At some point during the Hellenistic Period, scholars at the great centres of learning such as the great library of Alexandria created a list of nine ancient Greek Lyric poets that they deemed worthy of recording in the archives for posterity and study as outstanding exemplars of the art. Sappho and Alcaeus are included the list but as well as a brief introduction to these two figures who will be the subjects of our next Legendum meeting, I thought it would interested to look at the other seven as well.
I was also curious to look at Lyric poetry as a genre; what is Lyric as opposed to Iambics or Elegy? How and when did it originate? Once we have gained an outline idea of what lyric is we shall look at the nine exemplars to give us some background for Sappho and Alcaeus and their reception in the ancient world.
Greek Lyric – Some observations
The information that comes to us from the ancient Greek sources indicate the period when Lyric flourished to be sometime between the 7th and 5th centuries before our era, although it is very likely that it has its origins deeper in antiquity and further east. The Lyres of Ur as represented on the ‘peace’ side of the so-called standard of Ur provide us with an image of the earliest context of lyric, a long haired (female) singer who stands next to a lyre player and seems to be clapping in time to keep the beat while chanting or singing. The standard of Ur is dated to about 25th C before our era suggesting that lyric in its earlier forms had a considerable precedence in the Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures, before filtering through Mycenaean culture (14th-12th centuries BCE) and reaching a peak production and acme of perfection (at least in the eyes of the Alexandrian archivists). In the 7th to 5th Centuries BCE in Greece.
Thus, from earliest times, when there was an important (usually elite) occasion to mark, a victory, a memorial, or a birth perhaps or marriage or coronation, solo or group chanting and lyre playing seem to have been an integral part of the celebration. A common occasion and one requiring less formal recognition was the symposium or drinking party – one can imagine that this was the most frequent occasion for song, when friends or members of kinship or other type of affiliated groups would get together and pass the wine cups around and enjoy the latest expert performances. At some point the Greeks innovated upon the original remit of general celebration to more personalised, nuanced expressions of love, desire, jealousy as well as personal and searing political invective.
Sappho and Alcaeus are prime examples of this highly innovative, impassioned style despite having mere fragments upon which to base such an impression. They realised that the lyric could be used for a wider range of highly personalised expression previously unimagined or taboo – much like comparing the lyrics of the happy go lucky cheery popular songs of the 1940s and 50s ‘hit parade’ with its searing endpoint in Lou Reeds ‘Heroin’ or Nirvana’s Rape Me. You never know however, how wild the lyrics might have gotten with the Lyres of Ur – judging from the extremely violent scenes on the ‘war ‘ panel of the Ur standard – they could have come up with songs that wouldn’t have looked out of place on an early Sabbath album! The phrase itself, The Lyres of Ur is so fecund with suggestion! I can imagine a very bored customer dining at Douglas Adams’ Restaurant at the End of the Universe asking for an exclusive cocktail entitled ‘the Lyres of Ur’.
I think that a lot of musical development is circular or at least goes in spiralling upwards or downwards trends – constantly swinging between order and decadence so it’s possible to imagine that even the Greek lyric was revisiting themes or styles of the distant past as it followed its own meandering trajectory from the shores of Apollo to the peaks of Dionysos. But enough of these bizarre ramblings! Let us take a closer look at the nine Melians, starting with Alcman. I thought we would take a sort criminal record sheet/top trumps type of approach…
1. ALCMAN OF SPARTA
Floruit: 7th C BCE
Birth place: Sardis, the ancient capital of Lydia (?), The Suda has him down as hailing from Messoa.
Date/Cause of Death: Unknown date, from an infestation of lice (Aristotle), buried in Sparta next to the tomb of Helen of Troy (Pausanias)
Metrical Forms: Dactylic tetrameter/mixed metrical forms in composite long sections and repeated them strophically.
Poetry: There were six books of choral poetry extant in antiquity (50-60 poems) but had disappeared by the beginning of the Middle Ages. An 1855 discovery at Saqqara was made of a part of one of his poems; other fragments have been emerging from the Oxyrynchus papyrus dump since the 1960s. The predominant form of his poetry seems to have hymns, although it’s difficult to make an accurate judgement. The First Parthenaeion was such a choral/hymnal work to be performed by choroi of unmarried women.
Bonus Factoids: He seems to have been into praising the Gods, the beauty of women and the minute observation of natural flora and fauna around him
Melian Star rating (out of 10): 8 (one of the earliest lyric poets, stately with an eye for the detail of ritual practice.
2. SAPPHO OF LESBOS
Floruit: Born between 630-612 BCE
Birth place: Island of Lesbos (other traditions suggest Mytilene or Eresos
Date/Cause of Death: 570 BCE, some sources suggest suicide but this is not regarded as historical by most scholars. Exiled to Sicily sometime between 604-594 BCE and probably died in maturity.
Metrical Forms: Sapphic Stanzas, Alcaeics
Poetry: Around 10,000 Lines of poetry, of which 650 survive. The Suda attributes elegiacs, iambics and epigram in addition to her lyric works. The lyric poetry was collected by the Alexandrian archivists into a collection of around eight books. Most of her poetry is lost – we have the Oxyrynchus fragments to thank for continuing discoveries and publications, notably the Brothers Poem and the Kypris Poem, both published in 2014. Her poetry is direct, vivid and immediate with sharp imagery and emotive expressions. The poems celebrate the passion of love and of the memorialisation of events and festivals occasions.
The fragments and some other sources have been used to argue that Sappho engaged in homoerotic relationships with her female companions but the evidence is thin and unclear. Up until the 17th Century she was considered heterosexual and increasingly in modern times has become a gay icon. The contents of the fragments could be argued either way. It could also be argued that she engaged in sexual relationships across the gender spectrum but we should heed a caveat against putting too much of a modern interpretation based on such limited evidence.
Bonus Factoids: The works of Sappho and Alcaeus were publicly burnt by the church authorities in Constantinople and Rome in 1073. (cited by Will Durant after Mahaffy)
Melian Star rating (out of 10): 9 Highly rated by ancients and moderns alike.
3. ALCAEUS OF MYTILENE
Floruit: c.620 BCE – 6th C BCE
Birth place: Island of Lesbos, Mytilene
Date/Cause of Death: Unknown
Metrical Forms: Alcaeic, Sapphic Stanzas (?)
Poetry: His works were collected into ten books by the Alexandrian scholars Aristophanes of Byzantium and Aristarchus of Samothrace during the 3rd C BCE. Subject matter covered such genres as political songs, drinking songs, love songs and miscellaneous others. The sources for the fragments in which his work survives are a result of the scholarship of the renaissance and finds from our old friend the Oxyrynchus papyrus dump. Alcaeus is often contrasted with Sappho as being a bit low key in terms of emotions, but more versatile if less sophisticated verse.
Bonus Factoids: He was involved throughout his life in political struggles with a series of tyrants or tyrannical factions on the island, suffering exile as a result at least once. This political activity is alluded to in many of his poems. He was a contemporary of Sappho and rumoured to be a lover of hers at some time.
Melian Star rating (out of 10): 8.5
4. ANACREON OF TEOS
Name: Anacreon (of Teos)
Floruit: 582-485 BCE
Birth place: Teos, an Ionian coastal city and one of the 12 cities forming the Ionian League.
Date/Cause of Death: 485 in his home town of Teos from natural causes. There is a dubious apocryphal anecdote (Pliny Elder) that he dies from choking on a grape stone.
Metrical Forms: Anacreonteus. Long and short vowels alternation peculiar to his dialect lent a natural musicality to the recitation/chanting of lyrics.
Poetry: There were five books of poetry mention in the Suda, of which only fragments survive and the poems covered the usual themes of love with its attendant ups and downs, festivals, celebrations and arrange of quotidian themes.
Bonus Factoids: Hipparchus who was quite a fan of all things literary, had Anacreon ferried over to Athens in a 50-oar galley to join his court as official poet. The ancient equivalent of flying your favourite rock star in on private jet!
Melian Star rating (out of 10): 9 (for the above anecdote alone!)
Floruit: c.630-555 BC (The Suda chronology has been disputed by at least one scholar (M.L.West, 'Stesichorus', The Classical Quarterly, New Series Vol.21, No.2 (Nov. 1971) page 302)
Birth place: Metauros in Calabria, southern Italy
Date/Cause of Death: 555 BCE in Catania, Sicily.
Metrical Forms: Lyric (Epic), Dactyls predominantly. Due to his bardic style poetical activities he is a possible link or bridge poet between Homer and Pindar. He composed verse forms in strophe, antistrophe and epode ‘The Stesichoran Threes’.
Poetry: Originally his poetry was collected in 26 books and included epic tales in lyric form (a genre for which he was noted). Only a few fragments survive of his work and he seems to have scant commentary from the Alexandrian scholars and archivists. The Geryonis poem consisted of 1500 lines of poetry and took four hours to perform (presumably with lyre and dancers – ancient prog rock!)
Bonus Factoids: Went blind due to verses critical of Helen of Troy, but cured later after composing verses praising her. Menippeans take note! He was exiled from Arcadia for political reasons (Tegean/Spartan rivalry). According to Legend (Pliny the Elder) a nightingale flew in through the window at his birth, perched upon his lips and sang, imparting its skill to him.
Melian Star rating (out of 10): 8, (Not much is known of him but he is a survivor and a reformed character!
Floruit: Latter half of 6th C BCE. Our information comes from the Suda and again the biography and chronology is suspect or muddled at best – the dates and other contemporaries don’t tally well or are perhaps mixed narratives at cross purposes.
Birth place: Rhegium
Date/Cause of Death: Unknown date, but captured by bandits and murdered.
Metrical Forms: choral style based upon Stesichorus so presumably, dactylic, lyric.
Dialect: Epic, Doric with some borrowed Aeolisms from Sappho and Alcaeus.
Poetry: Known to the ancients for composing verses on the theme of boy love and in addition lyric on mythological themes in the vein of Stesichorus. His works survive in quotations of ancient scholars and some papyrus fragments from Egypt. Works amounted to seven books compiled by the Alexandrian scholars.
Bonus Factoids: ‘The Cranes of Ibycus’ was a saying coined from a revenge myth related to the tormenters of Ibycus, who were warned by him that cranes flying over at the time of his ill treatment by them would be his avengers. He invented the triangular Lyre, as revolutionary for its time as the Gibson Flying V!
Melian Star rating (out of 10): 10…anyone who invents a triangular lyre has my highest praise!
7. SIMONIDES OF CEOS
Floruit: 556-468 BCE Suda is the source and the usual problems are noted when trying to match with other sources, Olympiad dates etc.
Birth place: Ioulis, Ceos
Date/Cause of Death: Date as above. Cause unknown but after a few lucky and legendary escapes its seems likely that he died of natural causes.
Metrical Forms: Choral lyric, encomium (in particular the Victory Ode) for which he is credited as the inventor,elegiac, dithyramb (songs sung originally in honour of Dionysus but extended later to long encomiums on heroes and mythical personages)
Dialect: Ionian, Doric.
Poetry: Fragments and quotations in other ancient sources give us a general idea of his work. He became very sought after as an epitaph writer and possibly made his fame and living chiefly from this although his work ranges over other genres.
Bonus Factoids: Composed the commemorative verse for the Athenian war dead at Marathon, apparently being chosen by them for the job in preference to Aeschylus much to the latter’s chagrin.
There are two interesting accounts of miraculous escapes that Simondes made. The first when he was the feast guest of a certain Thessalian chieftain Scopas. He was summoned out of the feast hall by two mysterious visitors and just after he left, the ceiling of the hall collapsed killing everyone in it, including Scopas. This has the added touch of being a revenge tale as well as a miraculous survival tale in that prior to the escape, Simonides had been involved in a payment dispute with Scopas who had commissioned him to compose one of his famous victory odes in honour of a local boxer. Simonides had made so many references to Castor and Pollux that Scopas threatened to pay half of the fee to them!
Melian Star rating (out of 10): For the verse commemorating the war dead at Marathon claim to fame surely a 9!
Floruit: 518-451 BCE (Yes I know Sudas, Sudas..so much to answer for)
Birth place: Strabo tells us he was born on Ceos (Ioulis) but the details of his life are scanty.
Date/Cause of Death: The Suda's dates are again not without difficulty but some point before the Peloponnesian War, 451 BCE
Metrical Forms: Encomium, Choral and individual Lyric and mythic using the usual meters as per Simonides as far as I can ascertain since Uncle and nephew were in the same line of business, and possibly rivals. Ancient scholars and for that matter a number of more recent figures too have tended to depict Bacchylides as inferior in quality and ingenuity to his uncle Simonides. Bacchylides covers a wider range of genres than all of the other Lyric poets, paean, dithyramb, partheneia, prosodia etc, probably due to his career as a jobbing poetaster around the Greek world.
Poetry: Nine books of poetry were compiled by the Alexandrian Grammarian Didymus (3rd C BCE). Only fragments survive and he also survives in the quotations of other ancient scholars and commentators.
Bonus Factoids: Nephew of Simonides of Ceos and possibly an inheritor/imitator of his style. A major discovery/purchase in Egypt by the Egyptologist Wallis Budge of a large papyrus fragment in the 19th C added to our knowledge of his poetry considerably, enabling Frederic Kenyon of the British Museum department of manuscripts to publish an edition of twenty poems, six of them more or less complete.
Melian Star Rating (out of 10): 8. Living in the shadow of Simonides, more eloquent but not an innovator and lacking the deeper insight and philosophical nuance of his uncle's works. He could be looked at as a successor rather than a serious rival to his uncle.
Floruit: 522-443 BCE
Birth place: Thebes
Date/Cause of Death: 440 BCE of natural causes while attending a festival at Argos
Metrical Forms: Mixed strophic but the usual for choral and lyric as well as epinika.
Dialect: Predominantly Doric (although he spoke in Boeotian dialect)
Poetry: Alexandrian scholars collected his compositions into 17 books according to genre, so like his contemporaries (?) Simonides and Bacchylides his range was considerably wide. He did not create any new lyrical genres however.
Bonus Factoids: The first Greek poet to discuss poetry itself and its nature and purpose and the role the poet played in society.
Melian Star rating (out of 10): 10 if we are to believe Horace and many other commentators, but it may be due to the fact that a lot more of his work survives (Epinikia or Victory Odes etc).
I have been crushingly brief with Pindar who really deserves a page wholly devoted to him since there is by far so much more extant of his works quoted in the works of other ancients and surviving complete odes. However my aim was to give you a quick run through of the nine in order to provide a backdrop for the two we are going to look at in more detail. Something of an image however dim comes to me from looking into the backgrounds of these melian greats ; a gradual blossoming of the performed song from private recital at symposiums amongst elite groups or in choral from as part of a city wide religious festival into a sort of Greek version of travelling singing stars criss-crossing the seas of the known world of the time, composing and performing for fees and patronage of kings and tyrants, influencing each other as rivals in the same highly competitive and lucrative activity - carving out a name and legacy for themselves with their innovative style of song, lyric and even instrument. Very much the itinerant blues players or seafaring rockstars of their day. I look forward to imagining their lyrics setting our hearts and minds aflame when we next meet!