"Sappho" fresco, Pompeii



Sappho

Sappho ( / ˈ s æ f oʊ / Greek: Σαπφώ Sapphō [sap.pʰɔ̌ː] Aeolic Greek Ψάπφω Psápphō c. 630 – c. 570 BCE) was an Archaic Greek poet from the island of Lesbos. [a] Sappho is known for her lyric poetry, written to be sung while accompanied by a lyre. [2] In ancient times, Sappho was widely regarded as one of the greatest lyric poets and was given names such as the "Tenth Muse" and "The Poetess". Most of Sappho's poetry is now lost, and what is extant has mostly survived in fragmentary form two notable exceptions are the "Ode to Aphrodite" and the Tithonus poem. [3] As well as lyric poetry, ancient commentators claimed that Sappho wrote elegiac and iambic poetry. Three epigrams attributed to Sappho are extant, but these are actually Hellenistic imitations of Sappho's style.

Little is known of Sappho's life. She was from a wealthy family from Lesbos, though her parents' names are uncertain. Ancient sources say that she had three brothers Charaxos (Χάραξος), Larichos (Λάριχος) and Eurygios (Εὐρύγιος). The Suda mentions the names of all three brothers. [4] Two of them, Charaxos and Larichos, are also mentioned in the Brothers Poem discovered in 2014. She was exiled to Sicily around 600 BCE, and may have continued to work until around 570 BCE. Later legends surrounding Sappho's love for the ferryman Phaon and her death are unreliable. [5]

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. Sappho's poetry is still considered extraordinary and her works continue to influence other writers. Beyond her poetry, she is well known as a symbol of love and desire between women, [6] with the English words sapphic and lesbian being derived from her own name and the name of her home island respectively. Whilst her importance as a poet is confirmed from the earliest times, all interpretations of her work have been coloured and influenced by discussions of her sexuality.


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Sappho and Lesbos – the beginning of lesbian literature

There is no doubt that the affinity of the same sex is included in the ancient sources, but there is a lot less number of chapters where women are attracted to each other (with positive or negative overtones). Of course you can find them. An example of a negative representation is this epigram about two women from Samos:

"They are unwilling to play Aphrodite's games according to her rules, but they escape to other things that are not appropriate."

Presumably, Aphrodite, goddess of love, helps plenty of heterosexual lovers, while homosexual attraction wasn’t really approved by the Greek society. However, another source is a good example for acceptance: according to Plutarchus the biographer, in Sparta "fair women" could also fall in love with girls.

Specific people are rarely mentioned. One of them was Sappho, of whom we have the most information nowadays.

Sappho, an outstanding lyricist of ancient Greek poetry was born on the island of Lesbos in the 7th century B.C. She laid the foundations of lesbian poetry, taught a lot of women, and she was already a huge talent in the eyes of her contemporaries. She legitimized same-sex attraction for the past, present and future and moreover, that it can be expressed at an outstanding artistic level.

The lady in this fresco found in Pompeii is thought to be Sappho

While Sappho is considered to be the first famous lesbian poet, ancient historians believe that in her young age she might have gotten married to a nobleman from the island of Andaros. Her alleged husband, according to several scientists, did not exist, which they proved by – among others – the fact that his name means "penis". Nevertheless, we can read more about Sappho’s daughter, called Kleis, who of course does not prove the unquestionable existence of the husband. Here's a part of a poem about the little girl:

"I have a beautiful daughter

I would not trade her for all Lydia nor lovely. "

Atthis, lover of Sappho and the beautiful poems

The island of Lesbos undoubtedly flourished at the time of Sappho’s life. "He is outstanding like a Lesbian singer" writes Sappho in her 106th fragment. In fact, ancient sources also commemorate the generations following Sappho, as we can read in the Iliad:

"I will give him seven excellent workwomen, Lesbians, whom I chose for myself when he took Lesbos- all of surpassing beauty."
(Iliad, Book 9)

It’s interesting and unique that in contrast to the male-centered society of Ancient Greece a significant women intellectuals emerged in Lesbos. Sappho became a recognized poet in her own time: money was issued with her image, her statue was raised, but still, the most remembered aspect of her life is her love poetry. A much-quoted poem of hers is about love, too. You can listen to Sweet Mother here:

One of her most complete poem is fragment 94, addressed to Atthis. The lady appears in several poems that reveal their romantic relationship with each other. Atthis got married to a man at the end of her studies, thus was forced to leave the poet group. In the verse, the Lyric I commemorates the time spent with her love, sharing her bed and festive dances.

“I'm not pretending I wish I were dead.”

She was leaving me in tears,

and over and over she said to me:

“Sappho, it hurts what's happened to us is just so grim

it isn't my choice, I swear it, to leave like this.”

and with quantities of . flowery perfume . fit for a queen even, you anointed yourself all over,

and on soft beds . delicate . you have satisfied desire . ”

Sappho and her disciples are listening to Alkaios poet from Lesbos

Fragments and two new poems from 2013

Only part of the over 500 fragments by Sappho remained as contiguous texts. Unfortunately in some cases only a couple of words were found. Nevertheless, more and more poems get discovered, the latest one was found in January 2013. The papyrus fragments, presented by Dirk Obbink (Lecturer at Oxford University) are literary sensations.

The two fragments were published in Hungarian, too, in Orpheus Noster magazine in 2014. Here is a love-related part from one of them:

"How can someone not be hurt and hurt again,

Kypris, Queen, whomsoever one really loves,

and not especially want respite from suffering?

What sort of thoughts do you have

to pierce me idly with shiverings

out of desire that loosens the knees . "

Fragments remained from Sappho's work

Besides her fragment to Kypris, her poem written to her oldest brother counts as the latest translated Sappho poem. Because of the constant archaeological excavations, it is yet unknown what other poems will come to light.


Italian description

Tondo di Donna con tavolette cerate e stilo (cosiddetta "Saffo"), Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli (inv. nr. 9084). Affresco romano, del 50 circa, da Pompeii (VI, Insula Occidentalis) - Rinvenuto nel 1760, è uno degli affreschi più noti ed amati, comunemente detto Saffo. Ritrae in realtà una fanciulla dell'alta società pompeiana, riccamente agghindata con una retina d'oro sui capelli e grandi orecchini d'oro essa porta lo stilo alla bocca e tiene in mano le tavolette cerate, notoriamente documenti contabili che dunque nulla hanno a che vedere con la poesia e ancor meno con la famosa scrittrice greca.


Frozen in Time: Casts of Pompeii Reveal Last Moments of Volcano Victims

The plaster casts of 86 agonized victims of the Mount Vesuvius eruption in 79 AD near Pompeii will go on exhibit May 26, 2015, in National Archaeological Museum of Naples, Italy.

People of Pompeii, a Roman city, were in their death throes when a cloud of gas from the volcano enveloped them, killing them. The gas was 300 degrees centigrade (572 degrees F). Clearly, from the expressions of their faces and their bodily contortions they were caught by surprise when the ash cloud finally consumed them.

Teeth protrude from lips stretched from pain. Smoldering, encrusted skin, protruding skulls and bones, exposed jaws were all caught in the moment of death, when a glowing, 300C cloud seared surfaces of the bodies in a single stroke, leaving their insides soft, and burying them under ash and stones. Among them is the family of the House of the Golden Bracelet: a woman with a baby on her lap. Near her is a man and another child, perhaps two years old.

Harrowing image shows a child sitting on his mother when the ash cloud hit. Credit: Splash News

The actual bodies, which were ossified by the heat, will not go on display but rather the plaster casts that show the exact position the bodies were found in.

Massimo Osanna, the superintendent of archaeology in Pompeii and nearby towns said: "Until now they had never been surveyed, out of a sense of ethics with which these human remains were always treated. No statues of plaster or bronze, but real people who should be treated with respect.”

Some of the victims of volcanic gas cloud were clearly in agony (Bigstock photo)

Archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli found the bodies in 1863 and came up with a way to detect and extract the bodies intact from their resting places in Pompeii. Scientists also found animals, including a dog and a pig, but they won't be on display in the museum. The animals were restored for purposes of archaeology and science, Osanna said.

A team of scientists, including archaeologists, engineers, an anthropologist, restoration experts and radiologists, is undertaking the Great Pompeii Project to do anthropological and genetic profiling of the unfortunate victims of the eruption. The scientists hope to get a better understanding of their way of life and identify them more fully. They will publish their findings and be featured in a documentary by a restoration company from Salerno.

Pompeii was a flourishing Roman city from the 6 th century BC until it became frozen in time, preserved by the layers of ash that spewed out from the great eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the 1 st century AD. Although Pompeii was initially rediscovered at the end of the 16 th century, it was only properly excavated in the 18 th century. Excavators were startled by the sexually explicit frescoes they were unearthing, quite shocking to the sensibilities of medieval citizens of Rome, so they quickly covered them over.

Raunchy frescoes uncovered in Pompeii. Source: BigStockPhoto

When excavations resumed nearly two centuries later, archaeologists found the city almost entirely intact – loaves of bread still sat in the oven, bodies of men, women, children, and pets were found frozen in their last moments, the expressions of fear still etched on their faces, and the remains of meals remained discarded on the pavement. The astounding discovery meant that researchers could piece together exactly what life was like for the ancient Romans of Pompeii – the food they ate, the jobs they performed and the houses they lived in.

The city of Pompeii (Bigstock photo)

Photos of researchers working with the bodies and making plaster casts may be viewed at The Daily Mail .

Featured image: Some of the victims of Pompeii were sitting, some lying when the superhot gas cloud enveloped them. (Bigstock photo)


Recommended Reading for Fresco Fanatics

What we have covered in this article is but a brief history of the fresco medium. If you are interested in delving a little deeper into the fascinating world of frescos, we can recommend the following books.

Florence: The Paintings & Frescoes, 1250-1743

If you want the most comprehensive book about the frescos and paintings created in Florence, then this hardcover illustrated book by Ross King and Anja Grebe will stand you in good stead. This book includes over 2000 of the most beautiful artworks to come out of Florence between 1250 and 1743. The paintings include every work displayed at the Uffizi Gallery, the Accademia, the Duomo, and the Pitti Palace.

  • The most comprehensive book on the paintings and frescos of Florence
  • Over 2,000 beautifully reproduced artworks
  • Includes every painted work on display from selected galleries

Italian Frescoes: High Renaissance and Mannerism 1510-1600

This hardcover book is the ultimate collection of 460 color-reproduced High Renaissance paintings and frescos, as well as 60 plans and illustrations in black and white. The authors, Michael Rohlmann and Julian Kliemann, cover frescos with religious significance and secular imagery. This book is one of five volumes on Italian Frescos, and readers praise the high-quality images and informative text.

  • Fourth volume of Abbeville Press' survey of Italian fresco painting
  • Historical and critical overview of key works
  • Fully illustrated with both detailed and wider, more contextual images

Fresco painting techniques have been a fundamental feature of many cultural pieces of art throughout the ages. From the buon frescos of Classical Greek and Roman Antiquity to the vast frescos from some of the High Renaissance’s most celebrated artists, the fresco medium has ensured that the culture and history of our human civilization have not been lost, completely. With pigment and plaster, we can catch a glimpse of what life was like so long ago.


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What was life like in ancient Pompeii? Mary Beard shares an A-Z guide

Buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, and gradually disinterred from the middle of the 18th century, Pompeii is probably the world's most famous archaeological site. But what was life like for the Romans who lived there, pre-eruption? Not that different from our own, as Mary Beard reveals in her A to Z of the ancient town, complete with yob culture, nightlife and plonk.

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Published: June 27, 2020 at 3:05 am

A… is for artists at work

House makeovers? Style gurus? Des res? Painters and decorators did a roaring trade in Pompeii, transforming dark and often pokey interiors with a lavish coat of paint much as they do today. And we now have a precious glimpse of how the painters operated. In one house, recently uncovered, a team of three or four decorators were interrupted by the eruption almost in mid-brush stroke, scarpering as the ash fell and abandoning their tools, 50 pots of paints, and a bucket of fresh plaster precariously balanced up a ladder. The assistants had been busy slapping on the plaster and the broad washes of colour, while the masters had drawn out the design in rough sketches and were painting the figures and the fiddly bits.

B… is for banking

The Romans didn’t have cheques or credit cards, but there were money lenders, the banks of the day. The most famous Pompeian banker is Lucius Caecilius Jucundus (now best known as the hero of the early parts of the Cambridge Latin Course). Some of his records and receipts, stashed away in the attic of his house, give an idea of his business activities. Banker is actually a bit of a euphemism – he was mainly an auctioneer profiting on both sides of the transaction, charging the seller a commission and then lending money to the buyer at a healthy rate of interest.

C… is for cafe culture

The latest estimate reckons that there were about 200 cafes and bars in the town altogether – about one for every 60 residents. A counter usually ran along the street to catch the passing trade, selling cheap takeaway food from large jars. Wine was stacked up behind it and there were tables in a back room for sit-down eating and drinking. It was the reverse of today’s society, where the rich eat out and the poor cook up at home. In Pompeii, the poor, living in tiny quarters with no facilities, relied on cafe food.

Visiting Pompeii

The highlight of Pompeii is walking the streets. Try to find a deserted side street – it’s still possible even with the crowds of visitors – and, clichéd as it is, you’ll feel as if you’re back in the Roman world. Otherwise don’t miss the Villa of the Mysteries, just outside the town walls, for really impressive painting (though touched up in the early 20th century rather more than is usually admitted). The brothel still does a roaring trade and is worth a look.

D… is for diet (and dormice)

Rich Pompeians did occasionally eat dormice. Or so a couple of strange pottery containers – identified, thanks to descriptions by ancient writers, as dormouse cages – suggest. But elaborate banquets were a rarity and just for the rich. The staples were bread, olives, beans, eggs, cheese, fruit and veg (Pompeian cabbages were particularly prized), plus some tasty fish. Meat was less in evidence, and was mainly pork. This was a relatively healthy diet. In fact, the ancient Pompeians were on average slightly taller than modern Neapolitans.

E… is for education, education, education

One of the puzzles of Pompeii is where the kids went to school. No obvious school buildings or classrooms have been found. The likely answer is that teachers took their class of boys (and almost certainly only boys) to some convenient shady portico and did their teaching there. A wonderful series of paintings of scenes of life in the Forum seems to show exactly that happening – with one poor miscreant being given a nasty beating in front of his classmates. And the curriculum? To judge from the large number of quotes from Virgil’s Aeneid scrawled on Pompeian walls, the young were well drilled in the national epic.

Listen: Daisy Dunn revisits the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and considers the history that was preserved at Pompeii and Herculaneum, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:

F… is for faith

The official religion of the town sponsored solemn sacrifices and raucous festivals celebrating Jupiter, Apollo, Venus and the Roman emperor, who was to all intents and purposes a god himself. But alongside this, happily co-existing so far as we can tell, were all kinds of other religions. One of the most impressive sights at Pompeii is the little temple of the Egyptian goddess Isis, once tended by its white-clad, shaven-headed priests. We have evidence, too, for Jews and worshippers of Cybele, known as the Great Mother. There is no clear sign of any Christians, but in one house an ivory statuette of the Indian goddess Lakshmi has turned up. Souvenir, curiosity or object of devotion? Nobody knows.

G… is for garum

No Roman cooking was complete without garum – a disgusting concoction of rotten fish. A more generous interpretation sees it as a version of the spicy fish sauces that are part of modern Thai cooking, and it was popular in Pompeii, which had at least one garum shop. One of its richest families made its fortune in the trade – and advertised the fact by decorating their front hall with a design of garum jars in mosaic. Garum traders were canny businessmen, with an eye on different markets. A kosher version (guaranteed to contain no shellfish) was produced for the local Jewish community.

H… is for hygiene

Pompeii boasted at least six public bathing complexes – some owned by the city council, some by private enterprise operations. Only a few of the very richest houses had their own facilities. The vast majority of the population would have exercised, scraped down, sweated and taken a dip in one of the communal establishments. As you might imagine, they were hotbeds of germs and infection. The plunge pools had limited water circulation, no chlorination and must have been full of the usual sort of human effluent. Ancient doctors recommended not going to the baths with an open wound – it could lead to gangrene.

I… is for illness

Illness struck the young hard. Over half of Pompeii’s children were dead by the age of ten. And the telltale marks left by childhood infectious diseases are clearly visible on the teeth of many of the victims of the eruption. But the good news was that if they survived into adolescence, ancient Pompeians could expect a life not much shorter than our own. For those who fell sick, the doctors would try out a diagnosis and cure – equipped with many of the same instruments, everything from tweezers to gynaecological specula, that you find in a modern medical surgery.

J… is for job seekers

Dozens of trades and professions are found at Pompeii: carpenters, actors, surveyors, gem-workers, architects, inn keepers, perfume-sellers, laundry men. There is even a “public pig keeper” by the name of Nigella. Occasionally there was big money to be made, but mostly these were low profit margin occupations, and many of those involved were ex-slaves. One of Pompeii’s heated baths. There were at least six in the ancient town or slaves still working to add to the fortunes of their masters. If you didn’t have a job, what then? One of the paintings of Forum life shows a beggar (plus dog) taking hand-outs from a grand lady. Mostly, though, the poor did not exist. In a world without social care, those without means of support simply died.

K… is for kitchens

Even in the grandest houses, Pompeian kitchens could hardly have cooked up a banquet. They are mostly small, dark, and equipped with just a hearth and a cauldrons to mousse-moulds and industrial-scale sieves. For those occasional banquets, we must imagine preparations extending well beyond the kitchen. One ancient novel talks about a slave shelling peas on the front step, while doubling as hall porter. Large joints of meat would have sizzled away on portable braziers, perhaps in front of the guests.

L… is for lavatories

The usual place for a Pompeian lavatory was in the kitchen. Hygiene aside, it presumably functioned as a convenient waste-disposal unit, in addition to its more familiar function. A few had shafts that dropped down into a running water supply, though the truth is that rich Pompeians were more interested in using piped water to run ornamental fountains than to make their ablutions more efficient. Many went directly into cesspits, and the remains still lingering in them today are a favourite target of archaeologists wanting to find out what really went in and out of Pompeian stomachs.

M… is for mains drains

Why are there so many stepping stones in Pompeii’s streets? The answer is simple. There were hardly any public drains to take rainwater and sewage out of the city. Most water, and a lot else, no doubt, flowed out through the streets, which must have become rather unsavoury rivers in a downpour. There were no such features at the nearby town of Herculaneum, where there was a developed system of underground drainage.

N… is for nightlife

When the night fell in Pompeii, it was very dark indeed. The thousands of oil lamps discovered can hardly have made much impact on the gloom. All the same, the bars kept on serving. Some hung welcoming lamps over their front doors. One striking example is in the shape of a pygmy with an enormous phallus, lights dangling from every extremity. And a group of mates signing themselves ‘the late drinkers’ left their message on a Pompeian wall. Sign writers too were busy in the dark. A man called Celer posted up an advertisement for a gladiator show,“written,” it says,“by the light of the moon”. Add to this the noise of all the guard dogs barking, the horses bellowing and the odd wakeful, honking pig: it was probably noisy as well as dark after hours in Pompeii.

O… is for one-way streets

How did two carts pass in a Pompeian street? A few of the major thoroughfares were wide enough for two-way traffic, but the vast majority were definitely single track. Reversing would be next to impossible with a horse-drawn cart, never mind all the stepping stones in the way.

One solution was to ring a loud warning bell, or send a boy ahead to make sure the way was clear.

P… is for plonk

One of the best-known products of the land surrounding Pompeii was wine. The excellent Roman premier cru, Falernian, came from nearby. And one amphora of Pompeian wine was prized enough by someone that it found its way to England, probably as a gift or a souvenir, rather than evidence for a flourishing wine trade with the northern provinces. But much of the really local wine was bottom of the range. One Roman writer complained that it gave you a hangover till midday.

Q… is for quality of life

Life was comfortable for the wealthy, living in large – albeit often rather dark – houses, with gardens and shady colonnades. One house in the centre of the town was as big as some of the palaces occupied by the kings of the ancient world, and a few spectacular multi-storey properties on the western side of the town enjoyed marvellous views over the Mediterranean. For the slaves and the poor, however, things were bleak. They lived in cramped service quarters or in single rooms above their shop or workshop – with not much more space than a family would need to sleep. Hence, in part, the attraction of cafes and bars where there was room to stretch out.

R… is for real estate

Despite the occasional fortune made in the garum trade, land was the main source of wealth in Pompeii. Every owner of a grand house in Pompeii would have had a country property too, growing vines or olives, or grazing sheep. Not many of these properties have been found – unlike the town itself, it’s harder to know where to look for them. But the country burial ground of one well-known Pompeian family has been discovered, next to what is presumed to be their country house. And a magnificent estate, which may have belonged to the family of Nero’s wife Poppaea, survives at Oplontis, a few miles from the town.

S… is for sex workers

The ancient brothel – a rather grim corner property, with five cubicles, a series of erotic paintings and a lavatory – is now one of the most visited sites in the town. Ironically, it is more frequented now than it was in the Roman world. That said, hundreds of bits of graffiti from satisfied Roman customers survive on its walls, as well as a learned post-coital quotation from Virgil. But sex was almost certainly for sale in all kinds of other parts of town, in bars or seedy one-room lodgings. For the rich, sex was a service provided by slaves.

T… is for theatre-goers

Pompeii had two theatres and one amphitheatre. The amphitheatre (the earliest to survive anywhere in the world) featured occasional gladiator shows and wild beast hunts, with boars and goats rather than lions. No less popular were the heatrical performances – plays, mimes and ancient pantomime, a combination of music and dance that is the ancestor of modern ballet, rather than our traditional Christmas entertainment. Fan clubs supported particular artistes, proclaiming their enthusiasm on the walls of the town: “Come back soon, Anicetus”.

U… is for upstairs, downstairs

What happened upstairs is another big Pompeian puzzle. Many houses had upper floors, but most were destroyed by the force of the eruption. The telltale surviving stairways, leading up from the ground floor, give away their presence even when all other trace has gone. There are all kinds of guesses about how these quarters were used – perhaps storage, slave dormitories or rental apartments for lodgers.

V… is for voting

Pompeian men went to the polls each year to vote for four officials to take charge of town business: a senior pair called ‘the two men for delivering justice’, and a junior pair of aediles, officials who took care of markets, city property and streets. Painted slogans indicate where support lay, for example “The bakers are supporting Caius Julius Polybius”. Negative campaigning (“Don’t vote for…”) was not the custom. But slogans like “The slackers say vote for Polybius” probably amounted to much the same.

W… is for writing on the wall

Pompeian walls, outside and sometimes inside, were covered with notices and graffiti. These included adverts for shows, electoral campaign posters, as well as personal messages of every sort: “Please, no shitting here”,“Successus the weaver’s in love with Iris and she doesn’t give a toss”,“A bronze jar has gone from this shop – reward for its return”. How far the ability to read and write spread through Pompeian society is a matter of dispute. Some historians put it as low as 20 per cent of the adult males, but the sheer prevalence of writing and the simple everyday information conveyed by it (including price lists) suggests that it was considerably higher.

X… is for xenophobia

Pompeii was a surprisingly cosmopolitan town. With graffi ti in Hebrew, ivories from the Far East, Egyptian statues, and traces of exotic spices, interaction with other nationalities clearly took place. That did not necessarily mean that the locals embraced foreign cultures with easy-going tolerance. One favourite theme in painting was the imaginary life of pygmies on the Nile: these strange diminutive creatures were depicted getting up to all kinds of weird practices, from cannibalism to group sex.

Y… is for yob culture

Antisocial behaviour was a feature of ancient life as much as our own – not to mention binge-drinking and sports hooliganism. The most infamous case of this occurred in AD 59, when a riot broke out in the amphitheatre between Pompeians and visitors from nearby Nuceria. In part this was a clash between home and away supporters. But Tacitus, the Roman historian who describes it, refers darkly to “illegal gangs”. The upshot was a complete ban on gladiatorial games in the town for ten years.

Z… is for Zanker and other books on Pompeii

I have read a book, Pompeii: The Life Of A Roman Town (Profile Books, September 2008), which focuses, as the title suggests, on its daily life. I can also recommend Paul Zanker’s Pompeii: Public and Private Life (Harvard UP, 1998) for the development of the town and its architecture, and Alison E Cooley and MGL Cooley, Pompeii: A Sourcebook (Routledge, 2004). The latter, among other things, collects together and translates some of the most evocative of the Pompeian graffiti.

Mary Beard is professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge and author of Pompeii: The Life Of A Roman Town (Profile Books, 2008).


Why Plato Considered the Poet Sappho the Tenth Muse

Modern poetry enthusiasts might recognize one of ancient Greece's most well-known poets from just one surviving poem and many other surviving fragments of work. The fact that scholars have been interested in studying these bits and pieces for hundreds of years is a testament to their impact and beauty. These facts alone would be interesting enough, but what's even more astounding is this poet was a woman who composed lyric poetry at a time when women didn't do that.

We're referring of course to the poet Sappho. She was born between 620 B.C.E. and 615 B.C.E., and has been the subject of much opinion during the past two-and-a-half millennia. That she came from the island of Lesbos, Greece, is agreed upon. Although she was part of an aristocratic family, Sappho's stature as one of the most important poets in Western history, or even a respected poet in her own time, is an unusual turn of events.

Sappho and Ancient Greece

In ancient Greece, women were typically educated only enough to run a household. But the city of her birth may have contributed to her life path. In 2018, Marguerite Johnson, professor of classics at the University of Newcastle in Australia, wrote Sappho's hometown Mytilene "appears to have been an enlightened society compared to other communities in Archaic Greece" in the article "Guide to the classics: Sappho, a poet in fragments."

In Mytilene, women of privileged social standing had access to formal education. Whatever training Sappho received, it united with her personal talent to make a lasting impact on literature.

"She was the first female voice of the artist in the Western tradition," Johnson says. "That lyric voice of the private female poet is vitally important in the history of the Western literary tradition. She's the beginning of it."

Who Was Sappho?

If she was an artistic trailblazer, some parts of Sappho's life appear more traditional. It is believed that she was married, and she had a daughter named Cleis (Kleïs). Some of the fragmented remains of her work discuss her daughter, for example:

Fragment 98 (translated by Raynor and Lardinois)

For corroboration, these inclusions are matched with early biographical sketches from antiquity up to the Suda, an early Byzantine encyclopedic text written in Greek, whose writers would have had access to ancient materials that have now been lost. Cleis is also mentioned in the Suda, so her existence is generally agreed upon, and Sappho's daughter provides evidence that the poet was married to a man.

"She would have to have a husband to have a child," Johnson says. "Because there's no way in ancient Greek society that you'd have a kid without a marriage ceremony and a very legitimate process."

Although Sappho wrote about her brothers and other women she knew, there have been no references to her husband found in her works. In other fragments, the names used for Sappho's husband vary and are often puns, joking about his virility rather than providing his actual name. The real pun could have been that she preferred women.

Was Sappho a Lesbian?

One of the oft-asked questions about Sappho is, was she a lesbian? In fact, it has been claimed that the island of Lesbos provides the root of the word "lesbian" because of Sappho. For example, Poets.org states that the characterization of Sappho as overly promiscuous and a lesbian has endured and that "the very term 'lesbian' is derived from the name of her home island."

Not exactly. In her book "Sappho," Johnson explains that the term was derived from the Greek verb "lesbiazein," which ironically means "to fellate." True, that word was associated with the island of Lesbos. "What the verb connotes is an act of unambiguous heterosexuality, and the historical explanation for the origin and meaning of lesbiazein appears to have been based on the reputation of the women of Lesbos for unbridled sensuality and lust," Johnson wrote in the book.

But back to Sappho, was she or wasn't she?

"It's a vitally important question, and that's why it's asked every single time," Johnson says. "The ancients did not use those terms of themselves. The term homosexual and the term lesbian are very late into the English vocabulary." The ancient Greeks did not have a term for it, so scholars who work on culture and sexuality in the ancient world use a more neutral term, which is "same-sex attracted."

"I think that Sappho was predominantly attracted to women emotionally," Johnson says. "We can absolutely see in the fragment[s]. She writes about women's beauty, so in terms of aesthetics, she's attracted to women." Although her poetry contains little about sexual expression of that love and desire, explicit sexual references were not found in poetry at that time anyway.

To limit the definition and put a completely modern spin on it, you would say she's lesbian, Johnson explains. The Greeks would say, she's a "lover of women" — platonically and possibly sexually. For example:

Fragment 102 (translated by Raynor and Lardinois)

When archaeologists discovered new fragments of Sappho's work on papyrus in Egypt in the 1800s, they were "devasted" to find female pronouns in the poet's descriptions of what she found beautiful and what she loved, says Johnson. To "protect" Sappho's image, the idea that she led a girls school and that references to loving girls refer to the pupils at her school, was circulated.

Even today, the Britannica entry for Sappho states, "Her themes are invariably personal — primarily concerned with her thiasos, the usual term (not found in Sappho's extant writings) for the female community, with a religious and educational background, that met under her leadership."

Johnson says this was an example of putting Victorian morals onto Sappho and that there was no girls school at all. Scholars have also considered that Sappho might have been composing more with her performances and audiences in mind, as Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in The New Yorker in 2015.

Because we know little about her — and a lot of what we know is contradictory — throughout the centuries people have been able to make her "their own Sappho," Johnson says. "So, limited and quite skewed biographical detail enables people to see in the fragments, as they are beginning to be uncovered, to see what they want to see."

Sappho and Lyric Poetry

For someone so revered for so long, Sappho's body of work — at least what we have access to today — is exceptionally limited.

"We have a very small percentage of her complete work, maybe I'd be optimistic and say 2 percent," says Johnson. "They had a very vulnerable and fragile means of maintaining literature in the ancient world. A lot of it was passed down by word-of-mouth."

At some point, Sappho's poems were written down and recorded, but probably not by Sappho herself, who would have performed her poems accompanied by a lyre. Thanks to these transcriptions, Romans had access to the works, and some of the examples we have today come from ancient grammar books — a passage explaining a poetic meter might include an example of that meter from Sappho.

Sappho composed in Aeolic Greek, and like her contemporary and fellow Lesbos native Alcaeus, she wrote in a lyric style. Unlike epic poetry — think the "Iliad" — which is written in hexameter, lyric poetry has a shorter meter, making it more suitable for personal topics. It's also performed accompanied by a lyre, hence the name.

The poetic meter Sappho developed is now known as the Sapphic Meter or the Sapphic Stanza, according to the Ancient History Encyclopedia. It consists of three lines of 11 beats and a concluding line of five. Sapphic verse was used by poets who came after her, including the Roman Catullus, Horace and much later in England by the likes of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Unfortunately, the meter is difficult to capture in translations of Sappho's poetry. Sometimes her work is translated in blank verse to retain some of the structure, however, the musical quality is lost.

It was Sappho's description of the intimate that truly set her apart from her contemporaries, so much so that Plato called her the "Tenth Muse," joining the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, who lavished divine inspiration to the arts and sciences.

"Her voice is unique," says Johnson. "It's the most personal voice within this rise of Greek lyric poetry that can deal with personal topics, but Sappho is the one who really champions that."

Sappho's Poems

Pieces of Sappho's poetry are mostly fragments titled with numbers. From the nine possible papyrus scrolls — or about 10,000 lines — of Sappho's poetry known to have been edited in Alexandria in the third and second centuries B.C.E., just 650 lines survived, according to Diane Raynor and A.P.M.H. Lardinois' "Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works."

The authors describe the preserved works as "one complete song, approximately 10 substantial fragments that contain more than half of the original number of lines, a hundred short citations from the works of other ancient authors, sometimes containing not more than one word, and another 50 scraps of papyrus."

Poem 58, which is concerned with growing older, was completed in 2004 when a piece of papyrus was found holding text that could be paired with existing fragments of the poem.

From Poem 58 (translated by Raynor and Lardinois)

My spirit has grown heavy knees buckle
that once could dance light as fawns.

I often groan, but what can I do?
Impossible for humans not to age.

For they say rosy-armed Dawn in love
went to the ends of earth holding Tithonos,

beautiful and young, but in time gray old age
seized even him with an immortal wife.

More poems from Sappho may still be out there on old papyrus just waiting to be unearthed. In the meantime, we'll have to enjoy the intimate snapshots of her life.

Fragment 47 (translated by Raynor and Lardinois)

Sappho was revered in antiquity, so much so that she appeared on a coin during the Roman Empire. Still revered in the modern era, today, she is the subject of an ongoing podcast.