History of Literature



Ancient Greek literature



Lawrence Alma-Tadema
Sappho and Alcaeus


born c. 620 bce, Mytilene, Lesbos [Greece]
died c. 580 bce

Greek lyric poet whose work was highly esteemed in the ancient world. He lived at the same time and in the same city as the poet Sappho. A collection of Alcaeus’s surviving poems in 10 books (now lost) was made by scholars in Alexandria, Egypt, in the 2nd century bce, and he was a favourite model of the Roman lyric poet Horace (1st century bce), who borrowed the alcaic stanza. Only fragments and quotations from Alcaeus’s work survived into the Byzantine Middle Ages and into the modern world, but papyrus texts discovered and published in the 20th century considerably expanded knowledge of his poetry, enabling scholars to evaluate his major themes and his quality as a poet.

Alcaeus’s poems may be classed in four groups: hymns in honour of gods and heroes, love poetry, drinking songs, and political poems. Many of the fragments reflect the vigour of the poet’s involvement in the social and political life of Mytilene. They express a closed world of aristocratic values and conservatism, in which realism and idealism coexist—although the idealism is limited by the norms and goals of the poet’s political faction.

At the end of the 7th century bce and the beginning of the 6th century, aristocratic families on Lesbos contended for power, among them the family of Alcaeus and his brothers, Antimenidas and Cicis. These families enrolled in hetaireiai (“factions”), societies of nobles united by an oath of loyalty and a community of ethical and political views. In the years 612–609 a conspiracy organized by Alcaeus’s brothers and their ally Pittacus overthrew the tyrant Melanchrus. Alcaeus was probably too young to participate in the overthrow, but later he fought next to Pittacus in a war between Mytilene and Athens over the control of Sigeum, a promontory on the Troad near the Hellespont. He reportedly told his friend Melanippus how he had to abandon his shield to the enemy to save his own life.

A new tyrant, Myrsilus, came to power in Lesbos, and Alcaeus became his fierce opponent. After the failure of a conspiracy, Alcaeus went into exile in Pyrrha, a small town near Mytilene. During his exile Alcaeus wrote bitter polemics against Pittacus, who had joined another faction. The poet greeted Myrsilus’s death with fierce joy: “Now we must get drunk and drink whether we want to or not, because Myrsilus is dead!” With this death, Alcaeus was able to return to his home.

To replace Myrsilus, the city appointed Pittacus as aisymnētēs (“organizer”); he held power for a decade (590–580 bce). Pittacus enjoyed a reputation for benevolence and was later included among the Seven Sages (the 6th-century grouping of representative wise and clever men from all parts of Greece). For Alcaeus, however, Pittacus’s rise to power meant a return to exile. (An ancient critic reported that he was exiled three times.) Alcaeus’s poetry in this period dwells on his misfortunes, battles, and tireless rancour against Pittacus, whom he mocks for disloyalty, physical defects (including flat feet and a big stomach), rudeness, and low origins. There is little evidence regarding the poet’s exile; he may have visited Egypt and perhaps Thrace and Boeotia. Pittacus may have recalled him from his second exile. His death is likewise a mystery, although he implied in his poetry that he was old, and some believe that he died in battle.

Alcaeus’s most influential image is his allegory of the ship of state, found in a number of fragments. Another common topic is wine, the gift of Dionysus, “the mirror of a man,” which in every season offers the poet a remedy against his woes. This theme supports the theory that much of his verse was composed for symposia, a context that would explain his allusive language, full of references that presuppose the shared experiences, values, and aspirations of political partisans (hetairoi) gathered together for drink and song. Horace reported that Alcaeus also wrote hymns and erotic verse for handsome young men.

Other fragments of Alcaeus’s work convey the atmosphere of everyday life in 6th-century Mytilene. He wrote of ships and rivers, of a girls’ beauty contest, of a flock of wigeon in flight, and of the flowers that herald the spring. He managed to convey the spirit and the values of the city-states of the Aegean, as, for example, when he declares that true greatness lies “not in well-fashioned houses, nor in walls, canals, and dockyards, but in men who use whatever Fortune sends them.”


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