Classics and Ancient History


Public vs Private: Revisiting Sappho’s world

By Oliver Maynard

Edited by Sienna Melki


The ancient Greek lyric poet Sappho offers one of few extant pieces of female authorship, and yet, still, she has been heralded as ‘the tenth Muse’. Much of her work describes female homosexuality; but, despite the seemingly personal nature of the work, the possibility remains that Sappho can in fact be classed as a ‘public’ poet. Saphho’s world is a complex one, but this essay paints a picture of her as a credit to women everywhere and demonstrates how Classics can be used to uncover marginalised voices which can be seen to reflect our own times.


One of the joys and privileges of studying the classical world is our ability to uncover voices from the distant past which have the potential to speak directly to our own times. Sappho, the seventh century poet from Lesbos, who remains not only one of the first female voices from antiquity but one of our only insights into female homoeroticism as written by a woman, is an example of this. Yet Sappho’s story is one which is bound equally by her interpretation in scholarship as it is in her own work.


There is an inescapable and intrinsic link between the two. As a result, her story is at times tied to reception which, if not entirely wrong, is misguided. The rough sketch of Sappho we hope to come close to painting in our minds can be warped and distorted by shades of problematic portrayals over the centuries. It is remarkably tempting to ignore all this, to get off the delirious merry-go-round of conflicting narratives and focus purely on her preserved fragments. The desire to listen to her words and not the seductive Chinese whispers of scholarly response is strong, but it is precisely because her reception has been confused for so long that this cannot always be done. One of the ways Sappho has been consistently misunderstood is in trying to define her as a public or private figure. It is in that debate that there are misguided portrayals at each extreme. We wrongly limit and diminish Sappho by placing her in an exclusively private box, but some of the explicitly public readings have been driven by a sense of optimism and generalisation which don’t wholly reflect Sappho’s reality. It is the aim of this paper, therefore, to attempt to unpick some of these misguided interpretations and to come at least a little closer to listen more closely to Sappho’s voice, ultimately revealing how she remains a true testament not only to women of her own time but our own.


If we are to consider whether or not Sappho was a public or private figure, we must first consider her performance context. Was Sappho a solo performer, projecting her personal life to a limited audience, or was she something of a celebrity, performing to large audiences and achieving infamy in Lesbos? In answering these questions, fragment 160 becomes useful, as Sappho states:

‘And in this next charming ditty I-

In honour of my girls-

Shall sing out prettily’.[1]

Here, she is clearly addressing an audience, one which is distinctly separate from herself and her girls. It seems encouraging to read this as evidence for the fact that Sappho’s songs were exclusively public in nature. Indeed, this seems to support the notion that ‘like all ancient Greek verse, monodic… and choral, [Greek lyric poetry by women] directs itself at a public’.[2] In fact, Hallett goes on to use this claim (that Sappho’s poems were intended as public, not personal statements) to support his argument that Sappho acted as part of a public institution that instilled sensual awareness in young girls, which they wouldn’t receive from their male counterparts. Whether or not this was the primary motivator behind Sapphic lyric, it seems that she performeSappho_and_Erinna_in_a_Garden_at_Mytilened publicly at least some of the time. Stehl echoes this perspective, noting that when it comes to women meeting up to perform: ‘there is no reason to think that their performances were closed to the community’, and I think it is a point well made.[3] We also have Winkler’s more nuanced analysis, which concedes that Sappho’s verses would have been met by a public ear, yet these remained the verses of a woman (thus by their very core innately private). Her lyrics, for Winkler, ‘embody a consciousness both of her “private”, woman-centred world and the other “public” world”.[4] So, by taking this one fragment, it seems that on the surface, we can visualise Sappho as performing in some sort of public setting, reaching the ears of those separate from her group of girls.

Yet, if we probe a little further, we can reveal that all is not so simple, as is so often the case with the world of antiquity. Anne Carson’s beautifully rendered translation may reveal, from the original (frustratingly cryptic) form of Greek which Sappho uses, a slightly different meaning:

‘These things now for my companions

I shall sing beautifully’.[5]

Here the emphasis seems to be less on performing to a group separate to Sappho’s girls. The exact nature of her performance context is slightly lost here; does Sappho mean she will perform these things for her girls only, or in honour of her girls to other people as the first translation directly implies? The Loeb edition offers no help and is perhaps an indication of, as with Carson’s version, a more ambiguous Sappho, caught between a public and private interpretation.

‘I shall now sing these songs beautifully to delight my companions’.[6]

Again, it is unclear exactly who Sappho is addressing here. Are her companions being delighted by Sappho alone in an exclusively segregated, female environment, or are we to believe that Sappho’s voice has stretched beyond the boundaries of such an isolated setting, and that a larger audience is set to witness the delight of Sappho’s companions? Indeed, it has been suggested that Sappho’s poems would have had a limited audience; small venues intended not for the entire polis to attend.[7] It is also useful information to bear in mind that Sappho did not perform at symposia, thus her audience would not have been as public or political.[8] Thus, these secondary translations reveal that perhaps the exclusively public painting of Sappho we may have initially painted in our minds might not be such an accurate portrayal, and it is to the more private readings which I now turn.

Williamson notes that Sappho appears more private in her nature in her fragments; these works detail a personal, intimate subject matter which may or may not be autobiographical which leads to Sappho being seen as a private performer.[9] There is certainly some evidence for this. It has often been thought that Sappho’s more private, personal poetry were reserved for a performance context which as in no way public. So fragments 31, 94 and 96 (all of which concern Sappho’s intimate and intense proclamations of eroticism and desire) have been grouped by Snyder as part of the category of ‘purely private’ fragments.[10] However, I find troubling Williamson’s point that Sappho’s poetry must have been performed in other settings which were exclusively female.[11] Whilst I do not disagree with her sentiment (the idea of Sappho performing in private settings is not implausible), she provides no footnote of evidence here. The claim that ‘we need to be on guard against exactly this type of argument ex silentio’ is salient, and there is a temptation to liberate Sappho entirely of her cut-off, detached image.[12] Yet, despite Williamson’s lack of evidence here, I think to rule out the idea of Sappho performing personal poetry to small groups is equally as reductive as to suggest that that was the only context in which she performed. So, like traversing a tightrope, we must be cautious when it comes to looking at Sappho’s performance context from a private point of view. There is certainly evidence for poetry performed in private, but we must not assume that this was the only context in which she performed. From these different perspectives, it immediately becomes clear that it is very difficult to definitively answer whether Sappho’s songs received a public hearing.

This blurry picture seems to be the trope surrounding scholarship on Sappho, the number of conflicting voices make it hard to concentrate on what is truth and what is misguided interpretation. Like being in a room full of shouting voices, it is difficult to focus on one’s own internal thought process. We know that Sappho performed to an audience, likely a small one, and that she did not entertain an all-male symposium. Yet there is no evidence to suggest an all-female audience either, and her credentials as a prominent aristocrat with international links with noble families suggest that her listeners were more than the sum of her private group of girls.[13] It may be wishful thinking to suggest that her work was unilaterally heard, to adhere her to the celebrity status parallel to a modern musician would be foolish. Yet given the fact that men did appropriate her voice at their symposia seems to suggest a greater public awareness and acceptance of her work. This is worth bearing in mind when analysing the extent to which Sappho makes explicit political, public statements. I think Williamson rightly points out that Sappho’s performance context may not have always been consistent. At different points in her life she may have given performances to different people and to different groups. There is no need to place Sappho exclusively in either a public or private performance context. Thus, the image of Sappho that appears becomes one not cut off from mainstream society, nor exclusively in the public gaze; in the Venn diagram of public and private life, Sappho resides somewhere in the overlap.


Despite Lefkowitz’s comment that ‘politics and conflict are missing entirely’ from her work, Sappho’s lyrics not only offer surreptitious allusions to her public world but explicit references.[14] Such contents indicate that she must not be read as purely private. However, it is also important to stress that some scholars (such as Parker) have attempted to adhere her to a world which is exclusively public, which in my mind is just as problematic. The wild generalisations Parker makes are just as reductive as the outdated private readings he so confidently dismisses.[15] Firstly, Sappho claims:

‘I do not have an

Ornately woven

Bandeau to hand you Kleis. From

Where would it come?’[16]

This fragment seems to allude to the sumptuary laws passed by Pittacus, which restricted imagesthe spending and luxury of the nobles. Here Sappho is addressing Kleis, most likely her daughter, with the lyrics acting as a kind of lament, words of dissatisfaction immortalised in verse with a distinct, anti-establishment sentiment. The inclusion of clothing should not be dismissed as merely a fanciful feminine topic, rather, it is important to note that men discussed clothing, both as a symbol of status and as a measure of value, with which they could mock the new rich.[17] This is reflected by Sappho in, amongst others, fragment 119V and 101V. Burnett, however, reads this and other fragments as being distinctly apolitical, noting how a girl might educate herself in decorum and respectable clothing. She indicates that fragment 98V ‘plays knowingly upon the adolescent’s narcissistic love of clothes’.[18] Whilst the scepticism of Burnett’s claims must be respected, it is important to dismiss the notion that a fragment as clearly politically charged as this in any way leads us to the conclusion that Sappho was purely private. Sappho was obviously an aristocrat, and this in many ways is the key, defining feature in our reading of her. Thus, it seems very likely that she would have been affected by the sumptuary laws, voicing her indignation via her prose.

Sappho also frequently seems to return to the theme of attacking the new rich – the tide of autonomous, wealthy individuals who were seen as a threat to Sappho’s aristocratic clan. She seems to uphold the virtues of the kalokagathos, condemning those without the noble virtues of old:

‘The gorgeous man presents a gorgeous view;

The good man will in time be gorgeous, too’.[19]

When viewed with an eye for Sappho’s public statements, this seems to be an ethical (not erotic) comment, one in which Sappho seeks to characterise her beloved kalokagathos in moral terms.[20] It seems as though, for Sappho, wealth alone is not enough – one must maintain those old aristocratic values which the nobles revered. Furthermore, a similar sentiment is expressed in a different fragment:

‘Wealth without real worthiness

Is no good for the neighbourhood;

But their proper mixture is

The summit of beatitude’.[21]

This, again, could be read as an emphasis on the maintenance of values, to which the new rich act as challengers – a disturbing prospect for the likes of one from an older aristocratic family such as Sappho.

However, these fragments have previously been read as further proof for the fact that Sappho was a teacher or schoolmistress, these being pearls of wisdom which she doled out to her youths, educating them about etiquette, and the standards which should be aspired to. Yet, plenty of scholars dismiss this reading as being completely devoid of any grounding in reality – detached from any solid evidence and incredibly problematic. Some maintain that there is no evidence for Sappho teaching, no direct references to teaching in Sappho’s work, ‘no evidence for Mistress Sappho’s School for Young Ladies’.[22] This is a view shared by Lefkowitz and Snyder, and one which must be supported, at least for its sceptical analysis of previous scholarly trends.[23]

It seems legitimate, therefore, to conclude that these fragments are more ambiguous in nature and that heir precise meaning is harder to identify. I am more convinced by the notion that these fragments, above anything else, show that Sappho was not exclusively a private figure. Even if these fragments were written by Sappho the private schoolmistress (which I do not believe), they would still be championing a public purpose, namely, to use her girls as conduits through which to uphold traditional values which Sappho held so dear. The alternate view, that this is a public statement from a wealthy noble condemning the laissez-faire attitude towards old values of the new rich, equally confirms that Sappho is not segregated to a private world, separate from politics or the polis altogether. Nevertheless, they do not fully support Parker’s analysis of a Sappho at the forefront of Lesbian politics and public life, she is not attacking anyone by name, nor do we have any evidence of her addressing these lyrics in a political setting. Even when Parker does provide examples of this, there is no evidence to suggest that Sappho’s political views were respected or even heard on any level.[24] In short, they confirm that she was not purely private, but this does not necessarily mean she was as public as Parker depicts her.

Finally, I wish to address Sappho’s exile, an event which is known due to the Parian Marble and could hint at an involvement in political, public life. Parker uses this, along with examples of her attacking other aristocrats, as a foundation for his argument of Sappho’s public world.[25] However, although Page admits that evidence for her exile is available, he states that this is one of the few allusions to politics in her work which, bearing in mind the vast political references available in Alchaeus, do not conclusively hint towards a Sappho as public as Parker portrays.[26] It is Williamson’s more nuanced discussion of this event which I support, as he claims that ‘the story of her exile, if true, indicates that she was a figure of some social prominence’.[27] His caution as to the nature of this event must be endorsed. We have no reference to it in Sappho’s own work, and if it did occur, the extent to which Sappho herself was responsible remains a mystery. For me, this perfectly encapsulates the mystery surrounding Sappho and her work – we have fragments of information which strongly suggest that she was not an incontrovertibly private figure (i.e. that she might have been exiled at all and that we know she attacked certain individuals hints towards some degree of publicity), but the extent to which she transgressed beyond the standard separation of Lesbian life remains a mystery to us.


In Wittig and Zeig’s Lesbian Peoples: Material for a dictionary, Sappho’s page remains blank, which Winkler sees as an appropriate starting point worth bearing in mind for analysing Sappho.[28] It is this air of scepticism which I endorse, taking issue with Burnett or Parker’s more extreme readings. I also take issue with Parker’s definition of what constitutes politics (‘by which I mean nothing more and nothing less than matters of importance to her polis’), which uses an incredibly broad brush to paint a blanket statement covering anything involving public affairs.[29] This does not factor whether Sappho would have had any degree of political leverage, dominance or even respect. This is not to say that I do not admire Parker’s ambition. I too want to believe that Sappho was a public force to be reckoned with, calling out rivals and attacking her political foes. But in a society as divided as Sappho’s, I fear that mere ambition is what fuels Parker’s argument.[30] It is comforting to picture her as purely public, but also depressingly believable to see her as a lone voice, drowned out by a chorus of patriarchy and segregation. Every generation paints their own picture of Sappho, mine is best encapsulated as being a credit to females everywhere, able to adopt two personas when the circumstance permits it.[31] For me Sappho is both critical and caring, aggressive and tender – public and private.

[1] Sappho, Fr. 160V, trans. Poochigian.

[2] Hallett (1996), 138.

[3] Stehle (1997), 262.

[4] Winkler (1981), 92.

[5] Sappho, 160, trans. Carson.

[6] Sappho, 160, trans. Campbell.

[7] Parker (1993), 332.

[8] Williamson (1995), 72.

[9] Williamson (1995), 68.

[10] Snyder (1991).

[11] Williamson (1995), 72.

[12] Parker (2005), 9.

[13] Williamson (1995), 87.

[14] Lefkowitz (1981), 36.

[15] Parker (2005).

[16] Sappho, Fr. 98V, trans. Poochigian.

[17] Parker (2005), 13.

[18] Burnett (1983), 213.

[19] kalokagathos: this was for the Ancient Greeks a person of the upmost noble value, combining both beauty and justice in their conduct.

Sappho, Fr. 50V, trans. Poochigian.

[20] Parker (2005), 12.

[21] Sappho, Fr. 148V, trans. Poochigian.

[22] Parker (1993), 314.

[23] Lefkowitz (1973), 63.

Snyder (1991), 12.

[24] Parker (2005), 9.

[25] Parker (2005), 5.

[26] Page (1955), 131.

[27] Williamson (1995), 84.

[28] Winkler (1981), 89.

[29] Parker (2005), 5.

[30] Winkler (1981), 89.

[31] Parker (1993), 312.


Primary Sources

Sappho, Greek Lyric, trans. D.A. Campbell, Norwich: Fletcher and Son Ltd., 1977.

Sappho, If Not Winter: Fragments of Sappho, trans. A. Carson, London: Virago, 2002.

Sappho, Stung with love: Poems and fragments, trans. A. Poochigan, London: Penguin, 2015.

Secondary Sources

Burnett, P.A. (1983), Three Archaic Poets, London: Duckworth.

Hallett, J. (1996), ‘Sappho and her social context: sense and sensuality’, in E. Greene (ed.), Reading Sappho: contemporary approaches, LA, California: University of California Press.

Lefkowitz, M. (1973), ‘Critical stereotypes and the poetry of Sappho’, Greek Roman and Byzantine studies 14, 113-123.

Lefkowitz, M. (1981), The Lives of the Greek Poets, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Page, D. (1955), Sappho and Alcaeus: an introduction to the study of ancient lesbian poetry, Oxford: Clarendon.

Parker, H.N. (1993), ‘Sappho schoolmistress’, Transactions of the American Philological Association 123, 309-351.

Parker, H.N. (2005), ‘Sappho’s public world’, in E. Greene (ed.), Women poets in Ancient Greece and Rome, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Snyder, J. (1991), ‘Public occasion and private passions in the lyrics of Sappho of Lesbos’, in J.B. Pomperoy & C. Hill (ed.), Women in history and ancient history, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Stehle, E. (1997), Performance and gender in ancient Greece: Nondramatic poetry in its setting, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Williamson, M. (1995), Sappho’s immortal daughters, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Winkler, J.J. (1981), ‘Gardens of Nymphs: Public and Private in Sappho’s Lyrics’, Women’s Studies 8, 65-91.

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