The sea storm fragments of Alcaeus were perceived already from antiquity as carriers of metaphorical meaning (Heracl. Alleg. Hom. 5), and modern scholarship has followed suit, although with occasional dissent, e.g., Slater (1976: 161-70). Recently, Uhlig (2018: 63-92), too, has expressed skepticism about the political nature of Alcaeus’ sea storms, suggesting that one should privilege “those features that can be discerned at the surface of the text and [should adopt] an interpretative disposition that situates symbolic meaning along, rather than against, the grain of the text.” For Uhlig, Alcaeus’ sea storms are just that: sea storms. Undoubtedly, the poet’s islander listeners would have enjoyed songs about their adventures on the water, especially in the comfort of their banquet hall. But it is their familiarity with the sea that gives force to the metaphorical argument, as they would be able to grasp the lack of realism in the modes of behavior displayed in some of Alcaeus’ sea storm poems. I will illustrate this point by discussing fr. 6 V.
In this poem, the sea-tossed crew, while fighting for dear life, receives no practical advice but instead exhortations shaped by the poet’s aristocratic idiolect that place the hetairoi in a diachronic setting. And yet, Uhlig (2018: 88) finds nothing strange here: “There is nothing unusual in calling on young men to uphold the honor of those who have preceded them.” True, but not when one is drowning. By attempting to transform each of the companions into a δόκιμος ἄνηρ (“trustworthy man”, 12), Alcaeus encourages them to earn the approbation of the community, which, however, can be attained only if one acts worthily by the standards of the past. Ferrari and Pontani’s (1996: 1-4) credible reconstruction of lines 17-8 (ἔοντε[ς ἔσθλοι] κὰπ πατέρων μάθος / τὼν σφ[ῶν) underlines this generational connection by indicating the transmission of aristocratic ἀρετή through μάθος. The hetairoi must learn from the example of their fathers, just as the latter learned in turn from their own fathers, cf. Il. 6.209, 444-6, 476-80. But education in military valor cannot bear fruit unless it is remembered. In fact, in Homer, ἀλκή is understood as a content of memory (Collins 1998: 78-125), and thus the degree of its recollection determines the warrior’s stance in battle. It is unfortunate that in fr. 6 we no longer possess the genitive that accompanied μνάσθητε in line 11, but the immediate transition to a present situation that demands that the hetairoi act as δόκιμοι ἄνερες suggests that the missing deed was also a form of δοκιμασία which they passed successfully. By using “remember” (μνάσθητε) in the second plural imperative, Alcaeus momentarily distinguishes himself from his listeners and assumes an authoritative voice that invokes an important moment of the past and embodies the crucial tenets of the group. In fr. 6, μνημοσύνη informs the audience’s sense of proper civic ethics throughout. For even beyond the first fourteen lines, at which point the text deteriorates significantly, the isolated words strongly suggest that Alcaeus urges his men to apply the lessons they have learned from their ἔσθλοι fathers by responding decisively to the challenges at hand (μοναρχίαν δ . [ / μ]ηδὲ δεκωμ[, 26-7). The cardinal points of self-identification here are identical to those in the explicitly political poems, stemming, as a rule, from aristocratic memory. μνημοσύνη preserves the past by reenacting it through song, reinforces cohesion within the group, and inspires the hetairoi to become δόκιμοι ἄνερες in imitation of the ἔσθλοι τόκηες. This Iliadic type of recollection, interlinked with αἰδώς (see μὴ καταισχύνωμεν, 13) and approbation by the community, is the basis of aristocratic ἀρετή that propels the struggle against the tyrants. But, while elsewhere Alcaeus adopts direct political language, in fr. 6, he uses an extended nautical metaphor, confident, I believe, that his audience of experienced sailors will understand that his sea storms have to do more with things on land than at sea.
Archaic Poetics of Identity