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Alcaeus


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Greek lyric poet, of Mytilene on Lesbos. Probably b. c.625–620 bc, since he was old enough to participate in the struggle against Athens for Sigeum, in which Pittacus distinguished himself. Lesbian politics at this period were violent and confused. After the death of the tyrant Myrsilus, the people elected Pittacus ‘tyrant’ for ten years. Alcaeus' poetry is full of attacks on and abuse of Pittacus, for perjury and faithlessness, low birth (probably false), drunkenness, unbridled ambition, and physical defects (see invective). Popular opinion was with Pittacus, as in general is that of posterity.

Alcaeus' poetry was divided by the Alexandrians into at least ten books. It was composed for a solo singer in a variety of lyric metres in two‐ or four‐line stanzas, including the alcaic stanza, named after him. His range is rivalled only by Archilochus in the Archaic period. He dealt with politics, war, wine, love, hymns to the gods, moralizing, and myth. There is much variety in the treatment of each theme. Politics may be dealt with through personal abuse or the grandeur of myth and ritual or both; the invitation to drink may be supported by myth or the imperatives of the weather. He is open to a range of influences. In his use of lyric for abuse he blurs the difference between lyric and iambus. His hymns are influenced by the rhapsodic tradition (see rhapsodes). He has a vivid descriptive power and an impressive vigour, esp. in his arresting openings. He was popular at Attic symposia and a favourite with Horace.

Subjects: Classical Studies.


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