Alcaeus Greek lyric poet from Lesbos Island who is credited with inventing 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.
The broad outlines of the poet's life are well known.
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 BC, the most influential of all the North
Aegean 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 612 BC 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
- 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 Sigeion and Alcaeus was old enough to participate in the fighting. According to the historian Herodotus,
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).Alcaeus was a contemporary and a countryman of Sappho
and, since both poets composed for the entertainment of Mytilenean
friends, they had many opportunities to associate with each other on a
quite regular basis, such as at the Kallisteia, an annual festival celebrating the island's federation under Mytilene, held at the 'Messon' (referred to as temenos
in fr.s 129 and 130), where Sappho performed publicly with female
choirs. Alcaeus' reference to Sappho in terms more typical of a
divinity, as holy/pure, honey-smiling Sappho (fr. 384), may owe its inspiration to her performances at the festival.
The Lesbian or Aeolic school of poetry "reached in the songs of Sappho
and Alcaeus that high point of brilliancy to which it never after-wards
and it was assumed by later Greek critics and during the early
centuries of the Christian era that the two poets were in fact lovers, a
theme which became a favourite subject in art.