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Sappho of Lesbos › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Joshua J. Mark
published on 02 August 2014
Sappho (John William Godward)

Sappho of Lesbos (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 figures such as Solon and Plato. Very little is known of her life and of the nine volumes of her work which were widely read in antiquity only fragments survive. Contrary to popular opinion on the subject, her works were not destroyed by closed-minded Christians seeking to suppress lesbian love poetry but were lost simply through time and circumstance. Sappho wrote in the Aeolic Greek dialect which was difficult for Latin writers, well versed in Attic and Homeric Greek, to translate. They were aware that once there had existed a highly praised female poet from the works of others, and they preserved those poems of Sappho's which others had copied, but they did not copy others simply because they did not know her dialect. Some kind of written works were composed concerning her during her lifetime or shortly after because the outline of her life was known by later writers but, aside from inscriptions such as the Parian Marble (a history of certain events in Greece between 1582-299 BCE) it is not known what these works were. Her name has leant itself to `lesbian' and `Sapphic', both relating to homosexual women, because of her extant poetry which concerns itself with romantic love between women.


Sappho was born on the island of Lesbos, Greece, to an aristocratic family. While scholars regularly claim that her wealth allowed her to live a life of her own choosing, this cannot be supported. Most women of wealthy families married according to the traditions and customs of their city -states and Sappho's wealth would not have made her immune to the expectations of her family and society. Most likely, she was able to live as she pleased because of the high esteem in which women were held on Lesbos and Sappho's own unique personality. The historian Wendy Slatkin writes:
Considering the severe restrictions on women's lives, their inability to move freely in society, conduct business, or acquire any type of non-domestic training, it is not surprising to find that no names of important [female] artists have come down to us from the classical era. Only the poet Sappho received high praise from the Greeks; Plato referred to her as the twelfth Muse. Significantly, she came not from Athens or Sparta but from Lesbos, an island whose culture incorporated a high regard for women (42).


She is said to have operated a school for girls on Lesbos but this seems to be a later invention of the 19th century CE which confused her with her protégée Damophila who ran a girl's school in Pamphylia. All that is known of her life is that she was raised learning to play the lyre and came to compose songs, may have been married to a man at some point who died, may have had a daughter named Cleis (named after Sappho's mother), had three brothers (Erigyius, Charaxus, and Larichus), came from a well-to-do family, was exiled twice to Sicily because of her political views, and was famous enough to have statues raised in her honor and, later, coins minted with her name and image on them. Author Vicki Leon writes:
Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos, proudly issued Sappho coins; some have been found that date to the third century AD - nine hundred years after the poet's death. Sappho (or, rather, her fame) cornered the ancient equivalent of the T-shirt concession too: her portrait and name appear on vases, bronzes, and, later, much Roman art (151).
She is described in ancient texts as being short in stature and dark in complexion. A romantic interest in women is evident from her poetry but most scholars advise against reading her works biographically. In the same way that poets through the ages have written works expressing a persona not their own, so too could Sappho have composed her poems. The intimacy and depth of feeling would seem to suggest that Sappho was lesbian but that does not mean she was. Homer 's description of battle and the dust and blood before Troy does not mean he was a participant; only that he was a good writer. The scholar Sir Richard Livingstone comments on this, writing :
Greek simplicity recalls us to the central interests of the human heart. Greek truthfulness is a challenge to see the world as it is and shun the emptiness of mere music, the falsities of rhetoric or sentiment, the incompleteness of writers who, instead of seeing life as a whole, ignore or emphasize a part of it as their own sympathies dictate (286).
While it is possible, then, that Sappho was a lesbian, it is equally possible that she wrote on many subjects but that her works expressing lesbian love are the ones that have survived most intact.
Sappho of Lesbos

Sappho of Lesbos


Those works which are extant are deeply personal reflections on romantic love, desire, and loss. Livingstone writes, "In life, human beings return from a distracting variety of interests to a few simple things; or, if they do not return, run the risk of losing their souls. In literature, which is the shadow of life, they need to do the same" (259). Sappho seems to have understood this clearly and focused her work on the most basic and most enduring human emotions. The simplicity of construction in her work concentrates the reader's attention on the emotional moment itself and, like all great poetry, creates an experience which is easily recognizable. One example of this is her poem, "I Have Not Had One Word From Her" (a title given from the first line of the piece. The original title is unknown):
I have not had one word from her
Frankly I wish I were dead
When she left, she wept
a great deal; she said to me, "This parting must be
endured, Sappho. I go unwillingly."
I said, "Go, and be happy
but remember (you know
well) whom you leave shackled by love
"If you forget me, think
of our gifts to Aphrodite
and all the loveliness that we shared
"all the violet tiaras,
braided rosebuds, dill and
crocus twined around your young neck
"myrrh poured on your head
and on soft mats girls with
all that they most wished for beside them
"while no voices chanted
choruses without ours,
no woodlot bloomed in spring without song."
The intimacy and honesty of this poem is characteristic of all Sappho's surviving work. She was not only a brilliantly honest poet, however, but also a virtuoso of technique. She invented a completely new meter for poetry, now known as Sapphic Meter or the Sapphic Stanza which consists of three lines of eleven beats and a concluding line of five. The following poem, now known as `Please', is an example of this (although the present translation does not preserve the steady eleven beats of the first three lines of each stanza):
Come back to me, Gongyla, here tonight,
You, my rose, with your Lydian lyre.
There hovers forever around you delight:
A beauty desired.
Even your garment plunders my eyes.
I am enchanted: I who once
Complained to the Cyprus -born goddess,
Whom I now beseech
Never to let this lose me grace
But rather bring you back to me:
Amongst all mortal women the one
I most wish to see.
Her poetry would have been sung to the accompaniment of the lyre (which is how lyric poetry gets its name) and performed publicly at events and private dinners. A famous story related by Stobaeus (5th century CE), who collected such ancient anecdotes, claims that, "Solon of Athens heard his nephew sing a song of Sappho's over the wine and, since he liked the song so much, he asked the boy to teach it to him. When someone asked him why, he said: `So that I may learn it, then die'." ( Florilegium 3.29.58). Whether the story is true is not as important as what it says about Sappho's poetry. Solon was considered one of the wisest men who ever lived and was counted among the Seven Sages of Greece. He was known for teaching the precept "moderation in everything" and so for him to react so emotionally in this anecdote to Sappho's song is significant in that even one so wise and moderate could be so deeply moved that he would desire nothing more after learning the song.
Sappho of Lesbos

Sappho of Lesbos


The manner of Sappho's death is unknown. The Athenian playwright Menander (c. 341-29 BCE) started the legend that she committed suicide by leaping from the Leucadian cliffs over the unrequited love of a ferryman named Phaon. He writes:
...they say that Sappho was the first,
hunting down the proud Phaon,
to throw herself, in her goading desire, from the rock
that shines from afar.
This seems highly unlikely and has been rejected by historians in the present day and as far back as the Greek writer Strabo (64 BCE-24 CE). The Leucadian cliff (also known as Cape Leukas on the island of Lefkada) was a famous "lover's leap" following a story in which Aphrodite flung herself into the sea while mourning the dead Adonis. Menander could have been simply making fun of romantic love by having a woman known for her lesbian love poetry kill herself over a man. Interestingly, Artemisia I of Caria (c. 480 BCE), another strong woman of note, was also said to have committed suicide by throwing herself into the sea and, according to some sources, from the same spot. Artemisia's suicide story has also been discredited. Sappho seems to have lived into old age and died of natural causes but this, like most of the events of her life, is far from certain.
What is clear is that she was a poet of immense talent whose work made her famous. Her poetry was so popular, according to Leon, that "not only was her work sung, taught, and quoted - but the very phrases she coined, from `love, that loosener of limbs' to `more golden than gold ', entered the Greek language and were used so much they eventually became clichés" (150). She was a much sought-after performer and her compositions continued to be sung and admired long after her death.She referred to her poetry as her "immortal daughters" and so they continue to be as readers 2,000 years after their creation continue to respond to them with the same enthusiasm they inspired when they were first written.

Archimedes › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Cristian Violatti
published on 24 June 2013
Archimedes (Domenico Fetti)

One of the first details we read about Archimedes (287-212 BCE) in almost every account of his life is the famous scene where he runs wet and naked through the streets of Syracuse shouting “Eureka!, Eureka!” (“I have found it!”). This nudist episode, however, fails to capture the respect that the life of the greatest Greek mathematician and mechanical engineer of antiquity deserves. Archimedes was a pioneer in mathematics and engineering, many centuries ahead of his contemporaries.He was the son of an astronomer named Phidias, lived in the Greek city of Syracuse, studied in Alexandria under the successors of Euclid, and was on intimate terms with King Hieron II, the ruler of Syracuse.
Like all important figures in antiquity who were supremely talented, his story became filled throughout the centuries with many myths and other non-historical accounts to sustain his specialness. It is, therefore, a challenge to clearly distinguish between actual historical facts and legends that were added to decorate his story.


Archimedes' success in applying his mathematical knowledge to weapons of war played a major role during the war between Rome and Syracuse during the Second Punic War. The development of this conflict can be traced back to around 290 BCE, when the Romans became the new rulers of central Italy and began to conquer the Greek cities on the Italian coast. In 270 BCE Hieron II (308-215 BCE) became king of Syracuse, located on the island of Sicily, and the city enjoyed a last period of prosperity. In Sicily, Romans and Carthaginians were brought face to face and in 264 BCE, the First Punic War started. The Carthaginians were the masters of the sea, so the Romans relied on help from the Greek cities in the south in order to build their own ships and so were able to fight the Carthaginians at sea. In 241 BCE Rome defeated Carthage and took over Sicily.During his reign, Hieron II remained on peaceful terms with the Romans and when Rome took over Sicily after the First PunicWar, Syracuse remained independent.


In 218 BCE the Second Punic War started; this was the second major war between Carthage and Rome. In 215 BCE, Hieron II died and his successor Hieronymus made a very poor decision by switching sides and supporting Carthage: He felt the Romans would lose the war. The Romans were not happy about this decision, and they made it clear by besieging the city of Syracuse from 214 to 212 BCE. In the end, the Romans entered the city, slaughtered and enslaved its citizens, and sacked it.


During the time of Archimedes, the centre of Greek culture was Alexandria, the greatest centre of scholarship at this time.Here Archimedes received the finest training available in several disciplines, including mathematics. Archimedes' devotion to mathematics has been compared with that of Newton's: Both often neglected food, drink, and even the basic care of their bodies in order to continue studying mathematics. Plutarch wrote on Archimedes some three centuries later:
It is not possible to find in all geometry more difficult and intricate questions, or more simple and lucid explanations. Some ascribe this to his natural genius; while others think that incredible effort and toil produced these, to all appearances, easy and unlabored results.
(Durant, p. 629)
Archimedes' works on mathematics can be categorized into three groups:
1. Works that prove theorems related to solids and areas bounded by curves and surfaces.
2. Works that analyse problems in statics and hydrostatics from a geometrical viewpoint.
3. Miscellaneous works, including some that emphasize counting, such as The Sand Reckoner.
In his work On the Measurement of the Circle, Archimedes arrives at the logical conclusion that the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter, the mathematical constant we today call “pi” (π), is greater than 3 1/7 but less than 3 10/71, a very good approximation.


The famous incident where Archimedes runs naked started with a crown made for Hieron II: The king suspected that the artisan might have kept for himself some of the gold provided for the task and replaced it with a mixture of gold and materials of lower quality. The king wanted to know whether the artisan replaced the gold, but he wanted to find out without damaging the crown, so he requested that many experts test the crown without damaging it. We are told that Archimedes was among those experts and after several weeks thinking about the matter, he found the answer while stepping into a tub at the public baths. He noticed two things; first, that the water overflowed in accordance to the depth of his immersion, and second, that his body appeared to weigh less the deeper it was submerged. Upon this revelation, if we are to believe the legend, Archimedes rushed off down the streets of Syracuse, presumably naked and wet, shouting in excitement that he had found the answer to the king's question. He formulated the “Principle of Archimedes”, also known as the law of buoyancy, which states that any object fully or partially immersed in a fluid will experience an upward force equal to the weight of the displaced fluid. This principle offered Archimedes a test for the material make-up of the crown. Back home he discovered that a given weight of silver, when immersed, displaced more water than an equal weight of gold. The reason for this is that silver has more volume per weight in comparison to gold. He then proceeded to submerge the crown and compared the water displaced by it with a quantity of gold equal to the crown in weight. Archimedes concluded that the crown was not made entirely of gold, confirming the king's suspicions, and so he was able to tell exactly how much gold was missing.
In a lost treatise which we know only through summaries, Archimedes formulated the Law of the Lever and Balance. He did it so accurately that no advancement was made until the 16th century CE. He also discovered the benefits of the pulley for lifting large weights. He was so amazed by the mechanical advantages provided by both the lever and the pulley that he famously stated, “give me a place to stand, and I will move the Earth”. King Hieron challenged Archimedes to put his claim to the test, so Archimedes arranged a cleverly designed series of cogs and pulleys in such a manner that he alone, sitting on one end of the mechanism, managed to draw a fully loaded vessel out of the water and place it onto the land, a task that a hundred men could barely accomplish.
Despite all of the physical laws he discovered, Archimedes never actually referred to them as laws, nor did he describe them in reference to observation and measurement; he instead treated them as pure mathematical theorems, within the logic of a system similar to the one Euclid developed for geometry. Greek science during Archimedes' day had a tendency to undervalue observations and favour logical arguments: Greeks believed that the highest knowledge was based on deductive reasoning. This, however, did not prevent Archimedes from experimenting; in fact, he stands out from his contemporaries because he successfully applied his theoretical knowledge into practice. But the way he presents his discoveries is always from a mathematical perspective, and he never attempted to offer a systematic description from an engineering viewpoint.Moreover, when he refers to mechanical experiments he is actually using them to help the understanding of mathematics: This shows a key difference in approach between ancient science, where experimentation was used to help theoretical understanding, and modern science, where theory is used to pursue practical results.


After the death of Hieron II, war began between Syracuse and the Romans. The city was attacked by both land and sea.Seventy-five years of age were no obstacle for Archimedes in playing a central role defending the city. Applying his skills as an engineer, he developed and arranged catapults that hurled heavy stones to a great distance, pierced holes in the city walls for bowmen to shoot their arrows, and set up cranes that were able to release a large weight of stones on the Roman ships when they came within reach. These inventions were so effective that Marcus Claudius Marcellus, the Roman commander, abandoned the idea of attacking Syracuse and decided that a siege was the only way of breaking the city. In 212 BCE, the starving city surrendered and the Romans captured Syracuse.
Marcellus was so impressed by the genius of Archimedes that he ordered that the talented Greek should be captured alive.Nonetheless, when the Roman soldiers located Archimedes, he was on the beach drawing geometrical figures in the sand and working on one of his many theorems. He ignored the soldiers' orders and requested some extra time to finish his work. The furious soldiers, probably feeling a little insulted, immediately killed one of the greatest minds of all history.
Archimedes died, but his ideas could not be killed, and Archimedes' works, after many adventures and translations during the Middle Ages, have survived in an accessible form. During the Renaissance, the work of Archimedes gained a wide interest in the developing scientific movement. Galileo was very interested in Archimedes due to the application of mathematics to physics and many of his clever experiments. The western world would have to wait until Leonardo Da Vinci to see a greater mechanical genius.


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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