Monday, February 26, 2001

Speaking of the Common Man ...

Lately, we at Classics Corner have been obsessed with Archilochus, the poet of Paros who died as a young man in about 640 BC. There isn’t much to work with: seven epigrams, three short poems, and twenty-three fragments. Unlike Homer, Archilochus didn’t need no stinking epic theme. He wrote gratuitously.

The son of an aristocrat and a slave, Archilochus was privileged enough to be literate, yet common enough to be a regular guy. When Archilochus wasn’t annoying people with his poetry, he killed them for money. At the time, mercenary work was a good middle-class job.

Archilochus loved his work. “By spear is kneaded the bread I eat,” he says. “By spear my Ismaric wine is won, which I drink, leaning upon my spear.” This may explain the warrior-poet’s short life span.

Like many writers of his day, Archilochus favored the elegiac poem, or epigram, which generally consisted of just one or two well-crafted lines. Our own favorite example of the elegiac poem appeared in an episode of The Simpsons: “Most fok'el never eat a skunk, but then again some fok'el, like Cletus, the slack-jawed yokel...” But we digress.

Time and again, Archilochus shows stunning common sense. His most famous epigram concerns losing his shield one day as he ran for his life. “I got away,” he says, “so what does it matter? Let the shield go. I can buy another equally good.”

In another famous epigram, Archilochus says he dislikes the long-limbed, clean-shaven officer with the lovely hair. He’d rather have substance. “Give me,” he says, “a man short and squarely set upon his legs, a man full of heart, not to be shaken from the place he plants his feet.”

Like any god-fearing Greek, Archilochus knows not to brag and to take all things in moderation. “Take some measure in the joy you take in luck,” he says, “and the degree you give way to sorrow. All our life is up and down like this.”

Archilochus is unimpressed with mere cleverness. “The fox,” he says, “knows many tricks. The hedgehog knows one. One good one.” You get the sense that he, like the hedgehog, and has a few good tricks of his own.

Nor is Archilochus overly fond of wealth. “Nothing to me the life of Gyges and his glut of gold. I neither envy nor admire him as I watch his life and what he does.” Extreme riches, he says, belongs to the “pride of tyranny.” He wants nothing of it. Archilochus would favor a strong estate tax. He’d make a great Teamster.

Archilochus knows that life, no matter how hard, is for the living. “I will make nothing better by crying,” he says. “I will make nothing worse by giving myself whatever entertainment I can.”

Finally, Archilochus is nobody's judge. Sometimes, he says, “when men stand planted on firm feet,” the Gods will “knock them on their backs, and then the evils come, so that a man wanders, homeless, destitute, at his wits end.” Some truths never change.

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