Sappho of Lesbos

By Rikkie Farrell, Richard Giddens Jr. & Tracy Murphy

Sappho of Lesbos Σαπφώ (c. 620-570 BCE) was a lyric poet whose work was so popular in ancient Greece, and beyond, that she was  honored in statuary and praised by politicians and philosophers alike. We know almost nothing about her life or the extent of her work. We believe that Sappho wrote nine volumes of her poetry which were widely read in antiquity but only fragments survive. It is debated that Sappho’s works were either destroyed by Christian book burnings or were just lost over the centuries because of circumstance. Sappho wrote in the Aeolic Greek dialect which was difficult for Latin writers, well versed in Attic and Homeric Greek, to translate. The ancient writers are in agreement that there was a female poet who lived on the island of Lesbos. Sappho’s poetry was copied and referenced by these ancient writers and this is where we get the bulk of her fragments. It is very likely that the rest of her body of work was forgotten because the modern writers of the time had such difficulty translating her antiquated dialect. Her name has lent itself to `lesbian’ and `Sapphic’, both relating to homosexual women, because of her extant poetry which concerns itself with romantic love between women. [1]



Sappho’s Poetry: Sappho’s poetry moved Plato enough to name her the “tenth Muse” but the history of her poetry is still obscure. According to”It is unclear whether she invented or simply refined the meter of her day, but today it is known as “Sapphic” meter. Her poems were first collected into nine volumes around the third century B.C., but her work was lost almost entirely for many years. Merely one twenty-eight-line poem of hers has survived intact, and she was known principally through quotations found in the works of other authors until the nineteenth century. In 1898 scholars unearthed papyri that contained fragments of her poems. In 1914 in Egypt, archeologists discovered papier-mâché coffins made from scraps of paper that contained more verse fragments attributed to Sappho”[2].



Examples of Sappho’s Poetry: The following poems are two of the most well know poems of Sappho. The first poem being Poem 78 and the second being Poem 20 [4]. Poem 78 is, as mentioned before, important because, this is the only poem that survived fully intact until today.

Poem 78

Translated by Josephine Balmer

Immortal, Aphrodite, on your patterned throne,

daughter of Zeus, guile-weaver,

I beg you, goddess, don’t subjugate my heart

with anguish, with grief

but you come here to me now, if ever in the past

you have heard my distant pleas

and listened; leaving your father’s golden house

you came to me then

with your chariot yoked; beautiful swift sparrows

brought you around the dark earth

with a whirl of wings, beating fast, from heaven

down through the mid-air

to reach me quickly; then you, my sacred goddess,

your immortal face smiling,

asked me what had gone wrong this time and this time

why was I begging

and what in my demented heart, I wanted most:

‘Who shall I persuade this time

to take you back, yet once again, to her love;

who wrongs you, Sappho?

For if she runs away, soon she shall run after,

if she shuns gifts, she shall give,

if she does not love you, soon she shall even

against her own will.’

So come to me now, free me from this aching pain,

fulfill everything that

my heart desires to be fulfilled: you, yes you,

will be my ally. [4]

Beside the very influential “Sapphic” meter that can be observed from the poem above an bellow as well but, Poem 20 provides inspiration for many written throughout the decades of human history. Many poets that have live years, centuries, and even millennia after Sappho’s work was dated have adapted the poem into their works. Three main poet who now have their own adaptation of Poem 20 are Catullus, a 1st c. BCE poet in Rome, John Hull, and Molly Sackett.

Poem 20

Translated by Josephine Balmer

It seems to me that man is equal to the gods,

that is, whoever sits opposite of you

and, drawing nearer, savours, as you speak,

the sweetness of your voice

and the thrill of your laugh, which have so stirred the heart

in my own breast, that whenever I catch

sight of you, even if for a moment,

then my voice deserts me

and my tongue is stuck silent, a delicate fire

suddenly races underneath my skin,

my eyes see nothing, my ears whistle like

the whirling of a top

and sweat pours down me and a trembling creeps over

my whole body, I am greener than grass,

at such times, I seem to be no more than

a step away from death;

but all can be endured since even a pauper…  [4]

Sappho coin

Copper Alloy coin.(obverse) Draped bust of Sappho, right. (reverse) Lyre. 2nd c CE. Roman Empire. Courtesy of The British Museum.


Sappho’s Family: [3]

Husband: Cercylas*

Brothers: Larichus, Charaxus and Eurygus

Daughter: Cleis

*Sappho’s marriage to her husband is speculative; however, she mentions her brothers and daughter in her poetry.



Rome, Italy at the Musei Capitolini (Capitol Museum).

Hermaic pillar with a female portrait, so-called “Sappho”; inscription “Sappho Eresia” ie. Sappho from Eresos. Roman copy of a Greek Classical original. Richard Giddens Jr. (2015)


Works Cited

[1] Joshua J. Mark. “Sappho of Lesbos,” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last
modified August 02, 2014. /Sappho_of_Lesbos/.

[2]“Sappho.” Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2015.

[3]Sappho. Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. 8 Dec. 2015 <>.

[4]Balmer, Josephine. Sappho: Poems and Fragments. Secaucus, NJ: Meadowland, 1988. Print.