Thoughts on Archilochus

The fifth weekly “poem” was a selection of fragments from the archaic Greek poet Archilochus. As I noted then, he is the third known Greek poet, after Homer and Hesiod, living amongst the Ionian islands (chiefly Paros and Thasos) c. 680-640. Archilochus is the second Greek poet I read in the original Greek (the first being Homer [Il. Bk. 1] himself), and the first archaic Greek poet I really read at all (not counting Homer and Hesiod as archaic). He is also one of my favourite archaic poets.

What fascinates me is the fact that this poet has been transmitted to us in fragments. When I asked a friend why on earth this happened, I was told it’s because he’s so old. I think that’s pretty silly to say, since the Alexandrians had the Archilochian corpus available to them and made editions of it — and we have large quantities of complete poetry by Callimachus and Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica, these two being Alexandrians, as well as extant plays and other literature from before the Hellenistic period, such as the Athenian tragedians, Plato, Xenophon, and many others.

How does a culture lose a poet?

I have no answer to this, but I wonder a lot. Where did it all go? What happens so that the only surviving verses of a poet are quotations from others or scraps of papyri in the desert? Why Archilochus and not Pindar? Why do we have less than half of Livy’s history of Rome? How does this happen? Ah, the caprice of time and transmission! How much literature we have lost!

Just a note before I briefly talk about the poetry itself, I’m using Campbells’ numbering from Greek Lyric Poetry, but there are other systems, so be not confused if you try to find a little Archilochus yourself and the numbers don’t match!

Sophie commented that Archilochus reminded her of Sappho. There is something that all archaic Greek poetry seems to share in voice, and it’s hard to put my finger on it. Overall, the chief differences between Sappho and Archilochus are their treatment of the themes. Sappho is often more “serious”, which is to say she’s not making jokes. Archilochus, on the other hand, is writing iambic poetry, which is both a meter and a genre. This genre is one of jokes and invective, generally light-hearted. What’s interesting is that they share some turns of phrase and metaphors, although they write in entirely different meters, dialects, and for somewhat different purposes — the purpose common to both, however, is the entertainment of friends. Thus, their fragments are not altogether different but worth a look.

In 5A, symposium meets war. Here they are, on the ship, getting drunk whilst on watch! This is madness, but is also amusing. The delay of the verb wander to the second line, which I have retained in my translation, is also brilliant, as he gives the setting on the ship prominence.

Fragment 6 is one of the best, though. Let us take a moment to recall the words of Spartan mothers to their sons: Come back with your shield or on it. The only reason you get rid of your shield in battle is to lighten the load so you can run faster. And the only direction worth running without a shield is away from the enemy. Archilochus is admitting that he was a coward and ran from a battle.

Does anyone actually do that?


I think, as do others (like my prof), that he didn’t. This is meant to be an amusing piece, written as though he had abandoned the shield and ran. After all, what’s a shield? Can’t he just buy a new one? At least he saved his own skin, after all! In a society plagued by lots of war, wherein survival in war and valour in war meant the survival of your family, your city, your field — and, most importantly, your honour.

If you read the Iliad, honour is a most important thing. And valour in battle is a good way to get honour, especially at the expense of someone else (a theme common also to the Germanic culture that births mediaeval ideals of chivalry). Cowardice is the most ignoble choice. The shame that comes upon a man who turns to flight is heavy and unbearable.

But to make a joke of it? That’s Archilochus, the guy who gets drunk while on watch at the ship. That’s iambic poetry. It’s funny, it’s a joke, and it becomes a topos, with even Horace losing his shield!

The other two fragments are there for your enjoyment. If you want to read more Archilochus and don’t really trust Davenport’s translations, I found a slim, little volume called Greek Lyrics translated by Richmond Lattimore (for as low as one penny from Amazon, my friends!). Lattimore is a good translator and a good poet, sticking close to the original meaning of the Greek while producing something beautiful. It’s worth a look and contains poems by a bunch of other Greek poets as well.


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