(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.”

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Greek Lyrics (translated by Richmond Lattimore) 1960

Carmina Archilochi: The Fragments of Archilochus (translated by Guy Davenport) 1964

Archilochos (translated by Frederic Will) 1969

The Soldier and the Lady: Poems of Archilochos and Sappho (translated by Barriss Mills) 1975

Archilochus of Paros (translated by H. D. Rankin) 1977

Three Archaic Poets: Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho (translated by Anne Pippin Burnett) 1983

John Addington Symonds (essay date 1873)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Satirists,” in Studies of the Greek Poets, Smith, Elder, & Co., 1873, pp. 98-109.

[In the following excerpt, Symonds provides a brief overview on Archilochus's life, reputation, and accomplishments.]

The Greeks displayed their æsthetic instinct in nothing more remarkably than in their exact adaptation of the forms of art to the nature of the subjects which they undertook to treat. The Hexameter had sufficed for the needs of the Epic. The Elegiac had fulfilled the requirements of pathetic or contemplative meditation. But with the development of the national genius a separate vehicle for satire was demanded. Archilochus of Paros created a new style,...

(The entire section is 1877 words.)

T. Hudson-Williams (essay date 1926)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Archilochus and Callinus,” in Early Greek Elegy: The Elegiac Fragments of Callinus, Archilochus, Mimnermus, Tyrtaeus, Solon, Xenophanes, & Others, The University of Wales Press Board, 1926, pp. 9-12.

[In the following excerpt, Hudson-Williams outlines some of the problems scholars face in trying to determine accurate dates in the life of Archilochus.]



Ever since the dawn of literary criticism there has been much wordy warfare over the rival claims of Archilochus and Callinus to be regarded as ‘the Father of Greek Elegy’. …

We have really no...

(The entire section is 850 words.)

C. M. Bowra (lecture date 1935)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Origins and Beginnings,” in Early Greek Elegists, Barnes & Noble Inc., 1960, pp. 3-36.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1935, Bowra discusses the flute-song origins of the elegy and the significance of Archilochus's use of Homeric language in his verses concerning war.]

Few forms of verse can have had so long a history as the Greek elegiac couplet. It first appears, so far as we know, in the eighth century before Christ, and it was still vital in the tenth century after Christ. It is the aim of these lectures to give a sketch of this form and of its users in its early days and to mention some of its chief characteristics in...

(The entire section is 2550 words.)

A. A. Blakeway (essay date 1936)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Date of Archilochus,” in Greek Poetry and Life: Essays Presented to Gilbert Murray, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1936, pp. 34-55.

[In the following excerpt, Blakeway argues that certain conclusions about the chronology of Archilochus are erroneous because they are based on the solar eclipse of 648 b.c. rather than the solar eclipse of 711 b.c.]


The external literary evidence for the chronology of Archilochus is as follows:

Cicero places him in the lifetime of Romulus. (Traditionally 753-716 b.c.)

Clement, arguing from the foundation date of Thasos, dates his...

(The entire section is 2041 words.)

Henry Osborn Taylor (essay date 1939)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Soul of Archilochus,” in A Historian's Creed, Kennikat Press, 1939, pp. 87-115.

[In the following essay, Taylor offers an imaginary autobiography of Archilochus, with emphasis on his philosophy.]


On Paros, island of the gleaming rock, my eyes first caught the light of Helios. Fathered by an impetuous man, my mother a slave, childhood with me was passionate and my youth a storm. Our city's walls held more hate than love. Breaking away from some fierce dispute, an angry clique might take ship and look for a new home. I, long called a maligner, would speak truth. Our men were united against foes. In peace common prejudices and like...

(The entire section is 7129 words.)

Frederic Will (essay date 1962)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Archilochus and His Senses,” in The Classical Journal, Vol. 57, No. 7, 1962, pp. 289-96.

[In the following essay, Will analyzes Archilochus's method of conveying his sensory experiences through the meter and diction of his poetry.]

The immediacy of Archilochus' sense-experience to his poetry strikes us first in meter. This is something new. We never feel, with Homer or Hesiod, that the lived texture of the poet's experience is directly translating itself into the sound of his verse. Rather we seem always, in those two writers and throughout the epic cycle, to be hearing an impersonal, “epic” voice. Those creators address us from the end of an...

(The entire section is 4393 words.)

Frederic Will (essay date 1969)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “From Sense to Attitude,” “Ideas,” “A Gathering of Fragments,” “Archilochos and Classical Antiquity,” and “Archilochos and Our Day,” in Archilochos, Twayne's World Authors Series, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1969, pp. 39-91.

[In the following excerpt, Will examines Archilochus's point-of-view, ideas, and critical reputation both in his own and in modern times.]


Thus we believe that a certain intelligibility mixed with a certain obscurity exists in every true work of poetry.

Jacques and Raïssa Maritain, Situation de la Póesie


(The entire section is 19154 words.)

H. D. Rankin (essay date 1977)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Fate of the Lycambids,” in Archilochus of Paros, Noyes Press, 1977, pp. 47-56.

[In the following essay, Rankin investigates the merits of the tradition that the Lycambid family members were driven to suicide over attacks on them in verse by Archilochus.]

There is a tradition, widespread in the first few centuries of our era, that Archilochus killed Lycambes and his daughters by means of his satires. The motive attributed to him was revenge for his rejection as a suitor of Neoboule. Various versions agree that his words drove the family to suicide, and that their method of self-destruction was hanging. Horace is our earliest authority for this...

(The entire section is 5865 words.)

Anne Pippin Burnett (essay date 1983)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Archilochus: Blame,” in Three Archaic Poets: Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho, Harvard University Press, 1983, pp. 55-76.

[In the following essay, Burnett examines Archilochus's fables, particularly their element of anger that led to his reputation as the poet of abuse.]

The Parians who made a hero of Archilochus remembered his patriotic poems and his cult songs, but the rest of the ancient world honoured him primarily as a poet of abuse, the first and best, and one whose evil tongue could kill. He was at once the inventor and the most perfect practitioner of blame (Vell. Pat. 1.5) and his loud verses were ‘filled with rage and the venom of dread...

(The entire section is 9863 words.)

Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


Bowra, C. M. “Origins and Beginnings.” In Early Greek Elegists, pp. 3-36. New York, Barnes & Noble, 1960.

Discusses the flute-song origins of the elegy and the significance of Archilochus's use of Homeric language in his verses concerning war.

Bremer, J. M., et al. “Archilochus.” In Some Recently Found Greek Poems: Text and Commentary, pp. 1-69. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1987.

Text and full commentary for three recently discovered fragments of poems by Archilochus.

Davison, J. A. “Archilochus Fr. 2 Diehl [7 LB].” In From Archilochus to Pindar:...

(The entire section is 201 words.)