Sappho in Sicily: the Evidence and the Implications


The recent book by Franco Ferrari, Sappho's Gift, is the best place to go for a discussion of the evidence that supports the thesis that Sappho spent time in Sicily.  A detailed review of Sappho's Gift is available here.

I find the most interesting and compelling evidence to be the statue of Sappho in Syracuse referred to by Cicero in one of his Verres orations.  One article on that statue by Patricia Rosenmeyer is available on JSTOR here.  I hope to be able to post a link to another paper on it by David G. Smith in the near future.

Speculation about what the statue looked like and its possible relationship to Sappho's actual appearance to me seems beside the point.  The basic takeaway is that the fact that Syracusans (a) specially commissioned such a statue and (b) located it in their prytaneum (in effect the 'city hall'--but no one building or space in a modern city has an analogous mix of spiritual and political significance) is not only solid evidence Sappho had lived there but that she manifestly enjoyed widespread respect and hence that she influenced Sicilian culture.  This was thus not just another statue of another poet.

It is interesting to note that a curse tablet from Sicily dated to approximately the century after Sappho would have been there is unusual relative to other such tablets from the ancient world in its regular use of matronymics in referring to females.  Perhaps this suggests Sicily at such time accorded women greater respect and autonomy than other regions of the ancient world.  For the use of matronymics in curse tablets and the possible implications see Witchcraft & Magic, Flint/Blecourt, p62.


Given the evidence for Sappho's presence in Sicily it is surprising how little has been made of the implications of it.  The length of her stay is not known but it surely was not merely a 'visit' and it was during what was truly the formative time in ancient Greek culture.  Sicily was to become within less than a century of what likely was the end of Sappho's life (ca 575 BCE) an enormously influential cultural center.

No less a figure than Plato visited Sicily several times and one of his most influential dialogues, Timaeus, draws upon elements of Pythagoreanism (including early Greek medicine) associated with Sicily.  The importance of Sicily/Southern Italy to the development of Greek medicine cannot be overstated: Empedocles certainly thought of himself as a physician; there is good evidence Parmenides may have also been a physician; Gorgias was the uncle of Hippocrates.

The two Sicilian authors I think are of greatest interest with respect to Sappho are Gorgias and Empedocles.

For the possible influence of Sappho on Gorgias see S.16 and my commentary thereto.  Absent more evidence, there does not seem to me that much can be made from the anecdotal evidence that Empedocles 'taught' Gorgias. 

Empedocles is interesting for several reasons, but two I want to highlight with respect to Sappho:

First, what he has to say about people's beliefs in Aphrodite (see in particular Inwood, fragment 25.20ff) may well reflect the type of beliefs Sappho herself had.  Thus, some aspects of his philosophical poetry may be relevant for understanding Sappho.

Second, though the evidence is necessarily speculative, I hope to show in the future that there are aspects of Empedocles's poetry that are similar to Sappho's and may reflect her influence.  The southern Italian Greek poet/philosopher Parmenides, whose relationship to Empedocles has been much debated, may also have been directly or indirectly influenced by Sappho.  See my translation and commentary on S. 104a.

Even if there is no link specifically to Empedocles or Parmenides, the aspects of Sappho's poetry that relate to early Greek medicine and astronomy are worth noting in the context of the influence Sicily had on such disciplines as evidenced, inter alia, by Plato's Timaeus.

For the possibility that Sappho may have visited what is today modern Palermo Sicily see my translation and commentary of S.35.


  1. Very original and thought-provoking articles.

    I am currently trying to retrieve a passage (I read a few days ago) about Empedokles and people's belief in Aphrodite. Any hint to the correct article would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you and warm regards

    Massimo Mandolini-Pesaresi

  2. Thank you.

    In response to your comment I added a hyperlink to my discussion of Empedocles Fragment 25.20ff to which you seem to be referring.

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