Authors: Anacreon

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Greek playwright

Author Works


Anacreon composed poems for oral performance, not posterity. He seems to have written no single book or collection of poems. For his complete poems in Greek, see Poetae Melici Graeci, 1962 (Denys Page, editor). The first English translation of Anacreon was Anacreon Done into English out of the Original Greek, 1683

later translations include The Odes of Anacreon, 1928 (Erastus Richardson, translator), and Greek Lyric, 1982 (David A. Campbell, translator)


Little is known of the early life of Anacreon (uh-NAK-ree-uhn). His father was Scythinus, about whom nothing has been recorded regarding his profession or rank in society. Certain themes in Anacreon’s poetry–especially love, drinking, and the refined pleasures of life–suggest that he had an aristocratic background, yet Anacreon’s poetry may not have been autobiographical. Authors of early Greek lyrics composed works on standard themes, including drinking songs, erotic poems to both women and boys, funerary inscriptions, and battle hymns. As a result, Anacreon’s poetry may reflect personal experience or may simply embody well-established themes.{$I[AN]9810002049}{$I[A]Anacreon}{$I[geo]GREECE;Anacreon}{$I[tim]0571 b.c.e.;Anacreon}

The Greek poet Anacreon dismisses Cupid, who is dressed as a messenger boy.

(Library of Congress)

The era of Anacreon’s birth was that of the first Greek tragedies and the earliest speculations by the pre-Socratic philosophers. Thales (c. 625-546 b.c.e.), generally regarded as the founder of Greek philosophy, lived in Miletus, less than a hundred miles from Anacreon’s native Teos. When Anacreon was a child, Greek cities in Asia Minor were threatened by the Persians under Cyrus the Great (c. 600-529 b.c.e.). In about 541 b.c.e., when Anacreon was still a young man, Teos fell to Cyrus’s general, Harpagus. Along with other Teians, Anacreon sailed to Thrace on the shore of mainland Greece. There the city of Abdera was founded (or perhaps rebuilt). It was a major commercial center that would later produce the philosophers Protagoras (c. 480-411 b.c.e.) and Democritus (c. 460-370 b.c.e.).

In Abdera, Anacreon composed his earliest extant poetry. In addition to poems on drinking and love, he wrote works dealing with the wars that had so greatly affected his life. In one such poem, he speaks of a young friend who died fighting for Abdera. In another, he imitates Archilochus of Paros (c. 735-676 b.c.e.), who mentioned throwing away his shield in battle. Other early poems by Anacreon are more humorous. In one, he speaks of a “filly” whom only a skillful “rider”–Anacreon himself–could tame. This poem contains the same mixture of symbolism and eroticism that recurs throughout Anacreon’s later works.

After about ten years in Abdera, Anacreon was invited to live in Samos by the tyrant Polycrates (c. 570-522 b.c.e.). Officially, Anacreon taught Polycrates’ son music and poetry, but he also continued to write works of his own. The esteem in which Anacreon was held by Polycrates is suggested by Herodotus, who describes a herald’s discovery of Polycrates relaxing with Anacreon in a banquet hall. A great patron of the arts, Polycrates also brought the poet Ibycus of Rhegium (c. 560-525 b.c.e.) to Samos. Ibycus, whose choral poems contained a rich imagery, influenced Anacreon in his mature period.

When Polycrates fell to the Persian king Darius in 522 b.c.e., Anacreon left Samos for Athens. A legend reports that Anacreon sailed for Athens in a penteconter, a fifty-oared ship that was one of the largest vessels found in Greece at that time. A column erected in Attica by Hipparchus, the brother of the Athenian tyrant Hippias, contained lines composed by Anacreon, further suggesting the poet’s high stature. As on Samos, in Athens Anacreon associated with the highest levels of society. One of his poems mentioned a young boy named Critias, an ancestor of a later Critias (c. 460-403 b.c.e.) who was Plato’s uncle and one of the Thirty Tyrants ruling Athens after the Peloponnesian War (404-403 b.c.e.). Critias’s household was extremely wealthy, and Anacreon praised it in a poem later remembered by Plato.

On vases of this period, Anacreon is often depicted playing a lyre to an audience of young aristocrats. A fragment of a later poem says that Anacreon drove women mad through the power of his music. Even in the second century c.e., the geographer Pausanias had seen a statue honoring Anacreon on the Athenian Acropolis. So close were Anacreon’s ties to the tyrant Hippias that, when the latter fell in 512 b.c.e., Anacreon took refuge in Thessaly. His exile was brief, however, and Anacreon soon returned to Athens for the rest of his life.

Late in his career, Anacreon wrote frequently about old age. In one work, he notes that his hair had gone white and that he had seen the horrors of the underworld. Anacreon lived into his eighties, long enough to influence the Greek playwright Aeschylus (525-456 b.c.e.), who adopted some of his meters. One unreliable tradition says that Anacreon died by choking on a grape seed. This story was almost certainly invented in a later age, when Anacreon had come to be regarded as a drunkard because of his numerous drinking songs. Another tradition reports that Anacreon was buried in Teos; this legend probably arose from a series of imaginary epitaphs composed by later poets. The site of his grave, now lost, was almost certainly in Athens, the city where he achieved his greatest fame.

BibliographyBowra, C. M. Ancient Greek Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960.Bowra, C. M., and T. F. Higham. The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1948.Campbell, David A. The Golden Lyre: The Themes of Greek Lyric Poets. London: Duckworth, 1983. Comments about Anacreon’s work are scattered throughout a book devoted to exploring Greek poets’ writing about subjects such as love, athletics, politics, friendship, gods and heroes, life and death, and the arts. Provides excellent insight into the ways Anacreon’s poetry parallels or diverges from the work of other classical lyricists.Frankel, Hermann. Early Greek Poetry and Philosophy. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1975. A section on Anacreon is included in this extensive study of the development of Greek literature. Selected poems are examined to illustrate the musical qualities of Anacreon’s poetry and highlight his technique.Kirkwood, G. M. Early Greek Monody: The History of a Poetic Type. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1974. Treats Anacreon as a major writer in the tradition of monody. Illustrates differences between his work and that of earlier monodists, and describes his influence on later writers, especially the Latin poet Horace.Mulroy, David D. Early Greek Lyric Poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992.O’Brien, John. Anacreon Redivivus: A Study of Anacreontic Translation in Mid-Sixteenth Century France. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. Though concentrating on the work of scholars in only one century, this study provides useful insight into the ways Anacreon and his imitators have been read by later audiences. Carefully details the critical principles used by key translators who helped shape the canon of Anacreontic poetry in published form.Podlecki, Anthony J. The Early Greek Poets and Their Times. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1984.Rosenmeyer, Patricia A. The Poetics of Imitation: Anacreon and the Anacreontic Tradition. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Discusses the influence of Anacreon on his contemporaries and examines the way Anacreontic imitators have been discovered, translated, and evaluated. Contains a chapter on the poet’s life and work, explicating individual works and exploring major themes in his corpus. Also examines the concept of imitation as a poetic device in ancient poetry.
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