Alcaeus Criticism - Essay

Hubert Martin, Jr. (essay date 1972)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.


The epic influence on Alcaeus is clear and definable and may be analyzed under the headings of (1) subject matter and (2) diction and style. For convenience I will include within the epic rubric only the Iliad and the Odyssey, which may be designated conjointly as Homer, and the poems of the post-Homeric Epic Cycle, all of which deal in some way with the Trojan War or its aftermath.1 The term epic could, of course, encompass in addition both Hesiod and the Homeric Hymns. The traces of Hesiodic influence on Alcaeus, however, are of a special sort and will be examined separately; and the Homeric Hymns may be disposed of with the observations that they share with Alcaeus's hymns only certain exterior features due to a common literary form and that whatever influence on Alcaeus's style or diction might conceivably be postulated must have emanated originally from the Homeric epics themselves. The evidence argues that Alcaeus never drew the substance of any of his hymns directly from a Homeric Hymn.2 In conclusion, two points should be stressed. The epic meter, the dactylic hexameter, is excluded from immediate purview, for even when borrowing epic subject matter or imitating epic style Alcaeus continued to compose in the meters peculiar to his own dialect. Also, I have so constructed my critical methodology at this point as to avoid becoming embroiled in problems occasioned by the oral composition of the Homeric poems. I realize, of course, that Alcaeus may have encountered the Iliad and the Odyssey in versions somewhat different from those known to us.3

We may begin our examination of Alcaeus's use of epic subject matter by glancing at Z 64, a single verse preserved without any indication of its context, and Z 118, a brief remark by a scholiast. The former describes Telamonian Ajax as “descendant of the royal son of Cronus, Ajax, second only to Achilles in valor,” and in the latter the scholiast informs us that the Phaeacians were, according to Alcaeus, “sprung from the blood drops of Uranus.” The description of Ajax is reminiscent of Iliad II (lines 768-69), Iliad XVII (lines 278-80), and Odyssey XI (lines 469-70); Ajax is assigned a prominent role in the Iliad; and the Phaeacians are Odysseus's hosts throughout Books VI-XII of the Odyssey. Either or both of these fragments, therefore, could derive from poems in which Alcaeus made extensive use of Homeric subject matter. On the other hand, speculation is idle: in neither instance are we informed of context, and the Phaeacian reference calls to mind no particular Odyssey verses.

On the other hand, there are a series of poems that deal with epic themes and give evidence of Alcaeus's continuing use of epic subject matter. It is noteworthy, however, that Alcaeus never tells the full epic story; he only summarizes or refers to it in such a way as to indicate he is presuming on his reader's part a knowledge of a much fuller, epic version. Such is the case with “The Fall of Troy” (B 10), a four-stanza poem of only sixteen verses that either mentions or briefly narrates, in addition to the destruction of the city itself, events that occurred long before the Trojan War and served as a prelude to it. We possess the beginning and the end of “The Fall of Troy” as well as a substantial portion of each stanza, so that it is possible to outline the general content of the entire poem. After opening references to “holy Ilium” and to the miseries that befell Priam and his sons (lines 1-4), Alcaeus reverts over many years to the marriage of Achilles's parents, Peleus and Thetis, and devotes the next two stanzas to this event (lines 5-12). The last stanza offers two verses briefly narrating the birth of Achilles and ends with a two-verse reference to the fall of Troy: “But they [the Trojans] perished for Helen / together with their city.” The knowledge presumed by Alcaeus on the part of his reader is, basically, the full content of the Iliad.

A similar presumption characterizes “Helen” (N 1), though here, since both the beginning and the end of the poem are missing, we cannot be sure of its length; nor can we know what details from the story of Troy were included in the lost portions. We can, however, reconstruct the general content of the poem's nineteen surviving or partially surviving verses: driven mad with love for Paris, Helen deserted her husband and her child to sail with him to Troy (lines 3-10); because of Helen, the Trojan plain was filled with slaughter and the wreckage of many chariots (lines 11-18). This reconstruction is extracted from four more or less decipherable stanzas of four verses each. Two of these stanzas narrate the story of Helen, the other two depict the carnage and destruction that occurred “because of that woman” (line 14). In “Helen,” therefore, Alcaeus is at least as much interested in mood and atmosphere as he is in pure narration. And it is because of the universally common knowledge of the Iliad in the Greek world that it is both possible and reasonable for him to sacrifice narrative detail to mood and atmosphere.

Were it not for this common knowledge of Homer by Alcaeus's audience, such a poem as “The Intercession” (B 12) would not have been artistically feasible; for in this piece Alcaeus obviously presumes a knowledge of the first 530 lines of the Iliad and then narrates in not more than eight and possibly as few as four verses an event that consumed 115 of Homer's hexameters (Iliad I, lines 348-427 and 495-530). The first four verses of “The Intercession” are represented by only a few isolated letters, but enough of the last four verses has survived to reveal that they told of Achilles's appeal to his mother Thetis for help and of her intercession with Zeus on his behalf.4 Since this poem is eight verses in total length, Alcaeus could have given only a minimum amount of narrative detail, even if the entire poem was devoted to only the appeal-intercession episode.

A comparison of Alcaeus's with the Homeric account of this episode will be useful for appreciating the manner and extent of the lyric poet's condensation of epic source material. The Iliad version is divided into two parts and runs as follows. In the first (lines 348-427), after Patroclus has led Briseis away, Achilles withdraws to the seashore where in tears he calls upon his mother and complains of the insult he has received from Agamemnon. Thetis hears his cry and rises like a mist from the sea to comfort him. After some hesitation, Achilles takes twenty-six verses (366-92) to tell his mother why Agamemnon has dishonored him by depriving him of his concubine Briseis. He then reminds her in full detail of a great favor she had in the past conferred on Zeus and asks her to go to Zeus on his behalf. The plea she is to convey to Zeus is that he will help the Trojans to drive the Achaeans with great losses back to their ships so that Agamemnon's folly will be exposed to his army and he himself will come to recognize the folly of provoking Achilles to retire from battle. Thetis in reply attempts to comfort her son and promises to carry out his request. In the second part of the Iliad account (lines 495-530), after intervening narrative covering other events, the epic poet returns to Thetis and describes her meeting with Zeus: Thetis puts the request; Zeus hesitates with the explanation that Hera will be angry if he grants it, but finally agrees. His assent is marked by an inviolable guarantee, the shaking of his head.

In comparison with “The Intercession” (B 12) with its brief and allusive use of detail in its last four verses (Achilles calls upon his mother, she pleads with Zeus for him), the Iliad account is surfeited with narrative matter. An even more striking feature of the epic version, however, is its dramatic nature. I am referring to its abundance of dialogue, with the bulk of its narrative matter assigned to the various dramatis personae—that is, to Achilles, Thetis, and Zeus. In fact, of the hundred and fifteen Iliad verses allotted to this episode, ninety are in the form of dialogue: strip the account of its dialogue, and there are only twenty-five verses left. This, I would suggest, is basically what Alcaeus has done—not only here but in “The Fall of Troy” (B 10) and “Helen” (N 1) as well, though in these latter two poems the facts of the matter are not so readily demonstrable. Alcaeus thus, when he borrows subject matter from Homer, discards its dialogue—that is, its dramatic trappings—and employs it to write poems that are truly narrative, as against the dramatic-narrative poetry of his source.

The absence of dialogue and the concentration on pure narrative are also apparent in “Ajax and Cassandra” (Q 1), the only other poem that reveals direct and extensive use of epic subject matter.5 Interpretive limitations, however, are imposed by the poor condition of the verses preceding and following the better-preserved portion of the Ajax-Cassandra narrative. It is impossible to determine the length of the poem (parts, often meager parts, of forty-nine verses remain), and difficult to assess the function of the narrative within the poem as a whole. Though the narrative is extensive and probably formed the core of the poem, it undoubtedly served an ulterior purpose as well; for the survival of a patronymic for Pittacus in verse 47 reveals that Alcaeus must have established a connection between the Ajax-Cassandra episode and contemporary, Mytilenean politics. At any rate, the decipherable portion of “Ajax and Cassandra” (lines 4-27) is quick, concise narrative and may be summarized as follows. As the Achaeans sailed past Aegae on their return to Greece from Troy, they encountered a devastating storm, divinely sent as retribution for the sin of one man, Ajax the Locrian (not the great Telamonian Ajax previously mentioned). Ajax, Alcaeus continues, had violated Cassandra during the sacking of Troy as she sought refuge at the image of Athena, and in rage the goddess rushed over the wine-dark sea to stir up angry gales and wreck the returning fleet. We know that the story of this shipwreck (and presumably that of the violation of Cassandra) was told in the Nostoi, one of the poems of the Epic Cycle; and the shipwreck itself, together with details of Ajax's death and a passing allusion to the anger of Athena, is mentioned in the Odyssey (Book IV, lines 495-511). There is, however, no indication that Alcaeus was imitating or adapting these Odyssey verses, so that the most precise statement permissible regarding his source material is that it was epic.

In summary, Alcaeus draws freely from epic poetry for subject matter, but he in no way feels bound by the conventions of epic poetry and employs this epic material in his own manner to satisfy his own lyric interest. He rejects two basic features of epic poetry, the dactylic hexameter and the dramatic use of dialogue, the former in favor of his native Aeolic meters and the latter in favor of a more purely narrative style. Also, he presumes on the part of his audience a knowledge both of the fuller epic version of each story he narrates and of the Homeric poems in general. The result is a narrative that is restrained, allusive, and pregnant with epic connotations.6

Let us now turn to the other area of epic influence on Alcaeus's poetry, that of diction and style.7 My goal here is not to present a complete and comprehensive analysis, but through a selection of representative categories of influence and, within these categories, of illustrative examples to depict the type and nature rather than the exact amount of Alcaeus's debt to his epic heritage. I will first examine Alcaeus's use of noun-epithet phrases that are either borrowed verbatim from Homer or are closely modeled on Homeric formulas.8 Such phrases characterize, but are by no means confined to, poems with mythological and epic subject matter. In fact, they permeate Alcaeus's poetry and serve to give it an elevated, Homeric tone that is as immediately apparent to the modern critic as it would have been to an ancient reader.

There is a smooth blending of style with theme when noun-epithet phrases occur in epic and mythological contexts. In “The Fall of Troy” (B 10) we encounter “holy Ilium” (line 4) and a description of Achilles as a driver “of bay steeds” (line 14). “Holy” is applied to cities (it modifies “Ilium,” for example, at Iliad IV, line 46) throughout the Homeric poems; and “bay” describes horses at Iliad IX, line 407 and XI, line 680. Again, in “Helen” (N 1) Alcaeus assigns Helen the commonest of her Homeric epithets, “Argive” (line 4), and introduces in verse 16 “quick-eyed,” one of Homer's most frequent epithets. “Castor and Polydeuces” (B 2) exhibits a profusion of this sort of noun-epithet combination. Straight out of Homer are “broad earth” (line 5), “swift-footed steeds” (line 6), “well-benched ships” (line 9), and “dark ship” (line 12); and the addition of Alcaeus's own Homeric variations “chilling death” (lines 7-8) and “troublous night” (line 11) serves to intensify the carefully devised epic tone of this poem. And mythological subject matter offers Alcaeus the opportunity for several other noteworthy noun-epithet phrases of a strikingly epic tone: in “Sisyphus” (B 6 A), “swirling Acheron” (twice, in lines 2 and 8), and “dark earth”; in the Hymn to Eros (Z 3), “fair-sandled Iris” and “golden-haired Zephyr”; in Z 10, “briny sea”; in Z 19, “aegis-bearing Zeus”; and, finally, in “Ajax and Cassandra” (Q 1), “Athena loaded with booty” (line 9) and “wine-dark sea” (lines 25-26).

The employ of such noun-epithet phrases, as has already been observed, is not confined to mythological and Homeric themes. “The Prayer” (G 1) offers “bright precinct” (line 2), “blessed immortals” (line 4), and “glorious goddess” (line 6). Even more emphatic are the “blessed gods” (line 28), “dark earth” (line 29), “maidens of Lesbos in trailing robes” (lines 32-33), and “divine sound” (line 34) of “Exile” (G 2). Verbatim repetitions of Homeric phrases are afforded by the “hoary sea” of Z 36, by the “long-winged birds” of “Wild Ducks” (Z 21), by the reference to “a wave of the hoary sea” in “The Harlot” (line 27; F 3 [b]), and by the “dark ship” in verse 4 of one of the nautical allegories (“The Ship: II” = Z 2); and Alcaeus's “spirit-devouring sedition” (thymoboros lya) at verse 10 of “Pittacus” (D 12) is reminiscent of Homer's recurrent “spirit-devouring strife” (thymoboros eris). In addition, an epic tone is imparted by “holy Babylon” in B 16, line 10 and by the “surging sea” at verse 2 of the Hymn to the Hebrus (B 13).

We have been examining Alcaeus's artistic reaction to the epic noun-epithet formulas that formed a distinctive part of his poetic heritage. Before leaving this topic, it should be pointed out that Alcaeus is as free and independent in his handling of these formulas as he was in his treatment of subject matter borrowed from the epic tradition. A few selected examples will serve to illustrate this point.9 Alcaeus sometimes leaves the vocabulary of the epic formula intact as in the case of “holy Ilium” (“The Fall of Troy” = B 10, line 4; Iliad IV, line 46), “aegis-bearing Zeus” (Z 19; Iliad I, line 202), and “swift-footed steeds” (“Castor and Polydeuces” = B 2 [a], line 6; Iliad II, line 383). Elsewhere, he may retain the Homeric epithet but assign it to a noun of different meaning: Homer's “spirit-devouring strife” (Iliad VII, lines 210 and 301) becomes “spirit-devouring sedition” in “Pittacus” (D 12, line 10); Homer's “in trailing robes,” an epithet applied exclusively to the Trojan women (Iliad VI, line 442; XXII, line 105; VII, line 297), is used by Alcaeus to modify “maidens of Lesbos” in “The Prayer” (G 1, lines 32-33); and with the addition of an intensive prefix and a change of noun Homer's “chilling fear” (Iliad IX, line 2) and “chilling flight” (Iliad V, line 740) are transformed into “death so chilling” in “Castor and Polydeuces” (B 2 [a]; lines 7-8).10 Again, Alcaeus may leave undisturbed the fundamental meaning of the Homeric formula, but with the substitution of a different noun of precisely the same denotation: Homer's word for “earth,” gaia (Iliad II, line 699), becomes chthōn (“Sisyphus” = B 6 A, line 10) in the phrase “dark earth”; Homer's “blessed gods” (Iliad I, lines 339, 406, 599) appears as “blessed immortals” in “The Prayer” (G 1, line 4); and Alcaeus's “bay steeds” (“The Fall of Troy” = B 10, line 14) employs pōloi rather than Homer's hippoi (Iliad XI, line 680) as the word for “steeds.”

Too, Alcaeus extends his use of phrases endowed with an epic tone beyond the confines of simple noun-epithet combinations, and here also in this broader usage the introduction of epic phraseology is not limited to epic or mythological contexts.11 “The Fall of Troy” (B 10) narrates the consummation of the marriage of Peleus and Thetis with the statement “and he loosed the maiden's girdle” (lines 9-10), which is closely modeled on a narrative statement in the Odyssey (Book XI, line 245): “and he loosed her maiden girdle.” Alcaeus has subjected his model to stylistic and linguistic revision; for example, he has added an augment to its verb and has replaced zōnē, the epic word for “girdle,” with zōma, a word of the same denotation but of differing metrical value. Nevertheless, the revision does not obscure the Homeric origin of Alcaeus's narrative remark. Again, in “Helen” (N 1) “the heart within her breast” (lines 3-4) and the reference to “chariots in the dust” (line 15) call to mind innumerable instances of the same vocabulary in Homer;12 and “from under the eyebrows” at verse 24 of “Ajax and Cassandra” (Q 1) is a recurrent prepositional phrase throughout the Iliad and the Odyssey.13

The Homeric borrowings of this second type in “The Fall of Troy,” “Helen,” and “Ajax and Cassandra,” all of which employ epic subject matter, are matched by similar borrowings in poems of nonepic context. In “Exile” (G 2), for example, the main verb in verses 32-33 (“Where maidens of Lesbos being judged for beauty / process in trailing robes. …”) rings of Homer.14 And the same is emphatically true of two descriptive phrases in “The Armory” (Z 34). Alcaeus's “shining helmets from which white horsehair plumes nod down” (lines 3-4) must ultimately derive from Homer's “well-fashioned helmet / with the horse-hair crest, and the plumes nodded terribly above it.”15 (The Homeric description occurs in two of the Iliad's most famous arming scenes, that of Paris and that of Patroclus.) In this same poem Alcaeus's description of greaves as “a defense against a powerful missile” (line 5) is reminiscent of Homer's description of the robe with which Aphrodite shielded Aeneas as “a defense against missiles” (Iliad V, lines 315-16); also, of Homer's “a defense against spears,” a phrase used to describe a piece of defensive armor at Iliad IV, line 137.

So far we have been examining the exclusively stylistic affect of Homeric repetitions and reminiscences on Alcaeus's poetic diction. Alcaeus introduced and, where necessary, revised such epic borrowings in a manner that did not entail his tampering with the linguistic content of his Aeolic vernacular. This, however, is far from the whole story, for there is considerable evidence of a subtle yet comprehensive influence of epic vocabulary, morphology, and metrical practices on Alcaeus's native dialect. The influence I am speaking of is stylistic but goes far deeper than mere style. It involves the use of words, forms, and scansions that are foreign to Aeolic Greek and are imported from the epic dialect. Again, the influence cuts across contextual lines and subtly pervades Alcaeus's diction and style.16

First, Alcaeus has incorporated into his poetic vocabulary a relatively small number of epic words that were foreign to the Aeolic vernacular in which he wrote.17 In each instance that will be cited, it is certain that Alcaeus had at his disposal a poetically usable Aeolic word of precisely the same meaning and, therefore, used the lexically different word out of choice rather than necessity. (Certainty is readily afforded in most instances by the existence of the vernacular word in the poems of Sappho and elsewhere in the Alcaean corpus.) Interestingly enough, whether by chance or design, three of these words appear in the brief span of the two fragmentary stanzas that have survived from the Hymn to the Hebrus (B 13): gaia (“earth,” in the vernacular but gaia again in Z 32), parthenika (“maiden,” parthenos in the vernacular but parthenika again in “Ajax and Cassandra” [Q 1], line 20), and hydōr (“water,” hydōr with short first syllable in the vernacular, the epic hydōr being metrically expedient in the Hymn to the Hebrus). At B 1 (d), line 7 and B 7 (a), line 6, there are examples of an epic word for “citizen,” poliatas, whose Aeolic equivalent is politas; and the epic teos (“your”) appears once (item 310 in Lobel and Page's edition) instead of Aeolic sos. Also, at B 16, line 15 the epic word for “house,” dōma, has replaced the vernacular domos. Finally, epic words for “and” (ēde, line 2) and “easily” (rēa, line 7) occur in “Castor and Polydeuces” (B 2 [a]). The latter exhibits an interesting concession to the vernacular in that Alcaeus has Aeolicized the epic spelling rheia into rēa, just as he did in the case of parthenika (epic parthenikē) and poliatas (epic poliētēs).

Alcaeus's incorporation of non-Aeolic, epic vocabulary into his poetic diction, while it served in subtle fashion to enhance the Homeric tone of his style, nevertheless had only a superficial effect on the linguistic content of his Aeolic vernacular; for he Aeolicized the spelling and, therefore, the enunciation of this epic vocabulary whenever they clashed with the practices of his vernacular. The linguistic effect is, however, far more radical and profound when he introduces into his diction epic flectional forms that are alien to the Aeolic dialect; and it was perhaps a fear of doing linguistic violence to his vernacular that caused Alcaeus to exercise great restraint when tampering with the inflections native to his dialect. The evidence indicates that it was a practice rarely used, though there is no reason to believe that it was confined to a particular type of poem or to a particular context. We must suppose that Alcaeus was motivated by aesthetic considerations more subtle than those of form or subject matter.18

Though Z 44 consists of only two imperfectly preserved verses, it grants a telescopic view of the restraint with which epic flectional forms are employed by Alcaeus. This fragment contains five nouns and adjectives in the genitive singular, of which only erchomenoio (“coming”), a participle modifying “spring” in the phrase “of flowery spring coming” (ēros anthemoentos erchomenoio), exhibits an epic inflection. In fact, this genitive in -oio is the single example of epic morphology in Z 44, which offers a distinctively Aeolic form of the article in the genitive singular () and the Aeolic rather than the epic word for “spring” (ēr rather than ear). Had Alcaeus wished to be less restrained in his use of epic elements, he could certainly have revised the word order of Z 44 so as to accommodate the epic word for “spring,” whose genitive singular he actually uses elsewhere in the phrase “gates of spring” (earos pylai; P 2 [b], line 3). An example of similar restraint is afforded by “Helen” (N 1), where in verse 12 Alcaeus chooses an epic flectional form of “many” (poleas, accusative plural) but reverts to an Aeolic form in verse 16 (polloi, nominative plural)—and this despite his Homeric subject matter and the availability of the distinctively epic nominative plural polees as a substitute for polloi. Alcaeus must have felt that poleas alone, without the addition of polees, made a sufficient contribution to the particular degree of epic tone he was striving for in “Helen.”

B 16 is so mutilated as to rule out any attempt to accurately reconstruct its content. Its surviving words and phrases, however, give abundant indication of a clear and comprehensive epic tone. In addition to the Homeric epithets “holy” (“holy Babylon,” line 10) and “chilling” (line 12), there occurs in the phrase “house of Hades” (line 15) the Homeric word for house (dōma instead of the Aeolic domos) and an epic inflection for the genitive “Hades” (Aidao instead of Aeolic Aida). Elsewhere, Alcaeus prefers the vernacular form of the genitive singular of nouns of this type: Latoïda, “son of Leto” (D 9, line 3) and Kronida, “son of Cronus” (Z 64). In passing, we may note an epic inflection of the word for “city-state” in a poem too fragmentary to permit even speculation as to content (B 9, line 18): polēos in place of Aeolic polios.

One hallmark of Homeric morphology is the frequent omission of verb augment, both syllabic and temporal. Alcaeus, again with his customary linguistic restraint, applies this epic practice;19 and for our immediate purposes it may be explained as follows. Verbs in Aeolic as well as the other Greek dialects normally exhibit augment in the imperfect and aorist tenses, both past tenses. If the present tense of the verb begins with a consonant, then the augment takes the form of an epsilon (e in English transliteration) prefixed to the verb in its imperfect and aorist tenses. For example, at verse nine of “Helen” (N 1) Alcaeus uses the verb peithō (“I persuade”) in the imperfect. The normal, vernacular form of this imperfect would be epeithe (“was persuading”; the subject of the verb is uncertain): Alcaeus, however, has omitted the augment and written peithe. The meaning remains unchanged, but by employing a form foreign to Aeolic and to be expected in Homer Alcaeus has introduced a strikingly epic element. With regard to temporal augment, it occurs in the imperfect and aorist tenses of verbs beginning with a vowel rather than a consonant, and takes the form of a lengthening of that vowel. Alcaeus offers a single example of the omission of this augment, in Z 12, in a phrase reminiscent of a Homeric phrase which also omits the temporal augment from the same verb used by Alcaeus. Alcaeus employs an unaugmented eleto (instead of the augmented eileto) in the remark that somebody “stole away” somebody else's “wits,” just as Homer does at Iliad VI, line 234: “but Zeus the son of Kronos stole away the wits of Glaukos.”20

We must bear in mind, however, that Alcaeus does not confine his epicisms to epic or mythological subject matter. In fact, he does not hesitate to introduce an unaugmented aorist and, therefore, an epic tone into his announcement that a political enemy is dead (Z 8): “Now's the time to get drunk and with some vigor / to drink, for Myrsilus has died, indeed he has. …” The Greek verb translated as “has died” is katthane, a syllabically unaugmented form of katethane (kat being a prefix and thane the verb proper; the augment is attached directly to the latter) that is distinctively epic in tone. The context, however, is either Homeric (“The Fall of Troy” [B 10], line 13) or mythological (Hymn to Hermes [item 308 in Lobel and Page's edition] and Hymn to Eros [Z 3]) when Alcaeus uses the unaugmented gennato (“bore,” “gave birth to”; the normal Aeolic form is egennato) in reference, respectively, to the births of Achilles, Hermes, and Eros.

There remains for consideration Alcaeus's limited use of metrical practices common in Homer and not normally admitted in Aeolic verse. The type of thing he does may be illustrated from his use of epic correption and synizesis, both regular features of epic prosody.21 Correption is the artificial shortening of a long syllable that is final, open, and followed by a word beginning with a vowel. For correption to be admissible, all three criteria must be satisfied; but even then the epic poet, should his versification so require, may reject correption and keep the syllable long. There is only one sure example of correption in the remains of Alcaeus's poetry, though we may reasonably surmise, in view of his over-all incorporation of epic features into his style and diction, that he used it somewhat more widely than the accidents of preservation reveal, but always with great restraint. …

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 same is true of his use of Homeric diction. He borrowed some Homeric formulas and used others as models for the creation of phrases of epic tone; he incorporated, though always with restraint and discretion, epic vocabulary, morphology, and metrical licenses into his diction and versification. The total stylistic result is a carefully designed literary dialect of his own creation. The base and the overwhelmingly dominant linguistic content of this dialect is, of course, his Aeolic vernacular. He has, however, endowed this vernacular with an epic tone at all levels. The tone is clearest on the surface of his poetic diction, when he inserts noun-epithet phrases of Homeric type. It becomes somewhat softer with his use of other, more general phrases that are reminiscent of epic formulas. And though the epic tone is even fainter when introduced into his vocabulary and morphology, its effect in these areas is paradoxically more profound; for it here touches the linguistic base of his dialect. The tone, however, is reduced to no more than a subtle hint in the area of metrics and versification. It may well be that Alcaeus's most original artistic achievement was the creation of an intensely personal literary dialect that may be described as a slightly epicized Aeolic and that was designed exclusively for his own poetic needs.


We have already observed on Alcaeus's part an interest in things Boeotian; for two of his Hymns, those to Athena Itonia and to Eros, celebrated local cult deities of Boeotia.22 In addition, Alcaeus owes a clear and demonstrable literary debt to Hesiod, who lived in Ascra, a town at the foot of Mount Helicon in Boeotia, whither the poet's father had migrated from Cyme in the Aeolid of Asia Minor. Hesiod's dates are far from certain, and we can do no better than place his lifetime during the late ninth or eighth century b.c.23 The only chronological matter of immediate importance, however, is that he decisively antedated Alcaeus. Hesiod's Works and Days and Theogony are both composed in the epic dialect and both employ the meter of epic poetry, the dactylic hexameter.24 It is verses 582-88 of the former poem that will now be our primary concern, for they are the direct source and inspiration for the extant portion of Alcaeus's “Summer” (Z 23).

These seven verses of the Works and Days form the opening half of a passage in which Hesiod describes, first (lines 582-88), the salient features of summer and, then (lines 588-96), how he himself would like to spend his time during the summer. The surviving part of Alcaeus's “Summer” (Z 23) is an adaptation of the first half of the Hesiod passage, the description of the features of summer. Since, however, not all of Alcaeus's poem has survived, we may speculate that in its lost portion Alcaeus went on to adapt the rest of the Hesiodic material that was obviously before him. And even if Alcaeus limited his close adaptation to lines 582-88, it is still likely that the second half of Hesiod's description exercised some influence on the lost part of “Summer” (Z 23). For one thing, the opening thematic idea of Alcaeus's poem is derived, as will be shown, from the last rather than from the first half of the Hesiod passage.

So that the reader may see the full extent of the poetic source material Alcaeus was working from when he composed “Summer,” I will give the entire Works and Days passage, using Hugh G. Evelyn-White's prose translation (a paragraph division will indicate the end of the section that inspired the remains of Alcaeus's poem).

But when the artichoke flowers, and the chirping cicada sits in a tree and pours down his shrill song continually from under his wings in the season of wearisome heat, then goats are plumpest and wine sweetest; women are most wanton, but men are feeblest, because Sirius parches head and knees and the skin is dry through heat.

But at that time let me have a shady rock and wine of Biblis, a clot of curds and milk of drained goats with the flesh of an heifer fed in the woods, that has never calved, and of firstling kids; then also let me drink bright wine, sitting in the shade, when my heart is satisfied with food, and so, turning my head to face the fresh Zephyr, from the everflowing spring … thrice pour an offering of water, but make a fourth libation of wine.25

The following prose translation of “Summer” (Z 23) may be used to demonstrate the manner in which Alcaeus has reacted to the Hesiod passage. (Pointed brackets around a word indicate that it is a conjecture derived from the Works and Days, and a series of three dots that there is either a lacuna or an incomprehensible section in Alcaeus's text.)26

Soak your lungs with wine, for the dogstar's in the sky, and the season is harsh. Everything's athrist through heat, and the cicada chirps sweetly from the leaves and pours down from under his wings his shrill, ‹continuous› song … and the artichoke flowers. Now women are loosest, but men are weak, because Sirius parches head and knees. …

Alcaeus's debt to the Works and Days is immediately obvious and beyond need of demonstration. Nevertheless, it deserves to be examined in more detail. On a purely dramatic level, Alcaeus has taken the drinking motif from the second half of the Hesiod passage and emphatically transposed it to the very beginning of “Summer,” though in a decisively abbreviated form. Also, though Alcaeus appropriates directly much of Hesiod's vocabulary and phrasing, he does not hesitate to disrupt the order of his source and place his borrowings in whatever order suits his own needs. “The artichoke flowers,” which opens Hesiod's description, does not appear until verse 7 of “Summer” (Z 23); and “through heat” occurs early in Alcaeus's poem, although it is at the very end of the Hesiod section being adapted. Too, Hesiod's reference to goats is omitted, and “the dogstar's in the sky” is Alcaeus's own addition. Finally, there is some revision of the Works and Days vocabulary: for example, Hesiod's “women are most wanton” (machlotatai) becomes “women are loosest” (miarōtatai), and Alcaeus changes his source's “men are feeblest” (aphaurotatoi) into “men are weak” (leptoi).

On a metrical and linguistic level, Alcaeus has made whatever changes were appropriate to the exigencies of his own Aeolic dialect with its own distinctive meters. Hesiod's dactylic hexameters have been replaced by major asclepiads, and Alcaeus has rid his verbal borrowings of all their non-Aeolic morphology. …

A critical enigma is posed by Alcaeus's artistic reaction to his epic source. We have already seen how he refined his Aeolic vernacular and transformed it into a personal literary dialect by the incorporation of epic diction and of epic linguistic and metrical features. We would, therefore, expect to find a profusion of such epic elements in a poem that is so obvious and so close an adaptation of a set of epic verses. Yet just the opposite is true. Insofar as possible in an adaptation of this sort—one is tempted to say “translation,” though this would not be quite accurate—Alcaeus has stripped his borrowings of their epic tone: there is not in “Summer” (Z 23) a single linguistic or metrical feature that is borrowed from the epic. In fact, if the Hesiod passage were not available for comparison, one would never suspect that Alcaeus was composing an adaptation of epic source material rather than an absolutely independent and nonderivative piece of poetry. It is as though Alcaeus was demonstrating his own skill as a poetic craftsman by taking an epic theme and dealing with it in a nonepic manner. The result is a poetic tour de force that is as aesthetically successful as it is technically skillful.27


The dictional, linguistic, and metrical refinements of Alcaeus's poetry give proof that his was a technically sophisticated and highly polished art. So also do the skill and adroitness with which he has stylistically disguised the Hesiodic origins of “Summer” (Z 23), a poem whose poetic spontaneity completely belies the derivative nature of its theme. Derivative and conventional themes and motifs permeate the Homeric epic and constitute one of its fundamental features but are somewhat surprising when encountered in the intensely personal atmosphere of Alcaeus's lyrics. Yet having discovered that the theme and motifs of a poem so artistically spontaneous as “Summer” (Z 23) are consciously derivative and owe their spontaneity solely to Alcaeus's poetic genius, the critic is encouraged to search elsewhere among the body of his poetry for similar derivations. There is no other poem that in this respect falls in the category of “Summer,” whose origin and poetic inspiration is actually available for comparison. The relation, however, of “Summer” to the Works and Days provides a perspective from which to consider Alcaeus's relation to his predecessor Archilochus.

As with Hesiod, Archilochus's dates are the subject of scholarly controversy.28 (Probably the best that we can do is to assign him to the mid-seventh century b.c.) Also as with Hesiod, this controversy need not affect the present inquiry; for it is certain that Archilochus lived before Alcaeus and that his poems were available for Alcaeus to borrow from. Forced by poverty to leave his native Paros, Archilochus migrated to the island of Thasos and earned a living as a mercenary. He met death in battle, fighting against the Naxians. His life is perhaps summed up in the elegiac couplet in which he describes himself as both a warrior and a poet (1): “I am two things: a fighter who follows the Master of Battles, / and one who understands the gift of the Muses' love.”29

Our immediate concern is with a poem in which Archilochus blatantly defies the ideals of aristocratic chivalry (6):

Some barbarian is waving my shield, since I was obliged to leave that perfectly good piece of equipment behind under a bush. But I got away, so what does it matter?
          Let the shield go; I can buy another one equally good.

Both Herodotus (V, 94-95) and Strabo (XIII, 600) inform us that Alcaeus wrote a poem of similar theme, and in the latter's account there is preserved a short, but unfortunately corrupt, quotation from the poem in question.30 According to these two accounts, during a battle against the Athenians, Alcaeus threw aside his arms and escaped by fleeing. The Athenians recovered these arms and hung them in the temple of Athena at Sigeum. Alcaeus then recorded the whole experience in a poem addressed to his comrade Melanippus and sent the poem back to Mytilene to be recited there. The brief quotation preserved by Strabo is corrupt but one phrase is clear and certain: “Alcaeus is safe.”

The tone of Alcaeus's poem was, therefore, similar to that of Archilochus's: “I threw away my arms and ran away. But who cares? I survived, and that's all that matters.” It is my belief that both the theme and the tone of Alcaeus's poems were derived from Archilochus's and that there was more of art than of sincerity in the Mytilenean's verses. This is not, however, to deny them poetic spontaneity, and I would imagine that, just as in “Summer” (Z 23), Alcaeus handled his derived theme in a fresh and original manner. Indeed, to the aristocratic ideals defied by Archilochus, Alcaeus seems to have boldly—and we may suspect rashly—added those of the city-state: on a literal level he has rejected both chivalry and patriotism. It is, nevertheless, judicious to regard Alcaeus's poem as fundamentally a literary endeavor based on a derived theme. Since the poem as a whole is lost, it is impossible to say whether he took anything from his model in the way of style or vocabulary. It is, however, safe to assume that Alcaeus rejected Archilochus's elegiacs for an Aeolic verse scheme, since it is his almost unvarying practice to compose only in his native meters.

There are other thematic areas, all of them previously remarked in another context, in which Alcaeus may well have been influenced by his Parian forerunner. Both show a predilection for bestial motifs;31 and Alcaeus's “fox of crafty mind,” to which a man behaving with shrewdness and deceit is compared in “The Fox” (D 11, lines 6-8), immediately calls to mind the “clever fox with shrewd mind” who appears in one of Archilochus's allegorical fables (81). It is a reasonable guess that Alcaeus's Fox was Pittacus,32 but in neither instance do we really know who is represented by the fox. What is important for present interests is the striking similarity in vocabulary. Noteworthy also is the use by both poets of the Stone of Tantalus to represent a chronic and terrible danger. Archilochus wrote in Fragment 55, “Let not the stone of Tantalus / overhang this island any longer”; and the scholiast source of Z 42 reveals that Alcaeus was referring to the same stone when he warned “There lies above your head, O son of...

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G. M. Kirkwood (essay date 1974)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 19161 words.)

Anne Pippin Burnett (essay date 1983)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 11732 words.)

David Mulroy (essay date 1992)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2464 words.)

Leslie Kurke (essay date 1994)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.]


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...

(The entire section is 10434 words.)

Jeffrey Walker (essay date 2000)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 26598 words.)