Archilochus fragments 2, 3 5A and 6

Archilochus, a soldier-poet

by Archilochus

Archilochus was born on the island of Paros and lived, on the basis of references to dateable events in his poetry, between about 680 and 640 BCE. His main reputation in the later ancient world was as a writer of devastatingly insulting verses in iambics, a metre traditional for invective, but he was also a soldier, as this little selection of fragments in elegiac metre shows: by ancient tradition, he died fighting. All of the fragments have a convincing flavour of a soldier’s life, whether on board ship, anticipating battle or making a self-deprecating joke about having to abandon his shield to save his skin, a trope that was to be reproduced by other poets down the centuries, including Horace describing his service in Brutus’s army and its defeat at the battle of Philippi in Odes 2.7. Short as they are, each fragment gives a strong impression of character and personality. Archilochus is the first surviving Greek poet to take his subject matter from his own life and opinions, and the earliest of the Greek lyric poets.

The importance of wine in the fragments reflects a common feature of a soldier’s life in any age. It is Ismaric wine that Archilochus drinks, leaning on his spear; and it was Ismaric wine that Odysseus used to get the Cyclops drunk so that he could blind him in Book 9 of Homer’s Odyssey. He writes these pieces in elegiac couplets, and their hexameter lines are something that he shares with Homer. Roman poets like Propertius were using pretty much the same metre six hundred years later.

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ἀλλ᾽ ἄγε, σὺν κώθωνι θοῆς διὰ σέλματα νηὸς
φοίτα καὶ κοΐλων πώματ᾽ ἄφελκε κάδων,
ἄγρει δ᾽ οἶνον ἐρυθρὸν ἀπὸ τρυγός:
οὐδὲ γὰρ ἡμεῖςνήφειν ἐν φυλακῇ τῇδε δυνησόμεθα.

οὔ τοι πόλλ᾽ ἐπὶ τόξα τανύσσεται οὐδὲ θαμειαὶ
σφενδόναι, εὖτ᾽ ἂν δὴ μῶλον Ἄρης συνάγῃ
ἐν πεδίῳ: ξιφέων δὲ πολύστονον ἔσσεται ἔργον:
ταύτης γὰρ κεῖνοι δαίμονές εἰσι μάχης
δεσπόται Εὐβοίης δουρικλυτοί.

ἀσπίδι μὲν Σαΐων τις ἀγάλλεται, ἣν παρὰ θάμνῳ
ἔντος ἀμώμητον κάλλιπον οὐκ ἐθέλων:
αὐτὸν δ᾽ ἔκ μ᾽ ἐσάωσα: τί μοι μέλει ἀσπὶς ἐκεινη;
ἐρρέτω: ἐξαῦτις κτήσομαι οὐ κακίω.

ἐν δορὶ μὲν μοι μᾶζα μεμαγμένη, ἐν δορὶ δ᾽ οἶνος
Ἰσμαρικός, πίνω δ᾽ ἐν δορὶ κεκλιμένος.

Come on now, go with a cup along the thwarts of the swift ship, draw drink from the jars and drain the red wine down to the dregs, for we will not be able to stay sober on this watch.

There will not be many bows bent nor slings slung when the War-God sets his array in the plain, but there will be grievous work for swords, for that is the combat that the spear-famed lords of Euboea are the masters of.

Now some Saian enjoys my blameless shield, that I reluctantly left by a bush: but I sai-ved myself from the Saians. What’s that shield to me? Let it go: I’ll get another just as good.

In my spear is my kneaded barley-bread, in my spear is my Ismaric wine, and I lean on my spear while I drink it.


More Poems by Archilochus

  1. Archilochus on endurance