Ancient History & Civilisation

Sappho’s Bane:
Remembering odious Rosycheeks

If the spirits of 2,600-year-old Greek poets could wring their hands, I’m betting that the ghost of famed Sappho of Lesbos would still be doing just that. Why? Three words: her sister-in-law Rosycheeks. She was the sexy fly in the ointment of Sappho’s happiness.

It all began with Sappho’s brother Charaxus. In the sixth century B.C., their home island of Lesbos was very prosperous, thanks to close trading ties with Egypt and one of its major port cities, Naucratis. Among other cash crops, Lesbos produced sweet dark wine—a big seller throughout Greece and neighboring lands.

Equally affluent was Sappho’s snooty, possibly aristocratic family. She had three brothers, but her favorite was Charaxus.

Sappho was slightly dismayed when her brother became a wine merchant, a traveling salesman for the superb vintages of Lesbos, instead of something classier. But dismay turned to horror when on a wine-peddling junket to Naucratis, Charaxus fell insanely in love with a women who peddled a cheekier sort of merchandise.

When Charaxus met Rosycheeks, she’d already achieved top-tier courtesan status. Born in the wilds of Thrace in northern Greece, then sold into slavery, rumor had it that she’d worked in the household where Aesop the fable-teller was a fellow slave. Ill-suited to household drudgery, Rosycheeks finally got noticed by her owner, who put her to work, propositioning for pay in Naucratis.

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Lionized and world famous even in her own day and age, Sappho the love poet had everything. Or did she? Enter the outrageous sister-in-law.

By now Sappho herself was recognized as a top-tier poet and lyricist. She’d even won accolades from Solon, the prominent leader of Athens at that time. When his nephew happened to sing one of Sappho’s songs, Solon asked him to teach him the tune. When the nephew asked, “What for?” Solon responded, “So I can learn it and die.”

In 598 B.C., Sappho, along with her family, was exiled to Sicily for political reasons unknown to us. When the political climate changed, she returned to Lesbos and renewed her devotion to poetry, music, and dance. Other female poets joined her. Some came from Asia Minor, Egypt, the other Greek islands. Some became part of Sappho’s circle of intimate friends. Rivals started poetry groups, trying to compete with her. Life was good.

But Sappho found she couldn’t gloat to the fullest because of that dratted brother of hers and his sleazy affair. It was beginning to interfere seriously with her creativity. She had to drag herself to pick up the lyre and kick out the verses for her latest commission, another gorgeous hymenaios, or marriage song.

Then came another blow. It was dreadful enough that her brother kept this mistress—now his latest stunt was to pay an absurd sum to free Rosycheeks! The next cruel development almost killed her. “Married? You married that trollop, the one whose body anyone can buy?” she screamed at Charaxus.

“Hey, sis—I adore this woman. And I didn’t want to time-share,” he responded.

On fire with loathing, Sappho sought therapy in the only way she knew how. She sat down to write. The golden words flew from her stylus onto papyrus. Impassioned words, in her distinctive Aeolian style, pure poetry and anguish.

Because her creative life spanned some forty years, Sappho must have produced a huge body of poetic work. Most of the time she wrote about her feelings, her erotic friendships with her own gender, her hits and misses in love, and her sensual enjoyment of life. When she and her brother parted ways, Sappho in her sorrow and anger unknowingly gave immortality to the woman he loved and she despised. Only a few precious shreds of her work survive today; ironically, among them are the wonderful, partially restored poems about Rosycheeks and brother Charaxus.

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