Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History

  Compton, Todd M. 2006. Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History. Hellenic Studies Series 11. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Appendix B: Aggression and the Defensive Topos; Archilochus, Callimachus, Horace

Thus far, I have focused on the lives of the poets, with only occasional supportive reference to the poet’s poetry. The subject of this chapter will be a theme that has been considered in passing, aggression and the defensive stance as an apologetic for satirical attack, [1] as it is reflected in poetry. This topos, extending from Archilochus to Callimachus to Horace, [2] allows the poets to portray themselves as victims; thus, as they attack, they are moral, administering justice. Satirical poets are not scurrilous, inherently negative; they are, in fact, positive, lashing out at evil. The moral satirist is almost by definition a victim.

Here the theme of poet as victim is in the poet’s poetry, not just in the biographical tradition. The stories of the persecuted poets, whatever their source, exist in a tight nexus with the poets’ creations.


A classic statement of the satirical apologetic is found in Archilochus 223W/167T, in which the poet is a cicada having its wing pulled by a callous human. Lucian, in his The Liar 1, [3] addresses a man who has humiliated him by criticizing a literary mistake he supposedly made:

τὸ δὲ τοῦ Ἀρχιλόχου ἐκεῖνο ἤδη σοι λέγω, ὅτι τέττιγα τοῦ πτεροῦ συνείληφας, εἴπερ τινὰ ποιητὴν ἰάμβων ἀκούεις Ἀρχίλοχον, Πάριον τὸ γένος, ἄνδρα κομιδῇ ἐλεύθερον καὶ παρρησίᾳ συνόντα, μηδὲν ὀκνοῦντα ὀνειδίζειν, εἰ καὶ ὅτι μάλιστα λυπήσειν ἔμελλε τοὺς περιπετεῖς ἐσομένους τῇ χολῇ τῶν ἰάμβων αὐτοῦ. ἐκεῖνος τοίνυν πρός τινος τῶν τοιούτων ἀκούσας κακῶς τέττιγα ἔφη τὸν ἄνδρα εἰληφέναι τοῦ πτεροῦ, εἰκάζων ἑαυτὸν τῷ τέττιγι ὁ Ἀρχίλοχος φύσει μὲν λάλῷ ὄντι καὶ ἄνευ τινὸς ἀνάγκης, ὁπόταν δὲ καὶ τοῦ πτεροῦ ληφθῇ, γεγωνότερον βοῶντι. “Καὶ σὺ δή” ἔφη, “ὦ κακόδαιμον ἄνθρωπε, τί βουλόμενος ποιητὴν λάλον παροξύνεις ἐπὶ σεαυτὸν αἰτίας ζητοῦντα καὶ ὑποθέσεις τοῖς ἰάμβοις;”

Thus the unnamed antagonist slandered Archilochus. Archilochus is forced to resort to iambs to attack the slanderer in response. The aggressor has forced the issue—as it were, he is asking for the iambs. The original attack is likened to a man taking a cicada by the wing, which makes the insect cry out louder. This metaphor has a rich range of resonances, characterizing as it does both the slanderer and the poet. The slanderer is the type of person who would take a beautiful insect by the wing, a most delicate part of its body. He is viewed as callous, even malignant, torturing a very much smaller, less powerful creature for his own amusement.

The poet, on the other hand, is the cicada. As we have noted he is small, comparatively defenseless on a physical plane; he is a continual singer, as Lucian notes—“talkative by nature, even without any compulsion.” This is an important aspect of Archilochus’ apologetic, for the torturer knows that the cicada sings continually, is good at it; the slanderer should have had respect for his art. In other words, Archilochus’ slanderer probably knew Archilochus was a poet, but despised the art and powers of the satirist. This adds to the culpability of the victimizer and the innocence of the poet.


In one of the Alexandrian poet’s most famous poems, the introduction to the Aetia, we find the satirical apologetic emphasized, and applied to a literary quarrel. Callimachus attacks the “Telchines,” mischievous hobgoblins, his rival poets, who have abused him because of his refusal to write epic; [15] now he abuses them in self-defence (lines 1–5):

Οἶδ’ ὅτ]ι μοι Τελχῖνες ἐπιτρύζουσιν ἀοιδῇ
νήιδες οἳ Μούσης οὐκ ἐγένοντο φίλοι,
εἵνεκεν οὐχ ἓν ἄεισμα διηνεκὲς ἢ βασιλ[η …
… ]ας ἐν πολλαῖς ἤνυσα χιλιάσιν
ἢ … ]ους ἥρωας …
I know that] the Telkhines mutter against my song,
who are ignorant and are not friends of the Muse,
because I didn’t accomplish one continuous song
of many thousand lines [singing of] kings … and heroes …

Callimachus proceeds to explain that quality, not quantity, makes great poetry, and that often the smaller is the more beautiful (16, 24). Furthermore, he sings “among those who love the clear voice of the cicada, and not the tumult of asses” (τεττίγω]ν ἐνὶ τοῖς γὰρ ἀείδομεν οἳ λιγὺν ἦχον / … θ]όρυβον δ’ οὐκ ἐφίλησαν ὄνων, 29–30). [
16] Here we have the Archilochean motif of the poet as cicada, adapted to Callimachus’ literary-critical argument, and in a poem that is rhetorically structured as a defence and counterattack. The image of the poet surrounded by malevolent beings, Telchines, is the base conception here, and suggests elemental realities; on a human level, stoning, a collective punishment that involves a community singling out an especially despised scapegoat; and, on a more primeval level, the animal cornered by a pack of predators.


The sixth Epode is almost a manifesto for the satirist’s defensive apologetic: [24]

Like Archilochus, Horace turns to animal imagery, which is used skillfully to characterize the poet and his enemy. The bad dog is aggressive, and attacks those who are innocent [immerentis]; it is very loud—line 1 is probably a reference to barking; we have “threats” in line 3; in line 9, his fearful voice fills the forest. But if he meets a real challenge, wolves, he is a coward. The good dog, the poet, is, on the other hand, strong, faithful to his masters the shepherds; a fearless defender against wild animals, heroically wading through deep snow with his ears perked up. And if the bad dog attacks him, he will bite back (me remorsurum). [
27] This is the defensive apologetic for literary violence in its pure form. The poet does not begin the hostilities; he only bites in return—in defense, as punishment. [28]

Taking up animal metaphor again, the poet is a man with a sharp weapon, a bull with horns prepared for action. And the final lines characterize the enemy as a poisonous snake; if the poet is bitten, he warns, he will not go unavenged. He uses verbal weaponry only when he has been attacked; twice Horace uses biting imagery as he portrays the poet as victim; he is bitten by a dog, and by a poisonous snake. Given such provocation, he is forced to resort to satire, like Archilochus’ cicada having its wing pulled by a callous tormentor. It is striking that, as we have seen, the satirist’s art is often compared to the bite of an animal or a poisonous attack; however, here we see the satirist is merely responding justly to such attacks, even if he is responding in kind.

A straightforward expression of the idea is found in Horace’s second book of Satires:

… sed hic stilus haud petet ultro
quemquam animantem et me veluti custodiet ensis
vagina tectus: quem cur destringere coner
tutus ab infestis latronibus? o pater et rex
Iuppiter, ut pereat positum robigine telum
nec quisquam noceat cupido mihi pacis! at ille,
qui me conmorit—melius non tangere, clamo—
flebit et insignis tota cantabitur urbe.
But unprovoked, this pen will not attack
any living soul, and will protect me like a sword
covered by a scabbard: why would I try to unsheathe it
if I were safe from murderous thieves? O father and king
Jupiter, may that weapon be laid aside and perish with rust,
neither may anyone harm me, when I desire peace! but he
who shall trouble me—better not to touch, I cry out,
will weep and, infamous, will be sung throughout the city.

Satire 1:39–46

Two problematic poems, Epodes 8 and 12, puzzlingly extreme, obscene attacks on an older woman, a former lover, both use the satirical apologetic, which may help us understand them better, despite their unpleasantly misogynous overtones. [
32] In both, the poet is responding to an earlier attack, in which the lover disparaged his manhood publicly. The eighth Epode describes in repulsive detail the physical attributes of an aging woman, but only because she has accused the poet of aging, losing his sexual prowess. Horace—or Horace’s Greek model—is angered by her hypocrisy.

Rogare longo putidam te saeculo,
viris quid enervet meas,
cum sit tibi dens ater et rugis vetus
frontem senectus exaret
For you, rotten with your long life, to ask
what weakens my powers,
when your teeth are black, and old age
furrows your face with wrinkles!

Epode 12 quotes the actual words the woman uses to attack the poet’s masculinity:

qui sudor vietis et quam malus undique membris
crescit odor …
vel mea cum saevis agitat fastidia verbis:
“Inachia langues minus ac me;
Inachiam ter nocte potes, mihi semper ad unum
mollis opus. pereat male quae te
Lesbia quaerenti taurum monstravit inertem.
cum mihi Cous adesset Amyntas …”
What sweat, and what a foul odor rises everywhere
from her withered limbs …
she even attacks my fastidiousness with savage words:
“With Inachia you are less feeble than with me;
you are able [to service] Inachia three times a night, with me you are always
soft after one effort. May Lesbia come to a bad end, who
offered you, so sluggish, to me, when I was asking for a bull,
when Coan Amyntas was available to me …”

The target of this epode, then, has attacked the poet’s virility, has compared him insultingly with a more capable bedmate. Who was right in this particular quarrel—whether the poet attacked the woman with more or less justification—is immaterial for the present discussion, and certainly unanswerable in any case; for our present purposes, it is enough to recognize that the poet takes pains to show that he has been attacked; his satire, aggressive as it is, has a defensive cast to it. From his perspective, it was provoked, and is a just response.

Poet as Victim

This very selective survey shows that the satirist taking the defensive rhetorical stance is a theme that extends through the Greco-Roman poetic tradition. An essential aspect of this theme is the victimization of the poet (by the poet’s lights). Archilochus is the helpless cicada held callously by the wing; Hipponax has seen the oaths he swore with a friend trampled underfoot; Callimachus’ poetry has been attacked by tasteless, vindictive literary rivals; Horace is bitten by dog and poisonous serpent. Satirists, in programmatic poems expressing the reasons for their satire, view themselves as victims; they must see themselves as victims, or their invective cannot exist, given a moral perspective. And the defensive apologetic shows how important the moral perspective is to the satirist.

Thus, the theme of poet as victim is not just in legends or stories that are possibly nonhistorical, but is also in the poet’s poetry. Lefkowitz would argue that scholiasts may have taken these passages as starting points, and fabricated stories of exile and adverse trial from them. This certainly happened at times. Legends of poets also were produced by oral tradition long before they were written down. Such legends served as charter myths for the poetic profession, for the poet in the social matrix of ancient Greece (with heroized poets and warnings against inhospitable society embedded in the tales, and a theology for inspired poets’ apparent failures). Ritual sources for some legends should also be taken into account. All of these factors interrelated with each other.

But these phenomena should not prevent us from considering another cause-and-effect relationship, and ask what caused the victimization theme to appear in the poet’s poetry. Certainly, a thoroughgoing application of the biographical fallacy should be rejected. An artist can seem quite different from the art he or she creates. On the other hand, it is absurd to see the poets living their actual lives as completely divorced, emotionally, from what they write. Poets write on themes they are concerned with emotionally, aesthetically, humanely. In the case of Archilochus, even if he did not undergo all that later legend ascribed to him, he evidently did feel like a victim, attacked unjustly, at some point. And one cannot rule out the historical possibility that society will occasionally exile, execute, or punish poets because their poetry is offensive, as the lives of Alcaeus, Socrates, and Ovid richly show.


[ back ] 1. Cf. Pulkkinen 1987; Ulrich 1973.

[ back ] 2. This is a selection of especially striking texts; there are many other examples of the same theme in Greek and Roman literature, cf. Dickie 1981:193–195; Watson 2003:252.

[ back ] 3. Cf. Lasserre 1950:29–31.

[ back ] 4. Cf. Diels 1988:279.

[ back ] 5. Cf. Iliad III 152, the cicada emits a “delicate (literally, ‘lily-like’) song” (ὄπα λειριόεσσαν); Hesiod Shield of Heracles 393; Simonides 173–174; Plato Phaedrus 262d; and Boedeker 1984:81–83.

[ back ] 6. See above, chapter 3.

[ back ] 7. For background on this poem, see Lasserre 1950:28–109; Treu 1959:230–37; West 1982:30–32; Hendrickson 1925a:155–157; above, chapter 3.

[ back ] 8. This detail is not in the Archilochus version.

[ back ] 9. The curse is a formal, ritualistic phenomenon, including invocation of god, see above, chapter 9 (Alcaeus). For the importance of dikē ‘justice’ in the ethics of the curse, Watson 1991:38–42.

[ back ] 10. For an interpretation of 181W that follows these lines, see West 1982:30–32.

[ back ] 11. See above, chapter 4.

[ back ] 12. Mikalson 1983:31–38, 35.

[ back ] 13. Cf. Alcaeus 129V, lines 22–24, 13–16; above, chapter 9.

[ back ] 14. See above, chapter 4 (Hipponax); Dickie 1981:196; Hughes 1997. For Archilochus’ influence on Callimachus, see Bühler 1964.

[ back ] 15. For the actual poet and critics Callimachus had in mind, see the Florentine scholium, Pfeiffer 1949:3; cf. Lesky 1966:710–711; Watson 1991:129. Cameron 1995 is a skeptic, believing there was no specific target for this abuse.

[ back ] 16. For Trypanis’s reading tettigō]n, see Trypanis 1958:8.

[ back ] 17. Cf. scholion ad loc. 2.106/T37. For the apologetic nature of this passage, and its influence especially in Rome, see Wimmer 1960:59–70. For introductions to problems in this poem: Köhnken 1981; Williams 1978:86–92.

[ back ] 18. Strabo 17.823. Apollonius may have been the target of the Ibis, see Watson 1991:129. Two ancient testimonia do support the identification. Cameron (1995) tends to see no specific target for the poem. See further Watson:1991:121–129.

[ back ] 19. For the defensive nature of Ovid’s Ibis, see 9–20, 29–30.

[ back ] 20. Though curiously, in the scholiastic tradition, we find an account of Callimachus killing an enemy through poetry, see above, chapter 4.

[ back ] 21. Schmidt 1978 offers a valuable treatment of these three writers, though Schmidt perhaps overemphasizes Archilochus’ helplessness. See also Wistrand 1964 and Koenen 1977. For the Epodes generally, see now Watson’s massive commentary (2003) and Mankin 1995.

[ back ] 22. See Watson 2003:506; 1991:58 (cf. Epode 10). For further on the curse in Horace, see Watson 1991:242.

[ back ] 23. He was indebted to Archilochus and Hipponax, though he “transmuted” his iambic heritage, partially by softening (Watson 2003:6). “Almost every feature” of the problematically coarse Epodes 8 and 12, discussed below, can be paralleled in Archilochus and Hipponax (Watson 2003:8).

[ back ] 24. For the programmatic nature of this poem, see Olivier 1917:67–77; Bucheit 1961; and Schmidt 1977; Dickie 1981:195–196. Watson, 2003:256, disagrees.

[ back ] 25. On hospites, cf. Bucheit 1961:521.

[ back ] 26. Lit., ‘black’. Watson (2003:265) interprets this as referring to malice.

[ back ] 27. For other examples of the satirist as dog, see Watson 2003:252, 258.

[ back ] 28. For a treatment of this metaphor, see Watson 1983:156–159. Watson makes the important point that, in attacking the dog’s sheep, the enemy has attacked the dog himself, see 158n7. For further explanation of the “authorial canine” as sheepdog, not hunter (the usual interpretation), see Watson 2003:259–260.

[ back ] 29. For malus as improbus, the general ethical interpretation, see Dickie 1981:197–198, and literature cited by Watson in 2003:262, though Watson disagrees.

[ back ] 30. Mankin 1995:141.

[ back ] 31. Cf. the “murderous thieves” in Horace’s Satire 1 of Book Two, see below. For the poet of Epode 6 as hero, Dickie 1981:200, who contrasts the “noble” and “ignoble” dogs.

[ back ] 32. Fraenkel writes, “Epodes VIII and XII, with all their polish, are repulsive” (1957:58). Cf. Grassmann 1966:87 nn. 147–148; 47. For abuse of old women, see Davies 1985:39.