Anacreon was born in Teos, Ionia (now Sighajik, Turkey). He is the Greek poet who, after Archilochus, was the most important writer of personal lyric poetry in the Ionic dialect. Only fragments of his verse have survived.
Anacreon's working life was mainly associated with the courts of tyrants who were important patrons of art and literature in the 6th century BC, and was a dependent of Polycrates, whose court was a major literary center where erotic verse was much favored. We know the names of three of the youths to whom Anacreon addressed love poems: Smerdies, Bathyllus, and Cleobulus. His poems are playful and pleasure-loving, their themes wine, women, song - and boys.
An amusing story tells how, drunk, he stumbled against a nurse and child and abused her. The nurse expressed the pious wish that he might one day praise the child. Anacreon, we are told, later fell in love with the boy.
He spent much of his life at the court of Polycrates of Samos. When Polycrates was killed by Persian treachery, Anacreon had the good fortune to win the patronage of Hipparchus, the co-tyrant (with his brother Hippias) of Athens. After the fall of these rulers, democratic Athens raised a statue to him on the Acropolis where he stood, wine cup in hand, next to Pericles.
Though Anacreon may well have written serious poems, those that were quoted by later writers are chiefly in praise of love, wine, and revelry. Anacreon disliked the excessive and the unrefined, however, and his treatment of these subjects is unusually formal and elegant. His language and use of metre are smooth and simple, while his outlook is one of ironic enjoyment of life.
Ancient Greek scholars in Alexandria had an edition of his work consisting of five books of verse, of which various fragments are extant. Anacreon's poetic sentiments and style were widely imitated by Hellenistic and Byzantine Greek writers, though theytended to exaggerate the strain of drunken eroticism and frivolity present in his work. There thus arose the Anacreontea, a collection of about 60 short poems composed by postclassical Greek writers at various dates and first published by Henri Estienne as the work of Anacreon in 1554.
These had a great influence on Renaissance French poetry. The word "Anacreontics" was first used in England in 1656 by Abraham Cowley to denote a verse measure supposedly used by the ancient Greek poet and consisting of seven or eight syllables with three or four main stresses. Anacreon himself, it should be noted, composed verse in a variety of Greek lyric measures. Robert Herrick, William Oldys, and William Shenstone wrote original Anacreontics in English, and Thomas Moore provided perhaps the finest translation of the Anacreontea in 1800 under the title Odes of Anacreon. The Anacreontea also influenced Italian and German literature.
Little of his love poetry has survived, but wrote openly about his sexual relations with young boys. One fragment, that survived only because it was used in the middle ages to illustrate points of Greek grammar, contains the lines:
I love Cleobulus
Several of the odes of Anacreon are addressed to his young friend Bathyllus.
I dote on Cleobulus
I gaze at Cleobulus