Alcaeus (Writer)

(seventh century-sixth century b.c.) poet

During the centuries before the Persian Wars, the Greeks produced a number of outstanding literary figures whose works later inspired the more famous Greek poets and playwrights. Among these early figures of Greek literature was the poet Al-caeus.

Alcaeus was a native of the city of Mytilene, which was on the island of Lesbos, off the coast of modern-day Turkey in what was then known as Ionia. During Alcaeus’s lifetime, the Greek islands of Ionia were in a state of almost continuous disorder, suffering invasion from outsiders, constant infighting between city-states, and bitter internal quarrels. Alcaeus involved himself in the political disputes in Mytilene and was forced into exile as a result.

Most of Alcaeus’s work has been lost, but some survives. His poetry reflects the turmoil of the time in which he lived. Editor Kenneth Atchity says of him: “Extroverted and aggressive, better at hating than loving, Alcaeus lived, drank hard, and wrote primarily of wine, women, and war.” Poems such as “To the Baseborn Tyrant” express his bitter hatred toward the idea of tyranny and praise the brave men who fight for honorable causes. He feels only hostility toward those who betray their city-state, since traitors had torn his own city apart. Several surviving poems extol the beauty of women, and many express Alcaeus’s favorite theme of being happy in spite of troubled times. In “Winter Evening,” after cursing the cold, the poet urges men to nurture friendship and conviviality to keep despair at bay:

Pile up the burning logs and water the great flagons of red wine; place feather pillows by your head, and drink.

Let us not brood about hard times.

Alcaeus had a large influence on Greek and Roman poets who came after him. The Roman poet horace claimed Alcaeus as one of his great models for metrical style (Alcaeus invented the Alcaic meter) and poetic inspiration, as his Odes demonstrate. The rhetorician quintilian approved of Alcaeus in “his work where he assails tyrants; his ethical value is also great; his style is concise, magnificent, exact, very much like homer’s; but he stoops to humor and love when better suited for higher themes.”

An English Version of a Work by Alcaeus

Alkaiou Mele: The Fragments of the Lyrical Poems of Alcaeus. Edited by Edgar Lobel. Oxford, U.K.: The Clarendon Press, 1927.

A Work about Alcaeus

Martin, Hubert. Alcaeus. New York: Twayne Publishers 1972.

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