The possibility of deciphering the carbonized papyrus scrolls from the Villa of the Papyri is exciting. One friend hopes that some day an Etruscan/Greek or Etruscan/Latin dictionary will be discovered. (The Etruscan language used Greek letters, but we cannot completely read it, beyond some kings’ names, etc.)
Me, I hope for a complete edition of Sappho’s poetry, with commentaries by some Hellenistic critic.
That has not shown up, but (how did I miss this?) two unknown apparent poems of hers were discovered a couple of years ago in recycled papyrus used as “cartonnage,” a sort of papier-mâché used in Egypt for mummy cases and funerary masks.
In a paper delivered last month at an academic conference (PDF), Dirk Obbink discusses questions of authenticity and text in the two poems. You can find related links at the website of the Reception of Greek Literature 300 BC–AD 800: Traditions of the Fragment Project.
The new fragments show conclusively the alternation in book 1 of poems about family and cult, on the one hand, and personal concerns about love on the other. A cycle of poems concerning sea-faring is revealed, centering on the drama of a mercantile family of wine-traders on 7th-century Lesbos. The presence of Dionysus in the trinity of gods in the Pan-Lesbian sanctuary at Mesa on the island is explained, and the whole complex of love, sea-faring, wine, and trade falls neatly into the context of Herodotus’ story (2.135) of how Sappho’s brother Charaxos spent a great deal of money . . . to free his lover the courtesan Rhodopis (aka Doricha), then a slave at Naucratis in Egypt—for which Herodotus claims a pedigree in a poem of Sappho’s. In fragments 5 and 17 and now the ‘Brothers Poem’ we can see the existence of a song type, a prayer for the safe return of the merchant-gone-to-sea (or going). The prayer may rehearse an occasion leading to the performance of a song (as in the ‘Brothers Poem’), or its actual performance in the past or present (as in fragment 5). The prayer for safe return, introduced as a matter of concern, then expands to envisage what such a return would mean for the family—wealth, and an enhanced social position in the community. A further connection with the poems involving Aphrodite (who dominates book 1 but is virtually missing elsewhere) is suggested, since she is also typically invoked in seaside cult as a protectress of sailors (as we can see at the end of fragment 5, perhaps associated with prostitutes and hetair ae frequented by Charaxos).