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Lydian Hegemony and Lesbian Politics in Alcaeus

William Tortorelli

Haverford College

The Mytilene of Alcaeus is a tricky knot to unravel. Waves roll in from every direction, with vague references in the poems to the back-and-forth push-and-pull of several factions alternatingly in ascendance and exile. But there is almost no constitutional specificity in the references to rule, few of these figures can be identified even vaguely, and there is little compelling textual evidence for any link in this chain of events. I would suggest that yet another player is missing from this political picture. Lydia is suspiciously absent from our models of archaic Lesbian politics. This paper argues that recognizing the place of Lydian hegemony in archaic Lesbos can resolve much of this confusion.

         The Hittite and Lydian empires exerted a great deal of influence on the development of Lesbian culture, as we can see from a material record that displays much more of Anatolian character than of Aeolian Greek (Spencer 1995; Mason 2008). I discuss the overwhelming textual evidence for Lydian influence over the island in the 7th to 6th centuries, including Sappho’s references to the luxuries of the mainland. The borders of Lydia seem especially porous for the people of Lesbos. I analyze the exilic fragments of Alcaeus, arguing that they depict factions in or out of favor with a pro-Lydian aristocracy, and his “ship of state” fragments, arguing that they relate to the security of Lesbian autonomy in the shadow of the powerful Lydian empire.

         Myrsilus is the most confusing of the rulers of Mytilene mentioned by Alcaeus, not least because the name is associated with the Lydian king Candaules by Herodotus (1.7), who tells us that Candaules was called Myrsilus by the Greeks. Herodotus was under the impression that it is a Greek or Hellenized variant. This confusion suggests that Herodotus’ sources employ the name Myrsilus in an ambiguous way. Dale considers two possible conclusions about the identity of Myrsilus of Mytilene: (a) that Myrsilus was the heir to an indigenous royal family of neo-Hittite Lesbians, or (b) that the name Myrsilus is an autocratic title borrowed from Anatolia and applied by Alcaeus to both Melanchrus and Pittacus, in turn (Dale 2011). I conclude that the name Myrsilus appears in the fragments of Alcaeus not as a specific citizen of Mytilene, nor as a generic term for a ruler, but as a title for the king of Lydia. References to Lesbians making alliances with Myrsilus can be explained as factional contestants who have allied themselves with the powerful kingdom on the mainland.

         Alcaeus also uses the term tyrannos to describe Pittacus, the first leader of a Greek state to be so called. The word comes into Greek through /tarwanai/ from the Luwian language group of Anatolia. Archilochus fragment 19 refers to the fame of Gyges with a word that the Lydian monarch himself may have used to denote his rule. When Alcaeus picks that up in fragment 348 as a descriptor of Pittacus, though, it is possible that he is attacking his rival with a term more appropriate to an eastern potentate. The fame of Alcaeus’s poetry and the importance of Pittacus led to the adoption of the Anatolian word as a general Greek term for a ruler.

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Political and Military Conflict in the Greek World

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