Anakreon, sometimes written Anacreon, (/əˈnækriən/; Greek: Ἀνακρέων ὁ Τήϊος; c. 582 – c. 485 BC) was a Greek lyric poet, born at Teos in Ionia, now Sighalik in Turkey, around 582 B. C. After the capture of Sardis by the Persians in 541 B.C., he fled to Abdera in Thrace. Later the Tyrant of Samos, Polykrates, invited him to teach his son music and poetry and he became a poetic luminary of the court of Samos. In return for his patronage and protection, Anakreon wrote many complimentary odes about the tyrant. According to John Addison, writing in 1735, Anakreon once received a treasure of five gold talents from Polykrates, and couldn’t sleep for two nights in a row. He then returned it to his patron, saying: “However considerable the sum might be, it’s not an equal price for the trouble of keeping it“.
After the murder of Polykrates in 522 B.C., Anakreon was invited to Athens by Hipparchus, brother of the reigning Athenian tyrant Hippias, who sent a fifty oared galley to convey him over the Ægean. There he became acquainted with the poet Simonides, and other members of the brilliant circle which had gathered around Hipparchus. After the assassination of Hipparchus in 514 B.C. he moved to Thessaly for a short period, but soon he returned to Athens (by that stage a democracy) where he was apparently forgiven his earlier friendships with the tyrants. He finally settled in Abdera, and died in the eighty-fifth year of his age, choked (according to an anecdote of Pliny the Elder) by a grape-stone which he swallowed in a draught of new wine.
For many years , Anakreon was popular in Athens, where his statue was to be seen on the Acropolis, alongside that of his friend Xanthippus, the father of Pericles. According to Pausanias, that statue depicts him as drunk. On several coins from 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 Galleria Borghese, is said to represent Anakreon.
THE POETRY OF ANAKREON
Anakreon wrote all of his poetry in the ancient Ionic dialect. Like all early lyric poetry, it was composed to be sung or recited to the accompaniment of music, usually the lyre. Although he wrote six books, what survives today are merely lyric fragments. As Guy Davenport puts it succinctly, “These fragments are all that survive of a poet whose fame and stature arise from a collection of poems he did not write.” The poet who inspired Belleau, Ronsard, Herrick, Ben Johnson, Thomas Moore and many others was not the Anakreon whose poems were first printed in Paris in 1554. It took until the nineteenth century to discover that this “poet” was an imitation, probably prepared in Alexandria by Aristarchus in the second century, by a group of unknown poets in homage to their inspiration. These sixty poems now known as The Anacreonata were written as a tribute and not as a deception, although they are thought to exaggerate the frivolity and exuberant eroticism of his work. “What we have of the real Anakreon,” as Davenport puts it, “is precious little, and that is in fragments: six ruins of lyrics on papyrus that has been visited by the rat and the maggot, 155 brief quotations from other writers, mainly grammarians, and one line, partly conjectural, written on a vase painting.”
Anakreon’s poetry concerned such themes as love, infatuation, unhappiness, wine, celebrations, festivals and, of course, celery. According to Willis Barnstone, the most remarkable feature of the poetry is “its varying tone of playfulness, sophistication, detachment or irony.” Despite his reputed fondness for wine, he disliked vulgarity and excess, preferring to write in a formal and elegant manner, with an ironic enjoyment of life and language.
TRANSLATING THE FRAGMENTS OF ANAKREON
I have used two sets of translations below. Willis Barnstone in his Greek Lyric Poetry (in Modern English Translation) states “My intention has been to use a contemporary idiom, generally chaste, but colloquial as the occasion suggests.” While the poems of Anakreon are without titles, he offers the following justification for their inclusion: “All the poems included here have titles, yet few of these are traditional in the Greek. Why use titles then in English translations? …The titles here are mainly informational, based on contextual information or on common ancient allusions with which a modern reader may be unfamiliar. Hopefully, titles will serve to replace lengthy footnotes and make poems more complete.” Equally colloquial, although in a more idiomatic and more alliterative manner, are the translations of Guy Davenport who, in Anakreon: Complete Poems offers everything (fragmentary phrases included) that has survived. Initially I have paired the translations but I also include a few extra from Davenport for which there are no Barnstone equivalents. Also, below the original Greek of the celebrated epitaph on Timocritus, and alongside the work of Barnstone and Davenport, I have added two translations, both attributed to Francis Fawkes, and some further translations of this brief poem.
Aside from the epitaph on Timocritus, I have not been able to source the originals on-line and append them to the translations as I have managed in my posts on Archilochus, Sappho, Hadrian, Catullus, Martial, Thomas Campion’s Latin poems and John Owen, the Welsh poet who wrote in Latin. If you can help me add these, I can be contacted through the Contact page or through the Comments box below.
Brief Poems by Anakreon
TRANSLATIONS BY WILLIS BARNSTONE AND GUY DAVENPORT
The dice of love are
shouting and madness.
Toss knucklebones with Eros;
Madness and confusion every throw.
Eros, the blacksmith of love,
smashed me with a giant hammer
and doused me in the cold river.
Eros the blacksmith
Hammers me again,
Striking while I’m hot,
And thrusts me sizzling
In the ice-cold stream.
Lord! I clamber up the white cliff
and dive into the steaming wave,
O dead drunk with love.
I climb the white cliff again
To throw myself into the grey sea,
Drunk with love again.
ON A CONSERVATIVE LOVER
I love and yet do not love.
I am mad yet not quite mad.
I am perhaps in love
Again, perhaps not,
And crazy to boot.
No, not crazy.
Although we call these women loose,
they tighten their thighs around thighs.
Twining thigh with thigh.
A WAY TO THE HEART
and rub aromatic myrrh on her breasts;
the hollow cave around her heart.
Can myrrh rubbed on a chest
Sweeten the great round heart inside.
We go through Poseidon’s month.
Ponderous clouds sag with water
and furious storms break out
collapsing the rain earthward.
In the month of Posideion,
When the clouds are fat with rain,
Wild storms bring us Zeus.
The bird flashes back and forth
between the black leaves of laurel trees
and the greenness of the olive grove.
(Spring wind) shakes
The darkleaved laurel and green olive tree.
I looked at her and took off
like a frightened cuckoo bird.
Like the cuckoo,
I made myself scarce
When she was about.
Let us hang garlands of celery
across our foreheads
and call a festival to Dionysos.
Garlands of celery around our brows,
We’re off to celebrate the Dionysia.
Καρτερὸς ἐν πολέμοις Τιμόκριτος, οὗ τόδε σᾶμα·
Ἄρης δ᾽ οὐκ ἀγαθῶν φείδεται, ἀλλὰ κακῶν.
TRANSLATIONS OF THE EPITAPH ON TIMOCRATUS
TIMOCRATUS adorns this humble grave —
Mars spares the coward, but destroys the brave.
The tomb of great Timocritus behold!
Mars spares the base, but slays the brave and bold.
Both are attributed to Francis Fawkes (1720-1777)
This Tomb the brave Timocritus contains;
Mars’ Envy only spares
The trembling Coward whom his Sword disdains,
Not him who nobly dares
Joseph Addison (1672-1719)
Here sleeps the valiant Timocritus free from life’s sorrows and cares;
Ares spares not the brave, only the coward he spares.
Judson France Davidson
This is the tomb of Timocritus, a stanch man in the wars; for it is the craven, not the brave, that are spared by Ares.
J. M. Edmonds
Of brave Timocritus this is the grave:
The War-God spares the coward, not the brave.
C. M. Bowra
Good soldier was Timokritos, whose grave
This is. War spares the coward, not the brave.
Andrew Robert Burn
ON A HOPLITE
Here, the tomb of Timokrotos, a hero in the wars.
It is the coward whom Ares spares – not the brave.
He was a soldier in the wars
Timokritos. This is his grave.
Sometimes unkind Ares kills
Not the cowards but the brave.
SOME TRANSLATIONS BY GUY DAVENPORT
The talents that tantalised
Talented Tantalos (tantalize me)
Show me the way to go home.
I’m drunk and I need to go to bed.
Lovely, too lovely,
And too many love you.