Of the Greek poets of the seventh century BC we know almost nothing and none of their poems has come down to us entire. Archilochos was a professional soldier from the Aegean island of Paros; Sappho a member of a distinguished family on Lesbos, an island off the coast of Asia Minor; and Alkman was a slave and choirmaster in the Lydian city Sardis before he emigrated, or was sold to, Sparta, where he wrote the two hymns, to Artemis and Hera, which assure him a place all his own in literature.
Archilochos is the second poet of the West. Before him the archpoet Homer had written the two poems of Europe; never again would one imagination find the power to move two epics to completion and perfection. The clear minds of these archaic, island-dwelling Greeks survive in a few details only, fragment by fragment, a temple, a statue of Apollo with a poem engraved down the thighs, generous vases with designs abstract and geometric.
They decorated their houses and ships like Florentines and Japanese; they wrote poems like Englishmen of the court of Henry, Elizabeth and James. They dressed like Samurai; all was bronze, terra cota, painted marble, dyed wool, and banquets. Of the Arcadian Greece of Winckelmann and Walter Pater they were as ignorant as we of the ebony cities of Yoruba and Benin. The scholar poets of the Renaissance, Ambrogio Poliziano and Christopher Marlowe, whose vision of antiquity we have inherited, would have rejected as indecorous this seventh-century world half oriental, half Viking. Archilochos was both poet and mercenary. As a poet he was both satirist and lyricist. Iambic verse is his invention. He wrote the first beast fable known to us. He wrote marching songs, love lyrics of frail tenderness, elegies. But most of all he was what Meleager calls him, "a thistle with graceful leaves." There is a tradition that wasps hover around his grave. To the ancients, both Greek and Roman, he was The Satirist.
We have what grammarians quote to illustrate a point of dialect or interesting use of the subjunctive; we have brief quotations by admiring critics; and we have papyrus fragments, scrap paper from the households of Alexandria, with which third-class mummies were wrapped and stuffed. All else is lost. Horace and Catullus, like all cultivated readers, had Archilochos complete in their libraries.
Even in the tattered version we have of Archilochos, some three hundred fragments and about forty paraphrases and indirect quotations in the Budé edition (1958, revised 1968) of Professors Lasserre and Bonnard [Archiloque, Fragments, texte établi par François Lasserre, traduit et commenté par André Bonnard, Collection des Universités de France, publié sous le patronage de l'Association Guillaume Budé (Paris, 1958; 2nd ed. rev., 1968)] a good half of them beyond conjecture as to context, so ragged the papyrus, or brief ("grape," "curled wool," "short sword") the extraordinary form of his mind is discernible. Not all poets can be so broken and still compel attention.
Like the brutal but gallant Landsknecht Urs Graf, both artist and soldier, or the condottiere, poet, military engineer, and courtly amorist Sigismondo Malatesta of Rimini, Archilochos kept his "two services" in an unlikely harmony. Ares did not complain that this ash-spear fighter wrote poems, and the Muses have heard everything and did not mind that their horsetail-helmeted servant sometimes spoke with the vocabulary of a paratrooper sergeant, though the high-minded Spartans banned Archilochos's poems for their mockery of uncritical bravery. And the people of his native Paros made it clear, when they honored him with a monument, that they thought him a great poet in spite of his nettle tongue.
Apollo in an ancient conceit read Archilochos with delight and was of the opinion that his poems would last as long as mankind. "Hasten on, Wayfarer," Archilochos's tomb bore for inscription, "lest you stir up the hornets." Leonidas the epigrammatist imagined the Muses hopelessly in love with Archilochos, and Delian Apollo to boot, for how else account for such melody, such verve? Quintilian admired his richness of blood, meaning liveliness, we suppose, and his abundance of muscle. Plutarch in his essay on music places Archilochos among the innovators of metric, and Horace, imitating Archilochos, congratulated himself on bringing Greek numbers into Italy. Pindar called him Archilochos the Scold. Writers as different as Milton, who mentions him in the Areopagitica as trying the patience of the defenders of the freedom of speech, and Wyndham Lewis, who spits like a cat at his reputation, took his satiric talent for granted without really knowing what he wrote. Hipponax alone among the archaic poets, we are told, has as sharpened a stylus as Archilochos, and Hipponax is remembered for a grim little couplet:
Woman is twice a pleasure to man,
The wedding night and her funeral.
Though he is said to have written with venom and, according to Gaitylikos, splashed Helicon with gore, we have no evidence of anything so caustic. We have to take antiquity's word for it, or assume that the Panhellenes were far touchier than we about satire. Certainly their sense of honor was of an iron strictness. To mock, a Greek proverb goes, is to thumb through Archilochos. "The longer your letters, the better," Aristophanes complimented a friend, "like the poems of Archilochos."
It is precisely the tone of Archilochos that gives us a problem with no solution. In 1974 a new poem of Archilochos's was published in R. Merkelbach's and M.L. West's Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik. It was discovered on a papyrus mummy wrapping, identified and edited (ten years' work it was) by Anton Fackelmann, translated here as Fragment 18. Its tone would be aesthetically difficult even if we were surer of its meaning. Our fortune in having it at all is immense and vies in importance with the utterly new dimension of lyric poetry which it gives to our tentative and sketchy knowledge of the dawn of European literature. Is it a comic poem, a raucous anecdote with a hilarious punch line? Is it frankly an erotic poem (Peter Green has waggishly titled it "The Last Tango on Paros") [Times Literary Supplement, 14 March 1975, p. 272]. There is nothing in Greek literature like its last three stanzas. We can understand the robust bawdy of Aristophanes and Herondas, the vivid eroticism of Sappho and Anakreon, but these lines of Archilochos - sung in barracks, on the march, in village squares, at singing contests? - are they satire or salacity, private or public? I would like to believe that it is a satiric collision of a love song and a biological fact, the kind of comedy you get if Juliet on her balcony had dislodged a flowerpot in her ecstasy and beaned Romeo below.
Of the man himself we know that he was born on Paros in the Cyclades in the first half of the seventh century BC. Pausanias knew a tradition that makes him the descendant of one Tellis, or Telesikles, who was distinguished enough to have figured in Polygnotos's frescoes at Delphi, where he was shown with Kleoboia, who introduced the Eleusinian mysteries into Thasos, an island that owes much to Archilochos's family. A Byzantine encyclopedia credits his father with founding a town on Thasos, "an island crowned with forests and lying in the sea like the backbone of an ass," as Archilochos describes it in a poem.
As his name means First Sergeant (leader of a company of ash-spearmen or hoplites), he may have given it to himself, or used it as a nom de guerre et de plume. Some scholars say that he was a bastard, accepted by his father, but the son of a slave woman named Enipo. The poems reveal a man who took pride in his hard profession of mercenary, who cultivated a studied lyric eroticism, and had a tender eye for landscape. His companion was one Glaukos, Gray Eyes, and several fragments address him in a brotherly manner. At one time he contracted marriage with a daughter of Lykambes, Neobulé, probably a settlement that would have retired him from campaigning. "O to touch Neobulé's hand!" is the oldest surviving fragment of a love lyric in Greek.
But Lykambes took back his word and the wedding was canceled. All Greece soon knew, and later Rome, Archilochos' bitter poem in which he wished that Lykambes might freeze, starve, and be frightened to death simultaneously. And all schoolboys, before Greek was expelled from classrooms, knew Lykambes to be synonymous with a broken word of honor.
Archilochos was killed by a man named Crow. The death was either in battle or a fight; nevertheless, Apollo in grief and anger excommunicated Crow from all the temples; so spoke the entranced oracle at Delphi.