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Alcaeus was a native of Mytilene, the most important city on the island of Lesbos. A contemporary of Sappho, he was probably born around 620 B.C. The aristocratic family to which he belonged was deeply involved in the city's factional struggles, and Alcaeus himself appears to have endured periods of exile as a consequence (cf. nos. 6 and 7). The rough-and-tumble of Mytilenean political life is one of several frequent themes in the extant fragments (e.g., nos. 1, 5-9,18); others are wine and the joys of the symposion or drinking-party (e.g., nos. 3,13-17, 20-22) and episodes from heroic legend (e.g., nos. 4,10, 11). It is likely that most if not all of Alcaeus' poems were composed for performance amid a circle of friends and associates. The Alexandrian edition of his poetry comprised at least ten volumes.
Alcaeus makes frequent use of two particular stanzaic forms, the Alcaic and the Sapphic, on which see the General Introduction, note 3. Examples of the former are nos. 1, 6, 9,11,14, and 15; of the latter, nos. 2, 4,10,12, and 20.
1. (Fr. 6)
This wave in turn, like the earlier one,
comes on, and it will give us much labor
to bail out once it enters the ship's . . .
[one line missing]
[two lines missing]
Let us strengthen the ship's sides as quickly as possible,
and make a run to a safe harbor;
and let no craven hesitation seize
any of us, for clear before us stands a great ordeal.
Remember our previous trouble;
now let every man prove himself reliable,
and let us not put to shame by cowardice
our noble fathers lying under the earth....
This fragment is probably intended as an allegorical representation of political conflict on Lesbos (the "Ship of State"); cf. no. 9.
2. (Fr. 34)
Come to me here, leaving the island of Pelops,
you mighty sons of Zeus and Leda;
appear with kindly hearts, Kastor
you who travel across the broad earth
and all the sea on swift-footed horses,
and easily rescue men from death's
springing upon the tops of well-benched ships,
shining afar as you run up the forestays,
in the threatening darkness bringing light
to the black ship. . .
A prayer of the so-called kletic type, i.e., one that "calls" or "summons" a deity to come to the speaker's assistance. Other examples of the kletic prayer are Sappho 1 and 2.
the island of Pelops the Peloponnesos, the southern portion of the Greek mainland, where Sparta, the home of Kastor and Polydeukes, was located.
sons of Zeus and Leda On the parentage and functions of Kastor and
Polydeukes, see Glossary under "Tyndaridai."
Tyndaridai (Tyndarids) The "sons of Tyndareos," i.e., Kastor and Polydeukes; also known as the Dioskouroi or "sons of Zeus." Neither term is strictly accurate, however, since although Kastor and Polydeukes were the twin sons of Leda, each had a different father, Kastor being the son of Tyndareos and Polydeukes the son of Zeus; see Pindar's Nemean 10 for an account of their begetting. As objects of hero cult they were held in particular reverence in Sparta, their hometown. Among their other functions, they were regarded as patrons and protectors of sailors, horsemen, and athletes.
shining afar Kastor and Polydeukes were believed to manifest themselves to ships at sea through the phenomenon of "St. Elmo's Fire," an electrical discharge visible on masts and rigging.
3. (Fr. 38a)
Drink and get drunk with me, Melanippos. Why do you suppose
that when you have crossed great Acheron's
eddying stream you will see the sun's pure light again?
But come, do not aim at things so great:
for even king Sisyphos, Aiolos' son, who excelled
all men in wit, thought he had mastered death;
but, clever though he was, at fate's command a second time
he crossed the eddies of Acheron, and Zeus the king,
the son of Kronos, contrived a labor for him to undergo
beneath the black earth. But come, put such hopes aside;
now if ever, while youth is ours, we must accept
whatever of these things God gives us to experience....
A noteworthy feature of this fragment is the organization of its thought: (A an exhortation to drink and be merry; (B) a warning against vain hopes of evading mortality; (C) an example proving that such hopes are indeed vain (B') the warning repeated; (A') the exhortation restated. Such "concentric ring-form," as it has been called, is not uncommon in archaic Greek poetry.
Acheron A river in the Underworld which the souls of the dead had to cross in order to reach the house of Hades.
Sisyphos Son of Aiolos and the legendary founder of Corinth. Famous for his consummate cunning, he even managed to return from the dead by persuading Hades and Persephone that he needed to punish his wife for neglecting (on his own prior instructions) to carry out the proper funeral rites. Upon dying for the second time, he was condemned to spend eternity repeatedly rolling an enormous boulder up a hill.
4. (Fr. 42)
As the story tells, because of wicked deeds
bitter grief once came to Priam and his sons
from you, Helen, and Zeus with fire destroyed
A different sort was she whom Aiakos' noble son,
inviting all the Blessed to the wedding-feast,
led into marriage from the halls of Nereus,
a delicate maiden,
to Chiron's house; he loosed the chaste
maiden's girdle, and love blossomed
for Peleus and the best of Nereus' daughters;
and in a year
she bore a son, mightiest of demigods, fortunate driver of tawny horses.
But they were ruined for Helen's sake,
the Phrygians and their city.
Alcaeus draws a contrast between the adulterous union of Helen and Paris, whose only fruit was the bloodshed and destruction wreaked by the Trojan War, and the hallowed marriage of Peleus (Aiakos' noble son, 5) and Thetis (the best of Nereus' daughters, 11), from which sprang Achilles (13-14), greatest of all the warriors who fought at Troy. In beginning and ending with the same topic (Helen and the Trojans) the poem exhibits what is known as "ring-form" (see note on previous poem), one effect of which can be to create a sense of closure.
Priam king of Troy (Ilion). Many of Priam's sons were killed during the Trojan War, and he himself perished during the city's final capture.
the Blessed i.e., the Olympian gods.
the Phrygians i.e., the Trojans.
5. (Fr. 70)
. . . making merry, the lyre takes part in
the drinking-party, feasting with
But let him, kinsman by marriage to the Atreidai,
keep on devouring the city just as he did with Myrsilos,
until such time as Ares chooses to turn us
to our weapons. This present anger may we put from our minds,
and let us relax from this factional strife that eats our hearts,
this civil warfare which some one of the Olympians
stirred up among us, bringing the people into ruin,
but to Pittakos giving delightful glory....
One of Alcaeus' many poems on the factional politics of his native city. The him of line 4 is Pittakos; Pittakos had married into an aristocratic family of Mytilene, the Penthilidai, which claimed descent from Agamemnon, son of Atreus. Although at an earlier point he and Alcaeus had been political allies (possibly in opposition to the tyrant Myrsilos, 5), Pittakos seems thereafter to have joined forces with Myrsilos and eventually ruled Mytilene himself as an absolute ruler chosen by the people. Alcaeus attacks him in nos. 6 and 18 as well.
Pittakos Ruler of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos in the early sixth century B.C. and a target of vituperative attack in the extant fragments of the poet Alcaeus. Along with Solon, Pittakos was accounted one of the "Seven Wise Men" of archaic Greece.
6. (Fr. 129)
. . . men of Lesbos founded
this precinct, large and conspicuous,
common to all, and in it set
altars of the blessed immortals;
and Zeus they titled God of Suppliants,
and you they called Aiolian, Glorious Goddess,
Mother of All, and this third one here
they named Kemelios,
Dionysos, devourer of raw flesh. Come,
with friendly spirit listen
to our prayer, and from these hardships
and the pangs of exile deliver us.
But let the son of Hyrrhas be pursued
by those men's avenging Fury, since once we swore
with solemn sacrifice
never to betray a single comrade of ours,
but either to lie clothed in earth,
dead at the hands of men who at that time got the mastery,
or else, by killing them,
to deliver the people from their sufferings.
But those things Potbelly did not take
to heart; without compunction
he trampled his oaths under foot and now devours our city....
Apparently composed during one of Alcaeus' periods of exile (cf. Iine 12). The implied sethng of the poem is a sanctuary of Zeus, Hera (the Glorious Goddess of line 6), and Dionysos.
Kemelios presumably a cult-title of Dionysos, but its meaning is unknown.
devourer of raw flesh so called because the eating of raw flesh (omophagia) was often part of Dionysiac ritual.
the son of Hyrrhas Pittakos, the Potbelly of line 21; see note on preceding poem.
those men presumably men who died through Pittakos' treachery. According to a Greek belief, the commission of a heinous crime summoned into existence a spirit of vengeance or Fury (Erinys), which saw to it that the perpetrator was properly punished.
7. (Fr. 130b)
. . . I, poor wretch,
live the life of a rustic,
yearning to hear the Assembly
being summoned, O Agesilaidas,
and the Council. The property which my father
and father's father grew old possessing,
among these citizens who wrong one another,
from that I am driven away,
an exile on the very edge of things, and like Onomakles
I have settled here alone amid the wolf-thickets
. . . war, for it is ignoble
to give up rebellion against
. . to the precinct of the blessed gods . . .
. . stepping on the black earth . . .
. . . gatherings . . .
I dwell, keeping my feet clear of trouble,
where women of Lesbos, being judged for beauty,
go back and forth in their trailing robes, and all around
rings out the wondrous sound
of the women's holy cry each year . . .
. . . from many toils when will the gods of Olympos rescue me? . . .
Another poem from exile, addressed to a friend by the name of Agesilaidas (4). If the precinct of the blessed gods (13) is identical with the sanctuary of Zeus, Hera, and Dionysos described in no. 6, then the two poems may date from the same period in Alcaeus' life.
The assembly and the council were the two chief political bodies of a typical Greek city-state.
Onomakles evidently a well-known recluse (real or legendary).
8. (Fr. 140)
The great house glitters
with bronze. The entire ceiling is decorated
with shining helmets, down
from which white plumes of horsehair
nod, the adornments of
men's heads. Greaves of bronze
conceal the pegs they hang on,
shining bright, a protection against strong arrows,
while corslets of new linen
and hollow shields lie thrown about.
Beside them are Chalkidian swords,
beside them are many belts and tunics.
These it has not been possible to forget,
since first we undertook this task of ours.
this task of ours apparently a reference to the armed struggle which Alcaeus and his political allies have been waging against factional enemies.
9. (Fr. 208a)
I cannot understand the strife of the winds;
from this side one wave rolls in,
from that side another, and we in the middle
are borne along together with our black ship,
suffering many hardships in the mighty storm.
The bilge water is over the masthold,
the entire sail lets light through now,
tattered to shreds as it is;
the halyards are slackening, the rudders . . .
[two lines missing]
. . . both my feet remain caught
in the ropes. This is what saves me,
this alone; but the cargo....
Probably another "Ship of State" poem, like no. 1.
10. (Fr. 283)
. . . and fluttered the heart of Argive Helen
in her breast. Maddened with passion for the man
from Troy, the traitor-guest, she followed him
over the sea in his ship,
leaving her child at home . . .
and her husband's richly covered bed . . .
. . . her heart persuaded by desire . . .
. . . many of his brothers the black
earth holds fast, laid low on the Trojan plain
for that woman's sake,
and many chariots in the dust . . .
. . . and many flashing-eyed . . .
. . . trampled, and slaughter . . .
Another treatment of the Helen story (cf. no. 4). Fragmentary though it is, its selection of details and general tone present a striking contrast to Sappho 4. The man from Troy is of course Paris, for whose sake Helen abandoned her husband Menelaos and her baby daughter Hermione.
11. (Fr. 298)
. . . disgracing those who committed unjust acts . . .
. . . throw a noose about their necks ... ... with stoning..
. . . it would have been much better for the Achaians
if they had put to death the man who wronged the gods;
in that way, while sailing past Aigai,
they would have met with a gentler sea.
But in the temple the daughter of Priam
was embracing the statue of Athena,
giver of booty in abundance, her hand on its chin,
while the enemy occupied the city . . .
. . . and Deiphobos too
they killed, and wailing from the wall
rose up, and children's cries
filled the Dardanian plain.
And Ajax came in the grip of ruinous madness
into the temple of chaste Pallas, who
to sacrilegious mortals is by nature
most terrible of all the blessed gods;
and laying hold of the maiden with both hands
as she stood beside the holy statue,
he outraged her, that man from Lokros, and felt no fear
of Zeus's daughter, giver of war,
. . . but she, frowning fearsomely . . .
. . . livid with anger, over the wine-dark
sea came darting, and out of nowhere
suddenly stirred up gales
Although the first few lines of this piece are too fragmentary to yield certain sense, it seems likely that they refer to the publicly administered punishment that Alcaeus believes Pittakos and his political associates deserve as a consequence of their misdeeds. If so, then Alcaeus apparently intends to draw an analogy between contemporary and legendary events in the stanzas that follow.
the man who wronged the gods Ajax son of Oileus, from the city of Lokros (cf. Iine 22), who during the sack of Troy raped Priam's daughter Kassandra even though she had taken refuge in the temple of Pallas Athena. As punishment for this and other sacrileges, the Greeks suffered storms at sea when they returned home from Troy, passing Aigai (6) in southern Euboia on their way.
Deiphobos one of Priam's fifty sons, with whom Helen was living at the time when Troy was sacked.
the Dardanian plain Dardania was another name for the region of Troy; see Glossary under "Dardanos."
Dardanos An ancestor of the Trojan people, and of the Trojan royal family in particular. In his honor the region around Troy was sometimes called Dardania and the Trojans themselves Dardanians.
12. (Fr. 308)
Greetings, lord of Kyllene: you are the one
my heart desires to sing of, whom on the utmost heights
Maia bore, having lain with Kronos' son, the king of all....
The opening of a hymn to Hermes.
Hermes Son of Zeus and Maia; born on Mt. Kyllene in Arkadia and hence occasionally called "Kyllenian." Among his various functions, he was associated with thieves, heralds, and athletes.
13. (Fr. 332)
Now each man must get drunk and drink
with all his might, since Myrsilos is dead....
These lines, along with the four fragments that follow and no. 22, are quoted by Athenaeus (10. 430) in support of his observation that Alcaeus "drinks at all times and in all circumstances." On Myrsilos, see no. 5 with note.
14. (Fr. 335)
We must not yield our hearts to our misfortunes,
for we shall gain nothing by being distressed,
Bycchis: the best of remedies
is to fetch wine and then get drunk.
15. (Fr. 338)
Rain falls from Zeus, and out of the sky a great
winter storm comes; the streams are frozen . . .
[two lines missing]
Defy the storm, lay wood upon
the fire, mix the honey-sweet wine
unstintingly, and about your temples
place a headband of soft wool.
16. (Fr. 346)
Let's drink! Why are we waiting for the lamps? Only an inch of daylight's left.
Lift down the large cups, my friend, the painted ones;
for wine was given to men by the son of Semele and Zeus
to help them forget their troubles. Mix one part of water to two of wine,
pour it in up to the brim, and let one cup push
the other along . . . .
the son of Semele and Zeus Dionysos, god of wine.
one part of water to two of wine The Greeks regularly drank their wine mixed with water. The proportion given here is unusually strong.
17. (Fr. 347)
Steep your lungs in wine, for the star is coming around;
the time of year is cruel, and everything is thirsty under the heat;
out of the leaves the cicada rings forth sweetly, pouring down from under
its wings a continuous flood of piercing song, whenever summer
[one line missing]
and the golden thistle is in bloom. Now women are at their foulest,
but men are weak, since they are parched in head and knees
by Sirius . . . .
These lines are an adaptation of Hesiod, Works and Days 582-88: "When the golden thistle is in bloom and the ringing cicada, / sitting on a tree, pours down piercing song / continuously from under its wings, in the season of toilsome summer, / at that time goats are fattest and wine is at its best, / but women are most wanton and men are at their feeblest, / since Sirios parches their heads and knees, / and their skin is withered by the heat...."
the star The heliacal rising of Sirius (the star, 1) in midsummer signaled the season of most intense heat.
18. (Fr. 348)
. . . that base-born
Pittakos they have set up as tyrant of that spiritless
and ill-fated city, praising him loudly all together....
On Pittakos see no.5.
19. (Fr. 350)
You have come from the ends of the earth, your sword
boasting a hilt of ivory bound with gold . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
While fighting as an ally of the Babylonians you performed
a great exploit: you rescued them from hardships
by killing a warrior who came no more
than a single palm's breadth short of five
royal cubits . . . .
Addressed to Alcaeus' brother Antimenidas, who seems to have served as a mercenary in the Babylonian army. Lines 3-7 derive from a prose paraphrase by Strabo (13. 617). The height of the warrior described in lines 5-7 is approximately 8 ft.4 in.
20. (Fr. 362)
But about our necks let a servant
put plaited garlands of dill,
and let him pour sweet perfume over our chests.
21. (Fr. 366)
Wine, dear boy, and truth.
22. (Fr. 367)
I heard the coming of flowery spring . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .
and mix the honey-sweet wine as quickly as possible
in the mixing-bowl . . . .