Text #9256"Archilochus", in .
Archilochus (c. 680 – c. 640 BC)] was a Greek lyric poet from the island of Paros in the Archaic period. He is celebrated for his versatile and innovative use of poetic meters and as the earliest known Greek author to compose almost entirely on the theme of his own emotions and experiences. Alexandrian scholars included him in their canonic list of iambic poets, along with Semonides and Hipponax, yet ancient commentators also numbered him with Tyrtaeus and Callinus as the possible inventor of the elegy. However modern critics often characterize him simply as a lyric poet. Although his work now only survives in fragments, he was revered by the ancient Greeks as one of their most brilliant authors, able to be mentioned in the same breath as Homer and Hesiod, yet he was also censured by them as the archetypal poet of blame—his invectives were even said to have driven his former fiancee and her father to suicide.
A considerable amount of information about the life of Archilochus has come down to the modern age via his surviving work, the testimony of other authors and inscriptions on monuments, yet it all needs to be viewed with caution—the biographical tradition is generally unreliable and the fragmentary nature of the poems doesn’t really support inferences about his personal history. The vivid language and intimate details of the poems often look autobiographical yet it is known, on the authority of Aristotle, that Archilochus sometimes role-played. The philosopher quoted two fragments as examples of an author speaking in somebody else’s voice: in one, an unnamed father commenting on a recent eclipse of the sun and, in the other, a carpenter named Charon, expressing his indifference to the wealth of Gyges, the king of Lydia. There is nothing in those two fragments to suggest that Archilochus is speaking in those roles (we rely entirely on Aristotle for the context) and possibly many of his other verses involved role-playing too. It has even been suggested by one modern scholar that imaginary characters and situations might have been a feature of the poetic tradition within which Archilochus composed, known by the ancients as iambus.
The two poems quoted by Aristotle help to date the poet’s life (assuming of course that Charon and the unnamed father are speaking about events that Archilochus had experienced himself). Gyges reigned 687–652 BC and the date of the eclipse must have been either 6 April 648 BC or 27 June 660 BC (another date, 14 March 711 BC, is generally considered too early). These dates are consistent with other evidence of the poet’s chronology and reported history, such as the discovery at Thasos of a cenotaph, dated around the end of the seventh century and dedicated to a friend named in several fragments: Glaucus, son of Leptines. The chronology for Archilochus is complex but modern scholars generally settle for c.680–c.640 BC.
Snippets of biographical information are provided by ancient authors as diverse as Tatian, Proclus, Clement of Alexandria, Cicero, Aelian, Plutarch, Galen, Dio Chrysostom, Aelius Aristides and several anonymous authors in the Palatine Anthology.
According to tradition, Archilochus was born to a notable family on Paros. His grandfather (or great-grandfather), Tellis, helped establish the cult of Demeter on Thasos near the end of the eighth century, a mission that was famously depicted in a painting at Delphi by the Thasian Polygnotus. The painting, later described by Pausanias, showed Tellis in Hades, sharing Charon’s boat with the priestess of Demeter. The poet’s father, Telesicles, also distinguished himself in the history of Thasos, as the founder of a Parian colony there. The names ‘Tellis’ and ‘Telesicles’ can have religious connotations and some modern scholars infer that the poet was born into a priestly family devoted to Demeter. Inscriptions in the Archilocheion identify Archilochus as a key figure in the Parian cult of Dionysus There is no evidence to back isolated reports that his mother was a slave, named Enipo, that he left Paros to escape poverty, or that he became a mercenary soldier—the slave background is probably inferred from a misreading of his verses; archaeology indicates that life on Paros, which he associated with “figs and seafaring”, was quite prosperous; and though he frequently refers to the rough life of a soldier, warfare was a function of the aristocracy in the archaic period and there is no indication that he fought for pay.
The life of Archilochus was marked by conflicts. The ancient tradition identified a Parian, Lycambes, and his daughters as the main target of his anger. The father is said to have betrothed his daughter, Neobule, to Archilochus, but reneged on the agreement, and the poet retaliated with such eloquent abuse that Lycambes, Neobule and one or both of his other daughters committed suicide.] The story later became a popular theme for Alexandrian versifiers, who played upon its poignancy at the expense of Archilochus. Some modern scholars believe that Lycambes and his daughters were not actually the poet’s contemporaries but fictional characters in a traditional entertainment. According to another view, Lycambes as an oath-breaker had marked himself out as a menace to society and the poet’s invective was not just personal revenge but a social obligation consistent with the practice of ‘iambos’.
The inscriptions in the Archilocheion imply that the poet had a controversial role in the introduction of the cult of Dionysus to Paros. It records that his songs were condemned by the Parians as “too iambic” (the issue may have concerned phallic worship) but they were the ones who ended up being punished by the gods for impiety, possibly with impotence. The oracle of Apollo then instructed them to atone for their error and rid themselves of their suffering by honouring the poet, which led to the shrine being dedicated to him. His hero cult lasted on Paros over 800 years.
His combative spirit also expressed itself in warfare. He joined the Parian colony on Thasos and battled the indigenous Thracians, expressing himself in his poems as a cynical, hard-bitten soldier fighting for a country he doesn’t love (“Thasos, thrice miserable city”) on behalf of a people he scorns (“The woes [dregs] of all the Greeks have come together in Thasos”), yet he values his closest comrades and their stalwart, unglamorous commander. Later he returned to Paros and joined the fight against the neighbouring island of Naxos. A Naxian warrior named Calondas won notoriety as the man that killed him. The Naxian’s fate interested later authors such as Plutarch and Dio Chrysostom, since it had been a fair fight yet he was punished for it by the gods: he had gone to the temple of Apollo at Delphi to consult the oracle and was rebuked with the memorable words: “You killed the servant of the Muses; depart from the temple.”
Thirty previously unknown lines by Archilochus, in the elegiac meter, describing events leading up to the Trojan War, in which Achaeans battled Telephus king of Mysia, have recently been identified among the Oxyrhynchus papyri and published in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Volume LXIX (Graeco-Roman Memoirs 89).