One of history's greatest poets

The life and work of Sappho

One of history's greatest poets

"Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene" by Simeon Solomon, 1864

Few authors have matched the success of Sappho. The only woman counted among the canonical nine lyric poets of the ancient world, her work has endured for millennia and continues to be studied today. So how did she manage to last for so long?

There is little actually known about Sappho's life. What we do know is that she was born on Lesbos to wealthy parents. While this Mediterranean island is famous today as a key location on the migration route to Europe, in the ancient world it was a centre of artistic excellence.

Women, specifically goddesses, were also important in Lesbos' society and culture. This culture of expression and, relative, tolerance allowed Sappho to flourish and she became famous for her lyrical poetry. While this poetry ensured Sappho's legacy among academics her life and sexuality would push her memory beyond the library and lecture hall.

Though little of Sappho's work has survived the passage of time, we know that she wrote many romantic poems for women. This evident lesbianism has proven controversial throughout history. Today the debate rages on among critics and academics argue over Sappho's sexuality. Some insist that her romantic references to women must be read as sexual while others claim these passages refer to platonic love and resist attempts to paint her as homosexual.

Despite this academic debate the popular imagination has accepted Sappho as an icon of female homosexuality, so much so that her native island has given its name to lesbianism. This status has ensured that Sappho's legacy has reached beyond that of her contemporaries. The only woman counted among the nine lyric poets, she is also the most famous member of this group.

Join Patrick Geoghegan as he talks with a panel of experts about Sappho's life and legacy. What is so impressive about her poetry? Does it deserve to be so well remembered? Or is Sappho only remembered because of her sexuality?

For those looking to learn more about Sappho and her work Brill Publishing have made a new collection of essays on her recently discovered works available to download.