Little is known of Sappho's life. She was from a wealthy family from Lesbos, though the names of both of her parents are uncertain. Ancient sources say that she had three brothers; the names of two of them are mentioned in the Brothers Poem discovered in 2014. She was exiled to Sicily around 600 BC, and may have continued to work until around 570. Later legends surrounding Sappho's love for the ferryman Phaon and her death are unreliable.
Sappho was a prolific poet, probably composing around 10,000 lines. Her poetry was well-known and greatly admired through much of antiquity, and she was among the canon of nine lyric poets most highly esteemed by scholars of Hellenistic Alexandria. Today, most of Sappho's poetry is lost, but it is still considered extraordinary, and her works have continued to influence other writers up until the modern day. Beyond her poetry, she is well known as a symbol of love and desire between women.
Little is known about Sappho's life for certain – so little that Monique Wittig and Sande Zeig's Lesbian Peoples: Material for a Dictionary contains an entire page for the entry on Sappho, which is deliberately left blank. There are three major sources of information about Sappho's life: her own poetry, other ancient sources, and deductions from knowledge of the historical context in which Sappho worked.
The only contemporary source for Sappho's life is her own poetry, and scholars are cautious of reading it biographically. The other ancient sources on Sappho (known as testimonia) do not date from Sappho's lifetime; however, they were written by people who had much better access to Sappho's poetry than we do today, and so would have been better placed to use it to write her biography. Despite this, though they are a valuable source on the reception of Sappho in antiquity, it is difficult to assess how accurate a picture they paint of Sappho's life. The testimonia are almost entirely derived from Sappho's poetry, and the inferences made by ancient scholars and reported in the testimonia are in many cases known to be wrong. The testimonia may not have value as biographical evidence of Sappho’s life, but, when a detail is mentioned in the testimonia that may derive from one of Sappho’s writings, it should be considered potentially valuable.
Sappho was from Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, and was probably born around 630 BC. Tradition names her mother as Cleïs, though ancient scholars may simply have guessed this name, assuming that Sappho's daughter Cleïs was named after her. Sappho's father's name is less certain. Ten names are known for Sappho's father from the ancient testimonia; this proliferation of possible names suggests that he was not explicitly named in any of Sappho's poetry. The earliest and most commonly attested name for Sappho's father is Scamandronymus. In Ovid's Heroides, Sappho's father died when she was seven. Sappho's father is not mentioned in any of her surviving works, but Campbell suggests that this detail may have been based on a now-lost poem. Sappho's own name is found in numerous variant spellings, even in her own Aeolian dialect; the form that appears in her own extant poetry, and by which Alcaeus addresses her, is Psappho.
Ancient tradition held that Sappho's appearance was "small and dark". This description may have come from her own words, and it may be significant that this description does not conform to the archaic Greek ideal of female beauty. Alcaeus describes Sappho as "violet-haired", which was a common Greek poetic way of describing dark hair. Some scholars dismiss this tradition as unreliable.
Sappho was said to have three brothers: Erigyius, Larichus, and Charaxus. 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. One ancient tradition 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 Sappho wrote a poem rebuking him for this.
Sappho may have had a daughter named Cleïs, who is referred to in two fragments. Not all scholars accept that Cleïs was Sappho's daughter. Fragment 132 describes Cleïs as "παῖς" (pais), which, as well as meaning "child", can also refer to the "youthful beloved in a male homosexual liaison". It has been suggested that Cleïs was one of Sappho's younger lovers, rather than her daughter, though Judith Hallett argues that the language used in fragment 132 suggests that Sappho was referring to Cleïs as her daughter.
According to the Suda, Sappho was married to Kerkylas of Andros. However, the name appears to have been invented by a comic poet: the name "Kerkylas" comes from the word "κέρκος" kerkos, meaning "penis", and is not otherwise attested as a name, while "Andros", as well as being the name of a Greek island, is similar to the Greek word "ἀνήρ" (aner), which means man. Thus, the name may be a joke name, and as such could be rendered as "Dick Allcock from the Isle of Man".
One tradition said that Sappho was exiled from Lesbos to Sicily around 600 BC. The Parian Chronicle records Sappho going into exile some time between 604 and 591. This may have been as a result of her family's involvement with the conflicts between political elites on Lesbos in this period, the same reason for Sappho's contemporary Alcaeus' exile from Mytilene around the same time.
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 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.
Today Sappho, for many, is a symbol of female homosexuality; the common term lesbian is an allusion to Sappho. However, she has not always been so considered. In classical Athenian comedy (from the Old Comedy of the fifth century to Menander in the late fourth and early third centuries BC), Sappho was caricatured as a promiscuous heterosexual woman, and it is not until the Hellenistic period that the first testimonia which explicitly discuss Sappho's homoeroticism are preserved – the Oxyrhynchus biography, written in the late third or early second century BC. These ancient authors do not appear to have believed that Sappho did, in fact, have sexual relationships with other women, and as late as the tenth century the Suda records that Sappho was "slanderously accused" of having sexual relationships with her "female pupils".
Among modern scholars, Sappho's sexuality is still debated – André Lardinois has described it as the "Great Sappho Question". Early translators of Sappho sometimes heterosexualised her poetry. Ambrose Philips' 1711 translation of the Ode to Aphrodite portrayed the object of Sappho's desire as male, a reading which was followed by virtually every other translator of the poem until the twentieth century, while in 1781 Alessandro Verri interpreted fragment 31 as being about Sappho's love for Phaon. Friedrich Gottlieb Welcker argued that Sappho's feelings for other women were "entirely idealistic and non-sensual", while Karl Otfried Müller wrote that fragment 31 described "nothing but a friendly affection": Glenn Most comments that "one wonders what language Sappho would have used to describe her feelings if they had been ones of sexual excitement" if this theory were correct. By 1970, it would be argued that the same poem contained "proof positive of [Sappho's] lesbianism".
Today, it is generally accepted that Sappho's poetry portrays homoerotic feelings: as Sandra Boehringer puts it, her works "clearly celebrate eros between women". Toward the end of the twentieth century, though, some scholars have begun to reject the question of whether or not Sappho was a lesbian – Glenn Most wrote that Sappho herself "would have had no idea what people mean when they call her nowadays a homosexual", André Lardinois stated that it is "nonsensical" to ask whether Sappho was a lesbian, and Page duBois calls the question a "particularly obfuscating debate".
One of the major focuses of scholars studying Sappho has been to attempt to determine the cultural context in which Sappho's poems were composed and performed. Various cultural contexts and social roles played by Sappho have been suggested, including teacher, cult-leader, and poet performing for a circle of female friends. However, the performance contexts of many of Sappho's fragments are not easy to determine, and for many more than one possible context is conceivable.
One longstanding suggestion of a social role for Sappho is that of "Sappho as schoolmistress". At the beginning of the twentieth century, the German classicist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff posited that Sappho was a sort of schoolteacher, in order to "explain away Sappho's passion for her 'girls'" and defend her from accusations of homosexuality. The view continues to be influential, both among scholars and the general public, though more recently the idea has been criticised by historians as anachronistic. Additionally, none of Sappho's own poetry mentions her teaching, and the earliest testimonium to support the idea of Sappho as a teacher comes from Ovid, six centuries after Sappho's lifetime. Despite these problems, many newer interpretations of Sappho's social role are still based on this idea. In these interpretations, Sappho was involved in the ritual education of girls, for instance as a trainer of choruses of girls.
Even if Sappho did compose songs for training choruses of young girls, not all of her poems can be interpreted in this light, and despite scholars' best attempts to find one, Yatromanolakis argues that there is no single performance context to which all of Sappho's poems can be attributed. Parker argues that Sappho should be considered as part of a group of female friends for whom she would have performed, just as her contemporary Alcaeus is. Some of her poetry appears to have been composed for identifiable formal occasions, but many of her songs are about – and possibly were to be performed at – banquets.
Sappho probably wrote around 10,000 lines of poetry; today, only about 650 survive. She is best known for her lyric poetry, written to be accompanied by music. The Suda also attributes to Sappho epigrams, elegiacs, and iambics, but the only epigrams attributed to Sappho to survive are in fact later works, and the iambic and elegiac poems attributed to her in antiquity were probably also actually later imitations. Ancient authors claim that Sappho primarily wrote love poetry, and the indirect transmission of Sappho's work supports this notion. However, the papyrus tradition suggests that this may not have been the case: a series of papyri published in 2014 contains fragments of ten consecutive poems from Book I of the Alexandrian edition of Sappho, of which only two are certainly love poems, while at least three and possibly four are primarily concerned with family.
Sappho's poetry was probably first written down on Lesbos, either in her lifetime or shortly afterwards, initially probably in the form of a score for performers of Sappho's work. In the fifth century, Athenian book publishers probably began to produce copies of Lesbian lyric poetry, some including explanatory material and glosses as well as the poems themselves. Some time in the second or third century, Alexandrian scholars produced a critical edition of Sappho's poetry. There may have been more than one Alexandrian edition – John J. Winkler argues for two, one edited by Aristophanes of Byzantium and another by his pupil Aristarchus of Samothrace. This is not certain – ancient sources tell us that Aristarchus' edition of Alcaeus replaced the edition by Aristophanes, but are silent on whether Sappho's work, too, went through multiple editions.
The Alexandrian edition of Sappho's poetry was based on the existing Athenian collections, and was divided into at least eight books, though the exact number is uncertain. Many modern scholars have followed Denys Page, who conjectured a ninth book in the standard edition; Yatromanolakis doubts this, noting that though testimonia refer to an eighth book of Sappho's poetry, none mention a ninth. Whatever its make-up, the Alexandrian edition of Sappho probably grouped her poems by their metre: ancient sources tell us that each of the first three books contained poems in a single specific metre. Ancient editions of Sappho, possibly starting with the Alexandrian edition, seem to have ordered the poems in at least the first book of Sappho's poetry – which contained works composed in Sapphic stanzas – alphabetically.
Even after the publication of the standard Alexandrian edition, Sappho's poetry continued to circulate in other poetry collections. For instance, the Cologne Papyrus on which the Tithonus poem is preserved was part of a Hellenistic anthology of poetry, which contained poetry arranged by theme, rather than by metre and incipit, as it was in the Alexandrian edition.
The earliest surviving manuscripts of Sappho, including the potsherd on which fragment 2 is preserved, date to the third century BC, and thus predate the Alexandrian edition. The latest ancient manuscripts of Sappho which survive to the present come from the sixth and seventh centuries AD. Manuscript copies of Sappho's works may have survived a few centuries longer, but around the 9th century her poetry appears to have disappeared, and by the twelfth century, John Tzetzes could write that "the passage of time has destroyed Sappho and her works". According to legend, Sappho's poetry was lost because the church disapproved of her morals. These legends appear to have originated in the renaissance – around 1550, Jerome Cardan wrote that Gregory Nazianzen had Sappho's work publicly destroyed, and at the end of the sixteenth century Joseph Justus Scaliger claimed that Sappho's works were burned in Rome and Constantinople in 1073 on the orders of Pope Gregory VII. In reality, Sappho's work was probably lost as the demand for it was insufficiently great for it to be copied onto parchment when codices superseded papyrus scrolls as the predominant form of book.
Only approximately 650 lines of Sappho's poetry still survive, of which just one poem – the "Ode to Aphrodite" – is complete, and more than half of the original lines survive in around ten more fragments. Many of the surviving fragments of Sappho contain only a single word – for example, fragment 169A is simply a word meaning "wedding gifts", and survives as part of a dictionary of rare words. The two major sources of surviving fragments of Sappho are quotations in other ancient works, from a whole poem to as little as a single word, and fragments of papyrus, many of which were discovered at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. Other fragments survive on other materials, including parchment and potsherds. The oldest surviving fragment of Sappho currently known is the Cologne papyrus which contains the Tithonus poem, dating to the third century BC.
Until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, only the ancient quotations of Sappho survived. In 1879, the first new discovery of a fragment of Sappho was made at Fayum. By the end of the nineteenth century, Grenfell and Hunt had begun to excavate an ancient rubbish dump at Oxyrhynchus, leading to the discoveries of many previously unknown fragments of Sappho. Fragments of Sappho continue to be rediscovered. Most recently, major discoveries in 2004 (the "Tithonus poem" and a new, previously unknown fragment) and 2014 (fragments of nine poems: five already known but with new readings, four, including the "Brothers Poem", not previously known) have been reported in the media around the world.
Sappho clearly worked within a well-developed tradition of Lesbian poetry, which had evolved its own poetic diction, meters, and conventions. Among her famous poetic forebears were Arion and Terpander. Nonetheless, her work is innovative; it is some of the earliest Greek poetry to adopt the "lyric 'I'" – to write poetry adopting the viewpoint of a specific person, in contrast to the earlier epic poets Homer and Hesiod, who present themselves more as "conduits of divine inspiration". Her poetry explores individual identity and personal emotions – desire, jealousy, and love; it also adopts and reinterprets the existing imagery epic poetry in exploring these themes.
Sappho's poetry is known for its clear language and simple thoughts, sharply-drawn images, and use of direct quotation which brings a sense of immediacy. Unexpected word-play is a characteristic feature of her style. An example is from fragment 96: "now she stands out among Lydian women as after sunset the rose-fingered moon exceeds all stars", a variation of the Homeric epithet "rosy-fingered Dawn". Sappho's poetry often uses hyperbole, according to ancient critics "because of its charm". An example is found in fragment 111, where Sappho writes that "The groom approaches like Ares[...] Much bigger than a big man".
Leslie Kurke groups Sappho with those archaic Greek poets from what has been called the "élite" ideological tradition, which valued luxury (habrosyne) and high birth. These elite poets tended to identify themselves with the worlds of Greek myths, gods, and heroes, as well as the wealthy East, especially Lydia. Thus in fragment 2 Sappho describes Aphrodite "pour into golden cups nectar lavishly mingled with joys", while in the Tithonus poem she explicitly states that "I love the finer things [habrosyne]". The language, as well as the content, of Sappho's poetry evokes this aristocratic sphere: Page duBois contrasts Sappho's "flowery,[...] adorned" style with the "austere, decorous, restrained" style embodied in the works of later classical authors such as Sophocles, Demosthenes, and Pindar.
In antiquity Sappho's poetry was highly admired, and several ancient sources refer to her as the "tenth Muse". The earliest surviving poem to do so is a third-century BC epigram by Dioscorides, but poems are preserved in the Greek Anthology by Antipater of Sidon and attributed to Plato on the same theme. She was sometimes referred to as "The Poetess", just as Homer was "The Poet". The scholars of Alexandria included Sappho in the canon of nine lyric poets. According to Aelian, the Athenian lawmaker and poet Solon asked to be taught a song by Sappho "so that I may learn it and then die". This story may well be apocryphal, especially as Ammianus Marcellinus tells a similar story about Socrates and a song of Stesichorus, but it is indicative of how highly Sappho's poetry was considered in the ancient world.
Sappho's poetry also influenced other ancient authors. In Greek, the Hellenistic poet Nossis was described by Marylin B. Skinner as an imitator of Sappho, and Kathryn Gutzwiller argues that Nossis explicitly positioned herself as an inheritor of Sappho's position as a woman poet. Beyond poetry, Plato cites Sappho in his Phaedrus, and Socrates' second speech on love in that dialogue appears to echo Sappho's descriptions of the physical effects of desire in fragment 31. In the first century BC, Catullus established the themes and metres of Sappho's poetry as a part of Latin literature, adopting the Sapphic stanza, believed in antiquity to have been invented by Sappho, giving his lover in his poetry the name "Lesbia" in reference to Sappho, and adapting and translating Sappho's 31st fragment in his poem 51.
Other ancient poets wrote about Sappho's life. She was a popular character in ancient Athenian comedy, and at least six separate comedies called Sappho are known. The earliest known ancient comedy to take Sappho as its main subject was the early-fifth or late-fourth century BC Sappho by Ameipsias, though nothing is known of it apart from its name. Sappho was also a favourite subject in the visual arts, the most commonly depicted poet on sixth and fifth century Attic red-figure vase paintings, and the subject of a sculpture by Silanion.
From the fourth century BC, ancient works portray Sappho as a tragic heroine, driven to suicide by her unrequited love for Phaon. For instance, a fragment of a play by Menander says that Sappho threw herself off of the cliff at Leucas out of her love for Phaon. Ovid's Heroides 15 is written as a letter from Sappho to her supposed love Phaon, and when it was first rediscovered in the 15th century was thought to be a translation of an authentic letter of Sappho's. Sappho's suicide was also depicted in classical art, for instance on a first-century BC basilica in Rome near the Porta Maggiore.
While Sappho's poetry was admired in the ancient world, her character was not always so well considered. In the Roman period, critics found her lustful and perhaps even homosexual. Horace called her "mascula Sappho" in his Epistles, which the later Porphyrio commented was "either because she is famous for her poetry, in which men more often excel, or because she is maligned for having been a tribad". By the third century AD, the difference between Sappho's literary reputation as a poet and her moral reputation as a woman had become so significant that the suggestion that there were in fact two Sapphos began to develop. In his Historical Miscellanies, Aelian wrote that there was "another Sappho, a courtesan, not a poetess".
By the medieval period, Sappho's works had been lost, though she was still known through later ancient authors such as Ovid. Her works began to become accessible again in the sixteenth century, first in early printed editions of authors who had quoted her. In 1508 Aldus Manutius printed an edition of Dionysius of Hallicarnassus, which contained Sappho 1, the "Ode to Aphrodite", and the first printed edition of Longinus' On the Sublime, complete with his quotation of Sappho 31, appeared in 1554. In 1566, the French printer Robert Estienne produced an edition of the Greek lyric poets which contained around 40 fragments attributed to Sappho. In 1652, the first English translation of a poem by Sappho was published, in John Hall's translation of On the Sublime. In 1681 Anne Le Fèvre's French edition of Sappho made her work even more widely known. Theodor Bergk's 1854 edition became the standard edition of Sappho in the second half of the 19th century; in the first part of the 20th, the papyrus discoveries of new poems by Sappho led to editions and translations by Edwin Marion Cox and John Maxwell Edmonds, and culminated in the 1955 publication of Edgar Lobel's and Denys Page's Poetarum Lesbiorum Fragmenta.
Like the ancients, modern critics have tended to consider Sappho's poetry "extraordinary". As early as the 9th century, Sappho was referred to as a talented woman poet, and in works such as Boccaccio's De Claris Mulieribus and Christine de Pisan's Book of the City of Ladies she gained a reputation as a learned lady. Even after Sappho's works had been lost, the Sapphic stanza continued to be used in medieval lyric poetry, and with the rediscovery of her work in the Renaissance, she began to increasingly influence European poetry. In the 16th century, members of La Pléiade, a circle of French poets, were influenced by her to experiment with Sapphic stanzas and with writing love-poetry with a first-person female voice. From the Romantic era, Sappho's work – especially her "Ode to Aphrodite" – has been a key influence of conceptions of what lyric poetry should be. Such influential poets as Alfred Lord Tennyson in the nineteenth century, and A. E. Housman in the twentieth, have been influenced by her poetry. Tennyson based poems including "Eleanore" and "Fatima" on Sappho's fragment 31, while three of Housman's works are adaptations of the Midnight poem, long thought to be by Sappho though the authorship is now disputed. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Imagists – especially Ezra Pound, H. D., and Richard Aldington – were influenced by Sappho's fragments; a number of Pound's poems in his early collection Lustra were adaptations of Sapphic poems, while H. D.'s poetry was frequently Sapphic in "style, theme or content", and in some cases, such as "Fragment 40" more specifically invoke Sappho's writing.
It was not long after the rediscovery of Sappho that her sexuality once again became the focus of critical attention. In the early seventeenth century, John Donne wrote "Sapho to Philaenis", returning to the idea of Sappho as a hypersexual lover of women. The modern debate on Sappho's sexuality began in the 19th century, with Welcker publishing, in 1816, an article defending Sappho from charges of prostitution and lesbianism, arguing that she was chaste – a position which would later be taken up by Wilamowitz at the end of the 19th and Henry Thornton Wharton at the beginning of the 20th centuries. Despite attempts to defend her good name, in the nineteenth century Sappho was co-opted by the Decadent Movement as a lesbian "daughter of de Sade", by Charles Baudelaire in France and later Algernon Charles Swinburne in England. By the late 19th century, lesbian writers such as Michael Field and Amy Levy became interested in Sappho for her sexuality, and by the turn of the twentieth century she was a sort of "patron saint of lesbians".
From the 19th century, Sappho began to be regarded as a role model for campaigners for women's rights, beginning with works such as Caroline Norton's The Picture of Sappho. Later in that century, she would become a model for the so-called New Woman – independent and educated women who desired social and sexual autonomy – and by the 1960s, the feminist Sappho was – along with the hypersexual, often but not exclusively lesbian Sappho – one of the two most important cultural perceptions of Sappho.
The discoveries of new poems by Sappho in 2004 and 2014 excited both scholarly and media attention. The announcement of the Tithonus poem was the subject of international news coverage, and was described by Marylin Skinner as "the trouvaille of a lifetime". The publication in 2014 of the Brothers poem was described as "more exciting than a new album by David Bowie" by the Daily Telegraph.