A poet and a mercenary?

Poetic fragments attributed to Archilochus of Paros show him to have been a warrior. But was he also, as is often suggested, a mercenary?

Josho Brouwers

One of the joys of studying the cultural context of warfare in Archaic Greece is that it gives you a good excuse to read some excellent ancient literature. One of my favourite early Greek poets is Archilochus, of whose work a fair number of fragments has survived.

Archilochos was born on the Cycladic island of Paros, about which Matthew Lloyd has written before. He was active around the middle of the seventh century BC. That date is based on two pieces of evidence. First, there’s a fragment in which he refers to Gyges (fr. 19 West).

Gyges was the ruler of the kingdom of Lydia and we have a good idea of when he reigned. The word that Archilochus uses to describe him is tyrannos, from which we derive our word “tyrant”. Archilochus is the first ancient writer that we know of that uses the term. It may have been derived from a Lydian word, but it came to mean sole rulers who had seized absolute power, rather than inherited it. These people were notorious in the ancient world, and Joshua Hall and myself have discussed aspects of this type of leader.

The second piece of evidence we have to date Archilochus is another fragment in which he mentions a solar eclipse (fr. 122 West). Since solar eclipses occur regularly, it’s not that difficult to calculate the most likely one that Archilochus references. (For further details, refer to Cogan & Tadmor 1977; cf. Morris 2000, pp. 184-185.)

Much of Archilochus’ extant poetry appears to be autobiographical. As with most of the so-called lyric poets, his songs were intended for only a small group of listeners. In one fragment, Archilochos addresses Charilaos as the dearest of his hetairoi or “companions” (fr. 168 West). His work would have been performed at a symposium or, in some cases perhaps, at festivals.

The fragments leave no doubt that Archilochus was a member of the elite, who concerned himself mostly with, to borrow a phrase from Homer, “words and deeds” (cf. Odyssey 2.273), that is: politics and war. But he also composed erotic songs and other scabrous materials, no doubt to the enjoyment of his peers.

Archilochus, the warrior

For the most part, Archilochus’ descriptions of contemporary warriors fit with the evidence gleaned from other poems, Archaic Greek art, and the finds of actual arms and armour from graves and sanctuaries. For Archilochus, as for e.g. Homer, the typical warrior is the aichmētēs or spearman (e.g. fr. 24.13 West). Spears in general loom large in relevant fragments (e.g. frr. 96.4 and 98.1 West).

Archilochus is clearly an experienced fighter. Even his name, composed of archos (leader) and lochos (ambush; also, the men of an ambush or a group of armed men), refers to war. He took part in battles against the Thracians on the island of Thasos, which had been colonized by Parians. Both the island itself and the nearby Thracian mainland possessed a number of important gold mines that made it a fiercely contested area.

Archilochus was apparently involved in some of the violent struggles between the Thracians and Parians/Thasians. Some of his work can be clearly categorized as exhortation poetry, in which he calls for warriors to stand their ground (e.g. fr. 128 West).

Some sort of war-weariness is perhaps demonstrated in another fragment, in which the poet wonders out loud how or to what end the hapless army (anolbos stratos) is being assembled this time (fr. 88 West). As a veteran of battle, he also sometimes poked fun at the Greek warrior ethos that extolled the virtues of a glorious death on the battlefield.

Consider, for example, the following fragment, in which Archilochus reveals that he tossed away his shield (aspis) to make it easier to run away from a losing battle (fr. 5 West; transl. West):

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.

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.

Archilochus, the mercenary?

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. (For further details, see my book in the further reading; 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.

Closing thoughts

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.