Brothers Poem

Black and white photograph of a fragment of papyrus with Greek text
P. Sapph. Obbink: the fragment of papyrus on which the Brothers Poem was discovered

The Brothers Poem or Brothers Song is the title given to lines of verse attributed to the archaic Greek poet Sappho (c. 630 – c. 570 BC), which had been lost since antiquity until being rediscovered in 2014. Most of its text, apart from its opening lines, survives. It is known only from a papyrus fragment, comprising one of a series of poems attributed to Sappho. It mentions two of her brothers, Charaxos and Larichos; the only known mention of their names in Sappho's writings, though they are known from other sources. These references, and aspects of the language and style, have been used to establish her authorship.

The poem is structured as an address—possibly by Sappho herself—to an unknown person. The speaker chastises the addressee for saying repeatedly that Charaxos will return (possibly from a trading voyage), maintaining that his safety is in the hands of the gods and offering to pray to Hera for his return. The narrative then switches focus from Charaxos to Larichos, who the speaker hopes will relieve the family of their troubles when he becomes a man.

Scholars tend to view the poem's significance more in historical rather than in literary terms. Research focuses on the identities of the speaker and the addressee, and their historical groundings. Other writers examine the poem's worth in the corpus of Sappho's poetry, as well as its links with Greek epic, particularly the homecoming stories of the Odyssey. Various reconstructions of the missing opening stanzas have been offered.


Sappho is thought to have written over 10,000 lines of poetry, of which roughly 650 survive. Only one poem, the Ode to Aphrodite, is known to be complete; many preserve only a single word.[1] In 2014, Dirk Obbink, Simon Burris, and Jeffrey Fish published five fragments of papyrus, containing nine separate poems by Sappho. Three were previously unknown,[a] and the find amounted to the largest expansion of the surviving corpus of Sappho's work for 92 years.[3] The most impressive is the "Brothers Poem" fragment, called P. Sapph. Obbink,[2] part of a critical edition of Book I of Sappho's poetry.[b][5] The next nine lines are known as Sappho's Kypris poem.[6]

P. Sapph. Obbink measures 176 by 111 millimetres (6.9 in × 4.4 in)[6] Carbon-dating places it between the first and third centuries AD,[7] which is consistent with the third century AD handwriting.[6] The roll, of which P. Sapph. Obbink was part, would have been produced in Alexandria, and likely taken to Fayum.[8] There is evidence that the roll was damaged and repaired; it was later reused as cartonnage—a material similar to papier-mâché made with linen and papyrus—which Obbink suggests was used as a book cover.[c][10]

P. Sapph. Obbink is, according to author and scholar James Romm, the best-preserved extant Sappho papyrus.[11] It had been part of David Moore Robinson's collection, left to the University of Mississippi Library.[12] Robinson purchased the fragment in 1954 from an Egyptian dealer, Sultan Maguid Sameda, the owner of an art gallery in Cairo.[12] After the library had deaccessioned the papyrus, it was sold at auction in 2011 to a collector in London.[13] It was this anonymous owner who gave Obbink, the head of Oxford University's Oxyrhynchus Papyri project, access to the papyrus and permission to publish it.[14] A second papyrus, Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 2289, published by Edgar Lobel in 1951, preserves enough of the Brothers Poem to show that at least one stanza preceded the well-preserved portion.[15]



White marble bust of a woman
A Roman sculpture of Sappho, based on a Classical Greek model. The inscription reads Σαπφω Ερεσια, or "Sappho of Eresos".

The poem is 20 lines (five stanzas) long and written in Sapphic stanzas,[16] a metre named after Sappho, which is composed of three long lines followed by one shorter line.[6] The beginning of the poem is lost, but it is estimated that the complete work was probably between one and three stanzas longer.[17] It lies within the genre of homecoming prayers;[18] others of Sappho's works on this theme include fragments 5, 15 and 17.[19]

The narrative consists of an address to an unnamed listener, structured in two parallel sections, concerning two of Sappho's brothers, Charaxos and Larichos.[20] The speaker hopes that Charaxos will return successfully from a trading voyage, and that Larichos will grow into manhood,[21] and take up his position in the elites of Lesbian society.[22]

The first two extant stanzas detail Charaxos' arrival. In the first, the speaker reproaches the addressee for repeatedly saying that Charaxos will return "with his ship full",[23][24] that only gods can know such things,[25] and that the addressee should send her to pray to Hera for Charaxos' safe return.[26] The third and fourth stanzas develop into a more general examination of human dependence on gods. The speaker asserts that while human fortunes are changeable ("fair winds swiftly follow harsh gales")[27] Zeus gives good fortune to those he favours. In the final stanza, the speaker hopes that Larichos will "[lift] his head high"[28] and "become an ανερ [man] in all senses", as Obbink puts it,[29] and release the family from its troubles.[30]


When Obbink published the poem in 2014, he attributed it to Sappho based on its metre, dialect (Aeolic), and mentions of Charaxos and Larichos, both of whom are identified in other sources as her brothers.[31] It is possible that the text is an ancient forgery; though the song was included in at least some Hellenistic editions of Sappho (from which P. Sapph. Obbink and P. Oxy. 2289 derive), a classical imitation of Sappho is still possible.[7] Nonetheless, evidence provided by Herodotus indicates that Charaxos was mentioned in poems that were attributed to Sappho during the fifth century BC; therefore it is likely to be at least authentically from archaic Lesbos.[32]


Neither of the two characters are named.[33] Whether the speaker can be identified with Sappho herself is central to its interpretation.[34] André Lardinois observes that most of the identified speakers in Sappho's poetry are female.[35] Melissa Mueller identifies the speaker as Sappho,[26] and the poem has generally been interpreted as being autobiographical.[36] Not all scholars have identified the speaker with the historical Sappho; Bär and Eva Stehle both argue that the speaker is a fictionalised or literary version of Sappho.[37][38] If the speaker is to be identified as Sappho, Obbink suggests that she is to be read as a young woman: her brother Larichos (who can only be six or so years younger than her, as that is how old she was when her father died, in a biographical tradition preserved in Ovid's Heroides) is shortly to come of age (Obbink puts him at around twelve); Sappho-the-speaker is therefore still a teenager herself.[39]

The addressee of the poem is unnamed in the surviving text,[40] but many suggestions have been made as to their identity—Camillo Neri lists eleven possible candidates.[41][d] Obbink suggests the most likely candidates are Rhodopis or Doricha, described in ancient sources as the lover of Charaxos,[e] and Sappho's mother, to whom Sappho addressed other poems.[44] Most scholars agree that the addressee is some concerned friend or relative of Charaxos, many (including Martin L. West, Franco Ferrari, Camillo Neri, and Leslie Kurke) selecting Sappho's mother as the most likely option.[45]

This is not universally agreed upon. The classical historian Anton Bierl argues that the central dispute of the poem is between masculine and feminine ideologies. He suggests that the speaker's offer to pray to Hera is a "solution appropriate to her gender",[46] and contrasts with the masculine belief that the family's problems can be solved through Charaxos' pursuit of wealth. He therefore suggests that the addressee is a male relative of Sappho.[47] Lardinois also believes that the addressee is a man: he argues that Sappho's mother could have gone to pray to Hera herself, and therefore it does not make sense for her to send Sappho on her behalf.[45] In contrast, Mueller and Leslie Kurke both argue that the addressee is probably meant to be female, based on Sappho's use of the word θρυλεω ("chattering" or "babbling") to describe their speech. The word has negative connotations that would make Sappho unlikely to use it to address a man.[40][24] Anja Bettenworth has argued that the addressee is of a lower social status than Sappho, again based on the use of θρυλεω,[48] but Kurke argues they are likely to be in a position of authority over Sappho, as she expects them to send her to pray to Hera.[49]

The final two characters, Charaxos and Larichos, are identified as Sappho's brothers in ancient sources.[35] Charaxos is first mentioned by Herodotus, who describes his love for the courtesan Rhodopis; Strabo and Athenaeus say that he was a wine trader.[50] The earliest mention of Larichos comes from Athenaeus, who says that in his youth he was a wine-pourer in the prytaneion (town hall) in Mytilene.[51] Modern scholars are uncertain whether either were Sappho's actual brothers.[52] For instance, Lardinois sees Charaxos and Larichos as fictional characters: he draws comparisons to the poetry of Archilochus about Lycambes and his daughters, generally considered to be fictionalised.[53]


Sappho's poetry from the first book of the Alexandrian edition appears to have been about either the family and religious or cultic practices, or about passion and love.[54] The Brothers Poem focuses on her family.[29] Its original performance context is uncertain, but most scholars consider that it was intended for monodic performance—that is, by a single singer, rather than a chorus.[55]

Brotherhood was a frequent theme of archaic Greek poetry,[56] and the relationship between brothers was often used to explore conceptions of proper behaviour.[57] The Brothers Poem seems to have been one of several about Charaxos and Larichos.[58] Eva Stehle suggests that it may have been part of a "series of 'brothers poems'",[59] though David Gribble notes that the fragments of Sappho's work which do survive are insufficient to conclude that she composed a series telling the story of Charaxos' relationship with Doricha.[60]

Sappho portrays Charaxos as irresponsible, with Larichos as his more respectable foil.[61] Unlike in the versions of this trope in Homer and Hesiod, Sappho inserts a third, female, figure into the relationship. In this scheme the figure with moral authority is unable to be the moral example to the wayward Charaxos due to her gender; she must rely on Larichos who still has the potential to become an upstanding adult.[62] Thus, Laura Swift sees the poem as an example of Sappho reworking established epic tropes from a female perspective—as she also does in fragment 16.[63]

Anton Bierl identifies seven other fragments of Sappho that seem to have dealt with Charaxos or Doricha.[64] Like the Brothers Poem, fragments 5, 15, and 17 focus on homecomings;[19] fragments 5 and 15 are both likely to be about Charaxos,[65] and Bierl suggests that fragment 17, a cultic hymn referring to Menelaus' visit to Lesbos on his way home from Troy, may be a prayer for a safe journey for Charaxos.[66] Four other surviving fragments of Sappho, 3, 7, 9, and 20, may all have been connected with the story of Charaxos and Doricha.[67]

The Brothers Poem follows shortly after fragment 5 in the edition of Sappho preserved by P. Sapph. Obbink, with probably only one column of text between them. Silvio Bär argues that the poem was deliberately positioned here because it was seen as a sort of continuation of that fragment by the editor of the Alexandrian edition of Sappho's poetry.[68] He suggests that it acts to correct the views put forward in fragment 5: there, Sappho prays to the Nereids, not just for the safe return of her brother but that "whatever his heart desires be fulfilled";[69] in the Brothers Poem she recognises that such a broad request is out of the competence of the Nereids and should more properly be addressed to the goddess Hera.[70]

A woman sitting on a chair on a balcony
The role of the speaker (possibly Sappho herself) in the Brothers Poem has been compared to that of Penelope in the Odyssey; she awaits the return of Charaxos just as Penelope (depicted here by Heva Coomans) waits for her husband Odysseus.

Links between Homer's Odyssey and the Brothers Poem have been observed by many scholars.[71] Bär describes the epic as a "crucial intertext" for the Brothers Poem.[72] The relationship in the poem between the speaker, Charaxos, and Larichos parallels that of Penelope, Odysseus, and Telemachus in Homer:[73] in the Brothers Poem, the speaker awaits Charaxos' return from overseas and Larichos' coming-of-age; in the Odyssey, Penelope awaits Odysseus' return and Telemachus' coming-of-age.[74] Additionally, Anton Bierl suggests that the context of Charaxos' being away in Egypt—according to Herodotus, in love with the courtesan Rhodopis—parallels Odysseus' entrapment by Calypso and Circe.[75] A specific parallel to the Odyssean homecoming narrative is found in line 9 [13]. Sappho uses the adjective αρτεμες ("safe"), which occurs only once in the Odyssey, at 13.43, where Odysseus hopes that he will return to Ithaca to find his family safe—just as the speaker hopes in the third stanza of the Brothers Poem that Charaxos will return to Lesbos to find his family safe.[76]

Mueller suggests that the Brothers Poem is a deliberate reworking of the Homeric story, focusing on the fraternal relationship between Sappho and Charaxos in contrast to the conjugal one between Odysseus and Penelope.[18] According to Anastasia-Erasmia Peponi, this should be seen in the context of an archaic Greek tradition of domestic—and specifically sisterly—discourses.[77]

Along with stories of Odysseus' homecoming in the epic tradition, the Brothers Poem has similarities to several other genres of archaic Greek poetry. Joel Lidov sees it as being in the tradition of prayers for safe returns;[78] Richard Martin identifies structural similarities to Archilochus' Cologne Epode (fr.196a[f]), a piece of iambic invective;[79] and Peter O'Connell suggests parallels with songs of welcome, in particular Archilochus fr.24.[80]

Missing stanzas

How much of the Brothers Poem has been lost is unknown. An overlap between P. Oxy. 2289 and P. Sapph. Obbink, the apparent alphabetic arrangement in the Alexandrian edition of her works, and the implausibility of any poem beginning with the word ἀλλά (meaning "but" or "and yet"), suggest that at least one opening stanza is missing.[81] Bär has argued against this position, noting that the overlap between the Oxyrhynchus and Obbink papyri is sufficiently small (only six characters) as not to be conclusive.[82] He argues that there are other known exceptions to the alphabetical ordering of the first Alexandrian edition of Sappho's works, thematic reasons why the Brothers Poem might have been placed out of order to follow closely after fragment 5,[83] and parallels elsewhere in Greek literature for an inceptive ἀλλά.[84]

Despite Bär's arguments, most authors conclude that the Brothers Poem is missing at least one, and perhaps as many as three stanzas.[82][24] Gauthier Liberman suggests that it was originally seven stanzas long;[85] Kurke argues it is likely that only one stanza is missing.[86] There are a variety of theories around the content of the missing stanzas. Mueller suggests that they may have revealed the identity of the addressee.[40] Joel Lidov proposes that the latterly passive addressee actually speaks in the missing stanzas.[87]

Obbink provides a reconstruction of a single initial stanza of the poem.[88] He argues that the mention of Larichos in the later stanza appears too suddenly, and therefore he had probably been mentioned in earlier, now missing, lines.[89] Athenaeus notes how Sappho often praised Larichos for being a wine-pourer in the prytaneion at Mytilene; this wine-pouring may have been mentioned here.[90] Obbink also suggests that the opening lines originally contained a mention of the death of Sappho's father when she was young, which was the source of Ovid's anecdote at Heroides 15.61–62.[89] Kurke has argued that the missing stanza discussed Charaxos, giving the complete poem a symmetry of three stanzas discussing each of the brothers.[86]


The discovery of the Brothers Poem, along with fragments of eight other poems—the largest discovery of new material by Sappho in almost a century[91]—was the subject of significant media attention.[26] James Romm, writing in The Daily Beast, called it "a spectacular literary discovery",[11] and Tom Payne in The Daily Telegraph said that it was "more exciting than a new album by David Bowie".[92] Other commentators expressed concern about the provenance of the papyrus, fearing that it had been illegally acquired on the black market, or even that it was a forgery like the Gospel of Jesus' Wife.[93] Douglas Boin in The New York Times criticised the failure to discuss the papyrus' provenance properly as "disturbingly tone deaf to the legal and ethical issues".[94]

Though classicists considered it the "most spectacular" of the 2014 finds,[2] it is not considered one of Sappho's best works. Martin West originally considered the work to be "very poor stuff" and "frigid juvenilia", though he later toned down his criticism.[95] Liberman wrote that the poem is clumsy, displaying signs of hasty composition.[96] Richard Rawles suggested that part of the reason that the poem was initially considered disappointing was because it was not about sexuality or eroticism—a factor that he predicted would make the fragment of greater interest in the future.[97] Some commentators have been more positive. Though Loukas Papadimitropoulos said that his initial impression was that it was simplistic, he concluded that the meaning of the poem was "perhaps the most profound in all of Sappho's extant work",[98] and that the poem turns the "simple[...] into something highly significant".[99]

Despite scholars' disappointment over its quality, the Brothers Poem is valuable for the historical and biographical information it contains.[85] It is the first fragment of Sappho discovered to mention the names "Charaxos" and "Larichos", both described as Sappho's brothers by ancient sources but not in any of her previously known writings.[11] Before the poem was found, scholars had doubted that Sappho ever mentioned Charaxos.[6]


  1. ^ Fragments 16a, 18a, and the Brothers Poem. The others overlap with the already known fragments 5, 9, 16, 17, 18, and 26.[2]
  2. ^ The standard Alexandrian edition of Sappho's poetry was divided into nine books on the basis of their metre; Book I contained those poems composed in Sapphic stanzas.[4]
  3. ^ Cartonnage was often used for making mummy cases, and it was initially believed that the Brothers Poem fragment was from such material. However, the lack of gesso and paint traces suggest that it was in fact domestic or industrial cartonnage.[9]
  4. ^ Neri's list includes: Scamondronymus, Sappho's father; Cleïs, her mother; Larichos; Erigyius, a third brother known from the ancient sources but not mentioned in the Brothers Poem; Sappho's daughter, also called Cleïs; another family member or acquaintance; a slave or nurse; Charaxos' lover Doricha/Rhodopis; Charaxos' wife or fiancée on Lesbos; the speaker's companion or companions; and Sappho herself.[42]
  5. ^ According to Herodotus, Charaxos' lover was a courtesan called Rhodopis; according to Athenaeus and Posidonius, she was called Doricha. Strabo says that she was called both Rhodopis and Doricha. It is unclear whether these are two names for the same person, or whether they were different people whom Herodotus confused.[43]
  6. ^ Fragment numbers for Archilochus' poems are given according to Martin West's enumeration in Iambi et Elegi Graeci.


  1. ^ Rayor & Lardinois 2014, p. 7.
  2. ^ a b c Bierl & Lardinois 2016, p. 1.
  3. ^ West 2014, p. 1.
  4. ^ de Kreij 2016, pp. 65–6.
  5. ^ Obbink 2015b, p. 1.
  6. ^ a b c d e Obbink 2014, p. 32.
  7. ^ a b Lardinois 2016, p. 168.
  8. ^ Obbink 2015a, p. 5.
  9. ^ Obbink 2015b, pp. 2–3.
  10. ^ Obbink 2015b, pp. 1; 3.
  11. ^ a b c Romm 2014.
  12. ^ a b Obbink 2015b, p. 2.
  13. ^ Obbink 2015b, pp. 1–2.
  14. ^ Obbink 2014, p. 32, n. 2.
  15. ^ Obbink 2015b, p. 4.
  16. ^ Whitmarsh 2014.
  17. ^ Rayor & Lardinois 2014, p. 160.
  18. ^ a b Mueller 2016, p. 28.
  19. ^ a b Mueller 2016, p. 42.
  20. ^ Mueller 2016, p. 38.
  21. ^ Swift 2014.
  22. ^ Lardinois 2016, p. 180.
  23. ^ Sappho, Brothers Poem, l.2. trans. Rayor & Lardinois 2014, p. 160
  24. ^ a b c Kurke 2016, p. 239.
  25. ^ Sappho, Brothers Poem, ll.2–4. trans. Rayor & Lardinois 2014, p. 160
  26. ^ a b c Mueller 2016, p. 26.
  27. ^ Sappho, Brothers Poem, ll.11–12. trans.Rayor & Lardinois 2014, p. 160
  28. ^ Sappho, Brothers Poem, l.17. trans. Rayor & Lardinois 2014, p. 160
  29. ^ a b Obbink 2014, p. 35.
  30. ^ Swift 2018, p. 75.
  31. ^ Obbink 2014, p. 33.
  32. ^ Lardinois 2016, pp. 168–9.
  33. ^ Bär 2016, p. 10.
  34. ^ Bär 2016, p. 13.
  35. ^ a b Lardinois 2016, p. 181.
  36. ^ Bär 2016, p. 9.
  37. ^ Bär 2016, pp. 14–5.
  38. ^ Stehle 2016, p. 267.
  39. ^ Obbink 2015a, p. 3.
  40. ^ a b c Mueller 2016, p. 31.
  41. ^ Stehle 2016, p. 271.
  42. ^ Neri 2015, pp. 58–9.
  43. ^ Bär 2016, n. 16.
  44. ^ Obbink 2015b, p. 7.
  45. ^ a b Lardinois 2016, p. 182.
  46. ^ Bierl 2016, p. 329.
  47. ^ Bierl 2016, pp. 329–30.
  48. ^ Bettenworth 2014, pp. 15–16.
  49. ^ Kurke 2016, pp. 244–5.
  50. ^ Gribble 2016, pp. 31–3.
  51. ^ Bär 2016, pp. 10–11.
  52. ^ Boedecker 2016, p. 188.
  53. ^ Lardinois 2016, pp. 184–5.
  54. ^ Obbink 2014, p. 34.
  55. ^ Bierl 2016, p. 335.
  56. ^ Swift 2018, p. 72.
  57. ^ Swift 2018, p. 76.
  58. ^ Rayor & Lardinois 2014, p. 162.
  59. ^ Stehle 2016, p. 266.
  60. ^ Gribble 2016, p. 67.
  61. ^ Swift 2018, pp. 81–2.
  62. ^ Swift 2018, pp. 82–3.
  63. ^ Swift 2018, p. 85.
  64. ^ Bierl 2016, pp. 323–4.
  65. ^ Lardinois 2016, pp. 171–2; 181.
  66. ^ Bierl 2016, p. 324.
  67. ^ Lardinois 2016, p. 172.
  68. ^ Bär 2016, p. 18.
  69. ^ Sappho, 5.3–4. trans. Rayor & Lardinois 2014, p. 30
  70. ^ Bär 2016, pp. 19–20.
  71. ^ Kurke 2016, p. 249.
  72. ^ Bär 2016, p. 16.
  73. ^ Mueller 2016, pp. 27–8.
  74. ^ Bär 2016, p. 23.
  75. ^ Bierl 2016, p. 310.
  76. ^ Bär 2016, pp. 24–5.
  77. ^ Peponi 2016, p. 234.
  78. ^ Lidov 2016, p. 80.
  79. ^ Martin 2016, p. 123.
  80. ^ O'Connell 2018, p. 237.
  81. ^ Bär 2016, pp. 28–30.
  82. ^ a b Bär 2016, p. 28.
  83. ^ Bär 2016, pp. 28–9.
  84. ^ Bär 2016, p. 30.
  85. ^ a b Liberman 2014, p. 1.
  86. ^ a b Kurke 2016, p. 241.
  87. ^ Obbink 2016, p. 217, n. 33.
  88. ^ Obbink 2016, p. 223.
  89. ^ a b Obbink 2016, p. 219.
  90. ^ Obbink 2016, pp. 220–1.
  91. ^ Childers 2016, p. 26.
  92. ^ Payne 2014.
  93. ^ Gannon 2015.
  94. ^ Boin 2014.
  95. ^ Mueller 2016, p. 27.
  96. ^ Liberman 2014, pp. 7–8.
  97. ^ Rawles 2014.
  98. ^ Papadimitropoulos 2016, p. 3.
  99. ^ Papadimitropoulos 2016, p. 6.

Works cited

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