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Archilochus’ City in Speech, or “Once you die, you get the worst of everything”

July 30, 2010

As M.L. West’s introduction to his translations of “Greek Lyric Poetry” reminds us, in antiquity Archilochus was considered, along with Homer and Hesiod, “one of the greatest poets.” Unlike Homer, he writes in the first person with verve and irony, commenting on more immediate events. But his verse is formed and deliberate, and knows its own “dramatic situation”: the city, both at war and at peace. A stern and humorous truth-to-life is one of its great virtues.

As all Greek writers, he knew his Homer deeply; but the immediately palpable differences of his irony and humor, his responsiveness to the here-and-now, and the often comic personalities of his lyric speakers sometimes lead readers to suppose (mistakenly I think) that his use of Homeric material is purely parodic.

Like so many of the Greek poets, his work comes to us only in fragments; but the poetry is live enough to make nearly every bit we do have count. I will quote from West’s terse, loving, and accurate translations  (no replacement for the original Greek, of course).

Today, perhaps, we are most likely to have remembered him, if at all, for bits of canny wisdom:

201 The fox knows lots of tricks,

The hedgehog only one—but it’s a winner.


298 Among the gods Zeus is the trustiest seer,

controlling the outcome himself.


259 Not even Heracles beat two at once.

Archilochus identifies himself as both a soldier and a poet, and often wrote what we would call “war poetry,” but (as the fragments quoted below will bear out) he recognized a tension within the responsibilities of his twofold calling. Though bound to (what he judged to be) the necessary business of destruction, within the harsh terms of that service he was also indebted to the freeing gifts of Musical insight:

1 I am a servant of the lord god of war,

And one versed in the muses’ lovely gifts.

He thought unwarranted “heroic” pretense derisible, for which reason some have called him the father of an “anti-Homeric” tradition:

114 I don’t like a commander who’s tall, or goes at a trot,

or one who has glamorous wavy hair, or trims his beard a lot.

A shortish chap, who’s bandy-looking round the shins,

he’s my ideal, one full of guts, and steady on his pins.


115 But now Leophilus is in charge, it’s Leophilus’ turn to be king

everything’s clear for Leophilus,

pray silence for Leophilus,

and all that sort of thing.

In another poem of this kind, he parodies the famous Laconic saying—”with it, or on it”—by vigorously and humorously asserting a sensible estimation of the worth of his own life relative to the equipment meant to protect it:

5 Some Saian sports my splendid shield:

I had to leave it in a wood,

but saved my skin. Well, I don’t care—

I’ll get another just as good.


233 In that situation

your legs are your best possession.

A longer fragment deals with a related subject, but here the poet scolds a younger man, with the effect of distinguishing good sense from cowardice:

Adesp. 38

… His teeth were chattering …

As for running when you have to—as on that occasion God,

being angry with those people, drove the army on—

that was no disgrace to you … my long-haired lad,

that you shook your sturdy shield off and turned tail …

Braver men than you have given way to panics such as that;

nobody can beat the gods. But as for quitting the campaign

out of all the rest, and coming hotfoot back across the sea,

not a scratch upon you, well now, not much glory for you there.

His poems consistently recognize that the human situation is made of problems that one cannot hope to resolve, yet that by judicious perception of the values of things, and a supporting fortitude of heart, it is possible to endure nobly, if not indeed prevail:

128 Heart, my heart, with helpless, sightless troubles now confounded,

up, withstand the enemy, opposing breast to breast.

All around they lie in wait, but stand you firmly grounded,

not over-proud in victory, nor in defeat oppressed.

In your rejoicing let your joy, in hardship your despairs

be tempered: understanding the pattern shaping men’s affairs.


130 It all depends upon the gods. Often enough, when men

are prostrate on the ground with woe, they set them up again;

and often enough, when men are standing proud and all seems bright,

they tip them over on their backs, and then they’re in a plight—

a man goes wandering, short of bread, out of his mind with fright.

And, bitterly:

110 It’s true what they say: the god of war’s

impartial toward men.


111 And encourage the younger men; but victory’s

under the god’s control.

Of preëminent value in human life are the mortal ties which bind human persons to a common destiny, ties of nature, kinship and love, ties of moral and political duty. Betrayal of one’s own is the capital offense:

Adesp. 35

… avenging spirits …

Be sure of this: the gods take awful toll

of impious men who wrong their dearest ones,

and no one who’s betrayed his mother or

his sister’s ever done well out of it.

You’ll pay the price, I prophesy you will:

however many sheep you slaughter for

her wedding-feast, a fate implacable

will get you … you won’t soften your heart

or … when you’ve ruined an innocent.

Even when gods are well-disposed, one can’t

please them in everything …

Such ties are also the occasion of more tender reflections. Of joy:

24 Welcome back, … In a small ship you crossed

a mighty sea, and made it home from Gortyn.

… I’m glad of this as well.

It wasn’t the best of vessels that you came in,

… but God

held his hand over you, and now you’re here

… I don’t mind about the cargo,

if you are safe, whether it’s gone for good

or whether there’s some way to get it back.

I’d never find another friend like you,

if you’d been drowned at sea, or at the hands

of spearmen lost your manhood’s glorious prime.

But now it stays in bloom, God’s kept you safe

… and see me left alone

… prostrate in the gloom

… I’m brought back to the light of day.

And grief:

9 (On the loss at sea of the poet’s sister’s husband)

It would have been less hard, if we had had

his head, his fair limbs to wrap up in white

for the holy fire to operate upon

11 Well, wine will help …

For tears won’t heal my wound; if I attend

feasts and diversions they won’t make it worse.

And more grief:

Further fragments on shipwrecks

8 And often in the reaches of the white-hair-tossing sea

they prayed for sweet safe homecoming …

And with startlingly beautiful periphrasis:

12 … put lord Poseidon’s painful offerings away …

In this category also falls what is perhaps Archilochus’ most “characteristic” poem (possibly not a fragment but complete) which West puts prominently at the close of his collection (a poem which Socrates seems to have in mind in book x of the Republic, 603e-604e):

13 Not a man in the town will find fault, Pericles,

with our mourning, and enjoy his festival,

nor in the canton: such fine men the surge

of the tempestuous sea has overwhelmed,

and swollen are our lungs with piercing pain.

But then, my friend, the gods for ills past healing

have set endurance as the antidote.

This woe is different men’s at different times:

now it has come our way, and we bemoan

our bleeding wound; another day ’twill pass

to others. Come then, everyone endure,

spend no more time in womanish lament.

Such ties (as we will see) extend not only to the dying, but also to the dead. But, before we look at the relevant fragment, we should note how Archilochus makes his capacity to answer wrongs, whether to himself or his own, a point of pride–as if he himself were one of the “avenging spirits” he alludes to above:

125 I crave a fight with you, it’s like a thirst.


126 But I do have one good skill,

that’s to repay whoever hurts me with a corresponding ill.

In such cases, it is not clear whether retaliation is to be done with the methods of war or of poetry. But when it comes to the defense of the dead, it is clear that this cannot be accomplished by physical warfare alone. It is not their bodies or their lives that need guardians any longer, but their reputation—the image of their virtue alive on the lips of men. Their defense, then, can be accomplished only through the establishment of the manners and morals of “a city in speech.” Archilochus’ irony (in a moral injunction that one might paraphrase as “don’t pick on people who aren’t here to defend themselves”—a favorite saying of my own sisters and brother growing up) indicates the need for such walls of defense:

133 No one here enjoys respect or reputation once he’s dead:

in this city we the living need to cultivate instead

the living’s favour. Once you die, you get the worst of everything.

Now, whether unconsciously soothed by the fact that dead people can’t talk back, and so safely preening oneself on one’s own sophistication (see—in the comments—my own silliness and the scolding it drew), or for whatever other reason–whenever one unfairly represents the opinions or actions of the dead, one should accept the rebuke of those rules of conduct (and the guardians who maintain them) which give to the community that “comes to be within our speech” the character of a city. If we accept such reminders of the city’s boundaries and bonds and choose to live within them, we may indeed be startled, and  encouraged, by the voices of the dead—so often so much clearer than our own.

Archilochus of Paros, Seventh Century BC

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