War and the Muses - Archilochos, History's First "Soldier-Poet"
Homer’s tales of Troy and Odysseus laid the foundations of the
Western literary tradition. Not much is
known about Homer, beyond that he was a bard. And certainly nothing in the fragmentary bits and pieces of information
that allegedly relate to his life suggests that he was actually ever a soldier;
indeed, the strong tradition that he was blind suggests otherwise. Quite different was Archilochos, the first “soldier-poet”
known to history.
Almost forgotten today, Archilochos was quite famous
in Classical Antiquity. Meleager (fl., c. 100 B.C.), himself no mean
versifier, called Archilochos "a thistle with graceful leaves,"
referring to the poet’s often bitter satire. The Greeks and Romans considered him the finest satirist, and in modern literary criticism ill-natured satire is known
as “Archilochian Bitterness” in
his memory. But he also wrote lyrics, elegies, and fables. Tradition credits him with inventing iambic
verse, in which a short unstressed syllable is followed by a long stressed one,
as in the King’s speech before Agincourt
in Shakespeare’s Henry V,
If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
Archilochos is also credited with telling the first known animal fables in any
European language, providing in the process the first known reference to apes,
and with being the first poet to actually refer to himself in his work.
Archilochos’ life is rather better known than
Homer’s. He hailed from the Aegean island of Paros, where he was born around 680
B.C. “Archilochos” may not actually be
his real name, for it can mean “Company Commander” or “Captain,” and perhaps
was adopted as a pen name. He was the
son of Telesicles of Paros, a member of a distinguished family. Enipo, the poet’s mother was a slave. Although his father granted recognition to
Archilochos, local law apparently barred him from inheriting. As a young man, Archilochos was for a time
engaged to a young Parian woman, Neobulé, but her father, Lycambes, married her
off instead to a wealthier man. Bitterly
disappointed, Archilochos took his vengeance in the form of verses that painted
the woman and her sister as being promiscuous. His language was so graphic (it’s “Triple X” explicit even for our
times) that tradition has it both girls and their father committed suicide from
shame. Perhaps as a result of this episode,
when Archilochos was about 25 he went to Thasos,
in the northern Aegean, where many years
before his father had established a Parian colony. His stay in Thasos was short, however, for in
a battle against the Saians of Thrace Archilochos is alleged to have dropped
his shield, the better to get away from the foe, for which he was ostracized.
this, Archilochos roamed a great deal. A
mercenary – “I shall be called Soldier of Fortune” – he made his living by the
sword, and sought solace from his troubles and vengeance on his enemies in his
verse. True to the literary form of a
roving adventurer, he had a side-kick, one Glaukos, a Thasoan, whom he often
addressed in verse.< We know only a
little about Archilochos’ military career. Aside from the Thracians, there are hints in tradition and in his poems
of service against the Chalkians of Euboia, the Samnians, the Naxians, and
perhaps the Ephesians, as well as the city-states of Croton and Sybaris, in Southern Italy, when he was in the service of Siris. He also seems to have fought for Sparta during the Second
Messenian-Spartan War (650-630), in which case he may have met the younger war
poet Trytaios. Eventually Archilochos
returned to Paros. When he was about 45 or 50, old for the
times, and even older for a mercenary, he took part in a battle between the
Parians and the Naxians, from a neighboring island, during which he was killed
in action by one Calondas. So great was
Archilochos’ reputation as a poet, even in his lifetime, that when, years later,
Calondas chanced to visit the Oracle at Delphi, the priestesses refused to
admit him until he had undergone rites that propitiated the soul of the slain
servant of the Muses..
wrote about nature, the sea, the gods, fate, sex, sports, love, comradeship,
politics, figs, people, life, death, and pretty much everything else. But he especially wrote about war and
soldiering, about which he knew quite well.
Give the spear-shy youths
Make them learn
The battle's won
By the gods.
the short, brutal clashes of Hoplites that characterized the origins of what
has come to be known as “The Western way of war,” Archilochos wrote,
bows will be stretched and not many will be
slings, when Ares at last brings war
plain. The brutal work will be for swords.
enemy yonder are masters of such warfare,
of Euboia, famed for their spears
Soul, my soul, bemuddled with impossible
stand up and defend yourself hurling your
right at the enemy’s ambushes, stand full
foot firmly planted.
a sentiment undoubtedly familiar to many a soldier who had to serve under some
I do not like a tall commander, strutting about,
primping in curls or with only half a beard.
Give me a short leader
you can clearly see,
solid on his feet, and full of heart.
was also aware of the oddity of his status as both a soldier and a poet. Thus,
Comrade to Enyalios,
The great god War,
I do double duty.
With poetry, the lover’s gift,
I serve the Lady Muses.
seems to have had no illusions about war. He was a no-nonsense soldier, who believed “appearance is not important in battle.” There is little about “glory” in his work, and much about the reality
of war, writing that “Ares is a democrat, there are no privileged people on a
battlefield.” In one place we find him
saying “Fields fattened by corpses” and in another “of the seven lying dead,
whom we overtook on foot, we, a thousand slayers,” and in yet another comments
that there were times in battle when “feet are the most valuable" of one’s
it’s understandable that the Spartans, who urged their sons to “return with
your shield or upon it,” would expel him from their lands lest he corrupt their
youth; what else could they do with a guy who wrote,
Some Thracian barbarian
Sports my shield today.
When the fight got hot,
I left it by a bush and ran
To save my precious hide.
It was a beautiful shield,
But I can get another,
Just as good.
he was enough of a professional soldier to understand eagerness for combat, in
one fragment saying "I long for a fight with you, just as a thirsty man
longs for drink."
was quite famous in ancient times. Some
two centuries after his death, the great comic playwright Aristophanes wrote
favorably of him, and three centuries later the equally great Roman orator
Cicero classed him with Homer, Pindar, and Sophocles, while Horace imitated his
metrical forms. Yet little of
Archilochos’ work survives today, some 300 fragments altogether, plus a few
paraphrases, mostly because they were cited in works by other writers. Although
a number of these fragments are quite long, running several stanzas, most are
no more than four or five verses long, and some just a single phrase. The
recent discovery in Egypt
of some 30 lines hitherto unknown led to headlines in some serious newspapers
around the globe, though most refrained from quoting them, due to their graphic
ancient times Archilochos’ grave on Paros –
much of which survives – bore the inscription “Hasten on, O Wayfarer, lest you
stir up the hornets," for by
tradition it was home to a nest of the insects, drawn there by the bitterness
of the poet’s aura.