By Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Ancient Greeks are famed for their poetry.
Even today Ancient Greek poets such as Homer are widely read and remain influential. The Greeks especially revered lyric poetry, which was often performed accompanied by music or sung by choruses. Nine lyric poets became seen as canonical in Hellenistic Greece and these are known as the Nine Lyric Poets of Greece (or the Melian poets).
These poets lived in different areas of Ancient Greece, at different times; Hellenistic scholars grouped them together based on their brilliance, innovations, and influence. The choice of there being specifically nine canonical poets was to reflect the Nine Muses.
Alcman of Sparta (7th century BC)
Alcman may have originally been a slave and was possibly of non-Greek origin. He became famous for his choral songs. Six books of his songs survived to Classical times but today we only have fragments of his many works. His style was lighthearted and he wrote many poems on nature, were widely imitated by later writers such as Vergil. Alcman was so esteemed in Sparta that he was reputedly buried next to Helen of Troy.
Alcaeus of Mytilene (620-580 BC?)
Alcaeus was born in an aristocratic family, and he became involved in many of the civil conflicts of Mytilene (Lesbos). He was later exiled and became a mercenary. Warfare was a common theme for Alcaeus. He developed the Alcaic stanza which was very popular. The poet was allegedly a lover of Sappho’s, but this may only be a latter invention. His works have been lost to us, but his verse influenced Horace among others.
Anacreon (582-485 BC?)
Anacreon was probably born in Teos in Asia Minor. He fought against the Persians during their conquest of the Ionian cities. He fled and found shelter with the tyrant of Samos. Later he moved to Athens where he was received with great honors by Hipparchus. In Athens he became friendly with many of the leading cultural figures of the day. When Hipparchus was assassinated, he appears to have moved to either Teos or Thessaly. His verse celebrated love, wine and pleasure, but most of his work has been lost to posterity.
Bacchylides (518-451 BC?)
Bacchlyides was born on the island of Keos and was reputedly the nephew of Siminodes, one of the greatest Greek poets. His career was often overshadowed by his uncle. Bacchylides composed choral odes and dithyrambs for the Dionysian festival celebrated in Athens, and he also wrote love poetry, as well as odes celebrating military victories and Olympic champions. His work was not popular when he was alive but grew in popularity after his death.
Pindar (518-443 BC?)
Pindar is regarded as one of the greatest of all Greek literary figures. He was born not far from Thebes and claimed aristocratic birth. According to one story he was stung by a bee on his lips while young, and this allowed him to sing honey-like songs. He studied poetry in Athens, and later fled the Persians when they occupied Thebes and Boeotia. Pindar was famous in his day for his choral odes. Many of his surviving poems are celebrations of Olympic victors. He was perhaps the first poet to reflect on the nature of poetry and the role of the poet in society. Only a fraction of his work has survived, but his Victory Odes have influenced figures such as Goethe and Nietzsche.
Ibycus (550-500 BC)
Ibycus was born in Rhegium. We know little else about his early life. It appears that he travelled widely and spent some time at the court of the tyrant of Samos, Polycrates. After the death of the tyrant he returned to his wanderings. Ibycus was famous for his love poems to his younger male lovers. One report of Ibycus’ death says that he was captured by bandits, and as they were about to kill him, he pointed to cranes that were flying overhead, and told the robbers that they would avenge him. After the bandits killed Ibycus, the cranes were seen overhead again, and the bandits laughed when they recalled that Ibycus believed that they would avenge him. Passers-by heard the bandits boasting and informed the local rulers, who them apprehended and executed the murderers of the old poet, as he had foretold.
Sappho (620-550 BC?)
Sappho is often seen as one of the greatest female poets who has ever lived. In fact, Plato called her the ‘10th Muse’. She was born on the island of Lesbos and was famous for her love poetry. The poetess is celebrated for her verses on her love for other women, because of their language and eroticism. Sappho later married and had a daughter. Like her reputed lover Alcaeus, she was exiled from Lesbos because of political in-fighting. One legend has her committing suicide for love of the handsome Phaon. Much of what we know about Sappho comes from unreliable sources and we only have a small number of poems and fragments, of her work. The word lesbian is a reference to Sappho, as she was a native of Lesbos, but in the ancient world she was often portrayed as a promiscuous heterosexual. Much of what we know about Sappho comes from unreliable sources and we only have a small number of poems and fragments of her work.
Simonides (556-448 BC)
Simonides was born on the island of Ceos. He lived in Athens at the court of Hipparchus and became acquainted with many leading poets. After the assassination of the tyrant, he went to live in Thessaly. During the 2nd Persian invasion of Greece, he became well known for his commemorative verse such as his lines on the Spartans who fell at Thermopylae. Later Simonides lived in Sicily and helped to negotiate a peace treaty between two local tyrants. The poet was often depicted as a miser and was also credited with inventing new letters of the alphabet and a system of mnemonics. Simonides defined a poem as a ‘speaking painting and painting as silent poetry’.
Stesichorus (630-555 BC)
Stesichorus was born in Metauros, Magna Graecia (Southern Italy). He was famous for his choral and narrative poems. Stesichorus was a member of the aristocracy, and later in life he was forced into exile and lived in Himera, in Sicily. Many of his works were based on myth and they were performed by choruses and were very popular with the great Greek dramatists. In total, he wrote 26 books of poetry, most of which are now lost.
Easterling, P.E. and Bernard M.W. Knox (Eds) (1985) Cambridge History of Classical Literature, v.I, Greek Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.