Chapter 9. Alcaeus: Poetry, Politics, Exile

Alcaeus is an important transitional figure in this study, because with the vita of Alcaeus we seem to leave legend or legend-embroidered history and enter firmly into history. The events in his life, as reflected in his poetry, even though they concern jockeyings for power among rival clans and tyrants in a relatively unimportant island, still have the feeling of authenticity, the ring of sordid, unromanticized truth. [1] Perhaps as a result, Alcaeus’ vita lacks the rich cultic associations we found in the lives of Aesop, Archilochus, and Hesiod (unjust death, pollution, hero cult, and so on).
Yet a number of the important themes found in the other poets’ lives can still be found in Alcaeus’. The essential combination—a poet using abusive language, then punished, excluded from the community—is there. This may serve as a warning not to regard the lives of Archilochus or even of Aesop as entirely nonhistorical. The myths may be elaborations on the social realities; but the social realities may have also helped shape the myths. The social mechanism that drives satirical poets into exile is ancient, powerful and recurrent.
Alcaeus, though he did not have the reputation of being primarily a satirist, as did Archilochus, used satirical attacks as a significant part of his poetic language. This abuse was directed largely at two tyrants of Mytilene, Myrsilus and Pittacus. [2] Strabo writes, “Alcaeus abused [eloidoreito] him [Pittacus] and the rest alike, Myrsilus and Melanchrus and the Cleanactids and others.” [3] Aristotle, as cited by Diogenes Laertius, concurs: “Pittacus was assailed [ephiloneikei] by … Antimenidas and Alcaeus.” [4] According to Diodorus Siculus, Alcaeus “had been his [Pittacus’] confirmed enemy and had reviled him most bitterly [pikrotata leloidorēkota] by means of his poems.” [5] Julian reports that Alcaeus, like Archilochus, used invective to alleviate his hardships. [6] Even the “ship of state” allegorical poems can be classified as attacks on tyrants, for Alcaeus compares the oppressive evils of the tyrants to storms at sea. [7]
There is an interesting tradition that Alcaeus’ abusive poetry was so powerful that it caused his targets to leave Mytilene. A scholiast on Horace, commenting on Horace’s reference to Alcaeus’ “threatening songs” (Alcaei minacesCamenae, Odes, 4.9.7) writes, “The songs of Alcaeus are called ‘threatening’ because he was so bitter that he drove many people from the state by the harshness [austeritate] of his poetry.” [8] Another Horatian scholiast reports that Alcaeus actually drove Pittacus from Mytilene at one time: “He waged wars against tyrants, and drove out Mytilenaen Pittacus, after Pittacus had been conquered.” [9] Though this is obviously late evidence, it is still an interesting example of the theme of the poet’s ability to create exiles, to make scapegoats. Fragment 298V, which discusses how the Greeks, who were on the point of stoning the sacrilegious Locrian Ajax, erred in not killing him, [10] evidently suggests that Pittacus be hanged and stoned, like a pharmakos. “[Best] fasten a noose around his neck / and finish him with stones!” [11] One thinks of Archilochus’ victims hanging themselves; and of the principle we suggested earlier, that a poet becomes a scapegoat through his power for making others scapegoats. To wish stoning upon a powerful enemy may bring it upon oneself.
The curse, the usual concomitant of blame poetry, makes a passionate appearance in Alcaeus’ poetry:
… ἄ[γι]τ’ εὔνοον
θῦμον σκέθοντες ἀμμετέρα[ς] ἄρας
ἀκούσατ’, ἐκ δὲ τῶν[δ]ε μόχθων
ἀργαλέας τε φύγας ῤ[ύεσθε·
τὸν ῎Υρραον δὲ πα[ῖδ]α πεδελθέτω
κήνων Ἐ[ρίννυ]ς ὤς ποτ’ ἀπώμνυμεν
τόμοντες ἄ [
μηδάμα μηδ’ ἔνα τὼν ἐταίρων
* * *
κήνων ὀ φύσγων οὐ διελέξατο
πρὸς θῦμον ἀλλὰ βραϊδίως πόσιν
ἔ]μβαις ἐπ ὀρκίοισι δάπτει
τὰν πόλιν ἄμμι …
Come, with gracious spirit hear our prayers [aras], and rescue us from these hardships and from grievous exile [phugas]; and let their Avenger pursue the son of Hyrrhas [Pittacus], since once we swore [apōmnumen], cutting … never (to abandon?) any of our comrades … but Pot-belly [Pittacus] did not talk to their hearts; he recklessly trampled the oaths underfoot and devours [daptei] our city.
129V.9–16, 22–24 [12]
This poem, which shows how the Greek word ara can mean both prayer and curse, [13] exhibits Alcaeus defending the sanctity of the oath, a common theme (and there are clear echoes of Hipponax here). [14] It also gives us an example of invective targeting Pittacus. [15]
The verb daptō, ‘devour’, is used only of animals in Homer (lions, jackals, wolves, dogs); elsewhere (296aV.8) Pittacus is a lion, certainly not for the modern heroic qualities of the lion. [16] Though Alcaeus’ blame does not explicitly use fables, as did Aesop and Archilochus, animal imagery is frequent in his abusive characterizations. In 69V.6–7, Pittacus (probably) is a “wily fox” (alōpa[ / poik[i]lophrōn).
However, the poet’s abusive language was also directed, in a milder, friendly form, against the fellow sumpotai of the hetaireia ‘drinking club, oathbound political faction, Männerbund’ he was associated with. In an important book, Wolfgang Rösler suggests that Alcaeus’ poetry was written entirely for this audience. [17]
Thus, Alcaeus was a satirist, in part, attacking important political figures, which often leads to exile. The fragments of biography we have refer to a series of exiles undergone by the poet. Alcaeus spends a “first exile” in Pyrrha. [18] P. Oxy. 2506 refers to a second exile and perhaps a third. [19] We know that Alcaeus went to Egypt at some time. [20] Aristotle writes that “the Mytilenaeans once chose Pittacus to act against the exiles led by Antimenidas and the poet Alcaeus.” [21]
It is uncertain what role the poet’s abusive poetry may have played in these exiles. It seems reasonable to assume that it would have been a contributing factor; membership in unsuccessful political factions obviously would also be a factor. As we have seen, the Horace scholiast, at least, reported that Alcaeus was “so bitter that he drove many people from the state by the harshness of his poetry.” [22] Another scholiast tells us that the poet “had been driven out [pulsus esset] by Pittacus, the tyrant of his city, because he was exhorting the Mytilenaeans to the love of liberty.” [23] This was possibly, in part, poetic exhortation, political protreptic poetry, such as Tyrtaeus or Solon used, and if it preached liberation from a tyrant, it must have attacked the tyrant, and so it is reasonable to connect this reference to Alcaeus’ abuse of specific tyrants. Thus a reasonable supposition, supported by some late evidence (and scholiastic evidence can never be automatically discounted), allows us to tentatively suggest that Alcaeus may have been exiled in part for his poetic attacks on tyrants.
Alcaeus’ exiles and their misery formed a major theme in his poetic corpus. Horace identifies a major Alcaeic theme as “the evil hardships of exile [dura fugae mala].” [24] In fr. 129.11–12V, quoted above, Alcaeus prays to his gods: “rescue us from these hardships and from grievous exile.” In a poem entirely about exile and its misery (130Va,b), he laments:
… ὀ τάλαις ἔγω
ζώω μοῖραν ἔχων ἀγροϊωτίκαν
ἰμέρρων ἀγόρας ἄκουσαι
καρυ[ζο]μένας ὦ (Ἀ)γεσιλαΐδα
καὶ β[ό]λλας· τὰ πάτηρ καὶ πάτερος πάτηρ
κα<γ>γ[ε]γήρασ’ ἔχοντες πεδὰ τωνδέων
τὼν [ἀ]λλαλοκάκων πολίταν
ἔγ[ω ἀ]πὺ τούτων ἀπελήλαμαι
φεύγων ἐσχατίαισ’, ὠς δ’ Ὀνυμακλέης
ἔνθα[δ’] οἶος ἐοίκησα λυκαιμίαις [25]
]ον [π]όλεμον …
I, poor wretch, live with the lot of a rustic, longing to hear the assembly being summoned, Agesilaidas, and the council: the property in possession of which my father and my father’s father have grown old among these mutually destructive citizens, from it I have been driven, an exile [pheugōn] at the back of beyond …, and like Onomacles I settled here alone in the wolf-thickets (?) (leaving the?) war. [26]
In line 10, Alcaeus refers to himself as wolflike in his exiled state. The wolf is a common symbol for the exile, the loner, the outcast, and has strong links with the Männerbund and initiate—often the initiate is required to undergo a period of exclusion (as in the Spartan Crypteia), in which he lives like an animal in the wilderness, sometimes even “becoming” a wolf. [27]
Louis Gernet attempts an association of the Greek pharmakos with wolf symbolism, with some success. [28] The criminal Hero, who can be linked to the pharmakos complex (like Aesop, he is both stoned and then receives cult from his killers) [29] is portrayed as wearing the skin of a wolf, and is called Lycas. [30] The Athenian hero Lycus became a wolf, as did the athlete-hero Damarchos. [31]
Thus, we have our central pattern, moreover in a fairly solid historical, nonlegendary manifestation: an eloquent political satirist is exiled, in part at least (so it appears) for his abuse of a powerful political figure. One could argue that he was exiled for purely political reasons; but this would probably betray a modern view of the separation of poetry and politics. In archaic Greece, the poem could act as campaign speech and newspaper editorial. [32] If we have an ancient Greek politician who abuses his political enemies in poetry, it is difficult to separate poetic and political factors.
Like Archilochus, Alcaeus was known as a soldier. [33] Horace speaks of him as “brave in war” (ferox bello), and he sang of Dionysus, the Muses, and Aphrodite even “still amid the fighting” (tamen inter arma). [34] War was a major theme in his poetry. [35] Athenaeus describes the poet as “excessively warlike” (mallon tou deontos polemikos). [36] Fragment 140V glorifies the armor and weapons hanging in an ancestral hall, and Athenaeus, quoting the poem, tells us that, even though Alcaeus was thoroughly “devoted to the Muses if ever anyone was, [he] puts manly achievements before poetic achievements, since he was warlike to a fault.” [37] Fragment 400V tells us that it “is a fair thing to die for Lord Ares” (τὸ γὰρ / Ἄρευι κατθάνην κάλον). The hetaireiai that Alcaeus celebrated were essentially drinking clubs that created solidarity of the warrior group. [38] Alcaeus, like Archilochus, is the realistic sort of soldier who will run from his armor in battle to save himself. [39] There is a tradition that Alcaeus died in battle. [40]
Thus, Alcaeus was an exiled poet who expressed the theme of the misery of exile in his poetry. Like Archilochus he was, partially at least, a virulent satirist, and like Archilochus, he was also a soldier. Like Aesop and Archilochus, he came into conflict with political leaders. Like Archilochus, he used the curse in his poetry. The standard mythology of the poet, consecration, ritual death, and so on, is absent here, but the exile of the poet still remains. However often we come upon the poet’s exile in the lives of the poets, we cannot automatically discount it as ahistorical: it may be the kernel of history which myth and folklore have been attracted to.
Thus, while it is possible to see the lives of the poets as almost entirely mythical, in the sense of nonhistorical, [41] it is also possible that there was an Aesop and an Archilochus, dominant figures in oral poetic tradition, who lived historical lives of exclusion, came into conflict with authority, then had these lives “heightened” by standard, traditional cult myth—as a tribute to their poetry, and because poet and poetry were seen as sacred in ancient Greece. Alcaeus was not awarded cult myth (at least none is attested), but the exclusion and conflict with authority remain. [42]


[ back ] 1. See Podlecki 1984; Snell 1961:29–34; though compare Page 1955:159. For the historical background of Alcaeus, see Page 1955:149–159; Berve 1967; Andrewes 1956; Rösler 1980:26–33; Boruhovi 1981.
[ back ] 2. Quintilian Training in Oratory 10.1.63 (test. 21C); cf. Palatine Anthology 9.184.7f., Maximus of Tyre 37.5. For tyrants in the ancient Greek world, see Berve 1967 (91–95 on Lesbos); Andrewes 1956 (92–99 on Lesbos); Fileni 1983. Further bibliography in Rösler 1980:26.
[ back ] 3. Strabo 13.2.3 (test. 468V): Ἀλκαῖος μὲν οὖν ὁμοίως ἐλοιδορεῖτο καὶ τούτῳ καὶ τοῖς ἄλλοις, Μυρσίλῳ καὶ Μελάγχρῳ καὶ τοῖς Κλεανακτίδαις καὶ ἄλλοις τισίν.
[ back ] 4. Diogenes Laertius 2.46 (test. 471V): ἐφιλονείκει … Πιττακῷ Ἀντιμενίδας καὶ Ἀλκαῖος.
[ back ] 5. Diodorus Siculus 9.12.3 (test. 8C): ἐχθρότατον αὐτοῦ γεγενημένον καὶ διὰ τῶν ποιημάτων πικρότατα λελοιδορηκότα
[ back ] 6. Julian Beard-Hater 337ab. Cf. Davies 1985; Fraenkel 1975:192–193; Burnett 1983:156–181. See also 429V, and passim in this section for other poetic abuse of Pittacus.
[ back ] 7. Heraclitus Allegories 5 (test. I ad 208V). See also fr. 6V; and below on Theognis, ch. 10.
[ back ] 8. Porphyrio ad Horace Odes 4.9.5–8 (test. 23C). minaces autem Alcaei Camenae dicuntur, quonium adeo amarus fuit ut austeritate carminis sui multos civitate eiecerit.
[ back ] 9. “Acro” on Horace Odes 1.32.5, cf. Keller 1967:116. Hic etiam res bellicas aduersus tyrannos gessit et Pittacum Mytileneum uictum expulit. My trans.
[ back ] 10. For mythology as a source of abuse, see Davies 1985:37; cf. Tarditi 1969:96.
[ back ] 11. ]ην δὲ περβάλον[τ’ ἀν]άγκα<ι> / αὔ]χενι λαβολίωι π . [ . . ]αν· (298V); see the interpretation of Lloyd-Jones 1968; Rösler 1980:204–221; Gallavotti 1970; Burnett 1983:198. For stoning, see also 68V; Rösler 1980:214n248; and above, ch. 1. For hanging, cf. above on Archilochus, ch. 3.
[ back ] 12. Trans. Campbell. Cf. 112V; Rösler 1980:191–204; Burnett 1983:150, 158, 160–161.
[ back ] 13. Cf. Rösler 1980:194; and above, ch. 3.For the theme of oath breaking, cf. ch. 3; Davies 1985:37 (parallels from oratory, e.g. Dinarchus 1.47; Demosthenes 19.126, 191).
[ back ] 14. For the importance of the oath in the hetaireia, see Plescia 1970:78. Often these groups were called sunōmosiai. For religious sanctions on oath breaking, 86. Of course, oaths generally included invocation of a god and a curse if the oath was broken, 11–12; Herodotus 6.86. For curses repaying oath breaking, Watson 1991:57; chs. 3 and 4 above (Archilochus and Hipponax).
[ back ] 15. For Pittacus as “pot-belly,” see Diogenes Laertius 1.81, quoted in Campbell 1982:428. According to Alcaeus, Pittacus was also “drag-foot,” “chap-foot,” “prancer,” “big-belly,” “dusky-diner,” (because he did not light a lamp at dinner) and “well-swept” (per Diogenes, “because he was slovenly and dirty”).
[ back ] 16. For this type of abuse generally, see Koster 1980 Index s.v. Tiervergleich; for its use in Alcaeus, see Davies 1985:36; Burnett 1983:163; 165n18; 162n10. Cf. the use of animals in the misogynist blame poetry of Semonides, for which, see Jaeger 1945 1.122; Nagy 1979:315n6. Aesop is described with animal features, see ch. 2. This type of abuse is found in Homer, see Faust 1970:25; Faust 1969:69, 109n204.
[ back ] 17. See Rösler 1980; Bremmer 1990; Burnett 1983:141–143; Nagy 1996:85. “Blame of this loving and ironical sort was easily practiced and easily accepted because it was an intramural sport in which satirist and satirized might change places at any moment” (Burnett 1983:143).
[ back ] 18. Scholia ad 114V, see Campbell 1982:286: “in the first exile” (κατὰ τὴν φυγὴν πρώτην), Alcaeus and his friends, after plotting against Myrsilus, were discovered, and to avoid prosecution, escaped to Pyrrha.
[ back ] 19. 306A e, V. This papyrus, a commentary on Alcaeus, is dated to the first or second century AD.
[ back ] 20. Strabo 1.2.30, 432C.
[ back ] 21. Politics 1285a, 470V (trans. Campbell): εἵλοντό ποτε Μυτιληναῖοι Πιττακὸν πρὸς τοὺς φυγάδας, ὧν προειστήκεσαν Ἀντιμενίδης καὶ Ἀλκαῖος ὁ ποιητής. See also “Acro” ad Horace Odes 2.13.28 (Alcaeus gathers an army and wins a battle against the Mytileaneans); P. Oxy. 2506, 306V, e.4–5, 12–13. Burnett 1983:113–115; see Campbell’s notes to T 4C and 9C.
[ back ] 22. Porphyrio ad Horace Odes 4.9.7 (Alcaeus’ poems are menacing, minaces) (p. 152 Holder), T 23C. Cf. Horace Epistles 1.19.28–33, where Horace denies that Alcaeus would commit poetic murder like Archilochus.
[ back ] 23. “Acro” ad Horace Odes 2.13.28 (i 179 Keller), T 7C, a Pittaco tyranno civitatis suae pulsus esset, eo quod Mytilenensibus amorem libertatis suaderet.
[ back ] 24. Odes 2.13.28. Cf. Favorinus, On Exile 9.2 (test. 452V).
[ back ] 25. For this word, Page suggests ‘wolf-thicket man’. According to Haslam (1986:123), the correct reading is -aikhm-. This would translate as something like ‘wolf man’, ‘wolf-spearman’ (nominative), or ‘wolf battles’ (dative or accusative plural), which Haslam prefers. He is followed by Lefkowitz and Lloyd-Jones 1987. The word could refer to the loneliness of the wolf, or to his trickiness in battle (Lefkowitz and Lloyd-Jones, cf. Euripides Rhesus 208–248), depending on reading and interpretation. Relying purely on context, wolf as lone exile would be preferable, though in line 11, the word [p]olemon is found. Whichever interpretation is correct, the luk- ‘wolf’ element of the word is not in doubt. If the word refers to the wolf in a war context, it could also refer to his ferocity, cf. the Homeric word for battle fury, lussa, which probably is connected to lukos ‘wolf’ (Ernout 1949). Cf. for another interpretation of the etymology, de la Vega 1952. See Iliad XVI 158–163, 352–355 with Janko’s notes ad loc., 1992:338, cf. 361–362.
See also Rösler 1980:280n392; Page 1955:205; Burzacchini 1976: 47; Latte 1947:142; Burzacchini 1986.
[ back ] 26. Trans. Campbell. Cf. 130aV, 131V, 132V, 148V.
[ back ] 27. For further on the wolf as liminal, an exile, scapegoat, initiate, see Burkert 1983 sect. II, “Werewolves Around the Tripod Kettle,” 83–134, esp. 90–91; 88n26; Buxton 1987:63–64; Page 1955:206; Bremmer 1982:141n35; 144; Gerstein 1974; Schmidt 1927 13.2 col. 2228. For the Krypteia, see Jeanmaire 1939:550–569; Burkert 1985:262nn16–17; Kershaw 2000. See also, on wolves and wolf symbolism: Mainoldi 1984; Eliade 1975:81–83, 72, 109, bibliog. 156; Burnett 1983:53; Nagy 1979:83; Bremmer and Horsfall 1987:31, 41, 43; Gershenson 1991.
In view of the persistent connection of the pharmakos with Apollo and Delphi, the associations of the wolf with Delphi are worth noting. See Gershenson 1991:1–23. Aelian (On the Characteristics of Animals 12.40) wrote that the Delphians “honor/worship [timōsi]” the wolf, cf. Burkert 1983:120. According to a legend in Aelian, a wolf tracked down sacred gold of Delphi that had been stolen; because of this, a bronze statue of a wolf was shown at Delphi, Pausanias 10.14.7. The Delphians came from Lykoreia, ‘wolf-mountain’ (10.6.2); cf. Callimachus, fr. 62Pf.; Hymn 2.18–20; Strabo 9.418.3; Apollonius Argonautica 4.1490; Parian Marble, FGH 239 A 2,4; Euphorion fr. 80.3 in Powell 1925:44. For Leto as a she-wolf, Aristotle History of Animals 6.35, 580A; Aelian On the Characteristics of Animals 4.4. Why the wolf is connected with the mantic is a matter of much speculation; Burkert has an interpretation involving sacrifice. However, it is possible that, once again, the wolf may be a symbol of madness, which is related to mantic madness, cf. Eliade 1975:72: “The Scandinavian berserker ‘heats’ himself in his initiatory combat, shares in the sacred frenzy or furor (Wut), behaves at once like a beast of prey and a shaman … To behave like a beast of prey—wolf, bear, leopard—betokens that one has ceased to be a man, that one incarnates a higher religious force, that one has in some sort become a god.”
For further on the wolf, including the connections between wolf, männerbund, and warrior, see below, ch. 17, on Finn as poet and outlaw; ch. 18, on the wolflike appearance of poet-warrior Starkaðr, and Suibhne living among wolves; ch. 19, on the berserker phenomenon.
[ back ] 28. Gernet 1981:132n81; 133n86. See also Ogden 1997:41–42.
[ back ] 29. For stoning, Pausanias 6.6.7; Suda s.v. Euthumos. Miralles and Portulas, 1988:134 and 1983:53–63, link the pharmakos with the cult of Lycian Zeus.
[ back ] 30. Pausanias 6.6.11. Cf. Rohde 1925 1:153–154.
[ back ] 31. Harpocration, dekazōn; Pausanias 6.8.2, cf. Fontenrose 1968:89, for whom this transformation represents the “madness of the hero” theme.
[ back ] 32. See below on Solon, ch. 11; Anhalt 1993:135–139; Fraenkel 1975:218, an elegy by Solon “is therefore a substitute for a speech in the popular assembly.”
[ back ] 33. See 6V.1, 12–14 for paraenesis in Alcaeus’ poetry.
[ back ] 34. Odes 1.32.4. For this association of Dionysus and war, see above on Archilochus, ch. 3.
[ back ] 35. Horace Odes 2.13: dura fugae mala, dura belli.
[ back ] 36. Athenaeus 14.627a–b, cf. 140C.
[ back ] 37. Ἀλκαῖος … εἴ τις καὶ ἄλλος μουσικώτατος γενόμενος, πρότερα τῶν κατὰ ποιητικὴν τὰ κατὰ τὴν ἀνδρείαν τίθεται, μᾶλλον τοῦ δέοντος πολεμικὸς γενόμενος. Athenaeus 14.627a–b.
[ back ] 38. Another association of war and Dionysos. See Rösler 1980; Burnett 1983:110n14; 121. Cf. fr. 140V, where we have singing in a hall of weapons; Bremmer 1982; Benveniste 1973:270; Trumpf 1973.
[ back ] 39. 401B(V); Herodotus 5.95.
[ back ] 40. 306A.e(V) = P. Oxy. 2506 fr. 98; cf. Lefkowitz 1981:37. Further on Alcaeus as soldier: Podlecki 1969.
[ back ] 41. Cf. Nagy 1982:52, 67.
[ back ] 42. Themes: 10, Expulsion. 10a, Exile. 11a, Stoning is found in Alcaeus’ poetry. 22, Satirical, blame themes. 22a1, Hanging is found in Alcaeus’ poetry. 22b, Exiling through blame. 24, Conflict with political leaders. 26, Poet as soldier. 26a, Martial parainesis as poetic theme. 27, Exile as poetic theme. 28, Wolf imagery, linked to exile. Compared to earlier poets, a scanty list; but the satiric poet exiled is still here.