Thursday, January 9, 2020


Thea S. Thorsen, Stephen J. Harrison (ed.), Roman Receptions of Sappho. Classical Presences. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. xv, 455. ISBN 9780198829430. $115.00.

Reviewed by Antonio Ramírez de Verger, University of Huelva (

Version at BMCR home site

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Following the important discoveries of new fragments of the poetry of Sappho,1 Thea Thorsen and Stephen Harrison have undertaken the publication of a volume devoted for the first time, and with no claim to being exhaustive, to the influence of Sappho on Roman authors from Lucretius to Martial.2 The result is positive, although the reader might have the feeling that the similarities between Sappho and the Latin poets stand at times on shaky ground.

The concluding chapter 15 (Thorsen and Robert Emil Berge, "Receiving Receptions Received. A New Collection of testimonia Sapphica c. 600 BC-AD 1000") constitutes an article of great value: a real gift for those wishing to have access to the complete text with translation of the poetry of Sappho as transmitted from Alcaeus (625/20-580? BC) down to anonymous authors of the tenth-century AD Anthologia Palatina.

In the introduction ("Ecce Sappho") Thorsen explains the concept of the reception of Sappho by means of the geological metaphor of Deep Classics and in particular through the painting by Kyaer Tofte that adorns the cover of the book: the shadow (a distant figure, but not absent), the flower (the withered flower symbolizing the human process of decay) and the bottle (sensual associations). She goes on to give a short account of the poetry of Sappho ("A Brief Overview") and its reception in Rome ("Sappho at Rome", and "Sappho and Roman Poetry: Receptions from Lucretius to Martial").

Thorsen (1 "Sappho: Transparency and Obstructions") very convincingly deals with three obstructions supposedly lying in the way of the study of the reception of Sappho at Rome: a) limited access to her poetry (loss, neglect, inauthenticity, especially Her. 15,3; b) dismissal of Sappho as an ugly woman and a prostitute; and c) eroticism, which includes homoerotic, heterosexual, and extra-marital aspects. A clear and well-argued contribution.

Richard Hunter (2 "Notes on the Ancient Reception of Sappho") notes the silence of Quintilian (Inst. Orat.) and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (On Imitation) regarding Sappho's poetry and recalls its presence in Horace, carm. 4.1 and 4.2, and especially in Ovid, Her.. In the second part of his contribution he offers a masterly interpretation of poem 51 of Catullus in the light not only of Sappho 31 Voigt, but also of Longinus (On the Sublime, 10.1-3), to whom we owe the preservation of this splendid poem. Catullus was reworking Sappho's poem in the context of an ancient line of discussion concerning the piece. In addition, Catullus was exploiting some of Sappho's stylistic features (anadiplosis, anaphora), especially in the final stanza (otium). Hunter concludes by also relating Sappho 31 with Theocritus 2.82-90 and Lucretius 3.152-60.

Laurel Fulkerson (3 "Lucretius and Sapphic voluptas") analyses three possible allusions to Sappho in Lucretius: 1.1-43 as an evocation of Sappho, fr. 1 Voigt ("Opening pleasures"); 3.152-60, of Sappho, fr. 31 ("Disease and Pleasure"); and 1.921-50, of Sappho, fr. 55 Voigt ("Pleasing Imagery and Metapoetics"). I fail to find any of these supposed similarities convincing.

Thorsen (4 "As Important as Callimachus? An Essay on Sappho in Catullus and Beyond") strives to elucidate whether Sappho exerted as great an influence on the Roman poets as Callimachus did. She takes as her starting point a comparative analysis between Sappho, 31 and Catullus, 51. On the one hand, she points to four common features: the Sapphic stanza, the poetic I, a man as vision of the poetic I, and the physical reactions in the poetic I. On the other, she lists three differences: language (Aeolic Greek and Latin); the fact that the poetic I is feminine in Sappho and male in Catullus; and different endings. After also stressing the clear influence of Callimachus on Catullus, Thorsen argues that attention must be paid to Sappho as well as to Callimachus when analysing the aesthetic and poetic influences on the Roman poets, an influence which stretches down to Horace, Propertius, Ovid and Martial.

Lars Morten Gram (5 "Odi et amo. On Lesbia's Name in Catullus") reviews the different connotations of the name Lesbia: 1) a reference to Sappho the poet; 2) a reference to the proverbial beauty and sophistication of Lesbian women; 3) a reference to the figure of the hetaera; and 4) a reference to λεσβιάζειν or the act of fellatio. The author focuses on the semantic analysis of glubit in poem 58 to explain the fourth connotation of the name Lesbia. By means of the metaphorical use of glubere ('to strip the bark from, peel', OCD s. v.) Catullus must be referring to the action of drawing down the foreskin and leaving the penis glans exposed (in Spanish, 'descapullar') before initiating the fellatio itself. The metaphor is as direct as the open grief felt by Catullus on being abandoned by Lesbia.

Olivier Thévenaz (6: "Sapphic Echoes in Catullus 1-14") offers, in my opinion, a somewhat forced analysis of the echoes of Sappho. It is true, for example, that the metaphorical ending in 11 of the flower uprooted by the plough evokes the ending of a love affair, but it seems excessive to me to interpret the death of the passer (3.11-12) as the loss of virginity, never to return (= Sappho fr. 114 Voigt, p. 128). Nor do I detect the presence of Sappho in Catullus, 13.11-12 and its reference to the perfume given to the poet's beloved by the Venuses and Cupids (p. 132).

Harrison (7 "Shades of Sappho in Virgil") points to the presence of Sappho in all the works of Virgil, not only in the use of the topoi of marriage but also in the Evening Star and Sappho's homoerotic sensibility. References to Hesperus (Vesper, the Evening Star of epithalamial hexameters in Sappho, fr. 104a Campbell) are found in Virgil, ecl. 6.85-6 and geo. 4.435 in the so-called 'evening clause'. In the Aeneid the influence of the epithalamial poems of Sappho (fr. 105b Voigt) can be seen in 9.435 and 11.68-71; cf. also Horsfall, Aeneid 11. A Commentary, Leiden, 2003, 88-9. The author also presents other examples (Aen. 4.441-9, 1.1-4, 10.189-93) of the influence on Virgil of 'Sappho's homoerotic interests' (p. 149).

Hunter (8: "Sappho and Latin Poetry. The case of Horace") is a reprint of a study published in 2007. On the influence of Sappho in Horace, carm. 4.1, add also Fedeli in Q. Horatii Flacci, Carmina liber IV, Firenze, 2008, p. 87.

Thorsen (9 "Sappho, Alcaeus, and the Literary Timing of Horace") suggests that Sappho's approach to the Trojan War and the figure of Helen in fr. 16.1-12 serves as a model for Horace, carm. 1.15 and 4.9, and that, after Sappho, the same is true of Alcaeus, frs. 42 and 283. In Horace 4.9 the poet's profound admiration for the work of Sappho as immortal verse can clearly be observed, as was pointed out long ago by Fraenkel 4 Thorsen sees in Sappho 16 'an important backdrop for the understanding of Odes 1.15' together with Alcaeus 42 and 283 Voigt. Her interpretations, adorned as in the case of many other critics with terminological neologisms, are punctilious and somewhat forced. I must confess that I feel more at home with the literary interpretations of Pasquali 5, Fraenkel 6, or Nisbet-Hubbard 7; see also the 'Excursus" of I. Gaspar Orellius 8 with all the early references to this Horatian ode.

The contribution by Heyworth (10 "Sappho in Propertius?") is full of doubts from the very title on, which the author himself seems to have changed to "Sappho and Cynthia" on p. 204. There are phrases that ratify this statement, such as "The Aeolian plectrum could evoke Alcaeus too" (p. 186), "we might see the phrase Lesbia vina as more evocative of Alcaeus, the enthusiastic drinker" (p. 189). On other occasions the possible coincidences between Sappho and Propertius simply represent conventional treatment of a single amatory motif, such as the lovers' wish that the night could be prolonged so that they might derive more enjoyment from their love (3.20.11-14 ≈ Sappho, fr. 197 Voigt). In short, as Heyworth himself admits, "the harvest of possible allusions is thus small and for the most part uncertain, even though Propertius is living in a period where Sappho must have been available" (p. 201).

Jennifer Ingleheart (11 "Vates Lesbia. Images of Sappho in the poetry of Ovid") focuses on those passages in which Ovid names Sappho in person or as the poet of Lesbos, excluding the Epistula Sapphus: Amores 2.18.26 and 34, Ars amatoria 3.331, Remedia amoris 761, Tristia 2.365 and Tristia 3.7.20. At 2.18.26 she even goes so far as to propose the reading amara for amata, but this facile emendation fails to convince me.9 Nevertheless, I find Ingleheart's contribution extremely attractive and it can be summed up in the words she uses to describe the different ways in which Sappho was represented by the ancient authors: "poetess, tenth Muse, hetaera, heterosexual, homosexual, suicide, teacher, lyric poet Lesbian…" (p. 225).

Chiara Elisei (12 "Sappho as Pupil of the praeceptor amoris and Sappho as magistra amoris") attempts to show that the Sappho of Heroides 15 also appears in Ars amatoria. She takes Heroides 15 to be genuine and works from the simple letters written before Ars. She analyses the excusatio vitiorum (Her. 15.31-40; ars 2.497-508) and the commendatio virtutum (15.41-50; Sappho, fr. 94 Voigt). Following on from these coincidences, Elisei reviews the attitude of Sappho as magistra amoris in Her. 15.61-66, an antecedent of ars 3.435-6, 457-8.

Thorsen (13 "The Newest Sappho (2016) and Ovid's Heroides 15") analyses the influence on Her. 15 of the Sapphic fragments 5, 15, 16, 16a, the 'Brothers Song' and the 'Kypris Song'. Love and desire in Her. 15 are inspired by the 'Kypris Song' and by fr. 16 Voigt. The relationship of Sappho with her brother Charaxus in Her. 15 is inspired by frs. 5, 9 ('Kypris Song') and 15 Voigt. Thorsen clearly shows that Sappho's recently discovered poems are present in Her. 15, "the most rare and most precious examples of Sappho's Roman reception that we possess today" (p. 263).

Gideon Nisbet (14 "Sappho in Roman Epigram") begins with a brief analysis of the possible influence of Sappho on Greek epigram in the Roman period (Tullius Laureas, Philodemus, Damocharis) and in Roman epigram before and after Martial (Valerius Aedituus, Catullus, Ausonius). He also studies the possible presence of a sculpture (by Silanion) in Pompey's portico. Nisbet then goes on to examine the almost non-existent influence of Sappho in Martial, aside from the evocation of her name in 7.69 10 and 10.35. In Martial there are no clear signs of the influence of Sappho, but rather that of the Greek epigrammatists. On the influence of Greek writers, read E. Pertch, De Valerio Martiale Graecorum poetarum imitatore,11 and Ramírez de Verger, Marcial, Epigramas, Madrid, 1997, 20-39. 12

I have detected only one erratum: Heriodes for Heroides on p. 425.

Table of Contents

Introduction: 'Ecce Sappho' Thea S. Thorsen
1. 'Sappho: Transparency and obstruction', Thea S. Thorsen
2. 'Notes on the ancient reception of Sappho', Richard Hunter
3. 'Lucretius and Sapphic Voluptas', Laurel Fulkerson
4. 'As important as Callimachus? An essay on Sappho in Catullus and beyond', Thea S. Thorsen
5. 'Odi et amo: on Lesbia's name in Catullus', Lars Morten Gram
6. 'Sapphic echoes in Catullus 1-14', Olivier Thevenaz
7. 'Shades of Sappho in Vergil', Stephen Harrison
8. 'Sappho and Latin poetry: the case of Horace', Richard Hunter
9. 'Sappho, Alcaeus and the literary timing of Horace', Thea S. Thorsen
10. 'Sappho in Propertius?', S. J. Heyworth
11. 'Vates Lesbia: Images of Sappho in the poetry of Ovid', Jennifer Ingleheart
12. 'Sappho as pupil of the praeceptor amoris and Sappho as magistra amoris: Some lessons of the Ars amatoria anticipated in Heroides 15', Chiara Elisei
13. 'The newest Sappho (2016) and Ovid's Heroides 15', Thea S. Thorsen
14. 'Sappho in Roman epigram', Gideon Nisbet
15. 'Receiving receptions received: A new collection of testimonia sapphica c. 600 BCE-1000 CE', Thea S. Thorsen and Robert Emil Berge


1.   Cf. D. Obbink, "Sappho in the new fragments: the newest Sappho (P. Sapph. Obbink and P. GC inv. 105, frs. 1-4)", in Bierl-Lardinois, eds., Studies in Archaic and Classical Greek Song, Leiden, 2016, v. 2, 13-33.
2.   See also O. Thévenaz, Sappho à Rome: poétiques en échos de Catulle à Horace, Lausanne, 2010.
3.   On which see also A. Ramírez de Verger, Emerita 72, 2009, 187-222).
4.   Horace, Oxford, 1957, 425; cf. also Campbell, "Aeolium Carmen: Horace's Allusions to Sappho and Alcaeus", EMC 22, 1978, 94-8.
5.   Pasquali, Orazio lirico, Firenze, 1920, 19662, pp. 278-301.
6.   Fraenkel, Horace, pp. 188-92.
7.   Nisbet-Hubbard, (Oxford, 1970), 188-91.
8.   Q. Horatius Flaccus, I Odae, Carmen Saeculare, Epodi, (Berolini, 1886), repr. Hildesheim, 1972, p. 104.
9.   See L. Bernays, Mnemosyne 51, 1998, 590-4; Ramírez de Verger, Hommages à C. Deroux, Bruxelles, 2002, I 443-6.
10.   See also Galán Vioque, Martial, book VII. A Commentary, (Leiden 2002), 395-401.
11.   E. Pertch, De Valerio Martiale Graecorum poetarum imitatore
11.  , Berolini, 1911; Ramírez de Verger, Marcial, Epigramas, Madrid, 1997, 20-39.
12.   I wish to thank J. J. Zoltowski for the English translation from Spanish.

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