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7th-6th centuries BC
(The tenth muse expresses beauty, love, and the contents of her heart.)
Detail from “Woman with wax tablets and stylus”, a fresco from about 50 AD, discovered in Pompei in 1760, commonly called “Sappho”. Courtesy of the National Archaeological Museum of Naples.
Αιαι. Aiai! If only our dinner hosts still upheld the custom of ordering beautiful recitations over the wine! So it was in the days when some, at least, still believed in the Muses. On one of these evenings, Solon the Athenian stopped his nephew Execestides, who had just sung a song. “Teach it to me,” he said. Then he turned to an inquiring fellow guest. “I want to learn it and die.” (Aelian, in Stobaeus’ Anthology 29.58). The ancients spoke of only one poet in such tones: Sappho (Σαπφώ, spelled in her dialect Ψάπφω). Strabo called her the greatest poetess (Geography 13.617). Her people the Mytilenaeans engraved her on their coins (Pollux, Vocabulary 9.84). Plato called her the tenth muse (Palatine Anthology 9.506). We can surmise, then, how precious her works must have been to these many admirers through the centuries, these classical devotees of expression and imagery. Once, a volume of her poetry was taken from the town hall of Syracuse. “How sorely this stolen Sappho was missed,” moaned Cicero, “is almost more than words can tell” (Orations against Verres 2.4.57). Who would have thought that anything could even “almost” leave our eloquent Tully at a loss for words! But just imagine how his tongue would have failed him if not just one volume but her entire works had been stolen, and not just from a town library but from the whole world! For we are in this very state today, by some unhappy accident of history. All we have of her nine books of poetry are a couple hundred fragments, most of them mere words or phrases that scholars have gleaned painstakingly from quotations throughout Greek and Latin literature. A great irony lies in the epitaph Pinytus wrote for her, whose promise has sadly failed: “This tomb hath the bones and the dumb name of Sappho, but her wise utterances are immortal” (Palatine Anthology 7.16).