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Alcaeus (Alkaios, Αλκαίος) of Mitylene (ca. 620 BC-6th century BC), Greek lyric poet who supposedly invented the Alcaic verse; he was an older contemporary and an alleged lover of Sappho, with whom he may have exchanged poems. He was born into the aristocratic governing class of Mytilene, the main city of Lesbos, where his life was entangled with its political disputes and internal feuds. The date of his death is unknown.

During a rebellion headed by Pittacus of Mytilene, a violent civil war broke out on Lesbos. Alcaeus sided with the rebels and his (probably much older) brothers joined with Pittacus in a coup d'état which toppled the aristocratic Melanchros from power. For some time, Alcaeus was allied to Pittacus, even fighting alongside him in a battle against the Athenians at Sigeion near Troy where Pittacus defeated the Athenian commander, Phrynon in single combat. Herodotus claims that Alcaeus ran away from the battle of Sigeion and the allegations of cowardice are angrily answered in some of Alcaeus' verses.

Alcaeus joined in an unsuccessful plot against Myrsilis, whose influence became strong following the removal of Melanchros. Pittacus, however, aligned himself with Myrsilis and Alcaeus went into exile.

After the death of Myrsilis, Alcaeus seems to have been reconciled to Pittacus and returned to Mytilene. This new alliance was not to last, however, and Alcaeus again found himself forced into exile, traveling as far as Ancient Egypt. One of his brothers joined the Babylonian army and fought under Nebuchadrezzar II. It is believed that Alcaeus eventually returned to Lesbos but his poetry includes bitter denunciations of his mistreatment at the hands of one time friends as well as long time enemies.

Alcaeus' experience in war and politics are reflected in his extant poetry, much of it military in nature. There are references to mad efforts to survive upon a ship sinking in rough waters, the sight of helmets and spears, the relief of welcoming a brother home from war. He also rails against the danger of tyrants and the accusations of cowardice that arose when he was the sole member of his company to survive a battle.

Still, Alcaeus' lively verses extolled revelry, gambling, friendship, and the rough life at sea. There are softer subjects, as well: love songs, drinking songs and the destruction a man incurs by living a life of dissipation. All of these were the kind of poetry that would be read aloud at a symposium. He also produced hymns to the gods, for more solemn occasions. Unfortunately, most of his work exists only in tattered fragments.

When his poems were edited in Hellenistic Alexandria, they were reported to have filled ten scrolls. However, the poetry of Alcaeus has survived only in quotations: "Fighting men are the city's fortress" and the like, so judging him, rather than his high reputation in antiquity, is like judging Ben Jonson through Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.

Alexandrian scholars agreed that Alcaeus was the second greatest lyric poet among the canonic nine. The considerable number of fragments extant (see link), and the imitations of Alcaeus in Latin by Horace, who regarded Alcaeus as his great model, help us to form a fair idea of the character of his poems.

Sappho and Alcaeus each with a Barbitos (a kind of lyre instrument) , Hydria, Brygos Painter, 510 - 500 BC (Munich, Germany)

Pausanias 7.20.4

That Apollo takes great pleasure in oxen is shown by Alcaeus1 in his hymn to Hermes, who writes how Hermes stole cows of Apollo, and even before Alcaeus was born Homer made Apollo tend cows of Laomedon for a wage

Pausanias 10.8.1

I have heard another account, that the water was a gift to Castalia from the river Cephisus. So Alcaeus has it in his prelude to Apollo.

Herodotus, The Histories 5.95.1

Among the various incidents of this war, one in particular is worth mention; In the course of a battle in which the Athenians had the upper hand, Alcaeus the poet took to flight and escaped, but his armor was taken by the Athenians and hung up in the temple of Athena at Sigeum. Alcaeus wrote a poem about this and sent it to Mytilene. In it he relates his own misfortune to his friend Melanippus. As for the Mytilenaeans and Athenians, however, peace was made between them by Periander son of Cypselus, to whose arbitration they committed the matter, and the terms of peace were that each party should keep what it had.

Sappho and Alkaios , Theofilos

References

Greek Lyric 1: Sappho and Alcaeus, D. A. Campbell (ed.), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., (1982) ISBN 0-674-99157-5 (Contains complete Greek text and English translation, including references to Alcaeus by ancient autors. A good starting-point for serious students who are new to this poetry.)

Sappho and the Greek Lyric Poets translated by Willis Barnstone, Schoken Books Inc., New York (paperback 1988) ISBN 0-8052-0831-3 (A collection of modern English translations suitable for a general audience, includes complete poems and fragments along with a brief history of each of the featured poets. Over 25 fragments of Alcaeus' poetry is translated, including his Hymn to Apollo.)

Deep in a shady Locrian glade
The wood-nymphs Hesiod's funeral made :
They washed his corse, they raised a mound ;
"While shepherds on that hallowed ground
The tide of milk and honey poured
To him whom all their hearts adored.
For why ? Because the Muses nine
Once fed him from their fount divine ;
And from that hour the poet's song
Like milk and honey flowed along.

Links

  • A. M. Miller, Greek Lyric: Alcaeus, many fragments.

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