Arion

Arion (late seventh century BCE): Greek poet from Methymna on Lesbos.

Life

Arion (Mosaic from Ostia)

Little is known about Arion’s life, although the Suda, a Byzantine dictionary, informs us that the poet flourished in the thirty-eighth Olympiad, which means 628-624 BCE. The same source mentions Alcman as Arion’s teacher. This may or not may be true: on the one hand, it is likely that a famous poet had students who, benefiting from their teacher’s network, became famous too, but on the other hand, it is possible that (the source of) the Suda has merely brought together two well-known names.

In the first book of the Histories, Herodotus of Halicarnassus tells that Arion used to live at the court of Periander, who ruled as tyrant of Corinth from 627 to 587.note At some point in his career, the singer visited Sicily and Tarentum, which is certainly possible.

Dolphin

Herodotus adds that on his way back, sailors wanted to seize Arion's money and forced him into the sea. However, a dolphin prevented him from drowning and brought him to the shore. The singer traveled to Corinth, where Periander punished the sailors.note

This story, which looks a bit like a comedy, including the poet's unexpected appearance in Corinth, is also told about Enalus of Lesbos,note about the founders of Tarentum (i.e., the historical Phalanthus and the legendary Tarasnote), about Melicertes,note and about the dead body of the poet Hesiod.note It is likely to have been some kind of folkloristic tale, comparable to the Biblical story of Jonah. Moreover, it must be stressed that this story about the sudden reversal of fortune is a digression within the story about Croesus, which has the same theme. This should make us suspicious: Arion's miraculous rescue serves Herodotus' literary theme too well.

On the other hand, the story is - minus some exaggeration - not impossible. There are modern accounts of people being saved by aquatic creatures.note Although dolphins cannot carry adult humans, and can carry children for a short period only, they do accompany swimmers and allow them to rest on their backs.note

We must also note that Herodotus refers to a monument that Arion dedicated to his savior: a statue of a dolphin on Cape Taenarum, the central peninsula of the southern Peloponnese. This monument must be older than Herodotus' story - otherwise he could not refer to it - and proves that the author did not invent everything.

Aelian, a Roman author of the third century CE, quotes an inscription on this monument, “Sent by the immortals this mount saved Arion son of Cycleus from the Sicilian main”, which may be independent confirmation of an early tradition.note Aelian also quotes a hymn by Arion, but its words and meter suggest that it was composed much later and was wrongly attributed to the seventh-century poet.

Poetry

No lines by Arion survive. Several sources mention him as the creator of the dithyramb, an ecstatic choral hymn for Dionysus.note This information is slightly problematic because it is known that Archilochus, an earlier poet, already composed dithyrambs.note It may be that Arion gave these hymns their final form.

Dithyrambs were, according to Aristotle,note the predecessor of the well-known tragedies, and it is interesting that the Suda claims that Arion was the first to let the satyrs speak verses – which may indeed have been an early step towards the new genre.

In short, we do not know enough about Arion, to whom several poetic innovations were attributed. Still, the story of the dolphin made him a popular figure: it is represented several times and Herodotus’ story was translated by Roman author Aulus Gellius.note

This page was created in 2018; last modified on 27 August 2018.