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Sappho

Sappho

Overview
Sappho was an Ancient Greek
Ancient Greece
Ancient Greece is a civilization belonging to a period of Greek history that lasted from the Archaic period of the 8th to 6th centuries BC to the end of antiquity. Immediately following this period was the beginning of the Early Middle Ages and the Byzantine era. Included in Ancient Greece is the...

 poet, born on the island of Lesbos. Later Greeks included her in the list of nine lyric poets
Nine lyric poets
The nine lyric poets were a canon of archaic Greek composers esteemed by the scholars of Hellenistic Alexandria as worthy of critical study.They were:*Alcman of Sparta...

. Her birth was sometime between 630 and 612 BC, and it is said that she died around 570 BC, but little is known for certain about her life. 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.


The only contemporary source for Sappho's life is her own poetry, and scholars are skeptical of reading it biographically.
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Encyclopedia
Sappho was an Ancient Greek
Ancient Greece
Ancient Greece is a civilization belonging to a period of Greek history that lasted from the Archaic period of the 8th to 6th centuries BC to the end of antiquity. Immediately following this period was the beginning of the Early Middle Ages and the Byzantine era. Included in Ancient Greece is the...

 poet, born on the island of Lesbos. Later Greeks included her in the list of nine lyric poets
Nine lyric poets
The nine lyric poets were a canon of archaic Greek composers esteemed by the scholars of Hellenistic Alexandria as worthy of critical study.They were:*Alcman of Sparta...

. Her birth was sometime between 630 and 612 BC, and it is said that she died around 570 BC, but little is known for certain about her life. 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.

Life



The only contemporary source for Sappho's life is her own poetry, and scholars are skeptical of reading it biographically. Later biographical accounts are also unreliable.

Chronology


Strabo
Strabo
Strabo, also written Strabon was a Greek historian, geographer and philosopher.-Life:Strabo was born to an affluent family from Amaseia in Pontus , a city which he said was situated the approximate equivalent of 75 km from the Black Sea...

 indicates that Sappho was the contemporary of Alcaeus of Mytilene (born ca. 620 BC) and Pittacus (ca. 645 - 570 BC), and according to Athenaeus
Athenaeus
Athenaeus , of Naucratis in Egypt, Greek rhetorician and grammarian, flourished about the end of the 2nd and beginning of the 3rd century AD...

, she was the contemporary of Alyattes
Alyattes
Alyattes may refer to:* Alyattes I, king of Lydia * Alyattes II, king of Lydia,...

 of Lydia (ca. 610 - 560 BC). The Suda
Suda
The Suda or Souda is a massive 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia of the ancient Mediterranean world, formerly attributed to an author called Suidas. It is an encyclopedic lexicon, written in Greek, with 30,000 entries, many drawing from ancient sources that have since been lost, and often...

, a 10th century Byzantine
Byzantine Empire
The Byzantine Empire was the Eastern Roman Empire during the periods of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, centred on the capital of Constantinople. Known simply as the Roman Empire or Romania to its inhabitants and neighbours, the Empire was the direct continuation of the Ancient Roman State...

 encyclopædia, dates her to the 42nd Olympiad (612/608 BC), meaning either that she was born then or that this was her floruit
Floruit
Floruit , abbreviated fl. , is a Latin verb meaning "flourished", denoting the period of time during which something was active...

. 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 BC). Taken together, these references make it likely that she was born ca. 620 BC, or a little earlier.

Judging from the Parian Marble
Parian marble
Parian marble is a fine-grained semitranslucent pure-white and entirely flawless marble quarried during the classical era on the Greek island of Paros in the Aegean Sea.It was highly prized by ancient Greeks for making sculptures...

, she was exiled from Lesbos to Sicily
Sicily
Sicily is a region of Italy, and is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. Along with the surrounding minor islands, it constitutes an autonomous region of Italy, the Regione Autonoma Siciliana Sicily has a rich and unique culture, especially with regard to the arts, music, literature,...

 sometime between 604 and 594 BC. 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 BC.

Family


An Oxyrhynchus
Oxyrhynchus
Oxyrhynchus is a city in Upper Egypt, located about 160 km south-southwest of Cairo, in the governorate of Al Minya. It is also an archaeological site, considered one of the most important ever discovered...

 papyrus from around AD 200 and the Suda agree that Sappho had a mother called Cleïs and a daughter by the same name. The papyrus line reads "She [Sappho] had a daughter Cleis named after her mother." (Duban 1983, 121) Two preserved fragments of Sappho's poetry refer to a Cleïs. In Fragment 98, Sappho addresses Cleïs, 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, for whom I would not (take) all Lydia or lovely..." 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. Cleïs is referred to in Fragment 132 with the Greek word pais, which can as easily indicate a slave
Slavery in antiquity
Slavery in the ancient world, specifically, in Mediterranean cultures, comprised a mixture of debt-slavery, slavery as a punishment for crime, and the enslavement of prisoners of war....

 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.

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. The name of Sappho's father is widely given as Scamandronymus, but he is not referred to in any of the surviving fragments. In his Heroides
Heroides
The Heroides , or Epistulae Heroidum , are a collection of fifteen epistolary poems composed by Ovid in Latin elegiac couplets, and presented as though written by a selection of aggrieved heroines of Greek and Roman mythology, in address to their heroic lovers who have in some way mistreated,...

, 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.

Sappho was reported to have three brothers: Erigyius (or Eurygius), Larichus and Charaxus. The Oxyrhynchus papyrus indicates that Charaxus was the eldest, but that Sappho was more fond of the young Larichus. 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. This indication that Sappho was born into an aristocratic family is consistent with the sometimes rarefied environments that her verses record.

A story recorded by Herodotus
Herodotus
Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus, Caria and lived in the 5th century BC . He has been called the "Father of History", and was the first historian known to collect his materials systematically, test their accuracy to a certain extent and arrange them in a...

, and later by Strabo, Athenaeus, Ovid
Ovid
Publius Ovidius Naso , known as Ovid in the English-speaking world, was a Roman poet who is best known as the author of the three major collections of erotic poetry: Heroides, Amores, and Ars Amatoria...

 and the Suda, tells of a relation between Charaxus and the Egyptian courtesan Rhodopis
Rhodopis (hetaera)
Rhodopis was a celebrated 6th-century BCE Greek hetaera, of Thracian origin. She is one of only two hetaerae mentioned by name in Herodotus's discussion of the profession ....

. 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. 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. He also cites an epigram by Posidippus
Posidippus
Posidippus of Pella was an Ancient Greek epigrammatic poet.-Life:Posidippus was born in the city of Pella, capital of the kingdom of Macedon. He lived for some time in Samos before moving permanently to the court of Ptolemy I Soter and later Ptolemy II Philadelphus in Alexandria, Egypt...

 (3rd c. BC) that 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. 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
Cratinus
Cratinus , Athenian comic poet of the Old Comedy.-Life:Cratinus was victorious six times at the City Dionysia, first probably in the mid- to late 450s BCE , and three times at the Lenaia, first probably in the early 430s...

 or another of Herodotus' comic contemporaries.

The Suda
Suda
The Suda or Souda is a massive 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia of the ancient Mediterranean world, formerly attributed to an author called Suidas. It is an encyclopedic lexicon, written in Greek, with 30,000 entries, many drawing from ancient sources that have since been lost, and often...

 is alone in claiming that Sappho was married to a "very wealthy man called Cercylas, who traded from Andros" and that he was Cleïs' father. This tradition may have been invented by the comic poets as a witticism, as the name of the purported husband means "Penis, from Men's Island."


Exile


Sappho's lifetime witnessed a period of political turbulence on Lesbos and saw the rise of Pittacus. According to the Parian Marble
Parian marble
Parian marble is a fine-grained semitranslucent pure-white and entirely flawless marble quarried during the classical era on the Greek island of Paros in the Aegean Sea.It was highly prized by ancient Greeks for making sculptures...

, 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. 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
Menander
Menander , Greek dramatist, the best-known representative of Athenian New Comedy, was the son of well-to-do parents; his father Diopeithes is identified by some with the Athenian general and governor of the Thracian Chersonese known from the speech of Demosthenes De Chersoneso...

 (Fr. 258 K) suggested that Sappho killed herself by jumping off the Leucadian cliffs for love of Phaon
Phaon
Phaon in Greek mythology was a boatman of Mitylene in Lesbos. He was old and ugly when Aphrodite came to his boat. She put on the guise of a crone. Phaon ferried her over to Asia Minor and accepted no payment for doing so. In return, she gave him a box of ointment. When he rubbed it on himself, he...

, a ferryman. This is regarded as unhistorical by modern scholars, perhaps invented by the comic poets or originating from a misreading of a first-person reference in a non-biographical poem. The legend may have resulted in part from a desire to assert Sappho as heterosexual.

Sexuality and community


Sappho's poetry centers on passion and love for various personages and both genders. The word lesbian
Lesbian
Lesbian is a term most widely used in the English language to describe sexual and romantic desire between females. The word may be used as a noun, to refer to women who identify themselves or who are characterized by others as having the primary attribute of female homosexuality, or as an...

derives from the name of the island of her birth, Lesbos, while her name is also the origin of the word sapphic
Sapphic
Sapphic can refer to:* Related to Sappho, a 7th century BC poetess** Sapphic stanza, a four line poetic form* Sapphic love, related to female homosexuality...

; neither word was applied to female homosexuality until the nineteenth century. 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 context of the seventh century (BC). The poems of Alcaeus
Alcaeus (poet)
Alcaeus of Mytilene , Ancient Greek lyric poet who supposedly invented the Alcaic verse. He was included in the canonical list of nine lyric poets by the scholars of Hellenistic Alexandria. He was an older contemporary and an alleged lover of Sappho, with whom he may have exchanged poems...

 and later Pindar
Pindar
Pindar , was an Ancient Greek lyric poet. Of the canonical nine lyric poets of ancient Greece, his work is the best preserved. Quintilian described him as "by far the greatest of the nine lyric poets, in virtue of his inspired magnificence, the beauty of his thoughts and figures, the rich...

 record similar romantic bonds between the members of a given circle.

Sappho's contemporary Alcaeus
Alcaeus (poet)
Alcaeus of Mytilene , Ancient Greek lyric poet who supposedly invented the Alcaic verse. He was included in the canonical list of nine lyric poets by the scholars of Hellenistic Alexandria. He was an older contemporary and an alleged lover of Sappho, with whom he may have exchanged poems...

 described her thus: "Violet-haired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho" . The third-century philosopher Maximus of Tyre
Maximus of Tyre
Cassius Maximus Tyrius Cassius Maximus Tyrius Cassius Maximus Tyrius (Maximus of Tyre; was a Greek rhetorician and philosopher who flourished in the time of the Antonines and Commodus. His writings contain many allusions to the history of Greece, while there is little reference to Rome; hence it...

 wrote that Sappho was "small and dark" and that her relationships to her female friends were similar to those of Socrates
Socrates
Socrates was a classical Greek Athenian philosopher. Credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, he is an enigmatic figure known chiefly through the accounts of later classical writers, especially the writings of his students Plato and Xenophon, and the plays of his contemporary ...

:
What else could one call the love of the Lesbian woman than the Socratic art of love? For they seem to me to have practised love after their own fashion, she the love of women, he of men. For they said they loved many, and were captivated by all things beautiful. What Alcibiades
Alcibiades
Alcibiades, son of Clinias, from the deme of Scambonidae , was a prominent Athenian statesman, orator, and general. He was the last famous member of his mother's aristocratic family, the Alcmaeonidae, which fell from prominence after the Peloponnesian War...

 and Charmides
Charmides
Charmides was an Athenian statesman who flourished during the fourth century BC. Uncle of Plato, Charmides appears in the Platonic dialogue bearing his name , the Protagoras, and the Symposium, as well as in Xenophon's Symposium, Memorabilia, and Hellenica...

 and Phaedrus
Phaedrus
Phaedrus , Roman fabulist, was probably a Thracian slave, born in Pydna of Macedonia and lived in the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius...

 were to him, Gyrinna and Atthis
Atthis
Atthis can be:*Atthis , in Greek myth, the daughter of Cranaus*Atthis , a lost book by Cleidemus named for her*A woman mentioned in love poetry by Sappho*Atthis in the hummingbird family...

 and Anactoria
Anactoria
Anactoria is the name of a woman mentioned by Sappho as a lover of hers in Fragment 16 , often referred to by the title "To an Army Wife, in Sardis." Fragment 31 is traditionally called the "Ode to Anactoria", though no name appears in it Anactoria (or Anaktoria) is the name of a woman mentioned...

 were to her ...


During the Victorian era
Victorian era
The Victorian era of British history was the period of Queen Victoria's reign from 20 June 1837 until her death on 22 January 1901. It was a long period of peace, prosperity, refined sensibilities and national self-confidence...

, it became fashionable 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
Great Britain
Great Britain or Britain is an island situated to the northwest of Continental Europe. It is the ninth largest island in the world, and the largest European island, as well as the largest of the British Isles...

 was based more on conservative sensibilities than evidence. There are no references to teaching, students, academies, or tutors in any of Sappho's 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
Sacred Band of Thebes
The Sacred Band of Thebes was a troop of picked soldiers, consisting of 150 male couples which formed the elite force of the Theban army in the 4th century BC. It was organised by the Theban commander Gorgidas in 378 BC and played a crucial role in the Battle of Leuctra...

, 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." The notion that Sappho was in charge of some sort of academy persists nonetheless.

Alexandrian edition of Sappho's poetry



The Library of Alexandria
Library of Alexandria
The Royal Library of Alexandria, or Ancient Library of Alexandria, in Alexandria, Egypt, was the largest and most significant great library of the ancient world. It flourished under the patronage of the Ptolemaic dynasty and functioned as a major center of scholarship from its construction in the...

 collected Sappho's poetry into nine books, mostly based on their meter
Meter (poetry)
In poetry, metre is the basic rhythmic structure of a verse or lines in verse. Many traditional verse forms prescribe a specific verse metre, or a certain set of metres alternating in a particular order. The study of metres and forms of versification is known as prosody...

:
  • Book I, poems composed in the Sapphic stanza
    Sapphic stanza
    The Sapphic stanza, named after Sappho, is an Aeolic verse form spanning four lines ....

    , 330 stanzas in all (Fragments 1–42);
  • Book II, poems composed in glyconic
    Glyconic
    Glyconic, , describes a form of meter in classical Greek and Latin poetry. The glyconic line is the most basic form of Aeolic verse, and it is often combined with others....

     lines with dactylic expansion (Frr. 43–52);
  • Book III, poems in Greater Asclepiad
    Asclepiad (poetry)
    An Asclepiad is a line of poetry following a particular metrical pattern. The form is attributed to Asclepiades of Samos and is one of the Aeolic metres....

     distichs (Frr. 53–57);
  • Book IV, poems in distichs of a somewhat similar meter (Frr. 58–91);
  • Book V, probably consisting of poems in various three-line stanzas (Frr. 92–101);
  • Book VI (contents unknown);
  • Book VII (only two surviving lines in the same meter, Fr. 102);
  • Book VIII (see Fr. 103);
  • Book IX, epithalamia in other meters, including dactylic hexameter
    Dactylic hexameter
    Dactylic hexameter is a form of meter in poetry or a rhythmic scheme. It is traditionally associated with the quantitative meter of classical epic poetry in both Greek and Latin, and was consequently considered to be the Grand Style of classical poetry...

     (Frr. 104–117).

Not every surviving fragment can be assigned to a book (Frr. 118–213 are unassigned), and other meters are represented in the fragments.

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, the Hymn to Aphrodite
Aphrodite
Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and procreation.Her Roman equivalent is the goddess .Historically, her cult in Greece was imported from, or influenced by, the cult of Astarte in Phoenicia....

, quoted in its entirety as a model of the "polished and exuberant" style of composition by Dionysius of Halicarnassus
Dionysius of Halicarnassus
Dionysius of Halicarnassus was a Greek historian and teacher of rhetoric, who flourished during the reign of Caesar Augustus. His literary style was Attistic — imitating Classical Attic Greek in its prime.-Life:...

, with admiration of its consummate artistry:
Other major fragments include three virtually-complete poems (in the standard numeration, fragments 16, 31
Sappho 31
Sappho 31 is a poem by Ancient Greek poet Sappho of Lesbos. It is also known as phainetai moi after the opening words of its first line, or Lobel-Page 31, Voigt 31, Gallavotti 2, Diehl 2, Bergk 2, after the location of the poem in various editions containing the collected works of Sappho...

, and the recently supplemented 58).

Recent discoveries


The most recent addition to the corpus is a virtually-complete poem on old age (fr. 58). The line-ends were first published in 1922 from an Oxyrhynchus
Oxyrhynchus
Oxyrhynchus is a city in Upper Egypt, located about 160 km south-southwest of Cairo, in the governorate of Al Minya. It is also an archaeological site, considered one of the most important ever discovered...

 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 (P.Köln XI 429). The latest reconstruction, by M. L. West, appeared in the Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 151 (2005), 1-9, and in the Times Literary Supplement on 21 June 2005 (English translation and discussion). The poem refers to the plight of Tithonus
Tithonus
In Greek mythology, Tithonus or Tithonos was the lover of Eos, Titan of the dawn. He was a Trojan by birth, the son of King Laomedon of Troy by a water nymph named Strymo . The mythology reflected by the fifth-century vase-painters of Athens envisaged Tithonus as a rhapsode, as the lyre in his...

, with whom the goddess Eos
Eos
In Greek mythology, Eos is the Titan goddess of the dawn, who rose from her home at the edge of Oceanus, the ocean that surrounds the world, to herald her brother Helios, the Sun.- Greek literature :...

 fell in love and requested he become immortal
Immortality
Immortality is the ability to live forever. It is unknown whether human physical immortality is an achievable condition. Biological forms have inherent limitations which may or may not be able to be overcome through medical interventions or engineering...

, but forgot to ensure that he stay forever young
Eternal youth
Eternal youth is the concept of human physical immortality free of aging. The youth referred to is usually meant to be in contrast to the depredations of aging, rather than a specific age of the human lifespan....

. The Greek text has been reproduced with helpful notes for students of the language.

Qualities of Sappho's poetry


David Campbell has briefly summarized some of the most arresting qualities of Sappho's poetry:
Clarity of language and simplicity of thought are everywhere evident in our fragments; wit and rhetoric, so common in English love-poetry and not quite absent from Catullus' love poems, are nowhere to be found. Her images are sharp—the sparrows that draw Aphrodite's chariot, the full moon in a starry sky, the solitary red apple at the tree-top—and she sometimes lingers over them to elaborate them for their own sake. She quotes the direct words of conversations real or imaginary and so gains immediacy. When the subject is the turbulence of her emotions, she displays a cool control in their expression. Above all, her words are chosen for their sheer melody: the skill with which she placed her vowels and consonants, admired by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, is evidenced by almost any stanza; the music to which she sang them has gone, but the spoken sounds may still enchant.

Reputation in antiquity


In antiquity, Sappho was commonly regarded as one of the greatest lyric poets. The Milan Papyrus
Milan Papyrus
The Milan Papyrus is a papyrus roll inscribed in Alexandria in the late 3rd or early 2nd century BC during the rule of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Originally discovered by anonymous tomb raiders as part of a mummy wrapping, it was purchased in the papyrus "grey market" in Europe in 1992 by the...

, recovered from a dismantled mummy casing and published in 2001, has revealed the high esteem in which the poet Posidippus
Posidippus
Posidippus of Pella was an Ancient Greek epigrammatic poet.-Life:Posidippus was born in the city of Pella, capital of the kingdom of Macedon. He lived for some time in Samos before moving permanently to the court of Ptolemy I Soter and later Ptolemy II Philadelphus in Alexandria, Egypt...

 of Pella, an important composer of epigrams (3rd century BC), held Sappho's "divine songs."

An epigram
Epigram
An epigram is a brief, interesting, usually memorable and sometimes surprising statement. Derived from the epigramma "inscription" from ἐπιγράφειν epigraphein "to write on inscribe", this literary device has been employed for over two millennia....

 in the Anthologia Palatina
Greek Anthology
The Greek Anthology is a collection of poems, mostly epigrams, that span the classical and Byzantine periods of Greek literature...

 (9.506) ascribed to Plato
Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...

 states:
Some say the Muse
Muse
The Muses in Greek mythology, poetry, and literature, are the goddesses who inspire the creation of literature and the arts. They were considered the source of the knowledge, related orally for centuries in the ancient culture, that was contained in poetic lyrics and myths...

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


Claudius Aelianus
Claudius Aelianus
Claudius Aelianus , often seen as just Aelian, born at Praeneste, was a Roman author and teacher of rhetoric who flourished under Septimius Severus and probably outlived Elagabalus, who died in 222...

 wrote in Miscellany that Plato
Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...

 called Sappho wise. A story is recounted in the Florilegium (3.29.58) of Stobaeus
Stobaeus
Joannes Stobaeus , from Stobi in Macedonia, was the compiler of a valuable series of extracts from Greek authors. The work was originally divided into two volumes containing two books each...

:
Solon of Athens
Solon
Solon was an Athenian statesman, lawmaker, and poet. He is remembered particularly for his efforts to legislate against political, economic and moral decline in archaic 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
Horace
Quintus Horatius Flaccus , known in the English-speaking world as Horace, was the leading Roman lyric poet during the time of Augustus.-Life:...

 wrote in his Odes that Sappho's lyrics are worthy of sacred admiration. One of Sappho's poems (fragment 31) was famously translated by the 1st century BC Roman
Ancient Rome
Ancient Rome was a thriving civilization that grew on the Italian Peninsula as early as the 8th century BC. Located along the Mediterranean Sea and centered on the city of Rome, it expanded to one of the largest empires in the ancient world....

 poet Catullus
Catullus
Gaius Valerius Catullus was a Latin poet of the Republican period. His surviving works are still read widely, and continue to influence poetry and other forms of art.-Biography:...

 in his "Ille mi par esse deo videtur" ("He seems to me to be equal to a god") (Catullus 51
Catullus 51
Catullus 51 is a poem by the Roman famous love poet Gaius Valerius Catullus . It is an adaptation of one of Sappho's fragmentary lyric poems, Sappho 31. Catullus replaces Sappho's beloved with his own beloved Lesbia. Unlike the majority of Catullus' poems, the meter of this poem is the sapphic...

).

Loss and preservation of Sappho's works


Although Sappho's work endured well into Roman
Ancient Rome
Ancient Rome was a thriving civilization that grew on the Italian Peninsula as early as the 8th century BC. Located along the Mediterranean Sea and centered on the city of Rome, it expanded to one of the largest empires in the ancient world....

 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
Attic Greek
Attic Greek is the prestige dialect of Ancient Greek that was spoken in Attica, which includes Athens. Of the ancient dialects, it is the most similar to later Greek, and is the standard form of the language studied in courses of "Ancient Greek". It is sometimes included in Ionic.- Origin and range...

 and Homeric Greek
Homeric Greek
Homeric Greek is the form of the Greek language that was used by Homer in the Iliad and Odyssey. It is an archaic version of Ionic Greek, with admixtures from certain other dialects, such as Aeolic Greek. It later served as the basis of Epic Greek, the language of epic poetry, typically in...

 as the languages required to be studied. Sappho's Aeolic Greek
Aeolic Greek
Aeolic Greek is a linguistic term used to describe a set of dialects of Ancient Greek spoken mainly in Boeotia , Thessaly, and in the Aegean island of Lesbos and the Greek colonies of Asia Minor ....

 dialect
Dialect
The term dialect is used in two distinct ways, even by linguists. One usage refers to a variety of a language that is a characteristic of a particular group of the language's speakers. The term is applied most often to regional speech patterns, but a dialect may also be defined by other factors,...

 is a difficult one, and by Roman times it was arcane and ancient as well, posed considerable obstacles to her continued popularity. Still, the greatest poets and thinkers of ancient Rome
Ancient Rome
Ancient Rome was a thriving civilization that grew on the Italian Peninsula as early as the 8th century BC. Located along the Mediterranean Sea and centered on the city of Rome, it expanded to one of the largest empires in the ancient world....

 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.

Once the major academies of the Byzantine Empire
Byzantine Empire
The Byzantine Empire was the Eastern Roman Empire during the periods of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, centred on the capital of Constantinople. Known simply as the Roman Empire or Romania to its inhabitants and neighbours, the Empire was the direct continuation of the Ancient Roman State...

 dropped her works from their standard curricula, very few copies of her works were made by scribes, and the 12th century Byzantine scholar Tzetzes speaks of her works as lost.

Modern legends, with origins that are difficult to trace, describe Sappho's literary legacy as being the victim of purposeful obliteration by scandalized church leaders, often by means of book-burning. There is no known historical evidence for these accounts.Gregory of Nazianzus
Gregory of Nazianzus
Gregory of Nazianzus was a 4th-century Archbishop of Constantinople. He is widely considered the most accomplished rhetorical stylist of the patristic age...

, who along with Pope Gregory VII
Pope Gregory VII
Pope St. Gregory VII , born Hildebrand of Sovana , was Pope from April 22, 1073, until his death. One of the great reforming popes, he is perhaps best known for the part he played in the Investiture Controversy, his dispute with Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor affirming the primacy of the papal...

, 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).

It appears likely that Sappho's poetry was largely lost through action of the same indiscriminate forces of cultural change that have left us such paltry remains of all nine canonical Greek lyric poets
Nine lyric poets
The nine lyric poets were a canon of archaic Greek composers esteemed by the scholars of Hellenistic Alexandria as worthy of critical study.They were:*Alcman of Sparta...

, of whom only Pindar
Pindar
Pindar , was an Ancient Greek lyric poet. Of the canonical nine lyric poets of ancient Greece, his work is the best preserved. Quintilian described him as "by far the greatest of the nine lyric poets, in virtue of his inspired magnificence, the beauty of his thoughts and figures, the rich...

 (whose works alone survive in a manuscript tradition) and Bacchylides
Bacchylides
Bacchylides was an Ancient Greek lyric poet. Later Greeks included him in the canonical list of nine lyric poets which included his uncle Simonides. The elegance and polished style of his lyrics have been a commonplace of Bacchylidean scholarship since at least Longinus...

 (our knowledge of whom we owe to a single dramatic papyrus find) have fared much better.

Sources of the surviving fragments


Although the manuscript
Manuscript
A manuscript or handwrite is written information that has been manually created by someone or some people, such as a hand-written letter, as opposed to being printed or reproduced some other way...

 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
Oxyrhynchus
Oxyrhynchus is a city in Upper Egypt, located about 160 km south-southwest of Cairo, in the governorate of Al Minya. It is also an archaeological site, considered one of the most important ever discovered...

, where a major find brought many new but tattered verses to light, providing a major new source. 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
Grammar
In linguistics, grammar is the set of structural rules that govern the composition of clauses, phrases, and words in any given natural language. The term refers also to the study of such rules, and this field includes morphology, syntax, and phonology, often complemented by phonetics, semantics,...

, vocabulary
Vocabulary
A person's vocabulary is the set of words within a language that are familiar to that person. A vocabulary usually develops with age, and serves as a useful and fundamental tool for communication and acquiring knowledge...

, or meter.

Modern translations


From the time of the European Renaissance
Renaissance
The Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th to the 17th century, beginning in Italy in the Late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. The term is also used more loosely to refer to the historical era, but since the changes of the Renaissance were not...

, the interest in Sappho's writing has grown. Since few people are able to understand ancient languages, each age has translated Sappho in its own idiomatic way. Poetry, such as Sappho's, written in quantitative verse, is difficult to reproduce in English
English language
English is a West Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and spread into what was to become south-east Scotland under the influence of the Anglian medieval kingdom of Northumbria...

 which uses stress-based meters and rhyme compared to Ancient Greek's solely length-based meters. As a result, many early translators used rhyme
Rhyme
A rhyme is a repetition of similar sounds in two or more words and is most often used in poetry and songs. The word "rhyme" may also refer to a short poem, such as a rhyming couplet or other brief rhyming poem such as nursery rhymes.-Etymology:...

 and worked Sappho's ideas into English poetic forms. Still, the Sapphic stanza
Sapphic stanza
The Sapphic stanza, named after Sappho, is an Aeolic verse form spanning four lines ....

, strongly associated with Sappho's poetry in the original, has become well known and influential among modern poets as well.

In 1904 Canadian poet Bliss Carman
Bliss Carman
Bliss Carman FRSC was a Canadian poet who lived most of his life in the United States, where he achieved international fame. He was acclaimed as Canada's poet laureate during his later years....

 published Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics
Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics
Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics is a book of poetry by Canadian poet Bliss Carman. It was first printed in 1904 in Boston by L.C. Page. Carman's cousin, and fellow Canadian poet, Charles G.D. Roberts wrote an introductory essay, "The Poetry of Sappho."...

, which was not just a translation of the fragments but an imaginative reconstruction of the lost poems. While of little to no scholarly value, Carman's translations brought Sappho's work to the attention of a wide readership.

In the 1960s, Mary Barnard
Mary Barnard
Mary Ethel Barnard was an American poet, biographer and Greek-to-English translator. She is known for her clear interpretation of the works of Sappho, a translation which has never gone out of print....

 reintroduced Sappho to the reading public with a new approach to translation that eschewed the use of rhyming stanza
Stanza
In poetry, a stanza is a unit within a larger poem. In modern poetry, the term is often equivalent with strophe; in popular vocal music, a stanza is typically referred to as a "verse"...

s and traditional forms. Subsequent translators have tended to work in a similar manner. In 2002, classicist and poet Anne Carson
Anne Carson
Anne Carson is a Canadian poet, essayist, translator and professor of Classics. Carson lived in Montreal for several years and taught at McGill University, the University of Michigan, and at Princeton University from 1980-1987....

 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. Translations of Sappho have also been produced by Willis Barnstone
Willis Barnstone
Willis Barnstone is an American poet, memoirist, translator, Hispanist, and comparatist. He has translated the Ancient Greek poets and the complete fragments of the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus . He is also a New Testament and Gnostic scholar.-Life:Born in Lewiston, Maine, Barnstone grew...

, Jim Powell
Jim Powell (poet)
Jim Powell is an American poet, translator, and classicist from the San Francisco Bay Area.-Career:Powell’s poetry of 1977-2007 is collected in It Was Fever That Made The World and Substrate . He has translated the poetry of Sappho and selections from other ancient Greek and Latin lyric poets,...

, and Stanley Lombardo
Stanley Lombardo
Stanley F. Lombardo is an American professor of Classics at the University of Kansas. He is best known for his translations of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid...

.

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