Archilochus (Greek: Αρχιλοχος) (ca. 680 B.C.E. – ca. 645 B.C.E.) was an ancient Greek poet and mercenary. His works are, unfortunately, almost entirely lost; in the present day only fragments of Archilochus' poems survive. Nonetheless, from the testament of other ancient poets, it is clear that Archilochus was an extremely influential poet in his times. Horace, in particular, makes explicit mention of Archilochus as a major inspiration, and a number of poets roughly contemporaneous with Archilochus make reference to him as a significant literary figure. The relative scarcity of Archilochus' works in the present day, combined with his apparent popularity in the ancient world, have led some critics to compare him with Sappho. Archilochus is notable for inventing the elegaic couplet, a form which would become immensely popular with subsequent poets of ancient Greece.
Archilochus is also one of the earliest poets to use the iambic and trochaic meters, a metrical style which would become quintessential for later European poetry. In addition to his metrical and formal innovativeness, Archilochus is perhaps best remembered today for the uniquely personal and often comical tone of his poetry. Ancient Greek poetry was dominated by formulaic verses celebrating heroes and historical figures, and Archilochus (according to some critics, at least) is the first poet in the West to break from this tradition and speak openly of his own feelings and experiences. For this reason, Archilochus is often considered to be one of the most accessible ancient poets for modern audiences, and it is unfortunate that a poet whose work is so relevant to contemporary times has had so little of his work survives. What has survived, however, has proven to be among the most unique and captivating poetry of the ancient world; Archilochus was a master of serious and satirical verse, and his reputation continues to be held in high regard, just as it was over two thousand years ago.
Archilochus was born on the island of Paros. His father, Telesicles, who was of noble family, had conducted a colony to Thasos, following the command of the Delphic oracle. Archilochus himself, hard pressed by poverty, followed his father to Thasos. Another reason for leaving his native place was personal disappointment and indignation at the treatment he had received from Lycambes, a citizen of Paros, who had promised him his daughter, Neobule, in marriage, but later withdrew his consent. Archilochus, taking advantage of the license allowed at the feasts of Demeter, poured out his wounded feelings in unmerciful satire. He accused Lycambes of perjury, and recited such fierce invectives against him that Lycambes and his daughters, according to the tradition, are said to have hanged themselves on the spot.
In the history of poetry, Archilochus is a somewhat paradoxical figure. He lived most of his life as a soldier and mercenary, yet, composing poetry between battles, he would often write of his dissatisfaction with warfare and his own cynical, bitterly realistic views of what life as a soldier was really like. This was in stark contrast to the formulaic view of Greek heroism and the glories of combat. Despite his cynicism, Archilochus was by all accounts an accomplished soldier. This dual aspect of his personality is captured with brevity in the following poetic fragment, in which he describes himself as both a warrior and a poet:
At Thasos the poet passed some unhappy years; his hopes of wealth were disappointed:
Archilochus viewed Thasos as the meeting-place for the calamities of all of Greece. The inhabitants were frequently involved in quarrels with their neighbors. In a war against the Saians—a Thracian tribe—he threw away his shield and fled from the field of battle. He does not seem to have felt the disgrace very keenly, for, like Alcaeus, he commemorates the event in a fragment in which he congratulates himself on having saved his life, and says he can easily procure another shield:
After leaving Thasos, he is said to have visited Sparta, but to have been at once banished from that city on account of his cowardice and the licentious character of his works (Valerius Maximus vi. 3, externa 1). He next visited Magna Graecia, Hellenic southern Italy, of which he speaks very favorably. He then returned to his native home on Paros, and was slain in a battle against the Naxians by one Calondas or Corax, who was cursed by the oracle for having slain a servant of the Muses.
The writings of Archilochus consisted of elegies, poems in the iambic and trochaic measures, and hymns—one of which used to be sung by the victors in the Olympic games.Greek rhetors credited him with the invention of iambic poetry and its application to satire. The only previous measures in Greek poetry had been the epic hexameter, and its offshoot—the elegiac meter—but the slow measured structure of hexameter verse was utterly unsuited to express the quick, light motions of satire.
Archilochus made use of two rhythmical units of speech, the iambus and the trochee, organizing them into the two forms of meter known as the iambic trimeter and the trochaic tetrameter. The trochaic meter he generally used for subjects of a vicarious nature; the iambic for satires. He was also the first to make use of the arrangement of verses called the epode. Horace follows Archilochus in his meters to a great extent. All ancient authorities unite in praising the poems of Archilochus, in terms that appear exaggerated. His verses seem certainly to have possessed strength, flexibility, nervous vigor, and, beyond everything else, impetuous energy. Horace speaks of the "rage" of Archilochus, and Hadrian calls his verses "raging iambics." His countrymen revered him as the equal of Homer, and statues of these two poets were dedicated on the same day.
Thirty lines of a previously unknown poem by Archilochos, written 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 unpublished manuscripts from Oxyrhynchus.
Translation by Guy Davenport, Archilochos Sappho Alkman: Three Lyric Poets of the Late Greek Bronze Age.
All links retrieved October 29, 2012.
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