Sappho of Lesbos: Ancient Greek Poetess



published on 18 January 2012

Sappho was born in 612 B.C. on the island of Lesbos, located in the northeastern Aegean Sea. Born into an aristocratic family, Sappho was fortunate to be exposed to the public life. As an upper class Greek, she would have been well read and exposed to the "finer things" in Greek life, such as banquets, dances, festivals, and religious ceremonies. The extent of her exposure to the public and civic arenas is reflected in much of her poetry.

Mostly, though, Sappho's poetry was very personal in nature, touching on personal crises of her life, such as the time when her family was exiled from her homeland of Lesbos during a coup. She also wrote of her daughter, Kleis, her family, and most lovingly of her female friends.

Sappho of Lesbos

As a poet in ancient Greece, Sappho would have been educated in the fine arts of composing lyrics and songs, playing the lyre, singing, and dancing. As only one of a handful of female poets who garnered any merit in her lifetime, she was among an extraordinary group of artists and certainly women, who were revered for their minds and opinions. Saphho's poetry style was lyric poetry, and was meant to be sung along to music, and would have been enjoyed by the aristocracy as entertainment after a social event such as a banquet.

Throughout Classical Greek and even Roman history, Sappho's works were renowned, and were studied alongside the works of the greatest Greek poets, such as Pindar. The philosopher Plato even referred to her as the 10th muse. Her work remained required reading in academic circles through the Roman Period. During the Byzantine era, when Christianity had taken hold and church leaders ordered the desecration of the symbols of paganism and pleasure from the previous eras, Sappho was no longer studied by students in the academies. Her works (9 volumes in total) discontinued being copied by scribes, and slowly the legacy of Sappho and her passionate works faded away.

Sappho was prominent enough in her day to have her face minted on Greek coinage, a high and unheard of honor for a mortal Greek woman. Her portrait also graced vases, bronze sculptures, and even Roman art. Her words were powerful, and transcended her gender in the eyes of many Greeks.

What remains of Sappho's works today are fragments, either handed down through the generations in the forms of borrowed quotations of her poems, or from fragmentary evidence found by archaeologists and scholars. The power of Sappho's words were resonant enough to stand above many of ancient Greece's poets and lyricists - many of whom happened to be men.

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