Sappho: Making a Life in Archaic Greece

The poet Sappho (c. 630 – c. 570 BCE) is among the earliest writers whose work comes down to us from ancient Greece. She is best known for her lyric poetry, much of it on themes of love and longing. (Read some of my translations of her work here and here, or hear a recreated musical performance of one of her poems here.) Her literary works were widely popular in Greece and Rome, and later authors wrote many things about her life, few of them reliable. Much of what we think we know about Sappho’s life is conjecture based on her poetry. Still, even amid this uncertainty, Sappho stands for us as a representative of one of the most important transformative forces in ancient Greek history: the rise of trade.

During the Early Iron Age, a period of Greek history extending from around 1200 to 750 BCE, the Greek world was largely isolated. People lived in small villages of at most a few thousand people. Most people got by at a subsistence level, producing enough for their own needs and engaging in trade outside their own households in only a limited way. Political power, such as it was, rested with an entrenched class of warrior-aristocrats who monopolized control of scarce farmland. This elite class occasionally traded their agricultural surplus overseas for modest amounts of foreign luxuries, but that trade had little impact on the Greek world, and to the extent that it did, it only reinforced the social status of an existing elite. The poetry of this elite is represented by the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, which celebrate martial values and the exploits of the warrior heroes that the aristocrats claimed as their ancestors.

Between 750 and 700, this stability was rapidly undermined by the development of new patterns of trade. Greeks began to venture out into the larger Mediterranean more often and more purposefully. The earliest accounts we have from the outside world describe the Greeks as pirates and raiders. Such dangerous ventures were not for the comfortably well off. The first Greeks to try their luck abroad were those who could not survive at home under the dominance of the entrenched aristocracy. Their risky raiding voyages had limited success, but the experience they gained in places like Egypt and the Levant prepared them for more profitable ventures as mercenaries and merchants. By the mid-600s, there was a growing class of successful merchants, artisans, and other professionals in Greece whose prosperity came from their connection to the outside world rather than control of land and who were increasingly agitating against the old aristocracy for a share of political power.

Sappho spoke for this new class of Greeks whose wealth came from abroad. Her brother Charaxus, whom she addresses in a few of her poems, was engaged in trading wine from their home on the island of Lesbos to Egypt. Sappho’s poetry invokes the importance of foreign contacts by using Lydia, a kingdom in Anatolia, as an image of beauty and luxury. Unlike the Homeric epics, Sappho’s lyrics speak of immediate, personal, emotional experiences. Individuals with their own desires and passions emerge as more important than family lines or warlike values.

Sappho’s poetry describes her intense romantic feelings for young women. Although we cannot know for sure to what extent these poems reflect Sappho’s personal experiences and how much is just literary invention, the idea that love mattered was, in its way, a radical thought. Among the landowning class, marriage was mostly a matter of family politics and economic negotiation. Ideally, of course, husbands and wives felt affectionately toward one another, but powerful, passionate love was not something to be sought out or valued. Homer’s heroes have little time for the emotional power of love: Helen is a prize to be fought over like any other piece of treasure, and the suitors who clamor for Penelope’s hand talk of their estates, not their feelings. In Sappho’s day, the Greeks who were making their living in trade could still be perfectly mercenary in their personal relationships, but the idea that love had power and that the feeling of longing for another person was worthy of attention was new and exciting. In much the same way that the shift from an agrarian economy to an industrial one in the nineteenth century CE brought with it a new interest in romantic love, Greeks in the seventh century BCE whose fortunes no longer depended on controlling land were beginning to think of individual feelings of love as something to value in a relationship.

Like the merchants and mercenaries who sought their fortunes amid the dangers of the unknown world outside Greece, the voices of Sappho’s poems dream that they might have what they long for, that their individual lives and struggles might matter.

Image: “Sappho embracing her lyre” via Wikimedia (Musee des Beaux-Arts de Brest; 19th c.; painting; by Jules-Elie de Launay)

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Listening to Sappho

Sappho, like many ancient poets, wrote her poems not to be read on the page but to be sung. We don’t know specifically what her poems originally sounded like when performed, but we know enough about the notes, rhythms, and structure of ancient music to make some reasonable guesses. Here’s a version of Sappho’s first poem (my translation here) performed on a reconstructed ancient lyre by artist Bettina Joy de Guzman.

Sappho fr. 1: to Aphrodite via Bettina Joy de Guzman

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Quotes: Who Do You Want Me to Talk into Loving You This Time?

Rich-throned, immortal Aphrodite,

daughter of crafty Zeus, I beg you,

my lady, do not weigh down my spirit

with overflowing grief,

but come to me now, if ever you came before

when you heard my voice, far away,

leaving your father’s golden house,

you yoked

your chariot and came. Swift and beautiful

sparrows brought you over the dark earth

with a thick whir of wings across the borders of heaven.

At once they brought you, happy one,

with a smile your ageless face,

to ask what troubled me, why

I called you,

and what my frantic spirit

most wished for. “Who do you want me to

talk into loving you this time? Who has

wounded you, Sappho?

If she runs away now, soon she will be chasing you.

If now she won’t take your gifts, she will give to you.

If she doesn’t love you now, soon she will,

even if she doesn’t want to.”

Come to me now, soothe

my anxious mind. Fulfill everything

my heart desires and be

my ally.

– Sappho, quoted in Dionysius of Halicarnassus, On the Arrangement of Words 23

(My own translation)

This is the only poem by the ancient Greek lyric poet Sappho to come down to us from antiquity intact. In its structure and form, it follows the conventions of a prayer: invoking the god or goddess whose help is sought, celebrating their noble lineage and superhuman powers, reminding them of their past relationship with the person making the prayer, and finally imploring them to use their full powers to help with the current problem. Sappho slyly takes this formula and turns it into a love poem about the anxiety of unrequited affection. With a little gentle self-mockery, she pictures herself repeatedly falling into one-sided love and Aphrodite as the long-suffering friend who comforts her when things don’t work out.

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