Thinking with Brothers in Sappho and Beyond

Swift, Laura (2018). Thinking with Brothers in Sappho and Beyond. Mouseion: Journal of the Classical Association of Canada, 15(1) pp. 71–87.



The recent publication of the “Brothers Poem” (P. Sapph. Obbink 1–20) reminds us that Sappho is more than a love poet. The stories of Sappho’s two brothers, Charaxus and Larichus, were well known in antiquity and are attested in a number of sources. Several accounts imply that Sappho’s brothers were mentioned repeatedly in her poetry, a claim that appears to be supported by fr. 15, which may represent a separate poem about Charaxus. Unlike the ancients, we modern scholars need not assume that these “biographical” snippets reflect a poet’s lived experience, and rather than simply claiming that Sappho had two brothers, we must consider the reasons for this focus on brotherhood and sibling relationships in her work.

This article discusses the role of brotherly relationships in archaic poetry and the use of the brother to shed light on moral issues. It considers famous brother-pairs such as Hector and Paris and Agamemnon and Menelaus in the Iliad, and Hesiod and Perses in Works and Days. It argues that brothers are characteristically used to explore ideas to do with preserving the oikos and familial duty and shows how Charaxus and Larichus fit into this pattern. It further suggests that Sappho adapts this trope by creating a sibling triangle, rather than the traditional pairing of two brothers. By including herself (and possibly also her mother) in this scenario, she explores domestic morality from a different, female-oriented perspective, showing the responsibilities that men bear toward their female dependents.

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