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Alcaeus the Tyrant Slayer: Re-performance and identity in the Symposium

Kristen Ehrhardt

Recent work on the performance of archaic Greek lyric poetry often discusses the work of a poet within the context of his or her own circle. Anacreon's poetry is read from the perspective of a hedgy poet-for-hire, entertaining—but not really belonging—at a tyrant's court (Kantzios 2005, 2010); likewise, Theognis and Alcaeus each perform among their own hetaireia in symposia at Megara or Lesbos (Figueira and Nagy 1985; Rösler 1980).  While this sort of analysis can help to shed light on the poetry's original performative and compositional contexts, there are aspects that are, nevertheless, problematic.  By concentrating our focus on original performances we lose track of the later lives of the poems which continued to help develop poetic identities.  For example, we know that Sappho was important not only because of the pile of her extant fragments but also from the evidence of later ancient poets and commentators.

Testimonia from later authors may be helpful not only to attest to an author's popularity, but also to shed light on possible ongoing performative contexts for archaic poets. In this paper, I examine the characterization of Alcaeus in the testimonia as an angry politico, raging against tyrants and map this identity within the context of 5th century Athens.  Although this was a site removed by a century and a sea from the original performance context of Lesbos, Alcaeus' poetry maintained a level of relevance.  His poetry was parodied by Aristophanes in both the Wasps (1232-5) and the Birds (1410), and Athenaeus lists him as a possible author of Attic skolia, the collection of short drinking songs (15.694a). When Aristophanes parodies a poem it is reasonable to assume that the original poems were popular enough among the Athenian audience for them to get the reference. 

I argue that it is within this extended, Athenian, performative context that Alcaeus' reputation as a political freedom-fighter was cemented. The recitation of Alcaeus' poetry provides performers, ensconced within the safety of a symposium, a way to negotiate their place in a society where members are anxious about both offending and appearing to support the ruling parties. Alcaeus' description of the tyrant Pittacus becomes poetic shorthand for coping with a corrupt ruler.

Sung at an Athenian symposium, Alcaeus' rage against Pittacus may be seen to mirror the Athenian foundation narrative of the Tyrannicides.  Thus, the poems from Lesbos took on a new significance when mixed with Harmodios and Aristogeiton, men who themselves became emblems that promoted the Athenians' new democracy. Along with the tyrant slayers' prominent statues in the Athenian agora and a series of skolia for symposia, it is little wonder that Alcaeus' poetry may have experienced a renewed interest among symposiasts. How do different audiences lead to new perceptions of the poet?  And, how is our understanding of these poems affected by shifts in audiences?

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Greek Lyric

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