Alcaeus c. 630-20 b.c.–-?
An acclaimed performer, Alcaeus, who sang his poetry to the accompaniment of a lyre, is also credited with creating a particular type of four-line stanza that bears his name—the Alcaic strophe. A well-known poet in his time, Alcaeus was active in the wars and political struggles of Mytilene, his birthplace, throughout his life. Because of his own and his family's participation in politics, Alcaeus was exiled for several years on at least two occasions. His writings also reflect his political beliefs, employing a forceful, straightforward manner, often characterized by invective against his political enemies, most notably Pittacus, ruler of Mytilene for ten years and deemed one of the Seven Sages of Greece. While much of Alcaeus's work was political in nature, he also wrote love poetry, several lyrics that deal with myths, as well as a volume of hymns to the gods. Frequently mentioned by scholars in conjunction with his friend Sappho, a lyric poet of Lesbos, Alcaeus's poetry exists today only in fragments and in quotes by other writers. The Alcaic strophe influenced the Roman poet Horace, who modified it slightly into what is known as the Horatian stanza, used often in his Odes. In addition to Horace, numerous other poets, both Greek and Roman, used Alcaeus's work as a basis for their own.
Scholars concur that dates concerning Alcaeus are unreliable and problematic. G. O. Hutchinson states: “We should rest content with locating Alcaeus' activity around the first few decades of the sixth century.” Born around 630-20 b.c. in Mytilene, a city-state on the Greek island of Lesbos, Alcaeus belonged to a prominent aristocratic family. Not much else is known about his life, except that he had at least two brothers, who are remembered for overthrowing, with the help of Pittacus, the tyrant Melanchros. Alcaeus joined Pittacus in battle against the Athenians and once had to ignobly abandon his shield in hasty retreat or be slaughtered. After a peace treaty with Athens, Myrsilus became ruler of Mytilene and Alcaeus and some associates attempted to overthrow him. When the plot failed, Alcaeus was forced to flee to a distant shrine on Lesbos. The years of hardship spent in exile are the subject matter of a number of his poems. Following Myrsilus's death, Mytilene came under the rule of Pittacus. Once again, Alcaeus, who claimed that Pittacus broke an oath to him, was exiled, this time possibly to Egypt. Scholars surmise that he was eventually pardoned and returned to Mytilene. A reference to his gray chest hair is the sole indication that Alcaeus may have reached old age.
No single poem by Alcaeus survives in its entirety. The Alexandrians Aristophanes and Aristarchus edited a ten-book set of Alcaeus's works, including hymns and erotic poetry, almost all of which are now lost. What remains of Alcaeus's work may be found in Alkaiou Melé:The Fragments of the Lyrical Poems of Alcaeus (1927), edited by Edgar Lobel, and the later Poetarum Lesbiorum Fragmenta (1955), edited by Edgar Lobel and Denys Page. The shifting fortunes of politics are the chief theme of Alcaeus's writing, with many of the existing fragments full of anger directed at Pittacus. Alcaeus's most famous work likens the state of Mytilene to a ship in peril at sea, tossed by storms and waves.
Alcaeus was highly regarded by ancient critics. Dionysius of Halicarnassus places him in the company of Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Demosthenes, and other great authors. Quintilian, Cicero, and Demetrius all attest to his excellence, their praises tantalizing modern critics, who have come to accept that Alcaeus's best work is almost certainly lost forever. Placing him in a literary-historical context, Hubert Martin, Jr. stresses the awareness and control demonstrated by the poet: “Alcaeus never allowed himself to be used by the epic tradition when he turned to it for subject matter; he took what he wanted and freely adapted it to his lyric needs and the native verse forms in which he chose to compose.” The majority of Alcaean criticism focuses on literary analysis of his poetry, a task that remains incomplete due to the fragmentary nature of all of Alcaeus's surviving works. G. M. Kirkwood notes, for example, that although Alcaeus had a reputation as an amatory poet, a mere three extant fragments of his work contain any reference to love. Kirkwood deems Alcaeus a spiritual successor to Archilochus, one who continued “his contemporaneity of subject matter and his intensity of self-expression.” Leslie Kurke finds considerable evidence of “stylistic dissonance” in the poems, in which Alcaeus takes “desperate linguistic measures” as a result of his betrayal by Pittacus and what it meant to his sense of the world. Jeffrey Walker analyzes the relation between the work of Alcaeus and his contemporary Sappho, with particular emphasis on the question of their intended audiences. Anne Pippin Burnett writes that in his “art songs,” Alcaeus has created lyrics in which the poet exchanges anger for tranquility and “treats of open and immutable problems, observing the shapes that destiny can take and amusing himself by casting the largest conceivable questions into the tightest of forms.”
Alkaiou Melé: The Fragments of the Lyrical Poems of Alcaeus [translated by Edgar Lobel] (poetry) 1927
Poetarum Lesbiorum Fragmenta [translated by Edgar Lobel and Denys Page] (poetry) 1955
Greek Lyric: In Four Volumes: I: Sappho, Alcaeus [translated by David A. Campbell] 1982
Greek Lyric Poetry [translated by M. L. West] 1993
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SOURCE: Martin, Jr., Hubert. “Literary Influence and Poetic Environment” and “The Verdict of Antiquity.” In Alcaeus, pp. 87-125. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1972.
[In the following excerpts, Martin analyzes the influence of the Homeric epic on Alcaeus and discusses ancient critical reaction to his work.]
In this chapter I propose to relate Alcaeus's poetry to the antecedent and contemporary poetic traditions by which he was obviously inspired or to which he may reasonably be believed to have reacted. Such a task is a legitimate critical enterprise, providing it does not delude either reader or critic into the fallacy of thinking that this is the study of poetry proper. What it is, is the study of the means whereby poets are molded and poetry is endowed with subject matter and style. There is a sure difference between the study of a poem as an independent literary entity and the study of its sources of inspiration, whether they be stylistic or substantive. At the same time, the study of literary influence affecting a given body of poetry, when practiced with discretion and with perspective, is both critically functional and psychologically expedient: it enhances our capacity for establishing rapport with that poetry as well as our ability to subject it to critical explanation.
I THE EPIC INFLUENCE
The epic influence on Alcaeus is clear and...
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SOURCE: Kirkwood, G. M. “Alcaeus.” In Early Greek Monody: The History of a Poetic Type, pp. 53-99. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1974.
[In the following essay, Kirkwood analyzes Alcaeus's poetry and what the fragments reveal of his political thought.]
Both Alcaeus and Sappho are the spiritual successors of Archilochus, because both continue his contemporaneity of subject matter and his intensity of self-expression. They may owe specific debts; there is, as we shall see, some evidence of direct imitation by Alcaeus. But it is a long step from Archilochus's asynartetic verses and epodes to the four-line stanzas of Alcaic and Sapphic strophe.1 The choral poetry of Alcman and Stesichorus,2 who wrote contemporaneously or shortly before them, bears no striking similarities to their poetry; any influence, in either direction, can have been only slight. But there were other possible models. Traditional songs associated with work, religion, or social activities, which have been mentioned in Chapter One, may have influenced the poetry of Sappho and Alcaeus; some of the melic forms familiar from them may have been used earlier by forgotten poets; and, finally, there was a history of lyric composition on Lesbos, associated principally with the name Terpander.
From native tradition, the Lesbian poets no doubt inherited their strong dependence on local, non-epic,...
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SOURCE: Burnett, Anne Pippin. “Art Songs.” In Three Archaic Poets: Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho, pp. 182-205. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983.
[In the following essay, Burnett examines Alcaeus's art songs, proposing that in these, the poet uses myth to illuminate the larger issues of mankind.]
There is one last set of Alcaic songs in which the singer, though he still stands among them, looks beyond his immediate companions to address an audience made up of men in general. These songs treat subjects like the efficacy of prayer or the disproportion of cause to effect, but their scale is miniature, their manner peculiarly Alcaic, and so it is in these, the ‘art songs’, that the poet is at once most available to moderns and most distinctively himself. In addition, he is at his most tranquil, as he sings these songs, for he does not press upon particular listeners, urging pride or love or scorn or shame, nor does he attempt to influence his supernatural auditors.1 Instead, he treats of open and immutable problems, observing the shapes that destiny can take and amusing himself by casting the largest conceivable questions into the tightest of forms. This fitting of great wisdom to a few words was of course a favourite ancient game, but Alcaeus' mode of play was a special one. He did not produce the gnomes and aphorisms that rolled from the mouths of sages and wiseacres, but...
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SOURCE: Mulroy, David. “Alcaeus of Lesbos (7th/6th cent. B.C.).” In Early Greek Lyric Poetry, pp. 77-85. Ann Arbor, Mich.: The University of Michigan Press, 1992.
[In the following essay, Mulroy discusses Alcaeus's poems, as well as references to him in works by Heraclitus and Athenaeus.]
The poetry of Alcaeus gives us a different perspective on the politics of Archaic Greece. The scene is Mytilene, the main city of the island of Lesbos and one of the original Aeolic settlements.
For centuries Mytilene had been ruled by the Penthilid clan, supposed descendants of Orestes. The head of the clan was the king of the city. The last Penthilid king was killed and the clan's power broken in the second half of the seventh century. Thereafter, other aristocrats competed for power. The struggle led to the emergence of three successive tyrants. The first, Melanchrus, was overthrown between 612 and 609 by a faction that included a tyrant-to-be named Pittacus and Alcaeus' brothers. Apparently, Alcaeus himself was too young to participate. The second tyrant was named Myrsilus. It is not known exactly when he gained power or how long he kept it. Alcaeus' fragment 6 implies that the poet and a group of comrades including Pittacus laid plans to overthrow Myrsilus, but Pittacus switched sides at the last minute. Some of the conspirators lost their lives in an ensuing battle, while others including...
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SOURCE: Kurke, Leslie. “Crisis and Decorum in Sixth-Century Lesbos: Reading Alkaios Otherwise.” Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica n.s. 47, no. 2 (1994): 67-92.
[In the following essay, Kurke contends that certain “critical ruptures of decorum” found in Alcaeus's poetry may be read as indications of crisis in the aristocracy.]
1. DECORUM AND ITS DISCONTENTS1
It is a truism that history is written by the winners, but in the case of the late-seventh/early-sixth-century Lesbian poet Alkaios inveighing against his enemy Pittakos, we have an extraordinary instance of history written by the “losers”. For Pittakos, the “winner”, has become a shadowy figure, one of the Seven Sages, to whom we can attribute little more than an aphorism, while Alkaios has left us a substantial number of poetic fragments. Yet Alkaios represents in its purest form the aristocratic power monopoly which was fast disappearing in Mytilene and throughout the archaic Greek world. The poet's anomalous relation to history was noted by D. Page in his dismissive envoi of Alkaios:
We shall not judge that Mytilene lost a statesman of any good promise in one who struggled so long and so vainly against the stream of history. Alcaeus was for ever rushing headlong into battle, fighting for himself and his friends, and often he rushed headlong out again. All...
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SOURCE: Walker, Jeffrey. “Argumentation Indoors: Alcaeus and Sappho.” In Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity, pp. 208-49. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, Walker considers the performance contexts of Alcaeus and Sappho's poetry, particularly the question of whether or not their audiences consisted chiefly of like-minded friends.]
Observe Alcaeus's nobility, brevity, and sweetness combined with forcefulness, and also his use of figures and his clarity, as far as that has not been ruined by his dialect; and above all the êthos of his political poems. Quite often if you were to strip away the meter, you would find political rhêtoreia.
Dionysius of Halicarnassus, On Imitation 421s
And the [love] of the Lesbian [Sappho] … what else could it be but this, the technê erôtikê of Socrates? … For what Alcibiades and Charmides and Phaedrus were to him, this to the Lesbian were Gyrinna and Atthis and Anactoria; and whatever to Socrates were his rival-artists [antitechnoi] Prodicus and Gorgias and Thrasymachus and Protagoras, this to Sappho were Gorgo and Andromeda; sometimes she censures them, and sometimes she cross-examines and uses ironies just like those of Socrates.
Maximus of Tyre, Orations 18.9...
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Lesky, Albin. “The Archaic Period.” In A History of Greek Literature, pp. 91-240. Edinburgh, Great Britain: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1966.
Discussion of what is known about Alcaeus's life.
Bowie, A. M. “The Language of the Poems.” In The Poetic Dialect of Sappho and Alcaeus, pp. 47-67. New York: Arno Press Inc, 1981.
Examines Alcaeus's and Sappho's poetry for influences of the Ionic dialect, the epic, and native Lesbian tradition.
Gomme, A. W. “Interpretations of Some Poems of Alkaios and Sappho.” Journal of Hellenistic Studies 77 (1957): 255-66.
Offers varied interpretations from the analyses of Lobel and Page.
Hutchinson, G. O. “Alcaeus.” In Greek Lyric Poetry: A Commentary on Selected Larger Pieces, pp. 187-227. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Brief introduction to Alcaeus, as well as notes to his fragments.
Lobel, Edgar. Introduction to The Fragments of the Lyrical Poems of Alcaeus, pp. ix-xciv. London: Oxford University Press, 1927.
Provides detailed textual analysis.
Naafs-Wilstra, Marianne C. “Indo-European ‘Dichtersprache’ in Sappho and Alcaeus.” The Journal of Indo-European Studies 15,...
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