In Our Time: Sappho

Sappho was a 7th Century BC Greek poetess, but I rather suspect the thing she’s best known for in modern culture is for being the reason we call lesbians lesbians. However, it was for her poetry that she was renowned in ancient Greece. Discussing a little bit about the woman and a lot about her work on In Our Time were Edith Hall (King’s College, London), Margaret Reynolds (Queen Mary, University of London) and Dirk Obbink (University of Oxford).

Saphho lived on Lesbos, which is an island between mainland Greece and Turkey – both in a geographical sense and in a cultural sense. Whilst they were definitely Greek there were eastern influences on both their culture and their language. Their dialect of Greek was not the same as the Greek of Homer and would’ve sounded a bit exotic to the mainland Greek people of her time. She was a lyrical poet, which means that her words were set to music – accompanied by the lyre or other instruments. The work of a lyrical poet was an important part of ceremonies, and was also important to memorialise events. Obbink said that what survives is a bit like having the words to an opera, but not the music.

To the Greeks Sappho was “The Poetess” in the same was that Homer was “The Poet”. A lot of her work was written down and still read long into the classical era. In the Library at Alexandria there was a 9 volume text containing all her poetry. But most of what survived to be rediscovered in the Renaissance did so as fragments in other texts – later translations and quotations in textbooks and commentaries. Much more recently papyrus fragments have been discovered from what were originally whole poems written in her native dialect – I hesitate to say originals as I think these would post-date her time but it would be like discovering fragments of a “Complete Works of Shakespeare” after only knowing his work via quotations from other books in modern English. More of these papyrus fragments occasionally get discovered – Obbink has recently found and translated some previously unknown fragments. These can radically change our understanding of a poem where they overlap with previously known pieces.

The subjects of her poetry were very personal in nature rather than mythical as is the case with Homer. Her poems contain several expressions of her desire for and love of other women, hence her later reputation as a lesbian. Some of the language and metaphors that she uses for desire have become a standard part of the repertoire of imagery – e.g. fire in the veins. The people in her poems are often specific named people, and she names herself in her poetry as well. Despite the first person perspective and specificity of the poetry it’s not clear if it was actually autobiographical. In particular it’s not clear if she was actually a lesbian, and if she was it’s not clear if anyone in her culture at the time cared (although it is clear that they did care later on).

Hall suggested that Sappho’s poetry might indicate that in her time and place there were women’s symposiums running in parallel to the men’s ones. Men’s symposiums are well attested through Greek culture. Hall explained them as semi-public gatherings which in effect provided poetic and ritualised training of the next generation in how to be civilised. They were where a young Greek man learnt how to be “a Greek man”. There are no records of women’s symposiums, and in parts of the classical Greek world (like classical Athens) women’s lives were so restricted that they seem implausible as an idea. However Sappho’s time and place were different, and women’s voices survive so rarely from this era (I’m not sure if Sappho is unique or just almost so) that no evidence is not the same as evidence of absence.

In her own time and during later Greek culture Sappho’s poetry was very popular. However she began to become less revered during the Roman period. Her dialect of Greek had died out and so understanding her poetry wasn’t a question of picking up the text and reading it, it required a commentary or a translation. It became even more obscure in the Christian era when it dropped out of the standard curriculum altogether because the subject matter was too much about worldly, sinful things like desire for a beautiful woman. And because of her obscurity her work was not often copied, and thus no copies survived intact. Fragments of her work were only discovered in the late Renaissance, and early translations downplayed the sauciness of the texts.

Since rediscovery Sappho’s work, and Sappho herself, have often been taken up by the women’s movements of various eras. Because there is so little known about the woman herself, and even her work, it’s relatively easy to shape her into an icon. Whether that is for intellectual liberation as in the 18th Century or the sexual liberation of the 20th Century. One of the experts suggested that it’s also because of the position of Greek culture in our own culture as one of the “roots of civilisation”. As the vast majority of what survives from Greece is male voices and male culture that can lead to an equation of men with civilisation. So if you’re putting forward women as the equal of men against this cultural backdrop it’s good to have an example of a feminine Greek culture.

This programme concentrated on the poetry and the legacy of Sappho rather than the woman herself – as there is so very little that’s actually known about her. So it was well complemented by the TV programme “Sappho: Love & Life on Lesbos with Margaret Mountford”, which we watched not long after listening to this. The TV programme was more focussed on Sappho the person – although of necessity it was more about the broader culture of the period than the individual. It also looked at the legends that have grown up around the woman in more modern times.

In Our Time: Queen Zenobia

I’m sure I’d heard the name of Queen Zenobia before, but I’m equally sure I’d got no idea who she was other than a vague sense of “classical era?”. After listening to the In Our Time episode about her I now know rather more. The experts who talked about her were Edith Hall (King’s College, London), Kate Cooper (University of Manchester) and Richard Stoneman (University of Exeter).

Zenobia lived in the 3rd Century AD, and was the daughter of the Governor of Palmyra in Syria. Her family were Roman citizens and the experts suggested that they probably thought of themselves as Romans first & Syrians second. Zenobia claimed descent from the Ptolemies (so also from Cleopatra) and was also related to a previous Roman Empress (Julia, who was married to Septimus Severus who was Emperor around the turn of the 2nd Century AD). She was married to Odaenathus, as his second wife, who was Governor of Palmyra after her father’s death. Odaenathus died in suspicious circumstances, as did his eldest son (whose mother was not Zenobia). Stoneman said that there was no evidence that Zenobia had organised her husband’s murder, but there is also no evidence for it being someone else. His opinion was that it was a rival of her husband’s who had done the deed, but then Zenobia had taken charge before the rival could. She then governed Palmyra – at first on behalf of her son, but later in her own right.

Palmyra was an important city in the trading network that stretched from the Roman Empire across the lands to the east. It was situated in an oasis that had been a caravan stopping place for millennia, and the town had become rich from the control & protection of trade. By Zenobia’s time it had been a part of the Roman Empire for quite some time, and the experts seemed sure that Zenobia’s father would’ve regarded himself as a Roman keeping order for the benefit of Rome. By later in Zenobia’s reign it was clear she didn’t.

At this period the Roman Empire was in a bit of a shaky state – there’d been 19 Emperors in 30 years (by the late 260s AD) most of them having been assassinated. Unrest and barbarian incursions in the north and west of the Empire had distracted attention from the east, which was mostly left to its own devices. Zenobia took advantage of this and quite quickly conquered an empire of her own that ranged from parts of modern day Turkey round the east coast of the Mediterranean to Egypt. The experts suggested that her method of “conquering” was mostly to offer a more stable & powerful state to the leaders of the various towns & regions – capitalising on her family & personal networks of contacts & allegiances. The experts disagreed about whether conquering Egypt was a good idea or not – I think it was Hall who was suggesting it made strategic sense as the place to put her borders, but Stoneman thought that it unnecessarily antagonised Rome. Hall was also suggesting that Zenobia had sentimental reasons for including Egypt in her empire – due to her claimed descent from Cleopatra.

Unfortunately for Zenobia’s fledgling Palmyrene Empire the Roman Emperor Aurelian (who came to power in 270AD) was more effective than his predecessors. He recaptured the breakaway western parts of the Empire (in Gaul & Britain) and defeated some of Northern barbarians. He also regained a bit more control over the economy and political situation in Rome. So now he was free to turn his attention to the east, and deal with Zenobia. As I mentioned in the last paragraph Stoneman pointed out that Egypt was where a lot of the food for the Empire was grown, and so Zenobia had made herself a target that couldn’t be ignored.

There were two, or possibly three, major battles in Aurelian’s campaign against Zenobia & the Palmyrenes and Zenobia was defeated and forced to flee in all of them. After the last one Zenobia was captured, and Palmyra was eventually sacked (I think not immediately after Zenobia’s defeat but after it tried rebelling a subsequent time). Zenobia was to be taken to Rome, to be paraded as a captive through the streets of Rome in Aurelian’s triumph. There are doubts as to whether that happened or not, and what subsequently happened to Zenobia. Stoneman thought that after the triumph Zenobia was allowed to retire to a villa and live out the rest of her life in obscurity, rather than be executed. Hall & Cooper gave another couple of possibilities – Zenobia may’ve been executed, but she also may never’ve reached Rome. She might’ve died of disease on the way there, but Hall was convinced that Zenobia would’ve suicided rather than be paraded as a captive.

There was a bit more of a “herding cats” feel to Bragg’s moderation in this episode – Hall and Cooper were both very enthusiastic, and all three experts got a bit sidetracked from time to time with other subjects that weren’t quite the subject of the programme.