Sappho's poetry centers on passion and love for various people and both sexes. The word lesbian derives from the name of the island of her birth, Lesbos, while her name is also the origin of the word sapphic; neither word was applied to female homosexuality until the 19th century. The narrators of many of her poems speak of infatuations and love (sometimes requited, sometimes not) for various females, but descriptions of physical acts between women are few and subject to debate. Whether these poems are meant to be autobiographical is not known, although elements of other parts of Sappho's life do make appearances in her work, and it would be compatible with her style to have these intimate encounters expressed poetically, as well. Her homoerotica should be placed in the context of the 7th century (BC). "Lesbian" was first used in the modern sense in 1890, and the early sources which describe her reputation for "physical homoerotic involvement" still "postdate her lifetime by at least 300 years", by which point such conduct was considered "disgraceful for a female."
The poems of Alcaeus and later Pindar record similar romantic bonds between the members of a given circle.
Sappho's contemporary Alcaeus described her thus: "Violet-haired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho" (ἰόπλοκ᾽ ἄγνα μελλιχόμειδε Σάπφοι, fr. 384). The 3rd-century philosopher Maximus of Tyre wrote that Sappho was "small and dark" and that her relationships to her female friends were similar to those of Socrates:
What else could one call the love of the Lesbian woman than the Socratic art of love? For they seem to me to have practised love after their own fashion, she the love of women, he of boys. For they said they loved many, and were captivated by all things beautiful. What Alcibiades and Charmides and Phaedrus were to him, Gyrinna and Atthis and Anactoria were to her ...
During the Victorian era, it became fashionable to describe Sappho as the headmistress of a girls' finishing school. As Page DuBois (among many other experts) points out, this attempt at making Sappho understandable and palatable to the genteel classes of Great Britain was based more on conservative sensibilities than evidence. There are no references to teaching, students, academies, or tutors in any of Sappho's scant collection of surviving works. Anne Pippin Burnett follows others, like C. M. Bowra, in suggesting that Sappho's circle was somewhat akin to the Spartan agelai or the religious sacred band, the thiasos, but Burnett nuances her argument by noting that Sappho's circle was distinct from these contemporary examples because "membership in the circle seems to have been voluntary, irregular and to some degree international." The notion that Sappho was in charge of some sort of academy persists nonetheless.