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date: 23 February 2024

iambic poetry, Greekfree

iambic poetry, Greekfree

  • Martin Litchfield West


  • Greek Literature

‘Iambic’ metre got its name from iambos (ἴαμβος‎), a term associated in various parts of Greece with traditional jesting and ribaldries in certain festivals of Demeter and Dionysus. This and similar words (διθύραμβος‎ (‘dithyramb’), θρίαμβος‎, ἴθυμβος‎) seem to be pre-Hellenic. At Eleusis the ribaldry was traced back to the mythical Iambe (Hymn. Hom. Cer.192–205). At Syracuse the iambistai were dancers (Ath. 181c). Epicharmus (fr. 77 KA) associates iamboi with Aristoxenus of Selinus, an Archaic poet from whom one anapaestic verse attacking seers is quoted. In Ionia in the 7th and 6th cent. bce the iambos achieved literary status when Archilochus and others published monologues and songs composed for festival entertainment and characterized by satirical denunciation of individuals or types, amusing narrations, and lubriciousness. The term ‘iambic poetry’ applies primarily to this material and to later literature inspired by it.

A recurrent feature in the Ionian texts is the first-person account of extravagant sexual adventures that the speaker claims to have had. In some cases he perhaps adopted a character role such as a cook (Semon. 24 West), a peasant farmer (Hipponax 26 W), or a burglar (Hipponax fr. 32 W); there are possible suggestions of a phallus being worn (Archil. 66–7; Hipponax 78. 14 W), as later by some comic actors. The characteristic metres are the iambic trimeter and trochaic tetrameter, the paradoxical ‘scazon’ forms of these (with penultimate long), and simple epodic strophes of various sorts. The three principal iambographers of the Archaic period are Archilochus, Semonides of Amorgos, and Hipponax; but Archilochus, at least, wrote much that does not belong under the heading of iambos. The important Demeter cult on Paros probably provided the setting for his iamboi. The word ἴαμβοι‎ first occurs in a fragment of his (215), as something associated with festivity and fun. Semonides' and Hipponax' iamboi reflect other local Ionian traditions, in Hipponax' case perhaps that of the Ephesian (see ephesus) Thargelia (cf. frs. 5–10+104. 49 W). Some pieces by one Ananius, similar to Hipponax', circulated with his. The ‘Homeric’ Margites and the anti-women monologue of Susarion may also be counted as iamboi, and one of Anacreon's poems is cited under this designation (Page, PMG 432). In the 5th cent. bce the Athenian comic poet Hermippus(1) produced some iamboi, perhaps as a temporary substitute for comedy. Old Comedy (see comedy (greek), origins of) had in fact much in common with the iambos, and probably developed out of something analogous.

In the Hellenistic period the distinctive style of Hipponax in particular attracted imitators. His choliambic metre was taken up by Aeschrion and Asclepiades(2), both of Samos, then by Phoenix(3) of Colophon, Callimachus(3), Herodas, Apollonius (1) Rhodius (Canobus), and others. Callimachus in his book of Iamboi presented himself as a Hipponax redivivus (fr. 191 Pf.), while taking some of his metres from Archilochus. He retained Hipponax' dialect and some of his diction. Herodas did likewise (with less restraint), but created a new genre, the mimiambos, by writing character mimes (dialogue or monologue) in the Hipponactean language and metre, appropriately for the low-class urban life portrayed. Cercidas, besides writing some choliambics, forged another new combination with his Meliamboi, which were ‘iambic’ in their satirical content and racy language but lyric in form.

Iambic metre, though named after the Ionian iambos, was always available for more serious purposes. The trimeter was used in inscribed and literary epigrams at all periods besides the hexameter and elegiac. Archilochus, Semonides, and Solon sometimes used it for serious reflective, personal, or political poems. It was adopted as the natural metre for monologue and dialogue in Attic drama. In the later 4th and 3rd cents. bce it was employed by various philosophers, moralists, and satirists (Chares(3), Crantor, Crates(2), Zeno(2), Cleanthes), and by Machon for his Chreiai. In the 2nd cent. bce Apollodorus(6)'s iambic Chronica started a tradition of didactic poems in this metre (pseudo-Scymnus, Servilius Damocrates, Philemon(7), and others yet obscurer). From the 4th cent. ce the trimeter came into more general use for hymns, encomia, narrative poems, etc., and for prologues to hexameter poems. The choliambic too was put to some use in the Roman period, in particular by Babrius for his Aesopic fables (see aesop) and in parts of the Alexander Romance (see pseudo-callisthenes).


  • M. L. West, Iambi et Elegi, 2nd edn. (1989–1992).
  • Powell, Collectanea Alexandrina. Suppl Hell; see also under individual authors.
  • M. L. West, Studies in Greek Elegy and Iambus (1974), ch. 2.
  • M. L. West, Greek Lyric Poetry (1993).
  • D. E. Gerber (ed.), Greek Iambic Poetry (1999).
  • Theophrastus. Characters, 2nd edn. Edited by J. Rusten and I. C. Cunningham. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.