This woman really needs no introduction, she’s basically the mother of all lesbians. And by that, I mean, they wouldn’t be called lesbians without her. I’m talking about Sappho.
Now, like, Sappho was around in really ancient times and she was a woman, and it kind of took a bit for people to notice she might be someone to pay attention to and maybe write things down about. So, there’s a lot of her life that’s isn’t known for sure or that we have to get from reading in between the lines of things. We’re literally not even sure how to spell her name because there’s a few different ways to spell it, sometimes appearing in her own native dialect.
But we do know for sure that she originally came from Mytilene, the capital city of the island of Lesbos — sometime around 630 BCE. Some scholars have guessed that her mother was named Cleïs, but the evidence for that is flimsy at best. The best guess for her father is a dude named Scamandronymous (and I’m not kidding when I call it a guess) but Sappho tells us in her poetry that he died when she was seven.
From her poems, we can also gather that she had three brothers: Erigyius, Charaxus and Larichus. Larichus, apparently, had a job pouring wine in the town hall which also tells us that their family was aristocratic. Charaxus was the black sheep of the family, it seems, who once ransomed off an Egyptian courtesan for a whole lot of money — and Sappho wrote a scathing poem shaming him for it.
She and her relatives were temporarily exiled from Lesbos to Sicily around 600 BCE because some sort of political conflict arose, and her family was involved with the wrong side.
She may have had a daughter named Cleïs (and that’s why its suggested that could be her mother’s name), though some sources indicated Cleïs may have actually been a younger lover. I, personally, think that’s more likely especially since the word “pais” — used in a couple of places to describe Cleïs — is sometimes used to denote a younger same-sex lover (albeit typically in a male relationship. For fun, look up where the word “pais” was used in the Bible some time. That’s a super controversial post for another day.)
And then of course, I’m also fairly convinced because of who is described as her husband in the Suda (which was like an ancient encyclopedia). Her husband was Kerkylas of Andros. The thing is, according to basically everyone, Kerkylas wasn’t a name — it was a word for “penis”…and Andros, although it is a Grecian island, is also a word that means “man”. So…yeah, Sappho was supposedly married to “Penis of Man”? I’m just a little skeptical. It’s been suggested that this was invented for a comedic play, which makes more sense but it’s still kind of at fart-joke levels of humor. Like most scholars, dating from 64 BCE to today — I am also really skeptical of the story that she ultimately killed herself for the love of a guy named Phaon. While we still don’t know how she died, this little story tells us two things: she died around 580 or 570 BCE, and straight-washing has been going on for a long time.
It’s believed that, much like Socrates, Sappho led a sort of informal “school” that was really more a collection of people, mostly women, who liked to discuss art and philosophy and culture. Theoretically, a number of these women may also have been her lovers but we really don’t know for sure.
Anyways, throughout her life, Sappho wrote something like ten thousand poems in the rare Aeolic Greek dialect — making her the earliest known Lesbian poet. (To clarify — that’s Lesbian with a capital L — as in from Lesbos.) She was also one of the greatly revered Nine Lyric Poets — lyrics poets from ancient Greece who were determined to be worthy of study by the scholars of Alexandria (you know, before they torched the library.) Of those Nine Lyric Poets, Sappho is the only woman. Plato is also known to have described Sappho as “the Tenth Muse.” Statues of Sappho were built, her face appeared on coins in Mytilene — given that she was in a pretty strictly patriarchal society, and that she is the only woman who’s cultural contributions survive to this day, it’s pretty incredible that she managed to reach such high levels of respect and celebration across Greece.
As of this writing, about 650 of them are known to have survived. Her most famous of these are lyric poems, which were intended to be played with music. Her contemporaries who wrote about her spoke mainly of her love poetry, but she also has a lot of poems about her family (mostly her brothers).
None of the love poems are truly explicit — it’s hard to say if she was actually sexually or romantically attracted to men or women or both or neither, or if it changed from day to day. The Suda states that accusations of her sexual relationships with female students were slanderous, and other ancient sources only describe her as being accused of having relations with other women. And so — for centuries — it’s been hotly debated whether or not Sappho was in love with women or just really good friends with them — and conversely, whether or not she was in love with any guys or just really good friends with them. A lot of the answers may depend on cultural context that we simply don’t have and probably will never get.
That said, it’s from her name and her life that we’ve derived the words “sapphic” and “lesbian” so I’d say that we get to claim this one.
This one is going to be long — can’t help it, he did a lot. (In fact, I have cut out so much of this it’s kind of embarrassing. I was just trying to focus in on the gay stuff and the sexy stuff.) He’s also kind of my historical crush — spoiler: I have the worst taste in men. I give you: the poet Lord Byron. Now, he’s from a time before we really had the understanding of sexuality that we have now, but I can say three things for certain. Lord Byron was not heterosexual. Lord Byron was not homosexual. Lord Byron was very sexual.
Lord Byron was born on January 22, 1788 CE in London to parents Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron Gordon and Catherine Gordon — Mad Jack’s second wife. They named their son George Gordon Byron. Between a rocky relationship with his unstable mother, his dad leaving them and then dying in France in 1791 (although, honestly, having read about the dad they were probably better off), and being born with a deformed foot, he definitely wasn’t winning any awards for greatest childhood ever. In 1798, at ten years old, George inherited the title of Baron Byron from his great-uncle (on his father’s side). The title came with very little money — and two properties, one of which his great-uncle had illegally sold (and most of the money Byron inherited was spent on a legal battle concerning that) and the other of which, Newstead Abbey, was run-down to the point of being practically ruins.
As he reached adolescence he was sent to the school of William Glennie. Glennie and Catherine fought constantly, particularly over control of Byron’s schedule. It was around this time (1800) that Byron first started to dabble in poetry — and, not so coincidentally, also around this time he discovered some of his distant cousins were like really pretty.
His mother pulled him from William Glennie’s school and enrolled Byron at Harrow in 1801. It was while he was attending Harrow that he met his cousin Mary Chaworth — and he fell for her hard. She did not return the feelings at all. In September of 1803, Byron refused to return to school because of this rejection. When he finally did return to school (the next year) he rekindled friendships with a number of boys there. He also began writing letters to his half-sister Augusta Leigh (from his dad’s first marriage). In 1805, Byron’s final year at Harrow, he began a romantic relationship with John Thomas Claridge and he would return to Harrow more than once after his graduation to visit Claridge.
After graduating Harrow, Byron began attending Trinity College in Cambridge. There he met John Edleston — who he became close to. While Byron almost certainly had romantic feelings for Edleston, it is unclear from his writings whether or not that friendship was sexual. He may have kept things PG out of respect for Edleston’s supposed innocence — or maybe he just kept his letters PG because England was getting stricter about penalizing anyone even suspected of engaging in “buggery”. The two had planned on living together, they never did.
In 1809, Byron left on “the Grand Tour” which was basically a trip around continental Europe that young British men would take when they finished college — if they could afford it. (Byron could not afford it but he managed to make it happen anyways.) His Grand Tour was a little less grand than most because the Napoleonic Wars were not great for tourism, so his tour focused primarily on the Mediterranean. Byron had a lot of motivations for escaping England at the time — he was jealous that Mary Chaworth was marrying another man, he was being pursued by creditors that he owed money to, and — according to letters written to his friend (and fellow lover-of-men) Charles Skinner Matthew — because he wanted to sleep with men somewhere less uptight than England. (And like all of Europe was pretty much less uptight than England at this point.) They ended up in Greece where Byron reportedly encountered over 200 male lovers, including Eusthathius Georgiou and a 14-year old boy named Nicolo Giraud. Details about the actual relationships are scarce but he sent Giraud to school, and bequeathed him an inheritance of 7,000 pounds (which he later canceled). He eventually wrote in a letter to his friend John Hobhouse that he was tired of “pl and opt Cs” (a code he used for homosexual intercourse), “the last thing I could be tired of”. (I can’t find any evidence that Hobhouse was even the slightest bit gay, so he was either very open-minded for the time or better at keeping his own secrets than he was at keeping Byron’s.)
After returning from his Grand Tour in 1811 and learning that Edleston had died from consumption, Byron attempted to resume his relationship with John Claridge but discovered that Claridge had grown up to be — of all terrible things — boring. Byron wrote in a letter to Hobhouse that Claridge was “a good man, a handsome man, an honourable man, a most inoffensive man, a well informed man, and a dull man, & this last damn epithet undoes all the rest.”
In 1812, the first two cantos of “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” were published and Byron became something of a celebrity. He also became — essentially — the premier male sex symbol in England at the time. He is known to have had several affairs in this time, and while I’m sure some are just rumor, I’m equally sure some happened that nobody ever heard about (especially some affairs with men!) One that definitely happened was a tumultuous affair with the married Lady Caroline Lamb. For months, they wrote letters to each other. Byron started calling Lady Caroline “Caro”, and she started using that as her public name — but that was the only public sign of their feelings each other. In public they feigned hatred and Caroline even described Byron as “mad, bad and dangerous to know” — which is possibly the single greatest epithet ever uttered. Unfortunately bumper stickers didn’t exist yet so Caroline couldn’t cash in on her genius. (I, however, am thinking of getting t-shirts made.) Eventually Byron broke up with her. Caroline’s husband took her away to Ireland so she could recover, but like, you know that saying “absence makes the heart grow fonder”? That turned out to be true and also terrible. She became obsessed with Byron. When she came back to London in 1813, she made many very public advances to try to win him back.
Public life also brought Byron back to attention of the various people to whom he owed money. In order to solve this problem, he thought of turning back to the old Byron family book of tricks — marrying for money. He ultimately settled on marrying Annabella Millbanke who was strictly religious and seemed from the beginning to be an ill-suited match for Byron. Furthermore, she was a cousin of Caroline Lamb’s husband. (I don’t know if that was on purpose but if it was, that’s an impressive level of pettiness.) While he was going through the courting and marriage process, he was also becoming reacquainted with his half-sister Augusta and rumors that they were having an incestuous affair began to circulate. The amount of time that he and Augusta spent alone together would end up destroying his marriage, so, y’know, make of that what you will.
Millbanke brought her daughter to London in January of 1816 — leaving Byron behind — and proceedings for an official divorce began. This separation was just one of several scandals plaguing Byron’s life — rumors circulated about his crushing debt, extramarital affairs with actresses, and of course of his incestuous relationship with Augusta. In February, Lady Caroline Lamb added one more devastating scandal to the mix: she started spreading word of Byron’s sexual encounters with men. On February 12, Hobhouse brought news of the rumors to Byron’s attention. Up until this point, Byron had been planning to defend himself in court and prove that his divorce was not his fault. Hobhouse advised him this would be a massive mistake amid the rumors of sodomy. If it had come out in court that Byron had engaged in “buggery”, he might have been executed. Instead, Byron settled on a self-imposed exile. By April 25, 1816 Lord Byron left England for the rest of his life.
These events had changed Byron. He considerably more serious — and more political — but he was also more discreet. In fact, that I can’t find any records of him being sexually involved with any men from this point on although I think we can all agree that he was probably still having same-sex affairs. (I suspect, had his memoirs not be destroyed, we’d probably know a lot more about his relationships during the next few years of his life.)
By the summer of 1816, Byron had settled at Lake Geneva with a motley crew — his personal physician John William Polidori, Percy Shelley, Shelley’s future wife Mary Godwin, and her stepsister Claire Clairmont. Claire and Byron had a brief affair, which resulted in his illegitimate daughter Allegra being born in 1817. His stay at Lake Geneva is mostly important, though, because of the other writers who were there: chiefly, Mary Godwin created a draft of what would become Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Also, Byron and Polidori pretty much invented the modern idea of the vampire as a sexy blood-drinker.
By the winter, Byron had moved on — settling down in Venice. He stayed in a house belonging to Marianna Segati — a married woman with whom he was having an affair. He broke it off, and started an affair with another married woman named Margarita Cogni — though he continued staying in Marianna’s house. Anyways, Cogni left her husband and moved in — a bad move because she and Byron argued constantly (and also, not his house. His ex lover’s house. Seriously.) He finally asked her to move out, and she responded by throwing herself in the canal and drowning herself.
Around 1819, he encountered the young Italian countess Teresa Guiccioli. She fell in love with Byron — despite it being three days after her wedding to the Count Guiccioli — and he asked her to elope. The two lived together in Ravenna until moving to Pisa in 1821. Around that time, Byron and Shelley worked with Leigh Hunt to create a newspaper that they called The Liberal.
In 1823, advocates for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire approached Byron looking for support. They hoped his fame would prove a valuable asset. Byron was hesitant — he did not want to abandon the Countess Guiccioli. Circumstances in her family, however, forced her to abandon him. So, Byron set sail for Greece. Byron also planned to give generously to the cause of Greek independence. To that end, he sold his remaining estate in Scotland — Rochdale Manor — for 11,250 pounds. Translated into today’s money, Byron would have been a multimillionaire — and at the time there weren’t people with Jeff Bezos’ wealth so that was way more impressive. Byron intended to spend it all on the effort to free Greece. Virtually every Greek leader wanted Byron’s money. Only one won his favor — while others vied through a variety of tactics. Byron put his support behind Alexandros Mavrokordatos.
Meanwhile, Byron had a few distractions of his own. He pursued a relationship with his page Lukas Chalandritsanos — though Lukas was very seriously not interested and kept things very professional. Byron wrote Lukas a bunch of poems and lavished Lukas with basically anything he wanted — to no avail. But Lukas wasn’t the only person Byron was spoiling — he had begun doting on a nine year old Turkish Muslim girl named Hato, whose father had been killed by the Greeks. He considered adopting her, spent quite a bit of money on dresses for her — and when things began to get dangerous for her and her mother, he sent them away to the island of Cephalonia.
Mavrokordatos and Byron began planning an assault on Lepanto, a fortress held by the Ottoman Empire. Although Byron had no military experience, he planned to lead the attack himself. Before they could actually follow through with this plan, however, Byron became very ill with malaria. Doctors decided bloodletting would help, because that was a thing they did back then. It didn’t help — surprise! — in fact, it made things worse. Especially because no one sterilized their medical tools. (That wasn’t so much a “medicine used to suck” thing as “Byron’s doctor sucked” thing.) He developed sepsis and a fever, and then died on April 19, 1824.
Upon his death, Byron was firmly solidified as a national hero in Greece — and his reputation in England instantly became one of reverence. The reaction caused some alarm for his friends — who wanted him to be respected in his death — and so Hobhouse, Thomas Moore, and John Murray promptly burned the only copy of his memoirs instead of publishing them. His body was embalmed in Greece (though rumors circulate that the Greeks kept his heart) and then returned to England. Massive crowds came out to view his coffin. Despite efforts by Murray’s publishing firm (and later by way too many historians) to hide Byron’s sexuality, many religious and cultural institutions of the country refused to honor Byron — Westminster Abbey did not memorialize Byron in their Poets’ Corner until 1969.
If you made it this far, congratulations. Like I said, I really cut a lot out of this so I definitely encourage you all to read up on him some more! He’s iconic, and — despite the best efforts of historians — he’s undeniably queer.