Bacchylides 1st c. BC Brit. Mus. Pap. 733

Bacchylides (Βακχυλίδης, Βακχυλίδης), Greek lyric poet, was born at Iulis, in the island of Ceos. His father’s name was probably Meidon; his mother was a sister of Simonides, himself a native of Iulis. Eusebius says that Bacchylides "flourished" in 467 BC. As the term used by him refers to the physical prime, and was commonly placed at about the fortieth year, we may suppose that Bacchylides was born circa 507 BC.

Among his Odes the earliest that can be approximately dated to 481 or 479 BC; the latest date is fixed by the recently found fragment of the Olympic register to 452 BC. He would thus have been some forty-nine years younger than his uncle Simonides, and some fifteen years younger than Pindar. Elsewhere Eusebius states that Bacchylides "was of repute" in 431 BC; and George Syncellus, using the same phrase, 428 to 425 BC. This phrase would mean that he was then in the fullness of years and of fame. There is nothing improbable in the supposition that he survived the beginning of the Peloponnesian War.

Bacchylides, like Simonides and Pindar, visited the court of Hiero I of Syracuse (478-467). In his fifth Ode (476 BC), the word Efeos (v. II) has been taken to mean that he had already been the guest of the prince; and, as Simonides went to Sicily in or about 477 BC, that is not unlikely. Ode iii. (468 BC) was possibly written at Syracuse, as verses 15 and 16 suggest. He there pays a high compliment to Hiero’s taste in poetry (ver. 3 ff.). A scholium on Pyth. ii. 90 (166) avers that Hiero preferred the Odes of Bacchylides to those of Pindar. The Alexandrian scholars interpreted a number of passages in Pindar as hostile allusions to Bacchylides or Simonides.

The scholiasts are right, it would appear that Pindar regarded the younger of the two Cean poets as a jealous rival, who disparaged him to their common patron, and as one whose poetical skill was due to study rather than to genius. It is tolerably certain that the three poets were visitors at hero’s court at about the same time: Pindar and Bacchylides wrote odes of the same kind in his honour; and there was a tradition that he preferred the younger poet. There is thus no intrinsic improbability in the hypothesis that Pindar’s haughty spirit had suffered, or imagined, some mortification. It is noteworthy that, whereas in 476 and 470 both he and Bacchylides celebrated Hiero’s victories, in 468 (the most important occasion of all) Bacchylides alone was commissioned to do so; although in that year Pindar composed an ode (Olymp. vi.) for another Syracusan victor at the same festival. But, whatever may have been the true bearing of Pindar’s occasional innuendoes, it is at any rate pleasant to find that in the extant work of Bacchylides there is not the faintest semblance of hostile allusion to any rival.

Plutarch (de Exilio, p. 605 c) names Bacchylides in a list of writers, who after they had been banished from their native cities, were active and successful in literature. It was Peloponnesus that afforded a new home to the exiled poet. The passage gives no clue to date or circumstance; but it implies that Peloponnesus was the region where the poet's genius ripened and where he did the work which established his fame. This points to a residence of considerable length; and it may be noted that some of the poems illustrate their author's intimate knowledge of Peloponnesus.

The Alexandrian scholars, who drew up select lists of the best writers in each kind, included Bacchylides in their "canon" of the nine lyric poets, along with Alcman, Sappho, Alcaeus, Stesichorus, Ibycus, Anacreon, Simonides and Pindar. The Alexandrian grammarian Didymus (circa 30 BC) wrote a commentary on the epinikian odes of Bacchylides. Horace, a poet in some respects of kindred genius, was a student of his works, and imitated him (according to Porphyrion) in Odes, i. 15, where Nereus predicts the destruction. of Troy. Quotations from Bacchylides, or references to him, occur in Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Strabo, Plutarch, Stobaeus, Athenaeus, Aulus Gellius, Zenobius, Hephaestion, Clement of Alexandria, and various grammarians or scholiasts. Ammianus Marcellinus (xxv. 4) says that the emperor Julian enjoyed reading Bacchylides. It is clear that this poet continued to be popular during at least the first four centuries of our era. No inference adverse to his repute can fairly be drawn from the fact that no mention of him occurs in the extant work of any Attic writer.

The first and most general quality of style in Bacchylides is his perfect simplicity and clearness. Where the text is not corrupt, there are few sentences which are not lucid in meaning and simple in structure. This lucidity is partly due, no doubt, to the fact that he seldom attempts imagery of the bolder kind, and never has thoughts of a subtle or complex order. Yet it would be very unjust to regard such clearness as merely a compensatory merit of lyric mediocrity, or to ignore its intimate connection with the man’s native grace of mind, with the artist’s feeling for expression, with the poet’s delicate skill. How many readers, who could enjoy and appreciate Pindar if he were less difficult, are stopped on the threshold by the aspect of his style, and are fain to save their self-esteem by concluding that he is at once turgid and shallow! A pellucid style must always have been a source of wide, though modest, popularity for Bacchylides. If it be true that Hiero preferred him to Pindar, and that he was a favourite with Julian, those instances suggest the charm which he must always have had for cultivated readers to whom affairs did not leave much leisure for study, and who rejoiced in a poet with whom they could live on such easy terms.

Another prominent trait in the style of Bacchylides is his love of picturesque detail. This characteristic marks the fragment by which, before the discovery of 1896, he was best known — a passage, from one of his paeans, on the blessings of peace (fr. 13, Bergk, 3, Jebb); and it frequently appears in the Odes, especially in the mythical narratives. Greater poets can make an image flash upon the mind, as Pindar sometimes does, by a magic phrase, or by throwing one or two salient points into strong relief. The method of Bacchylides is usually quieter; he paints cabinet pictures. Observation and elegance do more for him than grasp or piercing insight; yet his work is often of very high excellence in its own kind. His treatment of simile is only a special phase of this general tendency. It is exemplified by the touches with which he elaborates the simile of the eagle in Ode v., and that of the storm-tossed mariners in Ode xii. This full development of simile is Homeric in manner, but not Homeric in motive: Homer’s aim is vividness; Bacchylides is rather intent on. the decorative value of the details themselves. There are occasional flashes of brilliancy in. his imagery, when it is lit up by his keen sense of beauty or splendour in external nature. A radiance, "as of fire," streams from the forms of the Nereids (xvi. 103 if.). An athlete shines out among his fellows Like’ the bright moon of the mid-month night ‘ among the stars (viii. 27 if.). The sudden gleam of hope which comes to the Trojans by the withdrawal of Achilles is like a ray of sunshine "from beneath the edge of a storm-cloud" (xii - 105 if.). The shades of the departed, as seen by Heracles on the banks of the Cocytus, are compared to the countless leaves fluttering in the wind on "the gleaming headlands of Ida" (v. 65 if )--an image not unworthy of Dante or of Milton.

Among the minor features of this poet's style the most remarkable is his use of epithets. A god or goddess nearly always receives some ornamental epithet; sometimes, indeed, two or even three. Such a trait is in unison with the epic manner, the straightforward narrative, which we find in some of the larger poems. On the other hand, the copious use of such ornament has the disadvantage that it fometimes gives a tinge of conventionality to his work. This impression is somewhat strengthened by the fact that many of the epithets are long compound words, not found elsewhere and (in some cases at least) probably invented by the poet; words which suggest a deliberate effort to vary the stock repertory.

The poems contained in the works of Bacchylides found (see below) in 1896 are of two classes:

  1. Odes of Victory
  2. Dithyrambs.

The Ode of Victory was properly a song in praise of a deity. Stesichorus (c. 610 BC) seems to have been the first who composed hymns in honour, not of gods, but of heroes; the next step was to write hymns in celebration of victories by living men. This custom arose in the second half of the 6th century BC, the age in which the games at the four great Greek festivals reached the fulness of their popularity. Simonides (c. 556 BC) was the earliest recorded writer of epinikia. His odes of this class are now represented only by a few very small fragments, some twenty lines in all. Two of these fragments, belonging to the description of a chariot-race, warrant the belief that Simonides, in his epinikia, differed from Pindar in dwelling more on the incidents 01 the particular victory. The same characteristic is found in the epinikia of Bacchylides. His fifth ode, and Pindar’s first Olympian, alike celebrate the victory of the horse Pherenicus; but, while Pindar's reference to the race itself is slight and general (vv. 20-22), Bacchylides describes the running of the winner much more vividly and fully (vv. 37-49).

The manuscript contains fourteen epinikia, or thirteen if Blass be right in supposing that Odes vi. and vii., as numbered by Kenyon in the editio princeps, are parts of a single ode (for Lachon of Ceos). Four (or on the view just stated, three) of the odes relate to the Olympian festival; two to the Pythian; three to the Isthmian; three to the Nemean; and one to a Thessalian festival. This comes last. The order in which the manuscript arranges the other epinikia seems to be casual; at least it does not follow (1) the alphabetical sequence of the victors’ names, or of the names of their cities; nor (2) chronological sequence; nor (3) classification by contests; nor (4) classification by festivals’except that the four great festivals precede the Petra-ea. The first ode, celebrating a victory of the Cean Argeios at the Isthmus, may possibly have been placed there for a biographical reason, such as because the poet treated in it the early legends of his native island.

A mythical narrative, connected in some way with the victor or his city, usually occupies the central part of the Pindaric ode. It serves to lift the poem into an ideal region, and to invest it with more than a local or temporary significance. The method of Bacchylides in this department of the epinikion is best illustrated by the myth of Croesus in Ode iii., that of Heracles and Meleager in Ode v., and that of the Proetides in Ode x. Pindar's habit is to select certain moments or scenes of a legend, which he depicts with great force and vividness. Bacchylides, on the other hand, has a gentle flow of simple epic narrative; he relies on the interest of the story as a whole, rather than on his power of presenting situations. Another element, always present in the longer odes of victory, is that which may be called the "gnomic." Here, again, there is a contrast between the two poets. Pindar packs his maxims into terse and sometimes obscure epigrams; he utters them in a didactic tone, as of one who can speak with the commanding voice of Delphic wisdom. The moralizing of Bacchylides is rather an utterance of quiet meditation, sometimes recalling the strain of lonian gnomic elegy.

The epinikia of Bacchylides are followed in the manuscript by six compositions which the Alexandrians classed under the general name of Dithyrambs. The "dithyramb," first mentioned by Archilochus (c. 670 BC), received a finished and choral form from Anon of Lesbos (c. 600 BC). His dithyrambs, produced at Corinth, belonged to the cult of Dionysus, and the members of his chorus personated satyrs. Originally concerned with the birth of the god, the dithyramb came to deal with all his fortunes: then its scope became still larger; it might celebrate, not Dionysus alone, but any god or hero.

Several other classes of composition are represented by those fragments of Bacchylides, preserved in ancient literature. Among these we hear of are:

  1. hymns of pious farewell, speeding some god on his way at the season when he passed from one haunt to another.
  2. fragments on the blessings of peace.
  3. choral odes sung during processions to temples.
  4. lively dance-songs for religious festivals.
  5. five fragments of a class akin to drinking-songs. Under this head come some lively and humorous verses on the power of wine, imitated by Horace (Odes, iii. 21. 13-20).
  6. two elegiacs, represented in the Palatine Anthology. The first is an inscription for an offering commemorative of a victory gained by a chorus with a poem written by Bacchylides. The second is an inscription for a shrine dedicated to Zephyrus. Its authenticity has been questioned, but not disproved.

The papyrus containing the odes of Bacchylides was found in Egypt by locals, and reached the British Museum in the autumn of 1896. It was then in about 200 pieces. By the skill and industry of Mr F. G. Kenyon, the editor of the editio princeps (1897), it was reconstructed from these lacerated members. As now arranged, the manuscript consists of three sections.

  1. The first section contains 22 columns of writing. It breaks off after the 8 opening verses of Ode xii.
  2. The second section contains columns 23-29. Of these, column 23 is represented only by the last letters of two words. This section comprises what remains of Odes xiii. and xiv. It breaks off before the end of xiv., which is the last of the epjnjkia.
  3. The third section comprises columns 30-39. It begins with the mutilated opening verses of Ode xv., the first of the dithyrambs, and breaks off after verse ii of the last dithyramb.

It is impossible to say how much has been lost between the end of column 29 and the beginning of column 30. Probably, however, Ode xiv., if not the last, was nearly the last of the epinikia. It concerns a festival of a merely local character, the Thessalian Herpaia, and was therefore placed after the thirteen other epinikia, which are connected with the four great festivals. The same lacuna leaves it doubtful whether any collective title was prefixed. After the last column (39) of the MS., a good deal has probably been lost. Bacchylides seems to have written at least three other poems of this class (on Cassandra, Laocoon and Philoctetes); and these would have come, in alphabetical order, after the last of the extant six (Idas).

See also


This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.

Albin Lesky, A History of Greek Literature , Hackett Publishing Company; Reprint edition (November, 1996)

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