1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Anacreon
ANACREON, Greek lyric poet, was born about 560 B.C., at Teos, an Ionian city on the coast of Asia Minor. Little is known of his life, except a few scattered notices, not in all cases certainly authentic. He probably shared the voluntary exile of the mass of his fellow-townsmen, who, when Cyrus the Great was besieging the Greek cities of Asia (545), rather than surrender their city to his general Harpagus, sailed to Abdera in Thrace, where they founded a colony. Anacreon seems to have taken part in the fighting, in which, on his own admission, he did not distinguish himself, but, like Alcaeus and Horace, threw away his shield and fled. From Thrace he removed to the court of Polycrates of Samos, one of the best of those old “tyrants,” who by no means deserved the name in its worst sense. He is said to have acted as tutor to Polycrates; that he enjoyed the tyrant’s confidence we learn on the authority of Herodotus (iii. 121), who represents the poet as sitting in the royal chamber when audience was given to the Persian herald. In return for his favour and protection, Anacreon wrote many complimentary odes upon his patron. Like his fellow-lyrist, Horace, who was one of his great admirers, and in many respects of a kindred spirit, Anacreon seems to have been made for the society of courts. On the death of Polycrates, Hipparchus, who was then in power at Athens and inherited the literary tastes of his father Peisistratus, sent a special embassy to fetch the popular poet to Athens in a galley of fifty oars. Here he became acquainted with the poet Simonides, and other members of the brilliant circle which had gathered round Hipparchus. When this circle was broken up by the assassination of Hipparchus, Anacreon seems to have returned to his native town of Teos, where, according to a metrical epitaph ascribed to his friend Simonides, he died and was buried. According to others, before returning to Teos, he accompanied Simonides to the court of Echecrates, a Thessalian dynast of the house of the Aleuadae. Lucian mentions Anacreon amongst his instances of the longevity of eminent men, as having completed eighty-five years. If an anecdote given by Pliny (Nat. Hist. vii. 7) is to be trusted, he was choked at last by a grape-stone, but the story has an air of mythical adaptation to the poet’s habits, which makes it somewhat apocryphal. Anacreon was for a long time popular at Athens, where his statue was to be seen on the Acropolis, together with that of his friend Xanthippus, the father of Pericles. On several coins of Teos he is represented, holding a lyre in his hand, sometimes sitting, sometimes standing. A marble statue found in 1835 in the Sabine district, and now in the Villa Borghese, is said to represent Anacreon. Anacreon had a reputation as a composer of hymns, as well as of those bacchanalian and amatory lyrics which are commonly associated with his name. Two short hymns to Artemis and Dionysus, consisting of eight and eleven lines respectively, stand first amongst his few undisputed remains, as printed by recent editors. But pagan hymns, especially when addressed to such deities as Aphrodite, Eros and Dionysus, are not so very unlike what we call “Anacreontic” poetry as to make the contrast of style as great as the word might seem to imply. The tone of Anacreon’s lyric effusions has probably led to an unjust estimate, by both ancients and moderns, of the poet’s personal character. The “triple worship” of the Muses, Wine and Love, ascribed to him as his religion in an old Greek epigram (Anthol. iii. 25, 51), may have been as purely professional in the two last cases as in the first, and his private character on such points was probably neither much better nor worse than that of his contemporaries. Athenaeus remarks acutely that he seems at least to have been sober when he wrote; and he himself strongly repudiates, as Horace does, the brutal characteristics of intoxication as fit only for barbarians and Scythians (Fr. 64). Of the five books of lyrical pieces by Anacreon which Suidas and Athenaeus mention as extant in their time, we have now but the merest fragments, collected from the citations of later writers. Those graceful little poems (most of them first printed from the MSS. by Henry Stephens in 1554), which long passed among the learned for the songs of Anacreon, and which are well-known to many English readers in the translations of Cowley and Moore, are really of much later date, though possibly here and there genuine fragments of the poet are included. Modern critics, however, regard the entire collection as imitations belonging to different periods—the oldest probably to Alexandrian times, the most recent to the last days of paganism. They will always retain a certain popularity from their lightness and elegance, and some of them are fair copies of Anacreon’s style, which would lend itself readily enough to a clever imitator. A strong argument against their genuineness lies in the fact that the peculiar forms of the Ionic Greek, in which Anacreon wrote, are not to be found in these reputed odes, while the fragments of his poems quoted by ancient writers are full of Ionicisms. Again, only one of the quotations from Anacreon in ancient writers is to be found in these poems, which further contain no references to contemporaries, whereas Strabo (xiv. p. 638) expressly states that Anacreon’s poems included numerous allusions to Polycrates. The character of Love as a mischievous little boy is quite different from that given by Anacreon, who describes him as “striking with a mighty axe, like a smith,” and is more akin to the conceptions of later literature.
The best edition of the genuine fragments of Anacreon, as well as of the Anacreontea, is by Bergk (Poetae lyrici graeci, 1882). He includes in an appendix a similar collection of imitations from the Anecdota graeca of P. Matranga (1850), which had their origin in the beginning of the middle ages, and resemble the Christian anacreontics of Sophronius.