Sappho and Alcaeus

Lyric Poets From Lesbos

Painting of Sappho and Alcaeus of Mytilene, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Walters Art Museum / Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sappho and Alcaeus were both contemporaries, natives of Mytilene on Lesbos, and aristocrats affected by local power struggles, but beyond that, they had little in common—except the most important: a gift for writing lyric poetry. In explanation for their remarkable talent it was said that when Orpheus (the father of songs) was torn to pieces by the Thracian women, his head and lyre were carried to and buried on Lesbos.

Sappho and Women

Lyric poetry was personal and evocative, allowing the reader to identify with the poet's private despair and hopes. It's for this reason that Sappho, even 2600 years later, can arouse our emotions.

We know Sappho gathered about herself a group of women, but debate continues as to its nature. According to H.J. Rose, "It is not an unattractive theory that they were formally a cult-organization or thiasos." On the other hand, Lesky says it need not have been a cult, although they did worship Aphrodite. Sappho also need not be thought of as a schoolmistress, although the women learned from her. Lesky says the purpose of their life together was to serve the Muses.

Sappho's Poetry

The subjects of Sappho's poetry were herself, her friends and family, and their feelings for each other. She wrote about her brother (who seems to have led a dissolute life), possibly her husband*, and Alcaeus, but most of her poetry concerns the women in her life (possibly including her daughter), some of whom she loves passionately.

In one poem she envies the husband of her friend. According to Lesky, when Sappho looks at this friend, "her tongue will not move, a subtle fire burns under her skin, her eyes see no longer, her ears ring, she breaks into a sweat, she trembles, she is as pale as death which seems so near."

Sappho wrote about her friends leaving, getting married, pleasing and disappointing her, and imagining them remembering the old days.

She also wrote epithalamia (marriage hymns), and a poem on the wedding of Hector and Andromache. Sappho did not write about the political struggles except to mention the difficulty she will have getting a hat given the current political situation. Ovid says she let fame console her for lack of physical beauty.

According to legend, Sappho's death was consistent with her passionate personality. When a haughty man named Phaon spurned her, Sappho jumped from the cliffs of Cape Leucas into the sea.

Alcaeus the Warrior

Only fragments remain of the work of Alcaeus, but Horace thought highly enough of it to pattern himself on Alcaeus and present a summary of the earlier poet's themes. Alcaeus writes of fighting, drinking (in his thinking, wine is the cure for almost everything), and love. As a warrior, his career was marred by the loss of his shield. He says little enough about politics except to indicate his contempt for Democrats as would-be tyrants. He, too, comments on his physical appearance, in his case, the gray hair on his chest.