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Sappho (pronounced /ˈsfoʊ/ in English; Attic Greek Σαπφώ IPA:[sapːʰɔː], Aeolic Greek Ψάπφω [psapːʰɔː]) was an Ancient Greek lyric poet, born on the island of Lesbos. In history and poetry texts, she is sometimes associated with the city of Mytilene on Lesbos (Carson 2002); she was also said to have been born in Eresos, another city on Lesbos. Her birth was sometime between 630 BC and 612 BC, and it is said that she died around 570 BC. The bulk of her poetry, which was well-known and greatly admired throughout antiquity, has been lost, but her immense reputation has endured through surviving fragments.



Sappho by Gustav Klimt
Sappho by Gustav Klimt

The only contemporary source which refers to Sappho's life is her own body of poetry, and scholars are skeptical of biographical readings of it. Later biographical traditions, from which all more detailed accounts derive, have also been cast into doubt.[1]


Strabo says that Sappho was the contemporary of Alcaeus (born ca. 620 BC) and Pittacus (ca. 645 - 570) and according to Athenaeus she was the contemporary of Alyattes of Lydia (ca. 610 - 560). The Suda, a 10th century Byzantine encyclopdia, dates her to the 42nd Olympiad (612/608), meaning either that she was born then or that this was her floruit. The versions of Eusebius state that she was famous by the first or second year of the 45th or 46th Olympiad (between 600 and 594). Judging from the Parian Marble she was exiled from Lesbos to Sicily sometime between 604 and 594. If fragment 98 of her poetry is accepted as biographical evidence and as a reference to her daughter (see below) it may indicate that she had already had a daughter by the time she was exiled. If fragment 58 is accepted as autobiographical it indicates that she lived into old age. If her connection to Rhodopis (see below) is accepted as historical it indicates that she lived into the mid-6th century.[2][3]


An Oxyrhynchus papyrus from around 200 AD[4] and the Suda agree that Sappho had a mother called Cles and a daughter by the same name. Two preserved fragments of Sappho's poetry refer to a Cles. In fragment 98, Sappho addresses Cles, saying that she has no way of obtaining a decorated headband for her. Fragment 132 reads in full: "I have a beautiful child [pais] who looks like golden flowers, my darling Cleis, from whom I would not (take) all Lydia or lovely..."[5] These fragments have often been interpreted as referring to Sappho's daughter or as confirming that Sappho had a daughter with this name. But even if a biographic reading of the verses is accepted, this is not certain. Cles is referred to in fragment 132 with the Greek word pais, which can as easily indicate a slave or any young person as an offspring. It is possible that these verses or others like them were misunderstood by ancient writers, leading to the biographical tradition which has come down to us.[6]

Fragment 102 has its speaker address a "sweet mother", sometimes taken as an indication that Sappho began to write poetry while her mother was still alive.[7] The name of Sappho's father is widely given as Scamandronymus,[8] he is not referred to in any of the surviving fragments. In his Heroides, Ovid has Sappho lament that, "Six birthdays of mine had passed when the bones of my parent, gathered from the pyre, drank before their time my tears." Ovid may have based this on a poem by Sappho no longer extant.[9]

Sappho was reported to have three brothers; Erigyius (or Eurygius), Larichus and Charaxus. The Oxyrhynchus papyrus says that Charaxus was the eldest but that Sappho was more fond of the young Larichus.[10] According to Athenaeus, Sappho often praised Larichus for pouring wine in the town hall of Mytilene, an office held by boys of the best families.[11] This indication that Sappho was born into an aristocratic family is consistent with the sometimes rarefied environments which her verses record.

A story given by Herodotus and later by Strabo, Athenaeus, Ovid and the Suda, tells of a relation between Charaxus and the Egyptian courtesan Rhodopis. Herodotus, the oldest source of the story, reports that Charaxus ransomed Rhodopis for a large sum and that after he returned to Mitylene, Sappho scolded him in verse.[12] Strabo, writing some 400 years later, adds that Charaxus was trading with Lesbian wine and that Sappho called Rhodopis Doricha. Athenaeus, another 200 years later, calls the courtesan Doricha and maintains that Herodotus had her confused with Rhodopis, another woman altogether.[13] He also cites an epigram by Posidippus (3rd c. BC) which refers to Doricha and Sappho. Based on this story, scholars have speculated that references to a Doricha may have been found in Sappho's poems. None of the extant fragments have this name in full but fragments 7 and 15 are often restored to include it.[14] Joel Lidov has criticized this restoration, arguing that the Doricha story is not helpful in restoring any fragment by Sappho and that its origins lie in the work of Cratinus or another of Herodotus' comic contemporaries.[15]

The Suda is alone in claiming that Sappho was married to a "very wealthy man called Cercylas, who traded from Andros"[16] and that he was Cles' father. This tradition may have been invented by the comic poets as a witticism, as the name of the purported husband means "prick from the Isle of Man."[17]

Sappho and Alcaeus of Mytilene, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1881)
Sappho and Alcaeus of Mytilene, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1881)


Sappho's lifetime was a time of political turbulence on Lesbos and saw the rise of Pittacus. According to the Parian Marble, Sappho was exiled to Sicily sometime between 604 and 594 and Cicero records that a statue of her stood in the town-hall of Syracuse. Unlike the works of her fellow poet, Alcaeus, Sappho's surviving poetry has very few allusions to political conditions. The principal exception is fragment 98 which mentions exile and indicates that Sappho was lacking some of her customary luxuries. Her political sympathies may have lain with the party of Alcaeus.[18] Though there is no explicit record of this it is usually assumed that Sappho returned from exile at some point and that she spent most of her life in Lesbos.

Phaon legend

A tradition going back at least to Menander (fr. 258 K) suggested that Sappho killed herself by jumping off the Leucadian cliffs for love of Phaon, a ferryman. This is regarded as ahistorical by modern scholars, perhaps invented by the comic poets or originating from a misreading of a first-person reference in a non-biographical poem.[19] The legend may have resulted in part from a desire to assert Sappho as heterosexual.[20]

Sexuality and community

by Édouard-Henri Avril
by douard-Henri Avril

Sappho's poetry centers on passion and love for various personages and genders. The word "lesbian" derives from the name of the island of her birth, Lesbos; her name is also the origin of its less common synonym sapphic. The narrators of many of her poems speak of infatuations and love (sometimes requited, sometimes not) for various females, but descriptions of physical acts between women are few and subject to debate. Whether these poems are meant to be autobiographical is not known, although elements of other parts of Sappho's life do make appearances in her work, and it would be compatible with her style to have these intimate encounters expressed poetically, as well. Her homoerotica should be placed in the seventh century (BC) context. The poems of Alcaeus and later Pindar record similar romantic bonds between the members of a given circle.[21]

Sappho's contemporary Alcaeus described her thus: "Violet-haired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho" (ἰόπλοκ᾽ ἄγνα μελλιχόμειδε Σάπφοι, fr. 384). The 3rd Century philosopher Maximus of Tyre wrote that Sappho was "small and dark" and that her relationships to her female friends were similar to those of Socrates:

What else was the love of the Lesbian woman except Socrates' art of love? For they seem to me to have practised love each in their own way, she that of women, he that of men. For they say that both loved many and were captivated by all things beautiful. What Alcibiades and Charmides and Phaedrus were to him, Gyrinna and Atthis and Anactoria were to the Lesbian.

During the Victorian era, it became the fashion to describe Sappho as the headmistress of a girls' finishing school. As Page DuBois (among many other experts) points out, this attempt at making Sappho understandable and palatable to the genteel classes of Great Britain was based more on conservative sensibilities than evidence. In fact, many argue there are no references to teaching, students, academies, or tutors in any of Sappho's admittedly scant collection of surviving works. Burnett follows others, like C.M. Bowra, in suggesting that Sappho's circle was somewhat akin to the Spartan agelai or the religious sacred band, the thiasos, but Burnett nuances her argument by noting that Sappho's circle was distinct from these contemporary examples because "membership in the circle seems to have been voluntary, irregular and to some degree international."[22] The notion that Sappho was in charge of some sort of academy persists nonetheless.


Wikisource has original works written by or about:

Meters and genres

Ancient sources state that Sappho produced nine volumes of poetry.

The surviving poetry

The surviving proportion of the nine-volume corpus of poetry read in antiquity is small but still constitutes a poetic corpus of major importance. There is a single complete poem, Fragment 1, Hymn to Aphrodite.[23] Other major fragments include two virtually-complete poems (16 and 31 in the standard numeration) and three shorter fragments, including one whose authorship is uncertain (168b).[24][25]

Recent discoveries

Sappho's recently discovered poem on old age (lines 9-20). 3rd cent. B.C. papyrus, from an exhibit of the Altes Museum
Sappho's recently discovered poem on old age (lines 9-20). 3rd cent. B.C. papyrus, from an exhibit of the Altes Museum

The most recent addition to the corpus is a virtually-complete poem on old age. The line-ends were first published in 1922 from an Oxyrhynchus papyrus, no. 1787 (fragment 1: see the third pair of images on this page), but little could be made of them, since the indications of poem-end (placed at the beginnings of the lines) were lost, and scholars could only guess where one poem ended and another began. Most of the rest of the poem has recently (2004) been published from a 3rd century BC papyrus in the Cologne University collection. The latest reconstruction, by M. L. West, appeared in the Zeitschrift fr Papyrologie und Epigraphik 151 (2005), 1-9, and in the Times Literary Supplement on 21 June 2005 (English translation and discussion). Another full literary translation is available.[26] The Greek text has been reproduced with helpful notes for students of the language,[27] together with other examples of Greek lyric poetry.

A major new literary discovery, the Milan Papyrus,[28][dead link] recovered from a dismantled mummy casing and published in 2001, has revealed the high esteem in which the poet Posidippus of Pella, an important composer of epigrams (3rd century BC), held Sappho's 'divine songs'. An English translation of the new epigrams, with notes, is available,[29] as is the original Greek text.[30]


Loss and preservation of Sappho's works

Sappho, by Charles Mengin (1877) Manchester Art Gallery, UK
Sappho, by Charles Mengin (1877) Manchester Art Gallery, UK

Although Sappho's work endured well into Roman times, with changing interests, styles, and aesthetics her work was copied less and less, especially after the academies stopped requiring her study. Part of the reason for her disappearance from the standard canon was the predominance of Attic and Homeric Greek as the languages required to be studied. Sappho's Aeolic dialect, a difficult one, and by Roman times, arcane and ancient as well, posed considerable obstacles to her continued popularity.

Once the major academies of the Byzantine Empire dropped her works from their standard curricula, very few copies of her works were made by scribes. Still, the greatest poets and thinkers of ancient Rome continued to emulate her or compare other writers to her, and it is through these comparisons and descriptions that we have received much of her extant poetry.

Modern legends, with origins that are difficult to trace, have made Sappho's literary legacy the victim of purposeful obliteration by scandalized church leaders, often by means of book-burning. There is no known historical evidence for these accounts. Indeed, Gregory of Nazianzus, who along with Pope Gregory VII features as the villain in many of these stories, was a reader and admirer of Sappho's poetry. For example, modern scholars have noted the echoes of Sappho fr. 2 in his poem On Human Nature, which copies from Sappho the quasi-sacred grove (alsos), the wind-shaken branches, and the striking word for "deep sleep" (kōma).[31]

It appears likely that Sappho's poetry was largely lost through action of the same forces of cultural change that obliterated, without prejudice, the remains of all the canonical archaic Greek poets. Indeed, as one would expect from ancient critical estimations, which regard Sappho and Pindar as the greatest practitioners of monodic lyric and choral poetry (respectively), more of Sappho's work has survived through quotation than any of the others, with the exception of Pindar (whose works alone survive in a manuscript tradition).

Sources of the surviving fragments

Although the manuscript tradition broke off, some of Sappho's poetry has been discovered in Egyptian papyri fragments from an earlier period, such as those found in the ancient rubbish heaps of Oxyrhynchus, where a major find brought many new but tattered verses to light, providing a major new source.[32] One substantial fragment is preserved on a potsherd. The rest of what we know of Sappho comes through citations in other ancient writers, often made to illustrate grammar, vocabulary, or meter.

Reputation in antiquity

In antiquity, Sappho was commonly regarded as the greatest, or one of the greatest, of lyric poets. An epigram in the Anthologia Palatina (9.506) ascribed to Plato states:

Some say the Muses are nine: how careless!
Look, there's Sappho too, from Lesbos, the tenth.

Claudius Aelianus wrote in Miscellany (Ποικίλη ἱστορία) that Plato called Sappho wise. A story is recounted in the Florilegium (3.29.58) of Stobaeus:

Solon of Athens heard his nephew sing a song of Sappho's over the wine and, since he liked the song so much, he asked the boy to teach it to him. When someone asked him why, he said, "So that I may learn it, then die."

A few centuries later, Horace wrote in his Odes that Sappho's lyrics are worthy of sacred admiration. One of Sappho's poems was famously translated by the 1st century BC Roman poet Catullus in his "Ille mi par esse deo videtur" (Catullus 51).

Modern translations

From the time of the European Renaissance, the interest in Sappho's writing has grown, seeing waves of fairly widespread popularity as new generations rediscover her work. Since few people are able to understand ancient languages, each age has translated Sappho in its own idiomatic way. Poetry, such as Sappho's, that relies on meter is difficult to reproduce in English which uses stress-based meters and rhyme compared to Ancient Greek's solely length-based meters. As a result, many early translators used rhyme and worked Sappho's ideas into English poetic forms.

In the 1960s, Mary Barnard reintroduced Sappho to the reading public with a new approach to translation that eschewed the use of rhyming stanzas or forms of poetry, such as the sonnet. Subsequent translators have tended to work in a similar manner, seeking to allow the essence of Sappho's spirit to be visible through the translated verses.

In 2002, classicist and poet Anne Carson produced If Not, Winter, an exhaustive translation of Sappho's fragments. Her line-by-line translations, complete with brackets where the ancient papyrus sources break off, are meant to capture both the original's lyricism and its present fragmentary nature.

References in modern literature

Lord Byron wrote the following lines about her in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Stanza XXXIX:

And onward viewed the mount, not yet forgot,
The lover's refuge and the Lesbian's grave.
Dark Sappho! could not verse immortal save
That breast imbued with such immortal fire?

Sappho was a key figure for the Victorian female poet, who took her as an inspirational figure as one of the first female poets. Poets as varied as Caroline Norton, Felicia Hemans and L.E.L all wrote variations on 'Sappho's song'

Charles Baudelaire writes about Sappho in Les Fleurs du mal.

Ezra Pound admired Sappho's work and wrote "'Ιμερρω" (Poetry, September 1916) to Atthis, the subject of many of Sappho's poems.

Lawrence Durrell wrote a play in verse titled Sappho, set in 7th Century BC Lesbos.

Algernon Swinburne wrote a poem concerning Sappho, Sapphics, and another, Anactoria, concerning her and her lover Anactoria, which makes Sappho into a rather hyperbolic sadomasochist. The Sapphic stanza is a poetic form occasionally imitated by modern writers, including Swinburne's Sapphics.

The Italian composer Giovanni Pacini (1796-1867) composed an opera entitled Saffo for the San Carlo Theatre in Naples. It premiered on 29 November 1840.

The French composer Charles Gounod's first opera entitled Sapho, was about the lyric poet.

Christina Stead wrote a short story about Sappho which is included in her book The Salzburg Tales.

Nancy Freedman wrote a novelisation of Sappho's life entitled Sappho: The Tenth Muse, incorporating surviving fragments of her poetry into the story.

The Polish poet Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska wrote the poems The Roses for Sappho.

Erica Jong wrote a novel about Sappho called Sappho's Leap.

Sappho figures heavily in the later books of William Carlos Williams' Paterson (poem).

Sappho is also a major character in the fictional book Art & Lies: A Piece for Three Voices and a Bawd by Jeanette Winterson.

Certain early twentieth century poets such as Rene Vivien, H.D., and Natalie Clifford Barney rejected the idea that Sappho killed herself because of Phaon. In Barney's Acts d'entr'actes, for example Sappho kills herself because of her love for a girl promised in marriage.[33]

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, by J.D. Salinger, references Sappho in its title and within its text.


  1. ^ See, for example, J. Fairweather, "Fiction in the biographies of ancient writers," Ancient Society 5 (1974); Mary R. Lefkowitz, The lives of the Greek poets, Johns Hopkins UP, 1981.
  2. ^ Campbell, p. x. - xi.
  3. ^ Page, Sappho and Alcaeus, p. 224-5.
  4. ^ P. Oxy. 1800 fr. 1
  5. ^ (Campbell 1982)
  6. ^ See e.g. Gordon, pp. xii-xiii
  7. ^ Robinson, p. 15.
  8. ^ Herodotus and Claudius Aelianus have Scamandronymus. P. Oxy. 1800 fr. 1 has Scamander or Scamandronymus. The Suda offers a plethora of possibilities: Simon, Eumenus, Eerigyius, Ecrytus, Semus, Camon, Etarchus or Scamandronymus.
  9. ^ Campbell, p. 15.
  10. ^ (Campbell 1982, p.3)
  11. ^ (Campbell 1982, p.xi & 189)
  12. ^ (Campbell 1982, p.187)
  13. ^ (Campbell 1982, p.15)
  14. ^ (Campbell 1982, p.63 & 65)
  15. ^ Lidov, p. 203 and throughout.
  16. ^ (Campbell 1982, p.5)
  17. ^ Holt Parker, "Sappho Schoolmistress" (orig. pub. Transactions of the American Philological Association 123 (1993), pp. 309-51.
  18. ^ Page, Sappho and Alcaeus, p. 225-6.
  19. ^ Lidov, p. 205-6.
  20. ^ For example, in Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches, ed. Ellen Greene, University of California Press, 1996: Mary Lefkowitz, "Critical Stereotypes and the Poetry of Sappho," pp. 28f. (the story of Sappho's death represents her as "deprived because of her hugliness of male attention...which she craves"); Judith Hallett, "Sappho and Her Social Context: Sense and Sensuality," pp. 126f., while sounding a note of caution about careless assumptions of Sappho's homosexuality, discusses the story of Sappho's sexual conversion and death in the context of "disbelief and disapproval" regarding accounts of her homosexuality, which such legends may aim to disprove; Eva Stehle, "Sappho's Gaze: Fantasies of a Goddess and Young Man," p. 195 n. 10, considers that "The story probably developed in fourth-century comedy."
  21. ^ Anne Pippin Burnett, Three Archaic Poets: Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho, Harvard UP, 1983.
  22. ^ Burnett, op. cit., p. 210
  23. ^ Hymn to Aphrodite, translation, and notes
  24. ^ Fragment 168b
  25. ^ Main fragments and translations
  26. ^ A New Poem by Sappho (from
  27. ^ Epic, Archaic and Classical Greek Poetry. Retrieved on October 30, 2005.
  28. ^ Partial image. Retrieved on October 30, 2005.
  29. ^ Translations and notes are available: Diotima. Retrieved on October 30, 2005.
  30. ^ The Greek text: Center for Hellenic Studies - Epigrams. Retrieved on October 30, 2005.
  31. ^ Quintino Cataudella, "Saffo fr. 5 (5) – 6 (5) Diehl," Atene e Roma ser. 3 vol. 8 (1940), pp. 199-201. Cf. Page, Sappho and Alcaeus, p. 37.
  32. ^ An example from book 2 of the collected edition: Virtual Exhibition. Retrieved on October 30, 2005.
  33. ^ Susan Gubar, "Sapphistries", Signs, Vol. 10. No. 1. (Autumn 1984) pp. 43-62.


  • Barnard, Mary (transl.), Sappho: A New Translation, University of California Press; Reissue edition (June 1986) ISBN 0-520-22312-8
  • Barnstone, Willis (transl.) Sappho and the Greek Lyric Poets, Schoken Books Inc., New York (paperback 1988) ISBN 0-8052-0831-3 (A collection of modern English translations suitable for a general audience, includes complete poems and fragments along with a brief history of each of the featured poets.)
  • Campbell, D. A. (ed.) (1982), Greek Lyric 1: Sappho and Alcaeus, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., ISBN 0-674-99157-5 (Contains complete Greek text and English translation, including references to Sappho by ancient authors. A good starting-point for serious students who are new to this poetry.)
  • Carman, Bliss, Sappho: 100 Lyrics, (1907). Public domain text available from Project Gutenberg [1]
  • Carson, Anne (transl.), If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, Knopf (2002) ISBN 0-375-41067-8; also Virago Press Ltd, UK, ISBN 1-84408-081-1 (A modern bilingual edition for general readers as well as students of ancient Greek languages; N.Y. Times review)
  • DuBois, Page, Sappho Is Burning, University of Chicago Press (1995) ISBN 0-226-16755-0
  • Lidov, Joel, "Sappho, Herodotus and the Hetaira", in Classical Philology, July 2002, pp. 203-237.
  • Lobel, E. and D. L. Page (eds.), Poetarum Lesbiorum fragmenta, Oxford, Clarendon Press, (1955).
  • Lombardo, Stanley (transl.) and Pamela Gordon (introd.), Sappho: Poems and Fragments, Hackett Publishing (2002) ISBN 0872205916
  • Page, D. L., Sappho and Alcaeus, Oxford, Clarendon Press, (1955).
  • Rayor, Diane (transl.), Sappho's Lyre: Archaic Lyric and Women Poets of Ancient Greece, University of California Press (1991) ISBN 0-520-07336-3 (cloth); ISBN 0-520-07336-3 (paper)
  • Williamson, Margaret, Sappho's Immortal Daughters, Harvard University Press (1995) ISBN 0-674-78912-1

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