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Alcaeus of MYTILENE

*)Alkai=os), of MYTILENE, in the island of Lesbos, the earliest of the Aeolian lyric poets, began to flourish in the 42nd Olympiad when a contest had commenced between the nobles and the people in his native state. Alcaeus belonged by birth to the former party, and warmly espoused their cause. In the second year of the 42nd Olympiad (B. C. 611), we find the brothers of Alcaeus, namely, Cicis and Antimenidas, fighting under Pittacus against Melanchrus, who is described as the tyrant of Lesbos, and who fell in the conflict. (D. L. 1.74, 79; Strab. xiii. p.617; Suidas, s. v. Κίκις and Πίττακος; Etymol. M. p. 513, s. v. Κίθαρος, instead of Κίκις; Clinton, Fasti, i. p. 216.) Alcaeus does not appear to have taken part with his brothers on this occasion : on the contrary, he speaks of Melanchrus in terms of high praise. (Fr. 7, p. 426, Blomfield.) Alcaeus is mentioned in connexion with the war in Troas, between the Athenians and Mytilenaeans for the possession of Sigeum. (B. C. 606.) Though Pittacus, who commanded the army of Mytilene, slew with his own hand the leader of the Athenians, Phrynon, an Olympic victor, the Mytilenaeans were defeated, and Alcaeus incurred the disgrace of leaving his arms behind on the field of battle; these arms were hung up as a trophy by the Athenians in the temple of Pallas at Sigeum. (Hdt. 5.95; Plut. de Herod. Malig. s. 15, p. 858; Strab. xiii. pp. 599, 600; Euseb. Chron. Olym. 43.3; Clinton, Fasti, i. p. 219.) His sending home the news of this disaster in a poem, addressed to his friend Melanippus (Fr. 56, p. 438, Blomf.), seems to shew that he had a reputation for courage, such as a single disaster could not endanger; and accordingly we find him spoken of by ancient writers as a brave and skilful warrior. (Anthol. Palat. 9.184; Cic. Tusc. Disp. 4.33 ; Hor. Carm. 1.32. 6; Athen. 15.687.) He thought that his lyre was best employed in animating his friends to warlike deeds, and his house is described by himself as furnished with the weapons of war rather than with the instruments of his art. (Athen. 14.627; Fr. 24, p. 430, Blomf.) During the period which followed the war about Sigeum, the contest between the nobles and the people of Mytilene was brought to a crisis ; and the people, headed by a succession of leaders, who are called tyrants, and among whom are mentioned the names of Myrsilus, Megalagyrus, and the Cleanactids, succeeded in driving the nobles into exile. During this civil war Alcaeus engaged actively on the side of the nobles, whose spirits he endeavoured to cheer by a number of most animated odes full of invectives against the tyrants ; and after the defeat of his party, he, with his brother Antimenidas, led them again in an attempt to regain their country. To oppose this attempt Pittacus was unanimously chosen by the people as αἰσυμνήτης (dictator) or tyrant. He held his office for ten years (B. C. 589-579), and during that time he defeated all the efforts of the exiled nobles, and established the constitution on a popular basis; and then he resigned his power. (Strab. xiii. p.617; Alcaeus, Fr. 23, p. 230, Blomf.; Arist. Rep. 3.9.5, or 3.14; Plut. Amat. § 18, p. 763; D. L. 1.79; Dionys. v. p. 336, Sylb.) [PITTACUS.]

Notwithstanding the invectives of Alcaeus against him, Pittacus is said to have set him at liberty when he had been taken prisoner, saying that " forgiveness is better than revenge." (D. L. 1.76; Valer. Max. 4.1.6.) Alcaeus has not escaped the suspicion of being moved by personal ambition in his opposition to Pittacus. (Strab. xiii. p.617.) When Alcaeus and Antimenidas perceived that all hope of their restoration to Mytilene was gone, they travelled over different countries. Alcaeus visited Egypt (Strab. i. p.37), and he appears to have written poems in which his adventures by sea were described. (Hor. Carm. 2.13. 28.) Antimenidas entered the service of the king of Babylon, and performed an exploit which was celebrated by Alcaeus. (Strab. xiii. p.617, Fr. 33, p. 433, Blomf.) Nothing is known of the life of Alcaeus after this period; but from the political state of Mytilene it is most probable that he died in exile.

Among the nine principal lyric poets of Greece some ancient writers assign the first place, others the second, to Alcaeus. His writings present to us the Aeolian lyric at its highest point. But their circulation in Greece seems to have been limited by the strangeness of the Aeolic dialect, and perhaps their loss to us may be partly attributed to the same cause. Two recensions of the works of Alcaeus were made by the grammarians Aristarchus and Aristophanes. Some fragments of his poems which remain, and the excellent imitations of Horace, enable us to understand something of their character.


His poems, which consisted of at least ten books (Athen. 11.481), were called in general Odes, Hymns, or Songs (ᾁσματα).

Warlike or Patriotic Odes

Alcaeus' poems which have received the highest praise are his warlike or patriotic odes referring to the factions of his state στασιωτικὰ or διχοστασιαστικὰ, the " Alcaei minaces Camoenae" of Horace. (Carm. 2.13. 27; Quint. Inst. 10.1.63; Dionys. de Vet. Script. Ecus. 2.8, p. 73, Sylb.)

Among the fragments of these are the commencement of a song of exultation over the death of Myrsilus (Fr. 4, Blomf.), and part of a comparison of his ruined party to a disabled ship (Fr. 2, Blomf.), both of which are finely imitated by Horace. (Carm. 1.37, 1.14.)


Many fragments are preserved, especially by Athenaeus (x. pp. 429, 430), in which the poet sings the praises of wine. (Fr. 1, 3, 16, 18, 20, Blomf.; comp. Hor. Carm. 1.9.18.) Müller remarks, that "it may be doubted whether Alcaeus composed a separate class of drinking songs (συμποτικὰ) ;... it is more probable that he connected every exhortation to drink with some reflection, either upon the particular circumstances of the time, or upon man's destiny in general."

Erotic Poems

Of his erotic poems we have but few remains. Among them were some addressed to Sappho; one of which, with Sappho's reply, is preserved by Aristotle (Aristot. Rh. 1.9; Fr. 38, Blomf.; Sappho, fr. 30), and others to beautiful youths. (Hor. Carm. 1.32. 10; Cic. de Nat. Deor. 1.28, Tusc. Quaest. 4.33.)

Other Poems

Most of his remaining poems are religious hymns and epigrams. Many of his poems are addressed to his friends individually.


The poetry of Alcaeus is always impassioned. Not only with him, but with the Aeolic school in general, poetry was not a mere art, but the plain and warm outpouring of the writer's inmost feelings.

The metres of Alcaeus were generally lively, and his poems seem to have been constructed in short single strophes, in all of which the corresponding lines were of the same metre, as in the odes of Horace. He is said to have invented the well-known Alcaic strophe.

His likeness is preserved, together with that of Pittacus, on a brass coin of Mytilene in the Roval Museum at Paris, which is engraved by Visconti. (Icon. Pl. iii. No. 3.)


The fragments of Alcaeus were first collected by Mich. Neander in his " Aristologia Pindarica," Basil. 1556, 8vo., then by Henry Stephens in his collection of the fragments of the nine chief lyric poets of Greece (1557), of which there are several editions, and by Fulvius Ursinus, 1568, 8vo. The more modern collections are those by Jani, Halae San. 1780-1782, 4to.; by Strange, Halle, 1810, 8vo.; by Blomfield, in the "Museum Criticum," vol. i. p. 421, &c., Camb. 1826, reprinted in Gaisford's " Poetae Graeci Minores ;" and the most complete edition is that of Matthiae, " Alcaei Mytilenaei reliquiae," Lips. 1827. Additional fragments have been printed in the Rhenish Museum for 1829, 1833, and 1835; in Jahn's "Jahrbüch. für Philolog." for 1830; and in Cramer's "Anecdota Graeca," vol. i. Oxf. 1835.

Further Information

(Bode, Geschichte der Lyrischen Dichtkunst der Hellenen, ii. p. 378, &c.)


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