On the Early History of the Braggart Soldier. Part One: Archilochus and Epicharmus


The miles gloriosus of ancient comedy is characterized by an inherent contradiction between appearance (impressive looks and aggressive braggadocio) and reality (inner cowardice). Long before the Lamachus of Aristophanes’ Acharnians, the figure of the braggart warrior had been formed in earlier Greek humorous literature. Well-developed specimens occur in Archilochus’ satirical poems, such as the foppish general of fr. 114 and the self-proclaimed “war heroes” of fr. 101. The soldier who abandoned his shield (fr. 5) also displays traits of the military alazon, notably the discrepancy between his extraordinary weapon and his actual deficiency in battle. Aristophanes (Pax 1295–1304) seems to have read Archilochus’ poem in this way, given that he places it in the mouth of the son of Cleonymus, a personage which resembles the typical swaggering miles in some respects. Archilochus’ boastful soldiers express themselves in elevated epic style or affected language, which matches their pretentiousness. This seminal technique was taken over by the comic poets. Epicharmus’ dramas, which abounded in character sketches, also offered primordial examples of the miles gloriosus. In the mythological burlesque Odysseus the Deserter, the type of the boastful captain was projected on the mythical figure of Odysseus (a technique later adopted in the myth burlesques of Attic comedy). Ironically reversing the Homeric prototype of the enduring hero, the Epicharmean Odysseus abandons his military duty and is afraid of blows; yet he tries to conceal his cowardice with pompous bragging about false feats, and his speech is loaded with Homeric locutions. Cf. the title Periallos (“Mr. Above-all-others”), which alludes to the Homeric expression περὶ ἄλλων ἔμμεναι or γενέσθαι, repeatedly applied to warrior heroes of the epic. Both the archaic iambus and Epicharmus’ works were known to the poets of Old Comedy and may have inspired them to further develop the type of the soldier, as Aristophanes did with his boastful Lamachus.