Archilochus of Paros

Archilochus – Original Text (ca. 680 – ca. 640 BCE)

From Stobaeus, Anthology

My heart, my heart, confounded by woes beyond

Remedy rise up(?) and defend yourself, setting your

breast against your foes(?) as they lie in ambush(?)

and standing steadfastly near the enemy. Do not exult openly

in victory and in defeat do not fall down lamenting at home,

but let your rejoicing in joyful times and your grief in bad

times be moderate.

Know what sort of pattern governs mankind.


Biographical/Historical Information

Archilochus (Arkhilokhos) of Paros (ca. 680 – ca. 640 BCE)

Archilochus was noted in ancient times for outspoken vituperative iambic poetry. He lived in a time of colonization and vigorous intellectual movement, in which there was often a tendency to challenge the prevailing aristocratic status and ideals. He automatically challenged the assumptions made by aristocrats about the way life should operate; he delighted in demolishing what he perceived as their cherished fallacies. E.g.: Archilochus declares that no one enjoys honor after death, refuting the aristocrats’ belief in the importance of fame as a form of triumph over death. Archilochus’ fiercest attacks were against the ideals of chivalry as practiced by the lords of Euboea; this occurs most notably in his poem about deliberately losing his shield in battle and giving himself the epithet Rhipsaspis (“shield-dropper”).

His work now survives only in fragments. He was celebrated for versatile and innovative use of poetic meters, and considered to be earliest known Greek author to devote his poetic compositions almost entirely to his own experiences and emotions. Archilochus was usually labeled by later ancient commentators as an iambic poet, but is also sometimes credited with invention of elegiac poetry; modern scholars tend to simplify classification by listing Archilochus as a lyric poet. His work was highly esteemed in the ancient world, although he was also frequently censured as the archetypal “blame” poet. He was much imitated by later Greek and Roman poets. 

While much information about Archilochus has been passed down via various sources, it is by no means clear how much of that information is in fact accurate. Tradition says that he was born on the island of Paros, to a notable aristocratic family, but there is no evidence to support the assertion that his mother was a slave, that he left Paros to avoid poverty, or that he hired out as a mercenary soldier. 

An event which may or may not have actually happened receives frequent reference in Archilochus’ poetry: supposedly a marriage had been contracted by a fellow Parian named Lycambes between Archilochus and Lycambes’ daughter Neobule, but Lycambes broke off the engagement. Archilochus is reputed to have retaliated via the weapon he wielded most skillfully, namely his poetry. Numerous fragments abuse and insult Lycambes, Neobule, and the other daughters in the family quite viciously; this supposedly caused one or all of the attacked victims to commit suicide. One surviving fragment calls Lycambes “oathbreaker,” i.e., a man whose word could not be trusted and therefore a menace to society who deserved to be identified as such and vilified, so that Archilochus was not simply taking personal revenge, but fulfilling what would have been seen as a social obligation. It is useful to point out that Archilochus’ family seems to have had some significant connection to the Demeter cult on Paros, and that the tradition of iambic poetry was associated with Demeter worship. 

It is in this perception of iambic poetry as a social medium that serves a protective purpose that qualifies this type of verse as a form of social (in)justice poetry. Poets like Archilochus would compose iambics to expose instances of people behaving unjustly in some way, and their society would recognize the injustice as injurious to the society as a whole. It is important to keep in mind that in the ancient world, all kinds of poetry were felt to have some function larger than mere entertainment and the giving of aesthetic pleasure. The ancients would have maintained that poets were given their poetic gifts for a purpose, and the poetry produced by poets would have been intended for performance before the general public. – Laura Mitchell Thompson

At one point in his life Archilochus left Paros and went to Thasos, where one of his forebears had helped establish a colony of settlers from Paros; in his poetry Archilochus mentions doing battle against the Thracians who had originally settled Thasos. Archilochus’ verses reflect a cynical attitude toward this undertaking, describing Thasos as a miserable place, expressing scorn for the Parian colonials, but nonetheless placing value on his soldier comrades and commander. At some later time, Archilochus went back to Paros, where he went out to join the Parian army in a fight against the island of Naxos; he was killed by a Naxian soldier during this conflict.  

While other poets acknowledged Archilochus’ poetic talents, they frequently disapproved of what they considered his excessively blunt and outspoken use of them. It was acknowledged that when Archilochus was handing out blame, he did not spare himself. 

Sources

Wikipedia article on Archilochus. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archilochus). 12 July 2021.

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Ra7eel


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