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Sappho (b. 630 BC)

Biographical Information

Main Works

Selected Quotations


Biographical Information

  • Sappho, Greek woman poet, born around 630 B.C.

  • lived on the island of Lesbos off the coast of Asia Minor, an Ionian Greek (like Homer)

  • aristocratic woman who had a circle of female friends among whom she sang her songs

  • also composed songs for public performance at religious or other social occasions

  • later known as the "Tenth Muse"

  • poetry dealing with a variety of themes and issues including the life of aristocratic Greek women, Greek religion and mythology, ethics and morality, aesthetics and beauty, heterosexual and homosexual love, and the relations between and competition with other poets

  • nine books of her poetry were once kept at the library of Alexandria (3rd c. B. C.), now lost; only one poem survives in complete form, others are preserved in fragments

  • systematic destruction of Sappho's works by later Christian censors

  • fragments of her poetry recovered from quotations in commentaries by ancient writers and from Egyptian sites

  • Sapphic stanza: poetic form employed by and named after Sappho

Main Works

Recommended translations of the surviving fragments of Sappho's poetry:

  • Anne Carson, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2002), bilingual edition, Greek and English with missing material indicated in brackets

  • Richmond Lattimore, Greek Lyrics (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1960)

Study Questions

What images emerge, from the poetry of Sappho, regarding the life of aristocratic women in ancient Greece? What were their values and concerns? What were the conditions of their existence? What were their social roles? What can we determine about their daily lives? What was the nature of their relation to men and other women? Does the fact of gender segregation affect their life and social relations? If so, how? Is there a woman's world distinct, in values and practices, from that of men?

What is the significance of Sappho's belonging to the Ionian Greek culture (in and around Asia Minor). In what way may that have affected her perceptions and attitudes toward the culture of the Greek mainland? Are there any similarities or differences in Sappho's ideas, values and themes and those found in the works of Homer (who also appears to have lived in Asia Minor)? Are there similarities connected to their common culture and geographical proximity? How may one characterize the situation and thinking of poets like Sappho and Homer living in a sort of margin / borderland between cultures? Are there, on the other hand, differences connected to the gender of the poets? Did ancient Greek men and women look at life in different ways? How is that expressed in the choice of themes, language and imagery in their poetry?

What is the attitude toward love in Sappho's poetry? What sorts of love does she write about? What role did love play in the life of men and women in ancient Greece? What is the character of that love? Were there different forms of it? Is it only heterosexual? What were the attitudes toward male homosexuality in ancient Greece? Was it condemned? Was it accepted? How about love between women? Was there a double standard? How does that compare to modern attitudes and practices regarding love and gender relations?

Is the love that Sappho sings about an expression of wider social and/or gender concerns? Is it in any way a sort of counter- or sub-culture in the ancient Greek context? How does it relate to the mainstream male culture of martial prowess and violent heroic action? May Sappho's work be read in any way as the expression of an alternative voice? If so, what specific values and visions of human life are upheld in her works?
Selected Quotations
  • "Some there are who say that the fairest thing seen
    on the black earth is an array of horsemen;
    some, men marching; some would say ships; but I say
    she whom one loves best
    is the loveliest ... "
    (trans. R. Lattimore)



Dr. Fajardo-Acosta gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Dr. Christina A. Clark in the revision of this page


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Last updated: 08/05/2004


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