῎Ολ[υμπον
ἀ]νθρω[π ]αίκ.[

[There is no] road to great Olympus
for mortals…

Sappho fr. 27.12–13 (trans. Campbell)

To the sentiment of this restored reading we can compare Pindar Pythian 10.27–30:

ὁ χάλκεος οὐρανὸς οὔ ποτ’ ἀμβατὸς αὐτῷ·
ὅσαις δὲ βροτὸν ἔθνος ἀγλαίαις ἁ-
πτόμεσθα, περαίνει πρὸς ἔσχατον
πλόον· ναυσὶ δ’ οὔτε πεζὸς ἰὼν <κεν> εὔροις
ἐς ῾Υπερβορέων ἀγῶνα θαυμαστὰν ὁδόν.

He cannot mount the bronze sky,
but of all the glories that our mortal race attains,
he sails to the utmost point;
whether you go in ships or on foot, you would not discover
the wondrous road to the contest-ground of the

Pindar Pythian 10.27–30 (my translation)

The victor’s father, happy though he is, cannot reach the fabled Hyperboreans—but immediately (lines 31–45) we learn that once upon a time Perseus did get there, being led by Athena (ἁγεῖτο δ’ ᾿Αθάνα, Pythian 10.45). Again, what is “impossible” for mortals is attained with help from a god.

These adunata, moreover, are qualitatively different from the examples of hybris, such as “let no one of mortals fly to Olympus or try to marry the Cyprian queen Aphrodite…”, attested in a parthenion of Alcman (fr. 1.16–20 Page). Unlike the impious actions in the Alcman fragment, the adunata in the Sappho (and Pindar) examples just cited are not presented as wicked, but simply as unachievable by mortals—at least without divine assistance.

Adunata in the New Sappho

This theme relates in divergent ways to the adunaton of the New Sappho, depending on whether we consider Passage X by itself or together with Passage N (fr. 58.23–26). Taken by itself, Passage X teaches that aging is baneful but cannot be avoided. These twelve lines would make a poignant sympotic song on grim old age, a topic attested in a number of archaic lyrics and elegies, including Mimnermus frr. 1, 2, and 4 W, Anacreon fr. 395 P, and Alcaeus fr. 50 V. [19] Such poems as these, whatever their archaic origins, could well have been among the poetic “classics,” as Nagy has called them, learned by elite fifth- and fourth-century Athenian youths, presumably for performance in symposia, as attested in Aristophanes and Plato (Nagy 2004:41). Such a performance tradition, in Athens and elsewhere, could explain how Passage X (or possibly even AX [20] ) eventually made its way to the Cologne papyrus, in a poetic context different from that of the Alexandrian edition of Sappho’s collected works, which is generally accepted as the basis of the Oxyrhynchus version. [21]

What then of the adunaton in the Oxyrhynchus Sappho? If we read fr. 58.11–26 (XN) as a continuous passage, it appears that the speaker presents a positive way to deal with the inevitability of aging: she expresses satisfaction with the fine things (abrosuna, beauty, brilliance) that Eros or Helios have allotted her. Although she cannot escape old age, the gifts of a god provide compensation. This reading is more in tune with other extant adunata in Sappho, in which a god helps with what was humanly impossible.

Perhaps the nearest parallel to this response to old age is found in a passage of the “New Simonides:”

νήπιοι, οἷς ταύτηι κεῖται νόος, οὐτὲ ἴσασιν
ὠς χρόνος ἕστ’ ἥβης καὶ βιότοι’ ὀλίγος
θνητοῖς. ἀλλὰ σὺ ταῦτα μαθὼν βιότου ποτὶ τέρμα
ψυχῆι τῶν ἀγαθῶν τλῆθι χαριζόμενος.

Fools are they whose thoughts are thus! Nor do they know
that the time of youth and life is short
for mortals. But you, learning this at the end of your life,
endure, delighting in good things in your soul.

Simonides, fr. el. 20.9–12 (ed. and trans. Sider)

These two couplets, advising the addressee to enjoy good things while he can, in the face of inevitable human decline—call to mind the “recompense” provided by abrosyna in XN. Nonetheless, like other archaic fragments on old age, this passage too diverges from the New Sappho, which alone, in the face of an adunaton, provides the unflinching acceptance of Passage X and/or the god-blessed alleviation of XN.

Whether we read X or XN makes a great difference in how the speaker ultimately faces the inevitability of growing old. As both readings appear to be paleographically and poetically defensible, I have proposed here that the two different contexts in which Passage X appears may come from two different performance traditions. It is conceivable, for example, that X by itself would be deemed suitable for a short sympotic performance on the rather popular topic of old age, whereas XN would be more appropriate for an occasion in which the focus is on divine benevolence.

Indeed, other scholars have found in the text of the New Sappho several themes that might point to such an occasion. Alex Hardie recently emphasized the importance of the Muses in Passages A and X, and elsewhere in Sappho too; he finds that a number of fragments allude to a cult (even “Mysteries”) of the Muses by Sappho and other devotees (Hardie 2005). For his part, Lardinois in this volume suggests that XN may have been composed for choral performance at a wedding; this is corroborated by the central importance that Richard Rawles (2006) attributes to the topic of marriage for the girls (paides) who are addressed in the New Sappho. It is not difficult to imagine XN performed at an occasion in which the blessings of a god or gods are sought as a remedy or compensation for the eventual hardships of old age, even if a human being cannot bypass those tribulations.

The coexistence of Cologne and Oxyrhynchus Sapphos, in sum, may well give us a glimpse of a more fluid transmission of archaic poetic songs than our texts normally lead us to assume, with different versions suitable for different occasions and audiences.


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[ back ] 1. I thank the panel organizers and volume editors for their intellectual enterprise and collegiality; and my fellow contributors, especially Dee Clayman, Lowell Edmunds, André Lardinois, and Dirk Obbink, for lively discussions about the new Sappho.

[ back ] 2. In what follows, except as noted, all references to the text of Sappho will be from Voigt 1971, and the translations are my own. [ back ]

[ back ] 3. E.g. Di Benedetto 1985; Nagy 1973; Lieberman 1995. Preisshofen 1971:59–60 alone, as far as I am aware, considers the beginning of fr. 58 (Passage M in my scheme) to be part of the same poem.

[ back ] 4. For convenience I will occasionally refer to the 16-line text Sappho fr. 58.11–26, with its first twelve lines now expanded by the Cologne papyrus, as XN, even though this excludes the very fragmentary final three lines of Passage N. (See West 2005:7–9 for a possible reconstruction of the 7-line Passage N, i.e. fr. 58.23–26 and fr. 59, which he calls “the ἀβροσύνα poem;” Di Benedetto 2006:5–11, on the other hand, insists that fr. 58.23–26 is a separate 4-line poem.)

[ back ] 5. See Preisshofen 1977:59 for an earlier (pre-“New Sappho”) brief mention of the consolatory theme in these texts.

[ back ] 6. Now securely attested twice, in lines 3 and 12 of Passage X, cf. also ἀγήραον in line 8. [ back ]

[ back ] 7. Accepting the editors’ restoration Σα[πφῶι’ ἄισμ]ατα at 51.6.

[ back ] 8. On the balanced structure of Passage X see Janko 2005.

[ back ] 9. Although the lines are isometric, they are divided into couplets by short horizontal marks to the left of the column in the papyrus.

[ back ] 10. See also Boedeker, forthcoming. Nagy, this volume, also argues for a multiform song suited to different performance contexts. I am encouraged to see that Yatromanolakis 2007:360n341 (end of note) similarly suggests that this 12-line passage “might perhaps be a performative version of a longer song… a composition that included lines 23–26 of fragment 58V.”

[ back ] 11. For a lucid synopsis of some recent scholarship on mouvance in medieval manuscripts, on the relationship between oral performances and written texts, and on other focuses of the “new philology,” see Baisch (n.d.). I am grateful to Regina Höschele for pointing me to this resource. [ back ]

[ back ] 12. A charming anecdote attributed to Aelian, for example, tells of Solon, determined to learn a song of Sappho he had heard his nephew sing at a drinking party: Stobaeus Florilegium 3.29.58. (This anecdote, and the larger question of reperforming and recomposing archaic lyrics at symposia, is discussed at length by Yatromanolakis 2007:52–164 passim, esp. 85–88, and 341–34.) If the texts we have in the two papyri diverge because of local performance traditions such as this one, however, it is likely that the dialect would diverge as well. Hence we must assume that at some point both versions of Passage X were “corrected” for the Aeolic dialect. Interestingly, attention to such matters may have predated Ptolemaic patronage of scholarship. Isagoras (Letter 8.4) indicates that the exiled Agenor of Mytilene was working in fourth-century Athens on the historia of Lesbian poetry: see Nagy 2004:40 (citing Nagy 1996:192–193).

[ back ] 13. The sections of Passage X that appear in both the Cologne and Oxyrhynchus papyri are virtually identical, except for the rendering of nasals before stops, e.g. τί κεν ποείην in P.Oxy. 1787, fr. 2.16, vs. τί κεμ ποείην in P.Köln 21351 fr. 2.15.

[ back ] 14. As Benjamin Acosta-Hughes kindly reminds me, a different kind of textual “replication” may be found in the Callimachean Coma Berenices. The Coma probably circulated both in a shorter version (Aetia fr. 110), and as a longer independent poem, reflected in the famous translation of Catullus 66, where lines 15–38 and 79–88 do not correspond to anything in the (fragmentary) Greek lines. For an early proposal of this hypothesis see Pfeiffer 1928:339. [ back ]

[ back ] 15. See Bowie 1997. [ back ]

[ back ] 16. See Lidov, “Acceptance or Assertion?”, this volume, for a different interpretation of this phrase.

[ back ] 17. For discussion of the variant, see Janko 2005. [ back ]

[ back ] 18. For suggested supplements, see Voigt 1971:54. [ back ]

[ back ] 19.
On old age in archaic and classical Greek poetry, including Sappho fr. 58, see Preisshofen 1977, Di Benedetto 1985, and especially Falkner 1995, with bibliography. Brandt 2002 offers a broad study of old age in antiquity. Kirk 1971, surprisingly, ignores Sappho fr. 58. On aging in the New Sappho, see especially Bernsdorff 2005. [ back ]

[ back ] 20.
It is even possible that Passage A, which features material similar to that attested in Passage X (on which see Hardie 2005, though Hardie considers A and X as separate poems), was transmitted as part of the same song as X. There is no paleographical reason to separate A from X, and the one factor that argues most strongly against that, which is the singular Muse addressed at the very end of A followed by plural Muses restored at the beginning of X, may be misleading, for it is possible to read κάλα, Μοῖσ’ in the last line of A, as καλάμοισ’ ‘reeds’ or, as West does (2005:3), as θαλάμοισ’ ‘chambers’.

[ back ] 21.
Hooker 1976:11, relying on Hephaestion On Signs 138, is convinced that there was more than one Alexandrian recension of Sappho (so too Williamson 1995:40). Yatromanolakis 1999:179–180 considers the matter uncertain. [ back ]