Alcaeus of Mytilene

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Alcaeus (Alkaios, Attic Greek Ἀλκαῖος) of Mytilene (c. 620 BC-6th century BC), Ancient Greek lyric poet who supposedly invented the Alcaic verse. He was included in the canonical list of nine lyric poets by the scholars of Hellenistic Alexandria. He was an older contemporary and an alleged lover of Sappho, with whom he may have exchanged poems. He was born into the aristocratic governing class of Mytilene, the main city of Lesbos, where he was involved in political disputes and feuds.

Contents

Biography

The broad outlines of the poet's life are well known.[2][3][4] He was born into the aristocratic, warrior class that dominated Mytilene, the strongest city-state on the island of Lesbos and, by the end of the seventh century B.C., the most influential of all the Asiatic Greek cities, with a strong navy and colonies securing its trade-routes in the Hellespont. The city had long been ruled by kings born to the Penthilid clan but, during the poet's life, the Penthilids were a spent force and rival aristocrats and their factions contended with each other for supreme power. Alcaeus and his older brothers were passionately involved in the struggle but experienced little success. Their political adventures can be understood in terms of three tyrants who came and went in succession:

  • Melanchrus - he was overthrown sometime between 612BC and 609 BC by a faction that, in addition to the brothers of Alcaeus, included Pittacus (later renowned as one of the Seven Sages of Greece); Alcaeus at that time was too young to be actively involved;
  • Myrsilus - it is not known when he came to power but some verses by Alcaeus (frag. 129) indicate that the poet, his brothers and Pittacus made plans to overthrow him and that Pittacus subsequently betrayed them; Alcaeus and his brothers fled into exile where the poet later wrote a drinking song in celebration of the news of the tyrant's death (frag. 332);
  • Pittacus - the dominant political figure of his time, he was voted supreme power by the political assembly of Mytilene and appears to have governed well (590-580 BC), even allowing Alcaeus and his faction to return home in peace.

Sometime before 600 BC, Mytilene fought Athens for control of Sigeum and Alcaeus was old enough to participate in the fighting. According to the historian Herodotus,[5] the poet threw away his shield to make good his escape from the victorious Athenians then celebrated the occasion in a poem that he later sent to his friend, Melanippus. It is thought that Alcaeus travelled widely during his years in exile, including at least one visit to Egypt. His older brother, Antimenidas, appears to have served as a mercenary in the army of Nebuchadnezzar II and probably took part in the conquest of Judaea and the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC. Alcaeus wrote verses in celebration of Antimenides' return, including mention of his valour in slaying a Goliath-like opponent(frag. 350), and he proudly describes the military hardware that adorned their family home (frag. 357).

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