Sappho and Alcaeus: A New Critical Edition

This University of Bristol research project aims to create a new critical edition of the famous Greek lyric poet Sappho, as well as of her contemporary, Alcaeus.

Patrick Finglass, Henry Overton Wills Professor of Greek, is Principal Investigator on the project ‘Sappho and Alcaeus: A New Critical Edition’, funded by the Leverhulme Trust through the award of a Major Research Fellowship from 2020 to 2023.

This project aims to fulfil one of the most pressing needs in the discipline of Classics – a new critical edition of Sappho, as well as of her contemporary, Alcaeus (who was also from the island of Lesbos), containing all the fragments and testimonia of these two poets known today. The scale and complexity of the edition, which will be aimed at the widest possible range of readers, goes well beyond anything previously attempted for these poets, or for any ancient Greek lyric poet.

Sappho’s status as the most famous woman poet from Greco-Roman antiquity has naturally ensured a continuing fascination with her work, as has her association with same-sex love. The ancient edition of her poems, which filled probably nine books and thus over 10,000 lines, did not survive; but the fragments of those poems which have been preserved, both as quotations in authors whose works did outlast antiquity, and on ancient papyrus manuscripts recovered from the sands of Egypt from the late nineteenth century onwards, offer many glimpses of her poetic brilliance.

Sappho’s contemporary, the poet Alcaeus, is much less well known today; but he, like Sappho, formed part of the nine canonical lyric poets of antiquity. His poetry describing civil strife in sixth-century BC Lesbos complements Sappho’s love songs; both poets express powerful emotions, albeit in very different contexts.

This new edition will provide a new, fully up-to-date text, apparatus criticus, translation, introduction, and detailed commentary. In its introduction it will explicitly reflect on the place of editing within the reception history of these poets, particularly Sappho; while acknowledging the progress which classical philology has made over the centuries in its approach to these texts, it will consider the necessarily contingent nature of any editorial presentation of a fragmentary corpus, and the impact which such presentations have had on the reception of Sappho (including the reception of her sexuality) in literature, art, and other media from antiquity to the present.

The chief output of the project will be a two-volume edition with introduction and commentary published by Cambridge University Press in its series ‘Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries’. It will be accompanied by a short monograph on Sappho which will take the new edition as its point of departure, offering a highly accessible analysis of this fascinating poet based on the very latest scholarship.

This project builds on Professor Finglass’s previous work both as an editor of fragmentary Greek poetry, including his AHRC-funded edition of the archaic Greek lyric poet Stesichorus, and as co-editor (together with Dr Adrian Kelly of Balliol College, Oxford) of The Cambridge Companion to Sappho, which will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2021.

Attic red-figure kalathos vase depicting Alcaeus and Sappho (c. 480–470 BC), variously attributed to the Brygos Painter and to the Dokimasia Painter Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich Image credit: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)
Oxyrhynchus Papyrus (P.Oxy.) 1232, containing Sappho fr. 44 B.P. Grenfell and A.S. Hunt, The Oxyrhynchus Papyri: Part X (London: The Egypt Exploration Fund, 1914). Bodleian Library, Oxford Image credit: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)
Sappho and Alcaeus (1881), by Lawrence Alma-Tadema Walters Art Museum, Baltimore Image credit: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)
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