Translator Mary Barnard has titled this twenty-line fragment “To an Army Wife, in Sardis.” Despite missing text, the sense of the Greek is clear; interconnected images suggest a completed poem.
Fearing that “you, being far away, forget us,” Sappho addresses a love letter to a favorite woman, Anactoria, comparing her favorably to the impressive sight of armies in motion and fleets in full sail. The poem—an answer to the riddle: What is finest on earth?—has a three-part structure. Its beginning lines assert that the finest is “whatever one loves,” even though “some” think that military displays are “finest.” To argue the poet’s answer, the middle section of verse offers, as supporting evidence, the story of the mythological Helen and her irrational love for the Trojan prince Paris. The concluding section provides the name of the speaker’s beloved and makes a comparison that echoes the beginning. The poet says that hearing the friend’s footstep and seeing the “light glancing” in her eyes would impress her more than witnessing “glittering” armies on the move. Throughout, hyperbole characterizes the poet’s emotion and flatters the implied auditor, the girlfriend. The poem hints of a past friendship or love affair.
The example of Helen, used in an approving sense, seems problematic, since Helen was usually pictured as a bad wife who forsook her husband and fled with Paris. In so doing, she triggered the Trojan War, which makes the poems’ references to the fine sight of armies and warships particularly telling. When Sappho says that Helen “wandered far” with her lover, she suggests “going astray.” These subtleties create a memorable tension and ambiguity.
The poem has a feminist edge because it belittles the masculine business of waging war, finding in the poet’s girlfriend something finer than all of Greece’s military might. If Anactoria is in fact a military wife, the conceit implies that the friend surpasses her husband and all his war-waging colleagues. Another implication in the poem is that one woman’s actions, Helen’s, required the response of thousands of male troops. An implicit theme—make love, not war—underscores the poem.