Today Sappho, for many, is a symbol of female homosexuality; the common term lesbian is an allusion to Sappho, originating from the name of the island of Lesbos, where she was born.[j] However, she has not always been so considered. In classical Athenian comedy (from the Old Comedy of the fifth century to Menander in the late fourth and early third centuries BC), Sappho was caricatured as a promiscuous heterosexual woman, and it is not until the Hellenistic period that the first testimonia which explicitly discuss Sappho's homoeroticism are preserved. The earliest of these is a fragmentary biography written on papyrus in the late third or early second century BC, which states that Sappho was "accused by some of being irregular in her ways and a woman-lover". Denys Page comments that the phrase "by some" implies that even the full corpus of Sappho's poetry did not provide conclusive evidence of whether she described herself as having sex with women. These ancient authors do not appear to have believed that Sappho did, in fact, have sexual relationships with other women, and as late as the tenth century the Suda records that Sappho was "slanderously accused" of having sexual relationships with her "female pupils".
Among modern scholars, Sappho's sexuality is still debated – André Lardinois has described it as the "Great Sappho Question". Early translators of Sappho sometimes heterosexualised her poetry. Ambrose Philips' 1711 translation of the Ode to Aphrodite portrayed the object of Sappho's desire as male, a reading that was followed by virtually every other translator of the poem until the twentieth century, while in 1781 Alessandro Verri interpreted fragment 31 as being about Sappho's love for Phaon. Friedrich Gottlieb Welcker argued that Sappho's feelings for other women were "entirely idealistic and non-sensual", while Karl Otfried Müller wrote that fragment 31 described "nothing but a friendly affection": Glenn Most comments that "one wonders what language Sappho would have used to describe her feelings if they had been ones of sexual excitement" if this theory were correct. By 1970, it would be argued that the same poem contained "proof positive of [Sappho's] lesbianism".
Today, it is generally accepted that Sappho's poetry portrays homoerotic feelings: as Sandra Boehringer puts it, her works "clearly celebrate eros between women". Toward the end of the twentieth century, though, some scholars began to reject the question of whether or not Sappho was a lesbian – Glenn Most wrote that Sappho herself "would have had no idea what people mean when they call her nowadays a homosexual", André Lardinois stated that it is "nonsensical" to ask whether Sappho was a lesbian, and Page duBois calls the question a "particularly obfuscating debate".
One of the major focuses of scholars studying Sappho has been to attempt to determine the cultural context in which Sappho's poems were composed and performed. Various cultural contexts and social roles played by Sappho have been suggested, including teacher, cult-leader, and poet performing for a circle of female friends. However, the performance contexts of many of Sappho's fragments are not easy to determine, and for many more than one possible context is conceivable.
One longstanding suggestion of a social role for Sappho is that of "Sappho as schoolmistress". At the beginning of the twentieth century, the German classicist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff posited that Sappho was a sort of schoolteacher, in order to "explain away Sappho's passion for her 'girls'" and defend her from accusations of homosexuality. The view continues to be influential, both among scholars and the general public, though more recently the idea has been criticised by historians as anachronistic and has been rejected by several prominent classicists as unjustified by the evidence. In 1959, Denys Page, for example, stated that Sappho's extant fragments portray "the loves and jealousies, the pleasures and pains, of Sappho and her companions"; and he adds, "We have found, and shall find, no trace of any formal or official or professional relationship between them, ... no trace of Sappho the principal of an academy." David A. Campbell in 1967 judged that Sappho may have "presided over a literary coterie", but that "evidence for a formal appointment as priestess or teacher is hard to find". None of Sappho's own poetry mentions her teaching, and the earliest testimonium to support the idea of Sappho as a teacher comes from Ovid, six centuries after Sappho's lifetime. Despite these problems, many newer interpretations of Sappho's social role are still based on this idea. In these interpretations, Sappho was involved in the ritual education of girls, for instance as a trainer of choruses of girls.
Even if Sappho did compose songs for training choruses of young girls, not all of her poems can be interpreted in this light, and despite scholars' best attempts to find one, Yatromanolakis argues that there is no single performance context to which all of Sappho's poems can be attributed. Parker argues that Sappho should be considered as part of a group of female friends for whom she would have performed, just as her contemporary Alcaeus is. Some of her poetry appears to have been composed for identifiable formal occasions, but many of her songs are about – and possibly were to be performed at – banquets.