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Wharton's Life of Sappho

Part 4, Sappho's beauty and the ancients

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Plato, in his Phaedrus, calls Sappho 'beautiful,' for the sweetness of her songs; 'and yet,' says Maximus Tyrius, 'she was small and dark,' une petite brunette,--'est etiam fusco grata colore venus':

The small dark body's Lesbian loveliness
That held the fire eternal.
                (Swinburne)

The epithet 'beautiful' is repeated by so many writers that it may everywhere refer only to the beauty of her writings. Even Ovid seems to think that her genius threw any lack of comeliness into the shade--a lack, however, which, if it had existed, could not have escaped the derision of the Comic writers, especially since Homer (Iliad, ix. 129, 271) had celebrated the characteristic beauty of the women of Lesbos. The address of Alcaeus to Sappho, quoted on p. 8, shows the sweetness of her expression, even if the epithet ioplokos (violet-weaving) cannot be replaced by ioplokamos (with violet locks), as some MSS. read. And Damocharis, in the Greek Anthology, in an Epigram on a statue of Sappho, speaks of her bright eyes showing her wisdom, and compares the beauty of her face to that of Aphrodite. To another writer in the Greek Anthology she is 'the pride of the lovely-haired Lesbians.' Anacreon, as well as Philoxenus, calls her 'sweet-voiced' (cf. fr. 1).

But though we know so little of Sappho's personal appearance, the whole testimony of the ancient writers describes the charm of her poetry with unbounded praise.

Strabo, in his Geography, calls her 'something wonderful' (thaumaston ti chrÍma), and says he knew 'no woman who in any, even the least degree, could be compared to her for poetry' (cf. p. 10).

Such was her unique renown that she was called 'The Poetess,' just as Homer was 'The Poet.' Plato numbers her among the Wise. Plutarch speaks of the grace of her poems acting on her listeners like an enchantment, and says that when he read them he set aside the drinking-cup in very shame. So much was a knowledge of her writings held to be an essential of culture among the Greeks, that Philodemus, a contemporary of Cicero, in an Epigram in the Greek Anthology, notes as the mark of an ill-informed woman that she could not even sing Sappho's songs.

Writers in the Greek Anthology call her the Tenth Muse, child of Aphrodite and Eros, nursling of the Graces and Persuasion, pride of Hellas, companion of Apollo, and prophesy her immortality. For instance, Antipater of Sidon says:

Does Sappho then beneath thy bosom rest,
Aeolian earth? That mortal Muse, confessed
Inferior only to the choir above,
That foster-child of Venus and of Love;
Warm from whose lips divine Persuasion came,
Greece to delight, and raise the Lesbian name.
        O ye who ever twine the three-fold thread,
Ye Fates, why number with the silent dead
That mighty songstress whose unrivalled powers
        Weave for the Muse a crown of deathless flowers?
                (FRANCIS HODGSON.)

And Tullius Laurea:

Stranger, who passest my Aeolian tomb,
Say not 'The Lesbian poetess is dead';
Men's hands this mound did raise, and mortal's work
Is swiftly buried in forgetfulness.
But if thou lookest, for the Muses' sake,
On me whom all the Nine have garlanded,
Know thou that I have Hades' gloom escaped:
No dawn shall lack the lyrist Sappho's name.

And Pinytus:

This tomb reveals where Sappho's ashes lie,
But her sweet words of wisdom ne'er will die.
        (LORD NEAVES.)

And Plato:

Some thoughtlessly proclaim the Muses nine;
A tenth is Lesbian Sappho, maid divine.
       (LORD NEAVES.)

Indeed, all the praises of the Epigrammatists are in the same strain; none but held her, with the poetess Nossis, 'the flower of the Graces.'

Many authors relate how the Lesbians gloried in Sappho's having been their citizen, and say that her image was engraved on the coins of Mitylene--'though she was a woman,' as Aristotle remarks. J. C. Wolf describes six extant coins which may presumably have been struck at different times in honour of her; he gives a figure of each on his frontispiece, but they have little artistic merit.

It is worthy of note that no coins bearing the name or effigy of Sappho have hitherto been discovered which were current before the Christian era, so that no conclusion drawn from inscriptions on them is of any historical importance. In the time of the Antonines, from which most of these coins seem to date, her name was as much sullied by traditions as it has been to the present day.

Some busts there are of her, but none seem genuine. Perhaps the best representation of what she and her surroundings might have been is given by Mr. Alma Tadema in his 'Sappho,' exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1881, which has been etched by Mr. C. O. Murray, and admirably photographed in various sizes by the Berlin Photographic Company; from the head of Sappho in this picture Mr. J. C. Webb has engraved the medallion which forms the frontispiece of this work.

A bronze statue of Sappho was splendidly made by Silanion, and stolen by Verres, according to Cicero, from the prytaneum at Syracuse. And Christodorus, in the Greek Anthology, describes a statue of her as adorning the gymnasium of Zeuxippus at Byzantium in the fifth century A.D. Pliny says that Leon, an artist otherwise unknown, painted a picture of her in the garb of a lutist (psaltria).

Numerous illustrations of her still exist upon Greek vases, most of which have been reproduced and annotated upon by Professor Comparetti (see Bibliography); but they are all in a debased style, and one would feel more content if one had not seen them.

Not only do we know the general estimate of Sappho by antiquity, but her praise is also often given in great detail. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, when he quotes her Ode to Aphrodite ( fr. 1), describes at length the beauty of her style. Some of Demetrius' praise is quoted as fr. 124, but he also elaborately shows her command of all the figures and arts of rhetoric. What Longinus, Plutarch, and Aristoxenus thought of her I have summarised under fr. 2. The story of Solon's praise is given under fr. 137. And Plutarch in his Life of Demetrius, telling a story of Antiochus' (324-261 B.C.) being in love with Stratonice, the young wife of his father, and making a presence of sickness, says that his physician Erasistratus discovered the object of the passion he was endeavouring to conceal by observing his behaviour at the entrance of every visitor to his sick chamber. 'When others entered,' says Plutarch, 'he was entirely unaffected; but when Stratonice came in, as she often did, either alone or with Seleucus [his father, King of Syria], he showed all the symptoms described by Sappho, the faltering voice, the burning blush, the languid eye, the sudden sweat, the tumultuous pulse; and at length, the passion overcoming his spirits, he fainted to a mortal paleness.' The physician noted what Sappho had described as the true signs of love, and Plutarch touchingly relates how the king in consequence surrendered Stratonice to his son, and made them king and queen of Upper Asia.



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