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Friday, 01 June 2012 00:00

Was Sappho Exiled for her Poetry or Sexual Politics?

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Dear Sappho,

I recently heard that Sappho was once exiled from Lesbos. Why was she in exile? What are some of the political and social dynamics that influenced her life and her poetry?




Dear Curious

Sappho was not exiled as an adult but taken as a child or teenager to Sicily sometime between 604-595 BCE to avoid political conflict. We don’t know why, our only indication that she was ever exiled comes from an inscription in the Parian Chronicle that says. “When Aristokles reigned over the Athenians Sappho fled from Mytilene and sailed to Sicily.”

The Parian Chronicle is a marble stele inscribed as a Greek chronological tablet, found in Paros in 1897 covering the time between 1581 BCE to 264 BCE. We know a few details about Sappho’s life. We know that she was born near 612 BCE, that her father was a wealthy merchant and her mother was a native of Mytilene. There was political disturbance during Sappho’s lifetime which can be compared to Homer’s Troy as the cities of Lesbos were constantly threatened by Lydia, an iron age kingdom of western Asia Minor located in modern day Turkey. The only clue we have as a possible reason for her exile is one small fragment cautioning against paying a ransom. Her wealthy father may have feared the family would be kidnapped and ransomed but Sappho herself was not specifically exiled for her politics or her poetry that we know of.

Sappho was different from other philosophers and poets in her own time in that she examined her own emotional feelings and her inner world. Her poetry was more personal than the widely read and recited Homer Epics. Sappho mastered various poetic meters, the most famous being the Sapphic Verse. Although the words Lesbian and Sapphic are both derived from Sappho’s name and birthplace, neither of them were related to or applied to homosexuality until the nineteenth century.

Sappho and Alcaeus of Mytilene were poet contemporaries who both lived on Lesbos at the same time. Both wrote homoerotic poetry and both are considered leaders of the Aeolian school of poetry. Aeolian is a linguistic term used to describe a set of ancient Greek dialects from mostly Central Greece but included Thessaly, Lesbos, and Aeolis. Where Homer concentrated on the glory of the military, Sappho emphasized the glory of love.

Sappho’s poetry was later translated into Latin and the scholars at the Alexandrian library collected her works into an edition of nine books. This edition was lost or destroyed in the Middle Ages. Only two hundred fragments remain today, many found scratched onto clay pots. The earliest papyrus of Sappho’s poems, from the 3rd Century BCE, was found wrapped around an Egyptian mummy by German researchers in the 20th Century.

In Mytilene Sappho was the center of a female literary circle that included both her audience and the women she wrote to. Sappho could read and write, an uncommon skill at that time. We actually have no proof that Sappho was an educator or founder of a school for girls. Maximus of Tyre equated her as the female Socrates. To explain Sappho and make her more palatable during the Victorian era, she was described as the “headmistress of a girls’ finishing school.”  This is a VERY popular misconception that continues to this day.  She wasn’t really exiled for her poetry or sexual politics until the Middle Ages. 


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