Greek lyric poet, nephew of the poet Simonides, born on the island of Ceos near the end of the sixth century BC and lived at least until the middle of the fifth century. Like his contemporary Pindar, Bacchylides wrote in a variety of lyric genres (e.g. hymns, paeans, encomia), but the bulk of his surviving works consists of epinician odes for victors in the Panhellenic games. A papyrus discovered in Egypt in 1896 preserves fifteen victory odes and six poems which have been classed as dithyrambs. Like Simonides and Pindar, Bacchylides received commissions from all over the Greek world, composing songs for Ceans, Aeginetans, Athenians, Thessalians, and others, as well as such powerful men as Hieron of Syracuse (Odes 3, 4, and 5) and Alexander of Macedon (Fr. 20B).
life and CareerBacchylides was born in Iulis on the island of Ceos. His birth is usually dated between 518 and 506 BC. His uncle was Simonides (Strabo 10.5.6), who is said to have invented the epinician ode and to have been the first poet to work for pay (Suda s.v. σιμωνίδης; schol. Ar. Pax 697b). Bacchylides was probably the son of Simonides’ sister. Bacchylides’ father's name was Meidylos (Et. Mag. 582.20), and his paternal grandfather was Bacchylides “the athlete” (Suda s.v. βακχυλίδης). We have no secure evidence for dating most of Bacchylides’ poems. Ode 13 (Bacchyl. 13) for Pytheas of Aigina was written for the same victory as Pindar's Nemean 5 (Pind. N. 5), perhaps in the Nemean games of 485. Bacchylides’ three odes for the tyrant Hieron of Syracuse can be dated with relative certainty. Ode 5 (Bacchyl. 5) commemorates Hieron's Olympic single-horse victory of 476, also the occasion of Pindar's Olympian 1 (Pind. O. 1). The brief Ode 4, apparently performed on the spot at Delphi (Bacchyl. 4.4-5), celebrates the tyrant's 470 Pythian chariot victory, for which Pindar composed Pythian 1, performed in Sicily (Pind. P. 1.30). In 468 Hieron won his most illustrious victory, in the Olympic chariot race, and it is likely that on this occasion he again commissioned odes from both Bacchylides and Pindar. Bacchylides’ Ode 3 (Bacchyl. 3) certainly belongs to this victory; the dating of Pindar's Pythian 2 (Pind. P. 2) to the same occasion remains controversial, but is strongly argued for by D. C. Young, “Pindar Pythians 2 and 3: Inscriptional ποτέ and the ‘Poetic Epistle’,” HSCP 87 (1983) 31-48. (Contra, H. Maehler, “Bemerkungen zu Pindar,” sec. 2, “Die zweite Pythie und die olympische Siegerliste,” Hermes 113 (1985) 396-97.) Bacchylides’ last datable works are his Odes 6 and 7 for Lachon of Ceos, whose stadion victory is dated by the Olympic Victor List (P. Oxy. II 222) to 452. Plutarch (de Exil. 14, 605C) mentions in passing that Bacchylides was exiled to the Peloponnese, but it is uncertain when or for how long this exile occurred.
Importance & influenceBacchylides was successful during his own lifetime-the commission from Hieron in 468 was the greatest plum available to a poet - and he was counted by the Alexandrians as one of the nine canonical lyric poets. Horace admired Bacchylides, imitating Fr. 20B in Carmen 3.21, and, according to Porphyrion, following Bacchylides in Carmen 1.15. The author of On the Sublime wrote that Bacchylides was to Pindar as Ion of Chios was to Sophocles: Bacchylides and Ion were flawless masters of the polished (γλαφυρός) style, but lacked the fiery brilliance of Pindar and Sophocles ([Longinus] de Subl. 33). Bacchylides’ works were lost at some time after the fifth century AD; Stobaeus is the last author of antiquity to show familiarity with him. In the modern era, Bacchylides was little more than a name until the papyrus discovery of 1896 and Kenyon's εδιτιο πρινξεπς of 1897, which increased our Bacchylidean corpus from about a hundred lines of mostly unconnected fragments to over a thousand lines of readable verse. Many early readers of the rediscovered poet were disappointed and compared him unfavorably to Pindar, but in more recent years Bacchylides has not lacked admirers. Bacchylides is a brilliant storyteller, and in structure and language his odes are complex and sophisticated without being obscure. He often builds his narratives around moments of intense emotion or striking action: Meleager's recollection of the moment of his death, and Heracles’ reaction, in Ode 5 (Bacchyl. 5); Croesus’ cry of despair and miraculous rescue from the pyre in Ode 3 (Bacchyl. 3); the confrontation between Minos and Theseus, and Theseus’ dive into the sea, in Ode 17 (Dithyramb 3) (Bacchyl. 17) (Dithyramb 3); the approach of the powerful stranger in Ode 18 (Dithyramb 4) (Bacchyl. 18). The form of this last poem is unique in extant Greek lyric, and was probably influenced by Athenian tragedy; it is a dramatic dialogue between Aegeus and a chorus of Athenians.
On the life of Bacchylides, see Severyns and Podlecki.
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