Sappho’s Memories

The use of exempla in ancient poetry, rhetoric, and historiography has often been thought to be anchored in the notion that historical processes take place in predictable patterns. Exemplary characters and stories can be repeatedly reused in different contexts because the circumstances to which they pertain do not alter significantly. Odysseus’ endurance on his voyage home or Andromache’s mourning for Hector will remain paradigmatic as long as people journey at sea and families are afflicted by war. Aristotle gives expression to this attitude when he says that ‘generally speaking, future events are similar to those of the past’ (ὅμοια γὰρ ὡς ἐπὶ τὸ πολὺ τὰ μέλλοντα τοῖς γεγονόσιν, Rhet. 1394a7–8). But the vagueness of Aristotle’s phrasing allows for the possibility that ‘future events’ may differ from what has happened previously, and a consciousness of this fact and its potential consequences is central to reflections on exemplarity in the fourth century and later. Cicero laments that men no longer seem able to follow the exempla bequeathed by the past because behaviour has changed (Pro Caelio 39–40), while Maximus of Tyre claims that Homer is exemplary in his discussions of erotic desire, but less so about military tactics or medicine, because men of later times knew better (Or. 18.8).

Sappho and Alcaeus vase
Alcaeus and Sappho, Attic red-figure kalathos, Brygos Painter, c. 470 BC. From Acragas. Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich, 2416; ARV2, 385, 228.

Yet even at the earliest stages of Greek literature, we find exempla being used in a way that suggests a sophisticated grasp of the differences that changing contexts make to how they can be understood. Particularly striking is Sappho fr. 16, which begins by positing a general truth about the nature of beauty, and proceeds to exemplify this with reference to Helen, who abandoned her home and husband because of her love for Paris:

ο]ἰ μὲν ἰππήων στρότον οἰ δὲ πέσδων
οἰ δὲ νάων φαῖσ’ ἐπ[ὶ] γᾶν μέλαι[ν]αν
ἔ]μμεναι κάλλιστον, ἔγω δὲ κῆν’ ὄτ-
τω τις ἔραται·

πά]γχυ δ’ εὔμαρες σύνετον πόησαι    
π]άντι τ[ο]ῦ̣τ’, ἀ γὰρ πόλυ περσκέ̣θ̣ο̣ι̣σ̣α
κ̣άλ̣λο̣ς̣ [ἀνθ]ρ̣ώπων Ἐλένα [τὸ]ν ἄνδρα
τ̣ὸν̣ [     ].στον

κ̣αλλ[ίποι]σ̣’ ἔβα ’ς Τροΐαν πλέοι̣[σα

Some say an army of horsemen, some an army of infantry or ships is the fairest thing on the black earth, but I say it is whatever one desires. It is certainly easy to make this comprehensible to everyone. For she who exceeded all mankind in beauty, Helen, left her … husband and sailed to Troy …

Helen’s love causes her to forget her past: she departs for Troy ‘not remembering at all’ her ‘child and dear parents’ (κωὐδ[ὲ πα]ῖδος οὐδὲ φίλων το[κ]ήων / π̣ά[μπαν] ἐμνάσθη). By contrast, the poem makes listeners recall how Helen is presented in the epic tradition (although it is unclear whether the Iliad and Odyssey in the form we possess them were known to Sappho and her early audiences). Such recollections will have constituted the background against which Sappho’s account emerges. By adding an emphasis on Helen’s interior life and perspective that is less strongly developed in epic, the poem invites us to revise the understanding of her that we have inherited from other accounts. In undertaking such revisions, we enact a process which, the poem implies, Sappho herself has already undergone by framing Helen’s story to fit her insight into the connection between desire and beauty. Even as it pictures Helen ‘forgetting’, the poem creates new memories.

Whereas desire makes Helen forget, it makes Sappho remember. The transition from the Helen story to Sappho’s own situation is fragmentary (12–14), but something about it (perhaps Helen herself, perhaps Aphrodite) ‘reminds’ Sappho of Anactoria, who ‘is not present’ (νῦν Ἀνακτορί[ας ὀ]ν̣έ̣μναι- / σ’ οὐ] παρεοίσας). These memories ground a fresh assertion of the claim for the supremacy of erotically-charged experience: ‘I would rather see her lovely walk and the glitter of her face than the Lydian chariots …’ (τᾶ]ς <κ>ε βολλοίμαν ἔρατόν τε βᾶμα / κἀμάρυχμα λάμπρον ἴδην προσώπω / ἢτὰ Λύδων ἄρματα …). With ‘the glitter of her face’, Sappho gives us a snapshot as evanescent as it is arresting. What is recalled is not the precise contours of a specific face, but a visual impression the motility of which carries over into recollection. Her ‘lovely walk’ similarly blends immediacy and fleetingness. The phrase flickers with Anactoria’s physical allure, but the particular qualities that made her beauty distinctively hers, as well as the wider context in which it occurs elude us (is she walking towards or away from Sappho? Is Sappho remembering a ‘walk’ that she sawoften, or just once?). As we try to imagine Anactoria and realise how little we have to go on, we replay Sappho’s longing for her past.

Alma-Tadema, Sappho Listening to Alcaeus
Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), Sappho Listening to Alcaeus. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore 37.159.

These emphases on recollection affect how we might conceive the exemplum’s function across time. The poem changes our sense of how Helen’s actions might help us understand the world; similarly, Helen’s flight to Troy would have resonated differently for Sappho when Anactoria was ‘present’, and after her departure. The poem also suggests how an exemplum can be understood from multiple perspectives, moving from an implicit comparison between Sappho and Helen, to an implicit comparison between Sappho remembering Anactoria and Menelaus remembering Helen. Yet for all the suggestiveness of the parallels, Helen’s life is not Sappho’s, and the exemplum can only take Sappho so far in coming to terms with her situation. Her understanding of love’s importance does not mean that she can easily overcome Anactoria’s absence, although it is unclear how or even if this issue was developed(it is unclear whether the fragmentary stanzas that follow ‘the Lydian chariots’ belong to this poem).

Far from positing a minimally-changing field of applicability, the poem shows how an exemplary figure can be understood variously in changing circumstances. Rather than using an exemplum in order to model behaviour, as later writers often do, Sappho explores the limits of its applicability to individual experience. Taken together, the obliqueness of both the exemplum and our access to Sappho’s memories complicate what is involved in the supposedly easy task of ‘making comprehensible’ (σύνετον πόησαι) the poem’s general claim that the fairest thing is the object of one’s desires. Individuals’ experience of desire as a criterion for beauty is both changeable and difficult for others to access. In foregrounding the tension between the exemplum’s explanatory power and the variegations of experience and memory to which it is applied, the poem stages desire’s paradoxically evanescent force.