Alcaeus of Lesbos Analysis


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Alcaeus of Lesbos (al-SEE-uhs of LEHZ-bahs) was born into an aristocratic family of Mytilene, the most important city-state on the Aegean island of Lesbos. His contemporary, the poetess Sappho, belonged to the same social class in Mytilene. Alcaeus and his brothers were energetically involved in the bitter rivalries that characterized the political affairs of Mytilene during his lifetime, and his poetry is replete with political references and partisan invective.

None of Alcaeus’s poems has survived complete. The extant verses and any knowledge of lost poems are derived from a combination of mutilated papyrus copies and quotations and descriptions by later Greek and Roman writers. The poems were lyric, in the strict sense of the word, and monodic: Namely, they were composed to be sung by one person, originally Alcaeus, who accompanied himself on the lyre. Common themes were wine, warfare, politics, and pederastic love, although some were short hymns to individual Olympian gods. Among the surviving verses are portions of two allegorical poems in which Alcaeus’s party is represented as a storm-tossed ship.