(c. 610-c. 570 BC)

Other names: Psappho


A Greek poet, Sappho was one of the two great leaders of the Aeolian school of lyric poetry (Alcaeus being the other). It is generally accepted that she was a native of Lesbos, although other sources claimed she was actually from Mytilene. Different authorities also gave several different names of her father, such as Simon, Eunomius, Erigyius, Ecrytus, Semus, Scamon, Etarchus, and Scamandronymus. Ovid stated that she lost her father when she was only six years old. His epistle in Heroides on the supposed love of Sappho for Phaon contains allusions to most of the few known events of Sappho's life. Cleis is mentioned as her mother's name, but only by late writers. She herself addresses her mother as living. She had a daughter named Cleis, whom she herself mentions with the greatest affection. Her husband's name was Cercolas or Cercylas of Andros. She had three brothers, Charaxus, Larichus, and Eurigius, according to Suidas, but only the two former are mentioned by writers of authority. Of Larichus it is stated that in his youth he held a distinguished place among the Mytilenaeans. Sappho herself praised the grace with which he acted as cup-bearer in the prytaneium, an honourable office, which was assigned to beautiful youths of noble birth. Charaxus is mentioned in his sister's poetry in a different manner. Having arrived at Naucratis in Egypt, in pursuit of his occupation as a merchant, he became so enamoured of the courtesan Rhodopis, that he ransomed her from slavery at an immense price; but on his return to Mytilene he was violently upbraided by Sappho in a poem. According to Suidas, Charaxus married Rhodopis and had children by her; but Herodotus says that she remained in Egypt. Athenaeus states that Herodotus was wrong in that the courtesan's name was actually Doricha, but both may be right as her proper name was probably Doicha, and Rhodopis simply an appellation of endearment.

The period at which Sappho flourished is determined by the concurrent statements of various writers, and by allusions in the fragments of her own works. Athenaeus places her in the time of the Lydian king Alyattes, who reigned from 628 to 570 BC. Eusebius mentions her at 604 BC, and Suidas makes her contemporary with Alcaeus, Stesichorus, and Pittacus in 611 BC. That she was not only contemporary, but was friends with Alcaeus is shown in existing fragments of the poetry of both. Alcaeus addresses her 'Violet-crowned, pure, sweetly-smiling Sappho, I wish to tell thee something, but shame prevents me.', and Sappho in reply, with modest indignation, taking up his words, upbraids him for the want of honourable directness. It is not known how long she lived. The story about her brother Charaxus and Rhodopis would bring her down to at least 572 BC, the year of the accession of Amasis, king of Egypt, as, according to Herodotus, it was under this king that Rhodopis flourished. That Sappho did not die young is pretty clear from the general tenor of the statements respecting her, and from her own reference to herself.

Of the events of her life, there is no other information than an obscure allusion in the Parian Marble and in Ovid, to her flight from Mytilene to Sicily, to escape some unknown danger, between 604 and 592 BC, but it is not difficult to come to a conclusion respecting the position she occupied and the life she led at Mytilene; a subject interesting in itself, and on account of the gross perversions of the truth respecting it which have been current both in ancient and modern times.

The well-known fable of Sappho's love for Phaon, and her despairing leap from the Leucadian rock, seems to lack any historicity. The name of Phaon does not occur in any of Sappho's fragments, and there is no evidence that it was once mentioned in her poems. It first appears in the Attic comedies, and is probably derived from the story of the love of Aphrodite for Adonis, who in the Greek version of the myth was called Phaethon or Phaon. How this name came to be connected with that of Sappho is now impossible to trace. There are passages in her poems referring to her love for a beautiful youth, whom she endeavoured to conciliate by her poetry; and these passages may perhaps be the foundation of the legend. As for the leap from the Leucadian rock, it is a mere metaphor, which is taken from an expiatory rite connected with the worship of Apollo, which seems to have been a frequent poetical image. It occurs in Stesichorus and Anacreon, and may have been used by Sappho, though it is not to be found in any of her extant fragments.

Another matter of great interest is concerning the relations of Sappho with other women. She appears to have been the centre of a female literary society, most of the members of which were her pupils in the technical portion of her art. At Lesbos she was head of a great poetic school, for poetry in that age and place was cultivated as assiduously and apparently as successfully by both women and men. The female companions and pupils of Sappho are mentioned by various ancient writers and she herself refers to her household as devoted to the service of the Muses. Among the women mentioned as her companions are Anactoria of Miletus, Gongyla of Colophon, Eunica of Salamis, Gyrinna, Atthis, and Mnasidica. Those of them who obtained the highest celebrity for their own poetical works were, Damophila the Pamphylian, and Erinna of Telos.

Sappho's poems were arranged in nine books, on what principle is uncertain; she is said to have sung them to the Mixo-Lydian mode, which she herself invented. The perfection and finish of every line, the correspondence of sense and sound, the incomparable command over all the most delicate resources of verse, and the exquisite symmetry of the complete odes which are extant, raise her into the very first rank of technical poetry at once, while her painting of passion, which caused Longinus to quote the ode to Anactoria as an example of the sublime, has never been since surpassed, and only approached by Catullus and in the Vita Nuova. Her fragments also bear witness to a profound feeling for the beauty of nature. The ancients also attributed to her a considerable power in satire, but in hexameter verse they considered her inferior to her pupil Erinna.

Place of birth: Lesbos





1. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018.
2. Sir W. Smith, ed. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, vol. 1. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1870.
3. Encyclopaedia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature and General Information, 11th edn, vol. 24. New York: Encyclopaedia Britannica Co., 1911.


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