Issue 24 – Spring 2013 – Archaic Greek Poets

Special Supplement I: Archaic Greek Poets

Translated by Jill A. Coyle


The Greek poets presented here wrote during the Archaic age. Their writings span some two hundred years- the sixth and seventh centuries B.C. The Archaic period was a time of political and social upheaval as tyrants overthrew hereditary aristocracies in many Greek cities. It was also a time of great geographic mobility as the Greeks established colonies throughout the Mediterranean and many individuals fled their native lands to escape social and political unrest. The Archaic poets hail from various parts of the Mediterranean world. Many lived in more than one region during their lifetimes. Archilochus, originally from Paros, earned his living abroad as a mercenary soldier. Ibycus was born in Rhegium in the Greek West, but relocated to Samos where he wrote under the patronage of the tyrant Polycrates. Anacreon was born in Ionian Teos, but fled an invasion by Persia and sought refuge in Thrace. Later, he found a home at the court of Polycrates in Samos, and still later, at the court of Hipparchus at Athens. Alcman left his native Sardis for Sparta, the city with which his writing career is traditionally associated. Alcaeus, a contemporary of Sappho, lived and wrote on the island of Lesbos. He is the only poet presented here whose career is not marked by geographic mobility. The social status of the Archaic poets also varies. Archilochus, the mercenary soldier, is at the lower end of the social scale. Alcaeus, a member of a prominent aristocratic family, occupies the upper end of the spectrum. The other poets presented here lie somewhere in between. Despite being separated by geography, time, and life experiences, the works of these poets are unified by the timeless themes of war, love, old age, and death. These poets are remarkable for their ability to render their inner, abstract worlds palpable by transmitting deep feeling through the skillful description of familiar, concrete objects and natural phenomena.

The literature of the Greek Archaic period, the three hundred years after Homer but before the arrival of the famous tragedians and historians of the Classical period, receives relatively little attention. The Archaic poets are not often translated, perhaps because most of their works survive only in fragmentary form. Of the many Greek poets writing during this period, only the name of Sappho is widely recognized by the non-specialist today. With the translations offered here, my intention is to render some of Sappho’s equally remarkable contemporaries accessible to the modern reader. Instead of striving to preserve the precise grammar, syntax, and meter of the original (all of which are often awkward or impossible to render into English), I try to convey the overall mood, spirit, tone, and meaning of the original as accurately and gracefully as possible through modern English free verse. All poets, both ancient and modern, seek both to communicate ideas and feelings, as well as to entertain and inspire their readers. Through my translations of the Greek Archaic poets, I strive to bridge the gap that centuries of time have created and facilitate a meaningful connection between ancient poets and modern readers.


Alcaeus lived during the seventh-century in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. He was a contemporary of Sappho. Alcaeus’ family was involved in a struggle for power among the aristocratic families on the island. Political unrest was a constant reality for Alcaeus as Mytilene came under the control of a succession of tyrants, some favorable to Alcaeus and others not. The troubled conditions under which he lived and wrote are reflected in his writings. Many of his poems focus on war and contemporary politics. His poem on a ship caught in a storm is often interpreted as an early version of the “ship of state” metaphor. He also composed drinking songs, love songs, and hymns to the gods.



I cannot determine the direction of the wind-
waves role in from one side,
and then from the other.
We are in the middle,
carried on a dark ship,
besieged by an overwhelming storm-
it fills the hold up to the mast-hole,
the sail is threadbare and full of great rents,
the riggings fail….



The great house sparkles with bronze;
the whole roof is adorned for war with radiant helmets
from which brilliant horse-hair plumes nod,
ornaments for the heads of men;
the wall-pegs are covered by bright bronze greaves
protections against the strong arrow,
new linen cuirasses and hollow shields
lie cast about beside Chalcidian blades,
beside many doublets and tunics.
These things are not to be forgotten,
as soon as this hard task is undertaken.



I fell at the hands of the Love-goddess
with her cunning wiles,
and wherever I flee
either on sea or on land,
to whichever city,
She overtakes me…



Soak your lungs in wine!
For the star is coming ’round again,
the season is hard to bear,
all is parched by searing heat,
the cicada sounds from the tree-top leaves,
the thistle blooms, and women are most passionate,
but men are weak, because the Dogstar
scorches both the head and the knees…



Although he is associated with mid seventh-century Sparta where he lived and wrote for most of his life, Alcman is thought to have been born at Sardes in Lydia. He is said to have been a slave who was granted liberty because of his literary talent. Unlike the other poets presented here whose writing careers were touched by wars and political unrest, Alcman’s writing belongs to a period of peace after the Second Messinian War. Alcman wrote hymns to the gods and other choral poems to be performed at Spartan festivals. Perhaps most interesting for the modern reader is Alcman’s talent for rendering simple, everyday things sublime through his graceful writing.



No longer, oh honey-divine voiced maidens,
can my limbs carry me.
I wish I were a halcyon bird
that flies strong of heart
together with the kingfishers
over the flowering waves,
a sea-purple bird of spring.



And then I will give you a cauldron
in which you may gather your dinner;
the cauldron is as yet unfired,
but soon brimming with the thick soup
that insatiable Alcman loves
steaming hot in mid-winter,
for he will not dine on fine cuisine,
but he craves the fare of the common people.



They sleep-
the mountain peaks and ravines,
headlands and streams,
and as many creeping things as the black earth feeds,
mountain-bred wild beasts, even swarms of bees,
monsters in the darkly gleaming depths of the sea,
and auspicious predators on long wings-
even they are sleeping.


Born in the sixth-century B.C. at Teos, a Greek city in Asia Minor, Anacreon fled a Persian invasion in 545 B.C. With other Teans, he helped found a colony in Thrace. Eventually, he made his way to the court of Polycrates at Samos where he became a music tutor to the tyrant’s son. After the fall of Polycrates, Anacreon went to the court of the tyrant Hipparchus at Athens. He also spent some time in Thessaly where he enjoyed royal patronage, but he eventually returned to Athens where he was honored with a statue in the Acropolis after his death. Anacreon seems to have had a prolific career. He wrote love songs, hymns to the gods, sympotic poems, commemorative poems, dedications, and epitaphs. He is especially known for his clever wit, which can be detected in the poems presented here.



I fly up to Olympus on light wings-
I’m after Love!
Hor he is not willing to consort with me
as he used to do,
but he sees that my beard is already gray
and he passes me by,
sailing on the winds
with wings golden and gleaming.



Already my temples are gray and my head is white,
no longer is graceful youth with me,
even my teeth are old.
Of sweet life, not much time is left for me.
I cry often
for fear of the Underworld.
Death is terrible,
and the way down is grievous,
and it is certain when one goes down,
there’s no return.



Bring water, bring wine, serving-boy,
bring me garlands of flowers,
for I will try boxing with Love.


The son of Telesicles and a slave woman, Archilochus was born on the island of Paros. His date is disputed, variously cited as either the mid-seventh or mid-eighth century B.C. Archilochus took part in the colonization of Thasos. He worked as a mercenary soldier and was eventually killed in battle. Archilochus was regarded as a great literary innovator in his use of colloquial language and subjects. His poems strike a personal note that seems ahead of its time. He candidly expresses his own experiences and opinions in simple, uncontrived language.



In my spear, my barley-bread,
in my spear, my rich wine.
I drink
leaning on my spear.



Come on, keep that drinking-cup going
along the rowing-benches of this swift ship
and empty that hollow bottle!
Come on, drain that red wine down to the lees!
It is impossible for us to stay sober on this watch.



In my shield, now, some enemy finds joy,
that innocent shield I had to leave behind
beside a bush somewhere.
I did not want to leave it,
but I saved myself!
What do I care about that shield?
To hell with it!
I’ll get another one,
it’ll be just as good!



I don’t like a tall general, nor a well-built one,
nor one who loves his wavy locks,
nor one who trims his facial hair just right.
For me, a man should be short, bow-legged,
unswayable on his firm feet, ugly
and full of heart.


Born at the Greek colony of Rhegium in Sicily in the mid-sixth century B.C., Ibycus left his homeland to join the court of the tyrant Polycrates on the island of Samos where he wrote mostly choral poems. He is especially known for his poems on love and old age. Ibycus has an ability to convey strong emotion in the span of just a few lines by using familiar imagery in unique and powerful ways.



In Spring, the quince-trees are watered
by streams flowing gently from the river,
the maidens’ unshorn garden flowers,
and the wine-blossoms swell
beneath young, trailing vines.
But for me, Love has no sleeping-season,
like lighting it blazes up and flashes beneath
the Thracian north wind.
Love comes darkly raging and scorching,
it overpowers me
and shakes me
from the bottom of my heart.



Love, again, gazes at me
with tender eyes
beneath dark eyelashes
and with her magic
casts me into the hopeless
net of Aphrodite.
Oh God…how I tremble at Love’s
sudden approach
like a champion race-horse
when he grows old
draws the swift chariot unwillingly
to yet another contest.



For the dead
there is no
life-giving remedy.



Jill A. Coyle received a Ph.D. in Classical Studies from Duke University in 2002 and a M.A. in British and American Literature from North Carolina State University in 2013. Her dissertation examined portrayals of daily life on the funerary monuments of the northern Roman Empire with attention to the use of funerary iconography in the construction of provincial Roman identity. She is currently interested in the influence of Classical literature and culture on contemporary literature, a topic that she explores in her M.A. thesis: “David Lee’s The Porcine Canticles: Creating a New American Mythology,” and in her recent essay: “Billy Collins as a Modern Day Ovid: An Ovidian Reading on Collins’ Ballistics.”