fl. mid-7th century b.c. (Also spelled Archilochos.) Greek poet.
In antiquity revered as the finest poet next to Homer, Archilochus is chiefly remembered as the poet of abuse. Credited by the ancients with creating iambics, satire, and elegiac couplets, Archilochus wrote fierce, direct, innovative verses which greatly influenced many poets and dramatists who followed him. Although it is doubtful that he truly originated iambics, his iambs are the earliest extant examples of satire and they indisputably demonstrate his mastery of the mode. While Archilochus's bitter attacks, which survive today only in fragments, have made his name endure, his innovative emphasis on self-expression has endeared him to the modern world.
It is difficult to separate facts from fiction concerning the life of Archilochus since myths came to be fashioned as the poet attained legendary status. Some sources indicate that Archilochus was the illegitimate son of a noble father, Telesicles, and that he was born in Paros, Greece. According to one often-repeated report, his mother was a slave named Enipo. His planned marriage to Neobule, also according to legend, was denied by her father, Lycambes. Bitter, Archilochus composed slanderous lyrics concerning Lycambes, Neobule, and her sisters that so defamed them that they killed themselves. Although the story of their suicides is the most famous concerning Archilochus, it may not have much basis in truth, for it was the highest of praise to have it said that one's satire was so cruel that it caused the subject of the verses to kill himself. Archilochus was also important in instilling Bacchic worship at Paros, for which he composed lewd songs to Dionysus. He left his birthplace to live in the remote island of Thasos, which was founded by his father. There he served as a noble soldier and wrote war poetry. According to legend, Archilochus was killed in battle by a man named Crow; this too may be more myth than substance. Although many historians have done so, critics point out that it is inadvisable to draw factual conclusions from fragments of Archilochus's poetry because lines that appear to be autobiographical may actually be instances of the poet's adopting a persona. Dates concerning Archilochus have been the source of much dispute among scholars; attempts to narrow the time line of his life, beyond that of placing him in the middle of the seventh centuryb.c., have been made but have not gained wide crtical accepatance.
No complete works of Archilochus survive and the fragments that do exist are often scattered and mangled. There is enough extant, however, to conclusively show he was a master of many styles and that, if he did not actually originate the iamb and the elegiac couplet, he made them his own through his skill and brilliance. He appears to have worked within tradition in some respects, for he strictly adheres to certain rules. His depictions of war are generally more realistic and less glorified in tone than are found in treatments by other poets. Sometimes his war poems are ironic, sometimes disillusioning, and often ambiguous. This ambiguity has fostered different interpretations of his intent and has helped to make his poetry enjoyable in sharp translations for modern readers. His city songs urged citizens to have faith in the midst of fortune's frequent reversals and during times of shifting circumstance. A renewal of enthusiasm in Archilochus studies was caused by the discovery of a lengthy fragment, first published in 1974, rife with examples of Archilochus's “scorpion tongue.”
Archilochus was the recipient of great praise for centuries, mentioned alongside Homer and Hesiod and perceived as being divinely inspired. He nevertheless had some detractors, including Critias, an aristocratic writer and politician, who criticized him for attacking friends as well as foes, and for not hiding his own personality defects. Roman poets regarded Archilochus as a major force, and Horace particularly, in his epodes, pays tribute to him. In discussing his reputation among early Church Fathers, H. D. Rankin explains that they “knew the two main elements of the tradition: that he was a talented poet; and that his work was biased toward sinister and morally less edifying subjects.” Rankin states that Archilochus was “regarded by the great writers of the Christians as an outstandingly bad example of character and conduct,” but that they nevertheless appeared to be “unwillingly fascinated by his wildness.” Frederic Will writes that, because Archilochus “stands much more nakedly than Homer before the perceivable and interpretable world,” he is in that sense “the first modern man.” Will credits Bruno Snell with noticing “the ‘despair of love’ creeping, for the first time in western literature, into the poetry of Archilochos (and Sappho).” Will also cites Hermann Fränkel's pointing out Archilochus's concern with the “immediate data of personal experience.” Instead of dealing with poetic matter retrospectively, Archilochus effortlessly brings his readers to the here-and-now. In modern times Archilochus is commonly celebrated for being, in Anne Pippin Burnett's words, “a figure of full-bodied, romantic realism—a bastard and a mercenary, a bitter pragmatist who hated tradition and sang with the lewd voice of revolt and poverty, a drunkard who fought with both friend and enemy, a rebel against worn-out values, a debunker of aristocratic ideals, a brawling upstart with a vein of music in him.” But Burnett is skeptical of such mythologizing, which she does not find supported by archaeological evidence. Rankin sees Archilochus representing in his poems “two extreme and persistent pressures upon the lives of the Greek individual citizens: that of social duty and that of competitive self-realization.” Contemporary critics agree that Archilochus's poems are powerful and original and largely break free from heroic formulas.