Archilochus, or, Archilochos (Ancient Greek: Ἀρχίλοχος) (c. 680–c. 645 BC)[nb 1] was a Greek lyric poet from the island of Paros in the Archaic period.
He is celebrated for his versatile and innovative use of poetic meters
and as the earliest known Greek author to compose almost entirely on the
theme of his own emotions and experiences. Alexandrian scholars included him in their canonic list of iambic poets, along with Semonides and Hipponax, yet ancient commentators also numbered him with Tyrtaeus and Callinus as the possible inventor of the elegy. However modern critics often characterize him simply as a lyric poet.
Although his work now only survives in fragments, he was revered by the
ancient Greeks as one of their most brilliant authors, able to be
mentioned in the same breath as Homer and Hesiod, yet he was also censured by them as the archetypal poet of blame—his
invectives were even said to have driven his former fiancee and her
father to suicide. He presented himself as a man of few illusions either
in war or in love, such as in the following elegy, where discretion is
seen to be the better part of valour.
A considerable amount of information about the life of Archilochus has come down to the modern age via his surviving work, the testimony of other authors and inscriptions on monuments, yet it all needs to be viewed with caution—the biographical tradition is generally unreliable and the fragmentary nature of the poems doesn't really support inferences about his personal history. The vivid language and intimate details of the poems often look autobiographical yet it is known, on the authority of Aristotle, that Archilochus sometimes role-played. The philosopher quoted two fragments as examples of an author speaking in somebody else's voice: in one, an unnamed father commenting on a recent eclipse of the sun and, in the other, a carpenter named Charon, expressing his indifference to the wealth of Gyges, the king of Lydia. There is nothing in those two fragments to suggest that Archilochus is speaking in those roles (we rely entirely on Aristotle for the context) and possibly many of his other verses involved role-playing too. It has even been suggested by one modern scholar that imaginary characters and situations might have been a feature of the poetic tradition within which Archilochus composed, known by the ancients as iambus.
The two poems quoted by Aristotle help to date the poet's life (assuming of course that Charon and the unnamed father are speaking about events that Archilochus had experienced himself). Gyges reigned 687–652 BC and the date of the eclipse must have been either 6 April 648 BC or 27 June 660 BC (another date, 14 March 711 BC, is generally considered too early). These dates are consistent with other evidence of the poet's chronology and reported history, such as the discovery at Thasos of a cenotaph, dated around the end of the seventh century and dedicated to a friend named in several fragments: Glaucus, son of Leptines. The chronology for Archilochus is complex but modern scholars generally settle for c.680–c.640 BC.
Whether or not their lives had been virtuous, authors of genius were revered by their fellow Greeks. Thus a sanctuary to Archilochus (the Archilocheion) was established on his home island Paros sometime in the third century BC, where his admirers offered him sacrifices, as well as to gods such as Apollo, Dionysus and the Muses. Inscriptions found on orthostats from the sanctuary include quoted verses and historical records. In one, we are told that his father Telesicles once sent Archilochus to fetch a cow from the fields, but that the boy chanced to meet a group of women who soon vanished with the animal and left him a lyre in its place—they were the Muses and they had thus earmarked him as their protégé. According to the same inscription, the omen was later confirmed by the oracle at Delphi. Not all the inscriptions are as fanciful as that. Some are records by a local historian of the time, set out in chronological order according to custom, under the names of archons. Unfortunately, these are very fragmentary.
Snippets of biographical information are provided by ancient authors as diverse as Tatian, Proclus, Clement of Alexandria, Cicero, Aelian, Plutarch, Galen, Dio Chrysostom, Aelius Aristides and several anonymous authors in the Palatine Anthology. See and other poets below for the testimony of some famous poets.
The earliest meter in extant Greek poetry was the epic hexameter of Homer. Homer however did not create the epic hexameter and there is evidence that other meters also predate his work[nb 7]
Thus, though ancient scholars credited Archilochus with the invention
of elegy and iambic poetry, he probably built on a "flourishing
tradition of popular song" that pre-dated Homer. His innovations however
seem to have turned a popular tradition into an important literary
medium. Most ancient commentators focused on his lampoons and on the virulence of his invective as in the comments below, yet the extant verses (most of which come from Egyptian papyri)
indicate a very wide range of poetic interests. Alexandrian scholars
collected the works of the other two major iambographers, Semonides and
Hipponax, in just two books each, which were cited by number, whereas
Archilochus was edited and cited not by book number but rather by poetic
terms such as 'elegy', 'trimeters', 'tetrameters' and 'epodes'. Moreover, even those terms fail to indicate his versatility.
One convenient way to classify the poems is to divide them between elegy and iambus (ἵαμβος)—elegy aimed at some degree of decorum, since it employed the stately hexameter of epic, whereas the term 'iambus', as used by Alexandrian scholars, denoted any informal kind of verse meant to entertain (it may have included the iambic meter but was not confined to it). Hence the accusation that he was "too iambic" (see Biography) referred not to his choice of meter but his subject matter and tone (for an example of his iambic verse see Strasbourg papyrus). Elegy was accompanied by the aulos or pipe, whereas the performance of iambus varied, from recitation or chant in iambic trimeter and trochaic tetrameter, to singing of epodes accompanied by some musical instrument (which one isn't known)
Archilochus was not included in the canonic list of nine lyric poets compiled by Hellenistic scholars—his range exceeded their narrow criteria for lyric ('lyric' meant verse accompanied by the lyre). He did in fact compose some lyrics but only the tiniest fragments of these survive today. However they include one of the most famous of all lyric utterances, a hymn to Heracles with which victors were hailed at the Olympic Games, featuring a resounding refrain Τήνελλα καλλίνικε in which the first word imitates the sound of the lyre. [nb 8] See comment by Theocritus below.