Anacreon: A Guide to Selected Sources

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William Wallis

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Anacreon was a Greek lyric poet famed for his verses on symposiastic themes. No straightforward biography survives, but diverse sources contribute to his biographical tradition.

The Suda Suda s.v. Anacreon tells us that Anacreon was born on Teos in 570 BC, and evacuated to Abdera in Thrace because of the invasion by Cyrus’ general, Harpagus, in around 540 BC. The next we hear of Anacreon is that he was a poet at the court of Polycrates in Samos (ruled 533-22 BC), and present when Polycrates was overthrown Hdt. 3.121.1-5. Strabo Str. 14.1.16 attempts to confirm this with evidence from Anacreon’s own verse.

The Peisistratid Hipparchus Pl. Hipparch. 228C.1-3 is said to have summoned Anacreon to Athens (after the overthrow of Polycrates), and to have become the poet’s patron (as he was for Simonides). Plato Pl. Chrm. 157E.4 – 158A.2 relates that while in Athens, Anacreon was the lover of Critias, an aristocratic youth (and grandfather of Socrates’ associate of the same name). A confused reference from the much later writer Himerius Him. Or. 39.10-11 suggests that Anacreon knew Xanthippus, father of the Athenian statesman Pericles.

Like Simonides, Anacreon is thought to have spent time in Larisa, Thessaly, after the overthrow of the Peisistratids in 510 BC. This is inferred from two epigrams P.A. 6.136P.A. 6.142 attributed to Anacreon about Thessalian rulers Echecratidas and Dyseris.

If he did move to Thessaly, at least one later source suggests a return to Athens at some point after 510 BC. An ancient editorial note on Aeschylus Sch. ad A. Pr. 128 (a.3-5) records that Anacreon appreciated the tragic poet’s verse, which he would have been most likely to do if resident in Athens. It has been argued, however, that this might have occurred before 510 BC or away from Athens (Ridgway 1998: 720-21), and it may also reflect a perception of literary connections expressed biographically. Lucian Lucianus, Macr. 26 records that he lived for eighty-five years, which would date his death to 485 BC. No sources specify his home in old age, but a Simonidean epigram P.A. 7.25 locates his tomb on Teos.

This rather diffuse group of sources has allowed some scholars to reconstruct a trajectory of Anacreon’s life and travels (Bowra 1961: 300-1; Campbell 1988: 3-4; Rosenmeyer 1992: 14; Ridgway 1998: 719; Budelmann 2009: 227-28).

Visual Representations

Two securely identified depictions of Anacreon survive from within the poet’s life time.

A kylix (wine cup) by the painter Oltos Oltos Anacreon.png, dated to around 510 BC, shows Anacreon dancing with two youths and playing the chelys lyre with a plectrum. He is wreathed and wears a himation (mantle). His head is thrown back with mouth open, which suggests lively singing. One of the accompanying youths is labelled ΝΥΦΕΣ (‘Ny[m]phes’), and the word ΚΑΛΟΣ (‘beautiful’) is written to the left of Anacreon. Though he is not presented as particularly drunk, nor particularly exotic, this first depiction of Anacreon references what in his reception become the primary themes of his poetry: the symposium (drinking party), and the love of beautiful youths (Beazley-Caskey 1954: 61; Beazley 1963; 62-3, no. 86; Budelmann 2009: 236).

A roughly contemporary lekythos (oil jug) by the Gales painter also identifies Anacreon by name, and shows a bearded singer playing a barbiton lyre. The Gales painter portrays him in a chiton (tunic), himation (mantle), and possibly the sakkos (headdress) of Ionian musicians. He is accompanied by two young men, both wearing a chlamys (short mantle), and dancing with staffs and a wine-bowl (Beazley-Caskey 1954: 61; Beazley 1963: 36, no. 2).

This costume resembles those depicted in a long series of vases, beginning around 520 and ending around 450 BC, that have been called ‘Anacreontic’. A connection to Anacreon was first suggested by Beazley, on the basis of an inscribed lyre on a fragment of a krater (wine-mixing bowl) by the Kleophrades painter (Beazley-Caskey 1954: 57; Beazley 1963: 135, no. 32; Richter 1965: 77). They depict heavily bearded men dressed in feminine clothing (often with parasols, boots and earrings, as well as the barbiton lyre, pipes and drums). There has been intense debate as to whether these portray Anacreon, or simply a cliché of the effeminate and often drunk eastern musician that was perhaps a well-known target for comedy (Beazley-Caskey 1954: 55-61; Richter 1965: 77; Price 1990; Salskov Roberts 2002: 241-44; Budelmann 2009: 236; Bing 2014).

Either way, Anacreon could clearly be considered a member of this class of Asiatic songmen. Aristophanes’ character Agathon Ar. Th. 136-68 is dressed up as an effeminate Ionian poet, and names Anacreon along with Ibycus and Alcaeus as his models (Price 1990: 169-70). In fact, in the longest surviving fragment of Anacreon’s verse Ath. 12.46 (533f-534a), the poet himself seems to take aim at this cliché of exotically dressed men in Athens by criticising one Artemon for his affectations and effeminate attire (Price 1990: 171; Ridgway 1998: 737-38).

Despite the fact that the earliest representations of Anacreon associate him with a class of drunken, Asiatic partiers, most accounts of Anacreon’s reception chart the development of his persona from a sophisticated symposiast writing on a range of subjects, and a friend of the aristocracy, to the ‘Anacreontic’ cliché of a joyously drunk lover of boys (Rosenmeyer 1992; Lambin 2002).

The earliest and best known sculpture of Anacreon seems to fit well into this narrative, as it seems to portray Anacreon as a respectable poet active among the Athenian aristocracy. A portrait type of Anacreon survives in one full-size example (known as the Borghese Anacreon Borghese Anacreon.jpg), and seven heads, identified by an inscription on a head found in Trastevere (IG XIV 1133; Richter 1965: 76). It shows the poet nude but for a fillet and a peculiarly draped chlamys (short mantle) (Ridgway 1998: 732-734). The poet rests his weight on his left hip and both feet are firmly planted on the ground. He has a moderately athletic body, and displays kynodesme or ‘infibulation’, the folding and binding of the penis with string. The significance of this shifts over time, but it seems most often to be related to morally upright behaviour (Zanker 1995: 28; Ridgway 1998: 729-30). His hair and beard are thick, but closely cropped, and made up of a large number of small wavy locks. He looks slightly upwards and to his right: a pose that interpreters have variously associated with song or drunkenness. His arms (as restored) appear to have once held a lyre (possibly the barbiton, for the invention of which Anacreon is sometimes credited Ath. 4.77 (175d-e)). This portrait tallies with the image of Anacreon presented to us by the politician, philosopher and poet Critias Ath. 13.74 (600d-e) (403 BC), a grandson of Anacreon’s lover, and his namesake (Dougherty-Kurke 2003: 190-199).

There is great debate as to the location of the ‘original’ portrait, and specifically whether it is the portrait seen on the Athenian acropolis and thought to look drunk by Pausanias Paus. 1.25.1, who may however have been influenced by what he already thought about Anacreon from other portraits and poems (Zanker 1995: 22-31; Ridgway 1998). However this question is answered, most commentators agree that this is a portrait of a relatively well-behaved Anacreon, and many, though not all, scholars consider this portrait type to be an emulation of a fifth-century original that would have been appropriate for display on the acropolis.

In the Hellenistic period the sophisticated symposiast Anacreon seems to be simplified into a lecherous drunk. An epigram by Leonidas A.Pl. 306 vividly describes a statue that shows him as drunk, half-shod, in Ionian garb, praising and gazing at boys with ‘lascivious eyes’ (Wilamowitz 1913: 105; Gow-Page 1965: 340-41; Bing 1988b; Rosenmeyer 1992: 26; Rossi 2001: 25-26). Though no similar statue survives, we can imagine a Hellenistic ‘realist’ statue of such an Anacreon (Hellenistic “realism” is a trend observed by some in, for example, the so-called Old Crone, and Ps-Seneca types). An epigram by Theocritus Theoc. Epigr. 17 shows how little depth there is to this caricature: if we note that Anacreon was a great poet, and that he loved boys, then he sarcastically claims that we shall ‘accurately know the whole man’ (Bing 1988a: 56-57; Bing 1988b; Rossi 2001: 81-101, 279-286; Männlein-Robert 2007: 263-264). Despite Theocritus’ scepticism, the representation of Anacreon as a lecherous drunk remains popular for many centuries: among the many Roman sources, Cicero and Seneca Cic. Tusc. 4.71.8-9Sen. Ep. 88.37.6-9 also discuss Anacreon in these reductive terms. Another Roman source provides an appropriate death for this figure: Valerius Maximus Val. Max. 9.12.(ext.)8.1-4 tells us that Anacreon died by choking on a grape-pip, an anecdote that was also told of Sophocles.

For all that the drunk and lecherous Anacreon was popular, and influenced the Anacreontic tradition, he was not always presented in those terms. A second-century AD mosaic from Autun represents Anacreon as a seated singer, a respectable lyric poet, much like the Borghese Singer from the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek (Blanchard and Blanchard 1973). Tean coins of Domitianic dates also show Anacreon as a seated lyric poet. The impression we get of Anacreon from second-century writer Athenaeus Ath. 10.29 (427a-b), likewise, is of a sober and self-controlled poet.

Literary Reception and Emulation

The first collected editions of Anacreon’s works were made by Alexandrian scholars of the Hellenistic period. They were probably edited by Aristophanes of Byzantium and Aristarchus (Campbell 1988: 35 n.2; Gentili 1958: xxvi-xxviii), and an epigram by Crinagoras P.A. 9.239 once graced a presentation copy in five volumes.

At the other end of the spectrum of Anacreon’s textual reception, however, is a large pseudepigraphic tradition. The simplified, boy-loving and drunken Anacreon is the figure that inspires (and is the imagined mouthpiece for) the Anacreontea. This is a collection of poems, written from the first century BC to the fifth century AD, found in an appendix to the Palatine Anthology (Campbell 1988: 4-18; Rosenmeyer 1992; Budelmann 2009; Baumbach and Dümmler 2014). The Anacreontea constitute perhaps the clearest testament to the mutual dependency of a poet’s biographical tradition (particularly in terms of poetic style and character) and the nature of his oeuvre (Rosenmeyer 1998: 20). These poems are generally light-hearted songs about drinking and love, particularly for male youths. They focus on two supposed lovers of Anacreon: Bathyllus and Megisteus. Although these names fail to survive in the fragments of Anacreon’s own poetry, we can infer, given the insistence of the Anacreontea on these names, that they had a prominent role in Anacreon’s verse.

Though disregarded by many literary critics, these poems have been enjoyed and emulated by modern poets and readers including (among very many others) Ronsard, Belleau, Herrick, von Hagedorn and Goethe (Rosenmeyer 1992: 231; Baumbach and Dümmler 2014), whose poem Anakreons Grab Goethe, Anakreons Grab is set as a beautifully gentle lied by Hugo Wolf.


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