Archilochus: A Guide to Selected Sources

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Donald E. Lavigne

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Author, authorial persona, and first-person poetry

Archilochus, born in the Greek island of Paros in the eighth/seventh century BCE (Jacoby 1941 and Lavelle 2002), is one of the most famous iambic poets of antiquity. However, his biography presents several difficulties. There are two main reasons for the complexities of his Life: 1) the fact that he is a prominent, active character in his poems and 2) the fact that the bulk of his extant poetry is fragmentary. One of the most tantalising pieces of evidence for dating Archilochus, fr. 122 West, which mentions an eclipse, illustrates the problem nicely. Because the poet is a character in his poems and because the description of the eclipse is narrated in the first person, we assume that this eclipse occurred in the lifetime of Archilochus. Therefore, after some calculation, we can show that the Aegean would have witnessed at least three eclipses from the late-eighth to the mid-seventh centuries, one of which must have burned the corneae of Archilochus and his fellow Parians (Blakeway 1936, with updates by Worthen 2010). This argument makes two problematic assumptions. First, and most obviously, the incomplete state of the poems does not allow us definitely to say that Archilochus is the speaker in a given poem (or even that a contemporary of the poet is speaking): in the case of this fragment, Aristotle Arist. Rh. 3.17.1418b.23-33 tells us that this poem was not in fact spoken by Archilochus. Secondly, the fact that an historical poet features himself as a character does not necessarily imply that the life of the persona equates to that of the poet (Dover 1964). In fact, much of the effect of Archilochus’ iambic poetry lies in the tension between the historical poet and his fictional persona (see Lavigne 2008).

Lycambes and his family

The single most important aspect of Archilochus’ autobiography – important because directly connected to the reception of his poetry – is the episode of Lycambes and his daughters (frr. 172-81 and 196a West; for further discussion and bibliography, see Irwin 1998 and Hawkins 2008). According to a famous ancient tradition, Lycambes promised one of his daughters, Neobule, to the poet. After Lycambes changed his mind, Archilochus attacked the man and his daughters in his poetry, causing the suicide of Lycambes and the girls (see Carey 1986: 60 for the relevant sources). Horace’s famous statement in the Epistles Hor. Epist. 1.19.23-31 that he was the first to bring Parian iambics to Rome, imitating the spirit and metre but not the material and words attacking Lycambes, is complicated by the fact that Horace does feature the Lycambids in his Epodes Hor. Epod. 6.11-16 as a model for the power of his invective. In any event, it is clear that the Lycambids become exemplars of the deleterious effect of the poetry of Archilochus (and those who would imitate him). After Horace, Ovid Ov. Ib. 43-64 too uses the threat of Archilochean vitriol towards Lycambes and his kin as indicative of the abusive potential of his poetry. As a result of these Roman poets and their commentators, the trope remains powerful over many centuries (Eustathius Eust. in Od. 11.277 mentions it in his commentary on the Odyssey), although the actual poetry of Archilochus was eventually laid to the side and forgotten.

Archilochus’ death

A story of Apollo’s esteem for Archilochus surrounds the death of the poet, as recounted for example in the Byzantine encyclopaedia known as Suda Suda s.v. ‘Archilochus’. According to tradition, a shadowy figure called Calondas and nicknamed Korax (‘Crow’) killed the poet in war. After the poet’s death, Apollo required Archilochus’ killer to go to Tainarum, where Tettix (‘Cicada’) was buried, and to propitiate the soul of the poet with libations. As Lefkowitz points out, the connection may be that in a lost poem Archilochus referred to himself as a cicada (fr. 233 West, cf. Lefkowitz 2012: 29).

The cult of Archilochus

The idea that Archilochus is a great poet, but that the content of his poetry is problematic, is prominent in antiquity, and is reflected in the single most interesting piece of evidence we have concerning Archilochus’ life, the inscription of one Mnesiepes Mnesiepes inscription, which details the particulars of the poet’s hero cult on Paros and dates from the third century BCE (for a detailed study, see Clay 2004). The inscription of Mnesiepes was set up in the Archilocheion, a shrine dedicated to Archilochus and situated on Paros. Although the state of the inscription does not allow for certainty, it seems that the Parians recoiled from an early Archilochean performance associated with a Dionysiac context (fr. 251 West), and were stricken with impotence as a result. After consulting the oracle at Delphi, Apollo made it clear that Archilochus was to be celebrated, not castigated, for his poetry. In parallel, or perhaps in competition, with Hesiod (see Hesiod: A Guide to Selected Sources), the inscription records the story of Archilochus’ poetic initiation, showcasing the favour in which both the Muses and Apollo held the poet from his earliest days. The name of Mnesiepes, perhaps a speaking name meaning ‘he who remembers the words’ (Nagy 1979: 304), might suggest the existence of a poetic guild on Paros, not unlike the Homeridae in Chios (see Homer: A Guide to Selected Sources). Interesting in this regard is another inscription found in the Parian Archilocheion, set up by a certain Sosthenes in the first century BCE. The Sosthenes Sosthenes inscription inscription seems to detail the battles in which Archilochus participated, citing several poems of a martial nature; perhaps Sosthenes narrated the death and burial of the poet before offering an iambic poem of his own. This poem reanimates Archilochus and has the poet censure Sosthenes himself for stealthily appropriating his poetry to establish Sosthenes’ own fame.

Archilochus and Homer

In several ancient sources, Archilochus is regularly compared to Homer; this comparison is a central feature of the reputation of Archilochus in antiquity. Heraclitus Heraclit. fr. 42 D.-K. compares Archilochus to Homer as representatives of poetry tout court, and Dio Chrysostom Dio Chrys. Or. 33.11-12 claims that his is an even better model to follow than Homer. Velleius Paterculus Vell. Pat. Hist. 1.5 sums up the tradition of comparing the two poets, stating that Homer and Archilochus were simultaneously the inventors and most perfect practitioners of their particular genres. This tradition of comparison probably stems from the fact that both poets, as Heraclitus’ passage suggests, were part of the rhapsodes’ repertoire (as is implied in Plato’s Ion Pl. Ion 530d-531a, 532a; for a detailed discussion, see Lavigne forthcoming). Nonetheless, ancient critics often chose to focus on the low register and anti-social message of much of Archilochus’ poetry in their assessment of the poet (cf. the early characterisation by Pindar). As Rotstein 2007 has shown, in the case of Critias, fr. 44. D.-K. Crit. fr. 44 D.-K. this particular portrayal is related to the socio-political situation of Critias’ own Athens, and thus serves as an example of the way in which the biographies of poets were used to particular poetic and political ends by those who narrated them (on Homer’s life, see Graziosi 2002).

Archilochus on stage and in epigram

That Archilochus was beloved of the Muses and Apollo is proven by the popularity of his poetry throughout antiquity, but especially by the number of poets who channeled Archilochus in their own poetry. The poets of ancient comedy Alex. Archil. fr. 22 PCG; Crat. Archil. fr. 1 PCG; Ar. Pax 1298-1301 paid tribute to Archilochus (see Rosen 1988). Several epigrams treat Archilochus; Theocritus Theoc. Ep. 21 Gow’ stands out for its focus on the positive qualities of Archilochus’ poetry. Later epigrams AP 7.71.1-4, as well as a good deal of the Roman poetic use of Archilochus, centre around the most famous objects of the poet’s ire, Lycambes and his daughters.


  • Blakeway, A. A. 1936. ‘The Date of Archilochus.’ In Greek Poetry and Life: Essays Presented to Gilbert Murray. Oxford: 34-55.
  • Carey, C. 1986. ‘Archilochus and Lycambes.’ CQ 36.1: 60-7.
  • Clay, D. 2004. Archilochos Heros. The Cult of Poets in the Greek Polis. Cambridge, MA.
  • Dover, K. J. 1964. ‘The Poetry of Archilochus.’ In J. Poilloux, N. M. Kontoleon et al. (eds.), Archiloque: sept exposés et discussions. Geneva: 183-222.
  • Graziosi, B. 2002. Inventing Homer. The Early Reception of Epic. Cambridge.
  • Hawkins, T. 2008. ‘Out-Foxing the Wolf-Walker: Lycambes as Performative Rival to Archilochus.’ CA 27.1: 93-114.
  • Irwin, E. 1998. ‘Biography, Fiction, and the Archilochean Ainos.’ JHS 118: 177-83.
  • Jacoby, F. 1941. ‘The Date of Archilochus.’ CQ 35: 97-109.
  • Kimmel-Clauzet, F. 2013. Morts, tombeaux et cultes des poètes grecs. Bordeaux.
  • Lavelle, B. 2002. ‘The Apollodoran Date for Archilochus.’ CPh 97.4: 344-351.
  • Lavigne, D. E. 2008. ‘The Persona of Archilochos and Iambic Performance.’ In D. Katsonopoulou, I. Petropoulos, S. Katsarou (eds.), Paros II. Archilochos and His Age. Proceedings of the Second International Conference on the Archaeology of Paros and the Cyclades, Paroikia, Paros, 7-9 October 2005. Athens: 91-113.
  • Lavigne, D. E. (forthcoming). ‘Archilochus and Homer in the Rhapsodic Context.’ In C. Carey and L. Swift (eds.), Greek Iambos and Elegy: New Approaches. Oxford.
  • Lefkowitz, M. 2012 (1981). The Lives of the Greek Poets. Baltimore.
  • Nagy, G. 1979. The Best of the Achaeans. Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry. Baltimore and London.
  • Rosen, R. M. 1988. Old Comedy and the Iambographic Tradition. Atlanta.
  • Rotstein, A. 2007. ‘Critias’ Invective Against Archilochus.’ CPh 102: 139-54.
  • Worthen, T. 2010. ‘Dating the Eclipse of Archilochus.’ URL: