1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bacchylides

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2865311911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 3 — BacchylidesRichard Claverhouse Jebb

BACCHYLIDES, 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” (ἤκμαζεν) in Ol. 78. 2 (467 B.C.). As the term ἤκμαζεν refers to the physical prime, and was commonly placed at about the fortieth year, we may suppose that Bacchylides was born circa 507 B.C. Among his Odes the earliest that can be approximately dated is xii.,[1] which may belong to 481 or 479 B.C.; the latest is vi., of which the date is fixed by the recently found fragment of the Olympic register to Ol. 82. 1 (452 B.C.). 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” (ἐγνωρίζετο) in Ol. 87. 2 (431 B.C.); and Georgius Syncellus, using the same word, gives Ol. 88 (428–425 B.C.). The phrase would mean that he was then in the fulness 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 B.C.), the word ξένος (v. 11) 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 B.C., that is not unlikely. Ode iii. (468 B.C.) 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. If 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 (schol. Pyth. ii. 52 f.), and as one whose poetical skill was due to study rather than to genius (Ol. ii. 91-110). In Olymp. ii. 96 the dual γαρύετον, if it does not refer to the uncle and nephew, remains mysterious; nor does it admit of probable emendation.[2] One would gladly reject this tradition, to which the scholia so frequently refer; yet it would be rash to assume that it rested merely on surmise. The Alexandrians may have possessed evidence on the subject which is now lost. It is tolerably certain that the three poets were visitors at Hiero’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. Nor is it difficult to conceive that a despot such as Hiero, whose constitutional position was ill-defined, and who was perhaps all the more exigent of deference on that account, may have found the genial Ionian a more agreeable courtier than Pindar, an aristocrat of the Boeoto-Aeolic type, not unmindful of “his fathers the Aegidae,” and rather prone to link the praises of his patron with a lofty intimation of his own claims (see, e.g., Olymp. i. ad fin.). 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. Nay, one might almost imagine a compliment to Pindar, when, in mentioning Hesiod, he calls him Βοιωτὸς ἀνήρ.

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. Thus in Ode viii., for Automedes of Phlius, he draws on the legends connected with the Phliasian river Asopus. In Ode x., starting from the Argive legend of Proetus and Acrisius, he tells how the Arcadian cult of Artemis Ἡμέρα was founded. In one of his dithyrambs (xix.) he treated the legend of Idas (a Messenian hero) and Marpessa in the form of a hymenaeus sung by maidens of Sparta.

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 (circ. 30 B.C.) 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, then, 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 only definite estimate of him by an ancient critic occurs in the treatise Περὶ Ὕψους commonly translated “On the Sublime,” but meaning rather, “On the Sources of Elevation in Style”; a work ambiguously ascribed to Cassius Longinus (circ. A.D. 260), but more probably due to some writer of the first century of our era. In chapter xxxiii. of that treatise, the author asks whether we ought to prefer “greatness” in literature, with some attendant faults, to flawless merit on a lower level, and of course replies in the affirmative. In tragedy, he asks, who would be Ion of Chios rather than Sophocles; or in lyric poetry, Bacchylides rather than Pindar? Yet Bacchylides and Ion are “faultless, with a style of perfect elegance and finish.” In short, the essayist regards Bacchylides as a thoroughly finished poet of the second class, who never commits glaring faults, but never reaches the loftier heights.

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 connexion 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 the 1896 MS., 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; but 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 ff.). An athlete shines out among his fellows like “the bright moon of the mid-month night” among the stars (viii. 27 ff.). 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 ff.). 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 ff.)—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 (e.g. καλυκοστεφάνου σεμνᾶς ... Ἀρτεμίδος λευκωλένου, v. 98 f.). Such a trait is in unison with the epic manner, the straightforward narrative, which we find in some of the larger poems (as in v., x., and xvi.). On the other hand, the copious use of such ornament has the disadvantage that it sometimes 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 MS. of Bacchylides found (see below) in 1896 are of two classes: I. Odes of Victory; II. Dithyrambs. The Ode of Victory, ἐπινίκιον (μέλος) or ἐπίνικος (ὕμνος), is a form derived from the ὕμνος, which was properly a song in praise of a deity. Stesichorus (c. 610 B.C.) 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 B.C., the age in which the games at the four great Greek festivals reached the fulness of their popularity. Simonides (b. c. 556 B.C.) 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 of 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 MS. 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 called the Πετραῖα. This comes last. The order in which the MS. 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 Petraea. The first ode, celebrating a victory of the Cean Argeios at the Isthmus, may possibly have been placed there for a biographical reason, viz., 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 γνῶμαι, his maxims or moral sentiments, 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 Ionian gnomic elegy.

The epinikia of Bacchylides are followed in the MS. by six compositions which the Alexandrians classed under the general name of διθύραμβοι, and which we, too, must be content to describe collectively as Dithyrambs. The derivation of δι-θύραμβος is uncertain: δι may be the root seen in δῖος (cp. διπόλια, and θύραμβος another form of θρίαμβος, a word by which Cratinus (c. 448 B.C.) denotes some kind of hymn to the wine-god. The “dithyramb,” first mentioned by Archilochus (c. 670 B.C.), received a finished and choral form from Arion of Lesbos (c. 600 B.C.). His dithyrambs, produced at Corinth, belonged to the cult of Dionysus, and the members of his chorus (τραγικὸς χορός) 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. This last development had taken place before the close of the 6th century B.C. Simonides wrote a dithyramb on Memnon and Tithonus; Pindar, on Orion and on Heracles. Hence the Alexandrian scholars used διθύραμβος in a wide sense, as denoting simply a lyric poem occupied with a mythical narrative. Thus Ode xvii. of Bacchylides (relating the voyage of Theseus to Crete), though it was clearly a παιάν for the Delian Apollo, was classed by the Alexandrians among his “dithyrambs”—as appears not only from its place in our MS., but also from the allusion of Servius (on Aen. vi. 21). The six dithyrambs of Bacchylides are arranged in (approximately) alphabetical order: Ἀντηνορίδαι, Ἡρακλῆς, Ἠΐθεοι ἢ Θησεύς, Θησεύς, Ἰώ, Ἴδας. The principal feature, best exemplified by the first and third, is necessarily epic narrative,—often adorned with touches of picturesque detail, and animated by short speeches in the epic manner.

Several other classes of composition are represented by those fragments of Bacchylides, preserved in ancient literature, which were known before the discovery of the new MS. (1) ὕμνοι. Among these we hear of the ἀποπεμπτικοί, hymns of pious farewell, speeding some god on his way at the season when he passed from one haunt to another. (2) παιᾶνες, represented by the well-known fragment on the blessings of peace. (3) προσόδια, choral odes sung during processions to temples. (4) ὑπορχήματα, lively dance-songs for religious festivals. (5) ἐρωτικά, represented by five fragments of a class akin to σκόλια, drinking-songs. Under this head come some lively and humorous verses on the power of wine, imitated by Horace (Odes, iii. 21. 13-20). It may be conjectured that the facile grace and bright fancy of Bacchylides were seen to especial advantage in light compositions of this kind. (6) The elegiacs of Bacchylides are represented by two ἐπιγράμματα ἀναθηματικά, each of four lines, in the Palatine Anthology. The first (Anth. vi. 313) is an inscription for an offering commemorative of a victory gained by a chorus with a poem written by Bacchylides. The second (Anth. vi. 53) 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 natives, 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), the MS. was reconstructed from these lacerated members. As now arranged, the MS. 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 epinikia. (3) The third section comprises columns 30-39. It begins with the mutilated opening verses of Ode xv. (Ἀντηνορίδαι, the first of the dithyrambs), and breaks off after verse 11 of the last dithyramb, Ἴδας. The number of lines in a column varies from 32 to 36, the usual number being 35, or (though less often) 34.

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 Πετραῖα, 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 to the διθύραμβοι. 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).

The writing of the MS. is a fine uncial. It presents some traits of a distinctly Ptolemaic type, though it lacks some features found in the earlier Ptolemaic MSS. (those of the 3rd or 2nd century B.C.). Among the characteristic forms of letters is the form of Upsilon, with a shallow curve on the top of the upright; a form found in MSS. ascribed to the 1st century B.C., and different from the more fully formed upsilon of the Roman period. Another very significant letter is the Ξ, written as form of Xi, a form which begins to go out after c. 50 B.C., giving place to one in which the middle stroke is connected with the other two. From these and other indications it is probable that the MS. is not later than the middle of the 1st century B.C.

The scribe, though he sometimes corrected his own mistakes, was, on the whole, careless of the sense, as of the metre; he seems to have been a mechanical copyist, excellent in penmanship, but intent only on the letters. The MS. has received corrections or small supplements from at least two different persons. One of them (Kenyon’s A2) was contemporary, or nearly so, with the scribe. The other (A3) was considerably later; he wrote a Roman cursive which might belong to the end of the 1st century A.D., or to the early part of the 2nd. The correctors seem to be generally trustworthy; though, like the scribe, they were inattentive to metre, passing over many metrical faults which could easily have been removed. They appear to have compared their MS. with another, or others; but they sometimes made a bad use of such aid, intruding a false reading where their text had the true one.

Breathings are generally added, especially rough breathings; the form is usually square, but sometimes partially rounded. Accents are added, not to all words, but only, as a rule, to those which might cause doubt or difficulty to the reader. This was the Alexandrian practice, accents being regarded as aids to correct reading, and more liberally used when the dialect was not Attic. In accordance with the older system, the accent is not written on the last syllable of a word; when the accent falls there, a grave accent is written on the preceding syllable, or on two such syllables (e.g. βλὴχρας, πὰυθὰλης).

As Kenyon observes, no MS. of equal antiquity is so well supplied with accents. The MS. which comes nearest to it in this respect is the Alcman fragment in the Louvre, which is of similar or slightly higher age, belonging perhaps to the early part of the 1st century A.D.; and in that MS. the comparatively frequent accents were doubtless designed to aid readers unfamiliar with Alcman’s Laconian Doric. With regard to other grammatical or metrical signs (προσῳδίαι) used in the Bacchylides MS., there is not much that calls for special remark. The punctuation, whether by the scribe or by correctors, is very sparse, and certainly cannot always be regarded as authoritative. The signs denoting the end of a strophe or antistrophe (paragraphus), of an epode (coronis), or of an ode (asterisk), are often omitted by the scribe, and, when employed, are sometimes placed incorrectly, or employed in an irregular manner.

Editions.—F. G. Kenyon, Ed. princeps (1897); F. Blass, 3rd ed. (1904); H. Jurenka (1898); N. Festa, text, translation and notes (1898). [The latest edition is by Sir Richard Jebb (1905), with introduction, notes, translation, and bibliography; text only (1906). See also T. Zanghieri, Studi su Bacchilide, Bibliografia Bacchilidea, 1897–1905 (1905)].  (R. C. J.) 

  1. The references are given according to the numbering in Jebb’s edition.
  2. For other explanations suggested, see Jebb’s edition, Introd. p. 18.