Alcaeus of Mytilene

Alcaeus, born into a noble family in Mytilene, Lesbos around 630 BC, Alcaeus stands in contrast to Sappho’s world of love and praise for female beauty. His intense political activity, exile, and participation in the era’s conflicts marked his poetry.

Alcaic monody focuses on subjects of purely male interest: Dionysus, Muses, and Aphrodite (i.e., wine and love), as claimed by Horace. Alcaeus’s poems also reflect his interest in politics and war. As a true aristocrat, the poet from Lesbos presents his mansion filled with weapons intended for his use or his companions, providing an excellent example of the objective poetry of the archaic period, which enjoys composing impressive lists of objects .

Alcaeus composed in the Aeolic dialect. His poems were classified by the Alexandrians into ten books based on their themes. Two categories stand out: the political or stasiotic and the sympotic.

Poetry and Politics

The political poetry of Alcaeus provides the first direct evidence of political societies or “clubs.” These were alliances based on oath (conspiracy) and are first attested in the 590s BC. Through this poetry, the modern concept of politics emerges, distinctly different from its earlier form as a religious and ritual unification of citizens. However, these early political organizations of Lesbian aristocrats lacked a political program. The society did not produce ideological discourse but the first political poetry in Europe.

A common struggle against the scourge of tyranny united all noble houses. In Alcaeus’s poetry, for the first time in European literature, appears the image of the ship of state floundering in a stormy sea, caught in adverse winds. At other times, the poet seems intolerant of non-aristocratic governance on the island by the aisymnetes Pittacus, harboring the illusion of a swift return of his oligarchic friends to power. Alcaeus proposes a temporary cessation of hostilities, awaiting a more favorable moment.

The Sympotic

This category includes poems by Alcaeus sung at the famous symposia of the time. The archaic symposium, a place of deliberation and entertainment for various male groups, played a decisive role in the development of poetic art. Within it, new songs were composed or the most well-known older ones were performed.

The joy of wine-drinking is the most characteristic theme of the sympotic poetry of the Lesbian lyricist. The death of his political opponent, Myrsilus, could serve as an occasion for wine consumption, as could extreme weather conditions: when it rains or during the summer heat . The ancient writer Athenaeus concludes on this: this poet is found drinking at all times and in every situation.

Sometimes, the poet considers the observance of wine-drinking rituals significant and describes them in detail. Structurally, the wine-drinking scene in these poems is set up each time with a few, small but apt details. However, the direct exhortation to drink wine sometimes follows the description of the weather conditions and sometimes precedes it . Although all the motifs are borrowed from Hesiod (Works and Days), the adaptive imitation of the epic model in both syntax and metric form chosen by the Lesbian lyricist is noteworthy.

Away from the sympotic context, Alcaeus vividly describes the natural environment with its rare birds . His style is uniquely flamboyant, characterized by the accumulation of ornate compound adjectives.

The Third Lyric Subversion

Among Alcaeus’s two aforementioned groups of poems, a unique, perhaps only mythical poem stands out, representing another lyrical subversion. This poem is a fortunate coincidence as it constitutes an exceedingly instructive study on the theme of war (fragment 111P). Structured on the principle of “circular composition,” the poem deals with a mythical theme that had already sparked a “moral reflection” since the 7th century BC, as noted by I. Th. Kakridis. Alongside the “censure” of Helen by his contemporary Stesichorus, Alcaeus consciously chooses to clearly highlight the negative aspect of Helen’s myth throughout the poem. The poetic aim is exclusively exemplary: Thetis emerges as the mythical model for a virtuous and faithful wife, in contrast to the epic Helen, an immoral and unfaithful woman.

The poem opens and closes with epic vocabulary, manner, and themes, namely the Trojan War. The common themes of its introduction and conclusion are the cause, outbreak, and consequences of the war, as narrated by the poet’s epic predecessors (as legend). The intermediate space of ten lines draws again from the Trojan cycle, although the vividness and descriptive quality of the details and vocabulary bear a lyrical stamp.

The synthesis of two themes, war and speech, highlights the conscious opposition of the lyric poet to his epic predecessor. In the Iliad and the entire epic cycle, the theme of war, qualitatively and quantitatively stronger, crushes that of speech.

Alcaeus reverses the proportions, giving greater emphasis to the theme of marital/romantic speech, which is elevated at the expense of the war theme, which nearly disappears. Above all, he handles and illuminates love so attractively and war so negatively that ultimately the honor given to the theme of romantic speech is entirely positive, while that of war is entirely negative.

Alcaeus’s indirect and subtle approach to mythology naturally did not go unnoticed by his audience, as they were accustomed to expecting through his poetry the development of serious issues of life and death. Thus, we do not consider it too risky to assume that the Alcaic position generally expresses a major ideological proposal of lyric poetry, as a whole, in contrast to the heroic epic.