Sappho and Alcaeus

1. Introduction

During the 7th century B.C. the political life of Lesvos was fraught with intense fights. Initially it was dominated by the family of the Penthilideans. Towards the end of the century, however, more aristocratic families obtained strength and scoped to power. During that turbulent period the lyrical poetry appeared on the island, maybe to express the intense feelings or to turn the thoughts of people towards less dangerous paths that the ones experienced by the civilians who occupied with public life.

2. Alcaeus

Alcaeus was a descendent of one of these aristocratic families. His brothers had participated in the assassination of the tyrant Melaghros. He himself, later, along with the later political mediator Pittakos, had established a “company”, which planned the elimination of the tyrant Myrsillos. That plot was revealed and the conspirators were exiled at Pyrra, from where they continued their efforts. They must have also asked the Lydians for economic help, something for which Pittakos abstained and seceded. Alcaeus considered Pittakos a traitor and used his poetry to ridicule him, using pejorative names: kakopatris (of vulgar origins) and fuskon (pot-bellied) are some of them. We often have the impression that his poems were deliberately written to be recited at the feasts of his ideological comrades, amusing them with their satire but also the bitterness they express. Alcaeus was exiled for his acts against the regime, as well as his brother and other dissidents.

In Alcaeus’ poems allegory is a fundamental element: the image of a ship tormented by the tempest symbolizes the state that wavers in the political crisis and it is an images still used today. However, another theme often used is the one of wine-drinking. Alcaeus’ pomes are written in different meters, but mainly in the iambic one. The dialect used by Alkaios is the Lesbian Aeolian, something that seems to be his common element with the other great Lesbian poet, Sappho.

3. Sappho

Sappho was more or less contemporary to Alcaeus and was born at the city of Eresos. She was the daughter of Skamandronymos and Kleis. Later sources mention the names of her brothers as well as her husband, a certain Kerkyllas from Andros. They also note that Sappho had a daughter, Kleis. According to a theory, her unaccomplished love for Faon led her to commit suicide at the island of Leukas, but this is considered to be a mere myth.

The Parian Chronicle reveals that Sappho was exiled in Sicily between 604/3 and 595/5 B.C. That period coincides with her poetic bloom. Amongst her poems the “Epithalamia”, small nuptial poems, stand out. This type of poems, according to Lesky, derived from the vernacular literature production, but Sappho managed to transform them in scholarly achievements. In their themes, the element of love prevails, decorated with exceptionally beautiful images and plenty of lyricism, to fit the temperament of young women, who, apparently, were the audience for which she wrote. That became the base for Willamowitz’s theory, according to which Sappho was a teacher in a girls’ class, something that is, however, not attested by other proofs. Sappho’s poetry had a great impact, particularly on the Latin poets. In the Middle Ages and more recent years she was characterized as “vulgar”, since in her poetry an erotic feeling towards the female sex can be attested. Her portrait, on the other hand, was idealized and imprinted in a series of statues (the busts of Perinthos, Malibu, Piraeus and Irakleion).

If something can be said with certainty about the poems of Sappho and Alcaeus, that is that, above their –sometimes biased- poetic value, they are a representative mirror of the lesbian society of the archaic era, particularly the class of the aristocrats. Men lived for war and feasts and spent many hours amongst them, in clubs with social character but also with political scopes. Women, on their part, were cultivated, formed similar clubs where obviously occupied themselves with arts or scholarly discussions and did not hesitate having a political opinion.