Alkaios: poet, politician, priest, Lesbian

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Alkaios (in Latin, Alcaeus) was a Lesbian poet, a friend and poet colleague of Psappho. Both lived on the island of Lesbos in the seventh century BC, and were among the most highly esteemed of all Greek poets. Scholarly editions of Alkaios’ poetry are known to have existed as late as 400 AD in Alexandria and Constantinople, divided into ten books, but the earliest edition we have dates from 1556, by which time all that existed of his work was the fragments that still survive today, 128 of them, many just single words. ‘Alkaios’ stands for something beautiful which has vanished.

Alkaios was born about 630 BC in Mitylene, capital of Lesbos. It was a wealthy and prosperous town which commanded both the Black Sea and Asia Minor trade. As seems inevitable in Greek history, there was fierce competition between political parties in Mitylene, and between Lesbos and other poleis, in this case Athens, as to who should control the wealth. Alkaios’ family were of the older aristocracy, and were opposed to a wily politician called Pittacos, once an ally, who went it on his own as Tyrant or popular leader and was afterwards remembered as one of the Wise Men of early Greece, like Solon in Athens.

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Along with trading wealth came cultural influences from Persia and further north from Lydia (ruled later by Kroisos, or Croesus), and Lesbos became a leader in poetry, then a form of music (there was then no prose). It was still an oral culture; the language was a northern dialect of Greek called Aeolian, perhaps comparable to Scottish or Irish English. This was the area and language that earlier had produced Homer and the other epic poets, and around 700 BC Terpander of Lesbos and about 687 BC Arkhílokhos of Paros, both immensely influential poets who invented new metres or adapted eastern poetic forms to Greek. Another important formative poet of this culture was Alkman of Lydia, and Arion, another Lesbian poet, remembered for singing so sweetly that dolphins rescued him when he was thrown overboard by pirates. A reminder that Greek culture was at first derived from that of Asia Minor.

The first we know of Alkaios is as a fighting man at the battle of Sigeion, when Athens defeated Mitylene at huge cost.He was probably just a teenager.  He was admired for his military skills in the war, enough to write an early nonchalant verse on throwing away his shield when fleeing the battle field. This was in imitation of an earlier poem on that theme by Arkhilokhos. The war with Athens disestablished the political situation at Mitylene, and there was afterwards a series of ‘democratic’ revolutions, when popular leaders attempted to overthrow the conservative aristocracy and secure a more equitable deal for ordinary citizens. Opposition to these so called tyrants was led by Alkaios among others. The conservative party was defeated finally and sent into exile. Although defeated, Alkaios began his poetical career by writing a number of poems abusing the tyrants and celebrating the victorious battles of his side.

It’s perhaps important to realise the nature of poetry at this stage. It was far from a literary art, much more a musical one. It had a rhetorical purpose, to influence people’s opinions, and a social one, to praise honourable behaviour and reflect credit on meritorious actions. As had been the case a little earlier with Homeric epic. Condemnation of opponents was expressed in beautiful language, as in WWII with Churchillian cadences. It is probable the abusive content of some fragments of Alkaios’ poems should not be taken literally. The poems were recited in public to a sympathetic audience, and served to rally the resistance to the ‘democrats’.

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The exiled party of Alkaios travelled widely. He is said to have visited Egypt and Thrace. One of his brothers is said to have joined the Babylonian army and participated in the sack of Jerusalem 587 BC. In 585 BC the conservative party in exile made one last attempt to invade Lesbos and unseat Pittacos in Mitylene, but they were unsuccessful. Alkaios was captured, but pardoned, and that is the last we hear of him. He seems to have settled down (he was by now middle aged) and devoted himself to writing poetry, the causes of his youth not so important as they once were.

Probably every Greek for a thousand years heard and recognised and revered the poetry of Alkaios, as they did that of Psappho. Critics of the first century spoke of Homer as Greece’s greatest poet, but in the same company talked also of Arkhilokhos, Psappho, Pindar, and Alkaios. A famous anthologist of the first century calls Alkaios the greatest musician who had ever lived, and we don’t hear of anyone who objected to this claim. In time the dialect he wrote in became hard to understand (as some of Robert Burns’ poems are). But there was an Alkaios critical ‘industry’ (as there is for Shakespeare) collating, defining, explicating, criticising and comparing his poems; the great libraries made many editions of his poems, scholars wrote many books about him. Fire and mice have put an end to them all. Today all we can do is wonder at what isolated lines could mean. There is always the chance though that new poems could be discovered.

Every art form can exist only by accepting certain conventions. We enjoy drama by accepting the so called ‘fourth wall’ that enables us to eavesdrop on the action depicted. We accept that a pop singer with a guitar who composes their own songs might have a message or a lyrical content to their songs while trying to sell them the same way more commercial material is sold. In cartoons we accept a stylised violence. So too there are conventions in Greek poetry to be aware of.

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In Greece, not just poetry but all activity had two things in common. Everything was public. There was little private life. And many activities were religious, for the glory of the city and the city’s god. When we go to a pop music concert held in a large stadium, and act as fans of the performers, we do something very similar. During Alkaios’ lifetime writing was introduced to Greece. At first it was for business purposes, but slowly, slowly, the idea of writing down poetic works was begun (Homer was preserved in writing by the Athenian tyrant Peisistratos only about 550-525 BC). We should think of Alkaios, as of Psappho, as primarily performers, not writers. Most early poets had their songs transcribed after their death by fans who could remember and sing them.

Alkaios was a musician, and a celebrated one. He composed not just words, but music. His works were songs, not poems. He played a lyre, probably a kythera, a harp like but strummed instrument played using a plectrum, and with fingers damping and hiding the pitch of unwanted strings.

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He was a performer, playing in public arenas to an audience, not writing his feelings down in an isolated space. He sang at festivals, religious rites, marriage feasts, political gatherings and drinking parties. He expressed devotional feeling, praise of bride and groom, political commentary, narrative of various kinds and celebration. He was able to be both objective and subjective, and give his personal views and feelings where appropriate. It’s probable that the loss of Alkaios’ music has lessened the appreciation of his surviving poem (there is only one whole surviving poem by him) just as the fact that most fragments of his work come from an anthology called the Drinking Party and are about wine have limited appreciation of Alkaios’ scope.

Alkaios was a musical composer, a poet, a performer on the lyre, a singer, and great in all these areas: no wonder he was so admired. JS Bach couldn’t sing, Shakespeare couldn’t play an instrument, Mozart was light on political commentary and Elvis couldn’t compose. Yet we like them.

Among the Roman poets, Catullus was influenced by and translated from the poems of Psappho, while Horace strongly admired and was influenced by Alkaios. Many have pointed out the similarity of life and poetry between Alkaios and Lord Byron. Maybe we could think of him as like the early, protest singing, Bob Dylan, but with a richer selection of metres (and a better voice). Wonder what we’d think of Bob if all we had of him was the lyrics of Blowing in the Wind, and a line or two from Dignity and I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine?

The poetry of Alkaios, without music, quoted out of context and without a performance to give it life, has been lost even when we have fragmentary words. Translators have attempted to ‘restore’ it by adding rhyme, as in this poem translated by James Easby-Smith round about 1900:

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Behold! the tender Autumn flower

Is purpling on the hill,

The roses wither on the bower,

And vanished is the dill.

The morning air is keen and bright,

The afternoon is full of light,

And Hesper ushers in the night

With breezes damp and chill.

Reminds me of Dylan’s Desolation Row:

Now the moon is almost hidden

The stars are beginning to hide

The fortunetelling lady

Has taken all her things inside

All except for Cain and Abel

And the hunchback of Notre Dame

Everybody is making love

Or else expecting rain

The qualities are similar: metre or rhyme (Easby-Smith uses rhyme to translate the original’s Greek metre, or dance measure, in poetry a measure of time or pace, like the difference between a jive and a polka); directness, a kind of folk immediacy similar to the poetry found in the Childe Ballads; and vividness of description, in Alkaios’ case derived from epic. The comparison with the Dylan song is notably because the words of Desolation Row suggest the tune and evoke a performance. We commonly can’t do that with ancient poetry, but listeners in classical times most probably would have.

Fuelling thoughts that Alkaios and Psappho must have had a love affair is this brief fragment addressed by him to her, translated here by Walter Petersen:

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O violet-tressed Sappho chaste,

O maid with honeyed smile!

I fain would tell what’s in my breast,

Did shame me not beguile.

The two poets would have participated in religious ceremonies at various festivals in Mitylene. The Greeks had no priestly caste, but poets were thought the mouthpiece of the gods, and inspired by them in their songs on some occasion. So it would be conceivable the two poets were celebrating a civic occasion or the dedication of a temple together. Alkaios starts by feeling intense admiration for Psappho the priestess: then is disconcerted to be feeling sexual desire instead. So at least the fragment suggests: we have no knowledge they even knew each other very well. Except for this, another fragment, a love song to Psappho, in Easby-Smith’s translation:

But raise a song for her, O Muse!
The violet-crownèd maiden,
And praise her soft throat’s changing hues,
Her low voice, laughter-laden.

 Sing yet again her thousand charms,

Her eyes entrancing splendour,

Her swarthy cheeks and supple arms

And bosom dark and tender.

As was often the case, we cannot tell the context. Was this Alkaios, or was it written by him for another to sing. How personal was it? We’ll never know. Note the rhythm, insistent in verse but not so much when sung.

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In the fragments surviving one cannot find the beautiful metaphors remaining in the fragments of Psappho’s poems. Instead, Alkaios is likely to give a proverb. He has the kind of concrete wisdom found in Hesiod. He seems to have a strong rhythmic sense, and was celebrated for his command of metre. Something like Psalm 137 was often his style:

By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept,

when we remembered Zion.

There on the poplars, we hung our harps, 

for there our captors, asked us for songs…

A lyric made popular by the Melodians in 1970 and by Boney M again in 1978.

So take heed, take heed of the western wind

Take heed of the stormy weather

And yes, there’s something you can send back to me

Spanish boots of Spanish leather

Once again I think of a Dylan song, so as to grasp the idea that Alkaios was sung, with a guitar like accompaniment, to an audience.

Another idea about Greek poetry to remember is that the poets were not literary figures. Homer was a publicist for the glory of ancient families; Arkhilokhos and Alkaios were soldiers and politicians; Psappho was a priestess. We have to think of public art like a poetry reading, a pop concert or a performance exhibition, often overtly religious or political rather than literary or cultural when we read or recite the fragments that are left.

The poems and fragments of Alkaios are available at:

(and Dylan’s lyrics are at:

©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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