In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Greek Poetry: Iambos

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies
  • Texts and Translations
  • Iambic Meter
  • Minor Figures
  • Solon’s Trochaic and Iambic Poems
  • Roman Revival

Classics Greek Poetry: Iambos
Christopher G. Brown
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0097


The word iambos (sometimes Latinized as iambus; the plural is iamboi or iambi) is a word of uncertain etymology. It seems originally to have been used of a type of poem that is first attested in Ionia in the 7th century BCE. Defining iambos has proved to be elusive, owing to the fragmentary state of the surviving evidence. Modern scholars have typically understood it as defined by content rather than form, with its most salient features being invective and the abuse of named individuals. Other characteristics are obscenity, narrative (often involving a first-person narrator), speeches embedded in narrative, moral exhortation, and the use of beast fables. Recent scholarship has emphasized the importance of occasion in determining genre in early Greek poetry, but for iambos there is no agreement on the occasion at which the poems were performed. Form, however, may not be irrelevant to understanding iambos. The iambic rhythm seems to have been characteristic of these poems, and the use of the term to describe the rhythm seems to have arisen from its association with early iambos. The problem here is that there was clearly early iambic poetry that does not reflect the characteristics associated with iambos. The most prominent association of iambos is with the poet Archilochus, and, to a slightly lesser extent, with Semonides of Amorgos and Hipponax. Although there were other composers of iambos, these three poets seem to have been considered the canonical early iambographers. In later Antiquity iambos was revived by both Hellenistic and Roman poets, but the resulting poetry seems to have been very different in character from the early form.

General Overviews

Discussion of early iambos has tended to be focused on the particular poets, but there are a number of overviews of the field as a whole. Carey 2009 is both succinct and insightful in setting the three central iambographers in the context of current scholarship. Brown 1997 prefaces a reading of the poets with a detailed discussion of the possible prehistory of the genre. Bartol 1993 is particularly useful on the question of performance and occasion. Rotstein 2010 is less interested in the iambographers than in iambos itself, and offers a detailed account of the development of the ancient understanding of the genre.

  • Bartol, Krystyna. 1993. Greek elegy and iambus: Studies in ancient literary sources. Poznań: Adam Mickiewicz Univ. Press.

    Discusses iambos with an emphasis on performance and occasion, seeing its social function in terms of paraenesis (“exhortation”) and entertainment.

  • Brown, Christopher G. 1997. Iambos. In A companion to the Greek lyric poets. Edited by Douglas E. Gerber, 13–88. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill.

    An overview of iambos and a survey of the three major poets.

  • Carey, Chris. 2009. Iambos. In The Cambridge companion to Greek lyric. Edited by Felix Budelmann, 149–167. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521849449

    A concise and judicious survey of early iambos.

  • Rotstein, Andrea. 2010. The idea of iambos. Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A comprehensive treatment of ancient understanding of iambos as a genre, employing a methodology derived from the cognitive sciences.

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