Archilochus Analysis


The life of Archilochos of Paros (ahr-KIHL-uh-kuhs of PAR-ahs) is revealed in the few remaining fragments of his poetry and by references to him in the works of later writers. The illegitimate son of Telesicles, he left Paros following the surprising end of his engagement to Neoboule. Her father, Lycambes, first approved of and then forbade the marriage, perhaps because Archilochus publicly revealed his illegitimacy. It is said that the satiric verses that Archilochus wrote in revenge were so powerful that the father and daughter hanged themselves. After he left Paros, Archilochus lived as a mercenary, spending much time in the colonial outpost of Thásos. He died in battle after he had established a new form in poetry, the iambus, in which a short syllable followed by a long one defines the meter.


Songs of triumph written by Archilochus were sung at the Olympic Games, and he composed elegiac epigrams for social occasions. According to Plutarch, a Greek biographer and historian, Archilochus was a major innovator. The Roman poet Horace claimed to have been the first to introduce Parian (Archolochean) iambuses into Latin. Archilochus is considered a founder of the Western literary tradition.

Other Literary Forms

Archilochus is remembered only for his poetry.


Archilochus was well known in antiquity as an innovator, especially in metrics. His metrical forms include iambic trimeter, elegiac couplets, trochaic tetrameter, epodes (poems in which a longer metrical unit is followed by a shorter one), and asynartete (verses consisting of two units having different rhythms). While he is traditionally said to have been the inventor of iambic and epodic poetry, it is possible that earlier poems in these meters failed to survive. Archilochus’s technical innovations, rather, may be seen in the skilled combination of established meters in his epodes and asynartete. Archilochus writes mostly in an Ionic Greek, imbued with the language and especially the vocabulary of the epic tradition. In fact, he was frequently admired by the ancients for his successful imitation of Homer, and Homeric influence, on both theme and vocabulary, can be seen in Archilochus’s surviving fragments. The view that Archilochus is an anti-Homeric poet, at least in his rejection of epic standards and values, is increasingly questioned today. Archilochus’s elegiac poems generally reflect the martial or hortatory themes found in other archaic Greek elegists, including Tyrtaeus and Theognis; elegy was not specifically associated with lament until the fifth century b.c.e. In general, Archilochus’s poems are unbound by any rigid restriction of particular themes to particular meters. Not all his elegiacs are about war, and not all his iambics possess the...

(The entire section is 483 words.)


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Bartol, Krystyna. “Where Was Iambic Performed? Some Evidence from the Fourth Century b.c.” Classical Quarterly 42, no. 1 (1992): 65. A discussion of the performance of iambic poetry in the fourth century b.c.e. Poems by Archilochus and Homer may have been presented during poetic competitions as suggested in a text by Heraclitus.

Burnett, Anne Pippin. Three Archaic Poets: Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho. London: Bristol Classical Press, 1998. Explores the paradoxical career of Archilochus as both a professional solider and poet, the combination of “Ares and the Muses,” as Burnett phrases it. This book also provides an even-handed view of Archilochus’s use of obscenity in his poems. Burnett points out that during the time Archilochus was writing, obscenity was seen not as an end in itself but as part of ritual, verbal attacks on enemies. As such, Archilochus undoubtedly regarded his use of obscenity as a poet in the same way he considered his use of weapons as a warrior. Both were means to the same end: triumph over an adversary.

Davenport, Guy. Introduction to Archilochos, Sappho, Alkman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980. The placement of Archilochus among his contemporary poetic peers helps establish both his debt and contributions to the developing Greek poetic tradition. Davenport, who also translated and illustrated the selections in this volume, provides a brief but useful overview of...

(The entire section is 557 words.)