Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 March 2008
Monody or solo song was the product of sixth-century poets living in the Aegean islands. The most remarkable were Sappho and Alcaeus of Lesbos and Anacreon and Ibycus at the court of Polycrates in Samos. The poetry was distinguished by its metre, dialect and subject matter and by the conditions of its performance from elegiac and iambic verse on the one hand and choral lyric on the other. The poets used short stanzas in a variety of metres, and sang the songs to their own accompaniment on the lyre, presumably repeating the melody for each stanza. They composed for the most part in their own dialects, Sappho and Alcaeus in Aeolic, Anacreon in Ionic, whereas the writers of choral lyric used an artificial language distinguished by some characteristic features of the western dialect group. The audience was presumably a small circle of friends who shared the poet's literary or political interests or lived at the court of his patron.
The poetry of Sappho and Alcaeus is the oldest monody to survive, but it had its antecedents in the earlier music and poetry of Lesbos and in the compositions of Archilochus. Seventh-century Lesbos was famous for its musicians Terpander and Arion (see above, p. 168), and although they wrote poetry of different types from Sappho and Alcaeus and gained their fame in other parts of the Greek world, they bear witness to the musical and literary prowess of the island. Archilochus mentions the Lesbian paean (fr. 121 IEG), and Sappho calls Lesbian singers superior to those of other lands (fr. 106).