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Alcaeus of Mytilene


Alcaeus of Mytilene (/ælˈsəs/; Greek: Ἀλκαῖος ὁ Μυτιληναῖος, Alkaios; c. 620 – 6th century BC), 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 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:

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 Askelon. Alcaeus wrote verses in celebration of Antimenides' return, including mention of his valour in slaying the larger opponent (frag. 350), and he proudly describes the military hardware that adorned their family home (frag. 357).


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