I had to leave it in a wood,
but saved my skin. Well, I don’t care—
I’ll get another just as good.
Archilochos sees little point in dying in a blaze of glory if flight means that you can live to fight another day (fr. Adesp. 38 West). In one fragment, he even explains that dying valiantly is useless because “no one here enjoys respect (aidos) or reputation (periphēmos) once he’s dead” (fr. 133 West): according to the poet, people only tend to the living. This is almost certainly an exaggeration on Archilochus’ part.
Of course, sometimes it wasn’t necessary to fight. In one fragment, Archilochus writes about how the “Thracian dogs” were bribed (fr. 93 West), perhaps in exchange for treasure, some land, or something as simple as a truce. Of course, we cannot ignore the possibility that the Thracians had laid siege to a Parian or Thasian settlement or camp and had simply been bought off instead of repulsed through military action.
Presumably, armies in this period still consisted of smallish warbands, each composed of an aristocratic leader and his followers, retainers, and perhaps some dependents. Certainly, Archilochus is the first Greek writer, as far as we know, who uses the word stratēgos to denote the leader of a stratos, an “army” or “host” (fr. 114.1 West): that is, a general. It’s an alternative to the more common hēgemōn or hēgetōr. Archilochus also refers to a (military) leader as archos (fr. 98 West).
The warrior-poet is again being satirical when he describes what kind of general he would entrust with his life. Archilochus claims to prefer “a shortish sort of chap, who’s bandy-looking round the shins” (fr. 114.3 West). In other words, a far cry from the manly ideal of, say, Achilles, but then I hasten to add that even Homer tried to avoid cliché: take, for example, Iliad 3.191-198, where Odysseus is said to be fairly short.
War features prominently in Archilochus’ work. Combined with his sometimes down-to-earth if not outright satirical appraisal of the glories of combat, it has often been suggested that he was a mercenary. In particular, the following fragment is cited to support this hypothesis (fr. 2 West; transl. West):
On my spear’s my daily bread,
on my spear my wine
from Ismaros; and drinking it,
it’s on my spear I recline.
The word that M.L. West translates as “recline” (keklimenos) is commonly used in the sense of reclining on a dining couch, such as used during the symposium. It’s possible to interpret this fragment in two ways.
Firstly, this fragment may suggest that fighting is simply a way of life for Archilochos. This impression is reinforced when, in another fragment, he refers to himself as a therapōn (“henchmen”) of Enyalius, the war-god (fr. 1 West). The fragment combines drinking and eating (i.e. feasting) with fighting (the spear), and could therefore be a reference to the elite social circles in which he moved, as both feasting and fighting are, in Archaic Greece, essential parts of the aristocratic way of life.Show For further details, see my book in the further reading below, and apologies for the plug.
Secondly, we may interpret the passage in the sense that Archilochos earned a living – that is, bread and wine – through fighting. In another fragment, Archilochos states that he will “be called an epikouros, like a Carian” (fr. 216 West). The term epikouros is often translated as “mercenary”, but this doesn’t cover its meaning completely, as some of the Trojan allies in the Iliad are also called epikouroi and they were almost certainly not hirelings.
In this case, however, it seems that a more negative connotation is warranted: elsewhere, Archilochus states pessimistically that “an epikouros is a buddy (philos) for just so long as he’s prepared to fight” (fr. 15 West) – that is to say, an epikouros would fight as long as it either served his own purposes or was profitable. But the way that Archilochus frames the issue of being called an epikouros, “like a Carian”, suggests strongly that he isn’t.
The extant fragments that have been attributed to Archilochus offer a fascinating look at a slice of life in ancient Greece in the mid-seventh century BC. Whether everything that Archilochus has written down is actually true is a different matter, but the gist of it is presumably accurate.
Some of Archilochus’ fragments hew close to the warrior ethos espoused by other great Archaic Greek poets, such as Homer, Tyrtaeus, and Mimnermus. But he’s also not afraid to poke fun at some of these high-minded ideals, emphasizing, for example, that it’s okay to flee if it means you’ll live to fight another day.
Whether or not he was a mercenary is a question that cannot be satisfactorily answered, but the evidence in favour of this interpretation is slim. More likely, Archilochus was simply a member of the Parian elite. Unlike today, high-ranking men were supposed to lead by example, and Archilochus clearly had a good deal of experience when it came to fighting.
Suggestions for further reading:
Think we needed to include something else in this list? Let us know.