ARCHILOCHUS: THE POEMS: Introduction, Text, Translation, and Commentary

Edited by Laura Swift

OUP (2019) h/b 492pp £100.00 (ISBN 9780198768074)

This is a work of scholarship, designed for scholars. To put its scale into context, although S. publishes 333 poems or fragments, of which about 40 are dubia or spuria, relatively few are coherent poems and very many are tiny papyrus fragments, often consisting of only a few letters. (S. sensibly follows the numeration of Martin West’s Iambi et Elegi Graeci, even where she disagrees with West.).

Introduction (54 pages):

1: Date. Archilochus (hereinafter, A.) is now firmly placed in the 7th century BC, as indeed he has been since Jacoby in 1941 demolished Blakeway’s arguments for the 8th century BC; such extra data as S. has been able to adduce all go to confirm the later dating.

2: Life and Biographical Tradition. Notoriously, this is an area where fiction is hard to distinguish from truth; S. considers that two (much later) inscriptions from Paros reflect a tradition of Delphic support for A. and his involvement in political and military affairs; it is likely enough that some of the names appearing in A.’s verse are real people (e.g. Glaucus); but, says S., many elements of the poet’s ‘life’ are derived from his poetry; as indeed has been generally accepted since Lefkowitz’s study of the subject as a whole (second edition, 2012): thus a sceptical (but not dismissive) approach is advisable.

3: Iambus and Elegy. Although the terms bear enduring connotations of scurrility (cf. ἰαμβίζειν = lampoon) and mourning (cf. Ovid’s—or ‘Ovids’s’—elegeia, flebile carmen in Heroides XV, not cited by S.), this does not imply that they were dominant themes: elegy could include love, politics, the symposium, and much else, while S. prefers to see iambus as a loose category with a range of characteristics, including didactic or political advice: while A. is the first surviving iambographer, S., who rightly refers to Rotstein’s The Idea of Iambos (2010), is sensible in defining the origins of both genres as ‘problematic’. (On a technical point, S. regards the tetrameter as an iambus with three extra syllables at the start, the ‘catalectic’ aspect thus disappearing, but the reviewer wonders whether that does justice to the ‘racy’ feel of the line given by the trochees).

4. Relationship with Other Genres. No great surprises here, with Homer to the fore—despite stylistic differences; ‘Longinus’ lists A., with Stesichorus, among the ‘most Homeric’ authors, probably on linguistic grounds. Does A. subvert epic values or recycle them? S. warns against an attempt to pigeonhole him in either category. The influence of Hesiod is less clear-cut (no certain intertext is available) and S. is reduced to referring to the ‘rich’ tradition from which both Hesiod’s and A.’s didactic poetry emerges.

5. Blame, Abuse and Morality. A. is, after all, the archetypal poet of blame, sometimes ‘direct and brutal’ (think of Neoboule), sometimes in a mocking vein—but with A. retaining the ‘moral centre ground’, by ensuring that abuse is morally justified, making the audience side with the poet rather than the victim. 

6. Animal Fables. A genre of remarkable antiquity, with Aesop to the fore, though Herodotus places his date as later than that of A. In the case of A., ‘The Fox and Monkey’ (humiliation of the target) and ‘Fox and Eagle’ (haranguing Lycambes) fables are designed in both cases ‘to exacerbate’ the blame and broaden its relevance: be it noted that both fables (frr. 185-7 and 172-81) are highly fragmentary. Yet the well-known—at least in modern times—one line fable, if such it be, of the ‘Fox and the Hedgehog’ is dealt with by S. not here, but in her commentary on fr. 201, where even Isaiah Belin is mentioned.

7. Colonization and Wars. The Parian settlement on Thasos—for which A. is one of the few sources—is a central theme for A.: most notably, and famously later copied (but does S. ever mention Horace?), is his description of losing his shield. War there certainly was, but S. does her best here to disentangle fact from fiction helped—surprisingly—by Callimachus (fr. 104 Pfeiffer) (here, fr. 92) which, says S., indicates a more nuanced relationship, involving diplomacy. But much has to be conjectured from little evidence; fr. 20, where A. says that he mourns for the sufferings of the Thasians, not the Magnesians, is of no help. (Attempts to link A. to the shadowy Lelantine War are unconvincing). 

8. Sex and Desire. While, as S. says, A.’s erotic poetry shows familiarity with the poetic tropes that are pervasive in lyric, she does not also hesitate to call a spade a spade, notably where, as she says, the obscenity is more explicit: generous examples are given, encompassing a wide variety of sexual behaviour. Additionally, a technique pervasive in the erotic poems is the use of ‘martial’ language, with love as a form of warfare ‘inverting the “epic” code’—leading the way to Ovid’s militat omnis amans. 

9. Style. Assessing the style of a fragmentary author is ‘challenging’: Quintilian’s pithy and practised judgment praised A. for his vigour, vitality, and concision; S. singles out A.’s tendency to repeat significant words, his attention to word order, and his interest in personal names; the ‘overturning of expectations’ is also a marked feature, and S. singles out fr. 25. (The reviewer is in doubt as to how much attention we should pay to A.’s ‘infinite fame’, hailed by Theocritus in a dedicatory epigram.) 

10. Transmisson and Reception. S. handles this topic under five headings: Archaic and Classical Greece, The Hellenistic Period, Latin Literature, Imperial Literature, and After Antiquity. Here it must suffice to say that, by the Hellenistic period, A.’s works were organized, in the Alexandrian edition, by metre, arranged in books or sections; treatises on A. included works by Apollonius of Rhodes, Aristophanes of Byzantium, and Aristarchus, while the ‘Fox and Eagle’ epode lay behind the telling by Callimachus of his own animal fable, also in iambic verse, in Iamb 2. 

Text and translation of the fragments occupy the next 140 pages. Since, of course, there is no manuscript transmission, these all come from Testimonia or papyrus (there is a full apparatus criticus, in which the devoted skill of Edgar Lobel is manifest—as is that of Martin West). S. has the trying task of translating often pitifully incomplete fragments into as close to a coherent narrative as the available matter permits. 

There follow (before the Bibliography and Indices, including an Index Locorum) approximately 230 pages of Commentary, in which every fragment is given full treatment (perhaps even occasionally overfull, as your reviewer has seen elsewhere in recent times). Only a tiny number of points can be made here: at fr. 2—the mildly puzzling ἐν δόρι couplet—S. disagrees with Bowra’s belief that those words must mean the same all three times, but then comes close to subverting this by allowing the meaning ‘at arms’ to the final usage—as Bowra does (her translation of the lines is not very helpful). 

The study of ancient Greek poetry has been immensely enriched by papyrus finds (Alcman’s Partheneion, poems by Sappho), and the second century AD Cologne papyrus (fr.196a) of A. is regarded by S as one of the most significant finds of the 20th century: she gives it 20 pages of commentary. It is perhaps not surprising that the sexual activity described allusively towards the end has attracted the devoted and learned attention of many scholars—twelve, by my count: yet S. may well be right in suggesting that the poet here is being deliberately ambiguous. We do not know who the girl of the poem is, but Neoboule’s younger sister, as suggested by Merkelbach and West, seems the most plausible. S. also adduces some epic parallels, including the famous Dios Apate. It is also clear from the overall commentary that S. has herself (where relevant) examined papyri, which enables her to question the readings of even such fine scholars as (e.g.) Peek (p. 253) and Merkelbach (p. 375).

A difficult text has been printed by OUP with exemplary care; your reviewer noted an unimportant typo on p. 229, and there is a ‘ghost’ reference on p. 263, where read Henderson (1975) for Henderson (1991). There has not been a previous complete commentary on A., nor an English-language commentary even on the major fragments: S. has indisputably succeeded in her stated aim ‘to provide literary and historical analysis of A.’s poetry, and to set individual fragments within the wider context of the poet’s work and early Greek song culture in general’. One can only regret that Martin West, to whose work S. refers to time and time again (by no means always in agreement with him, notably over dubia and spuria) did not live to see its publication. Scholarly libraries should not find the £100 price an obstacle to purchasing so exemplary a work of scholarship. 

Colin Leach

We welcome your comments; please send via our social media.
Back to Reading Room