The "Aura of Lesbos" and the Opening of Daphnis And Chloe

Hugh J. Mason

University of Toronto

The setting of Daphnis and Chloe is the "real" island located around the coordinates 39o N and 26o E; but this paper asserts that "Lesbos" was also a place of the imagination as significant as the "Thebes" of Athenian tragedy (Zeitlin 1990), or the "Arcadia" of pastoral. This can be seen in Catullus' choice (poem 51) of the pseudonym Lesbia for his lover, of whom Havelock claimed (1967, 130), that the "aura of Lesbos was round her head." This "aura" recalled principally the island's status as πασων οιδοττη, where the nightingale always sings sweetest (Phanokles 1, 22 as cited in Powell 1925, 107), and poetry and music have been especially at home since the arrival of the head and lyre of Orpheus. Within the realm of ancient fiction, the same aura informs the portrayal of the island in King Apollonius of Tyre (33–47), in the Mytileneans' appreciation of Tarsia for her lyre-playing, education, and singing, which enables her to escape degradation in the brothel and leads to her integration with her father.  In Longus, Lesbos' role as the home of poetry and song is emphasised in examples of the "Orpheus-like" control of the physical world by music and poetry.


Havelock, E.A. 1967. The Lyric Genius of Catullus. New York. First published 1929.

Powell,  J.U.  1925. Collectanea Alexandrina, Oxford.

Zeitlin, F. 1990. 'Thebes: Theater of Self and Society in Athenian Drama', in J. Winkler and F. Zeitlin, eds., Nothing to Do with Dionysos? Athenian Drama in Its Social Context, 130–167, Princeton.


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