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.

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’ 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:

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. [

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.


[ 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.