Wednesday, 14 December 2016

January Legendum meet

Salve or Chaire!

There are two options for January meeting of Legendum. Classical Literary in Plato, Longinus and Horace..or...Boethius - The Consolation of Philosophy. Let me know which one you prefer either in the comments section or the other standard comms channels.

Have a great Saturnalia!

Monday, 14 November 2016

Domitian Creep - Martial's Epigrams

Saturnalia is almost upon us, where boys nervously play for nuts at the risk of their buttocks, the cap wearing dice player looks over his shoulder for any swiftly approaching buffoon, intent upon throwing him in the nearest pond for a laugh, and the rod brandishing schoolmaster seeks in vain to control his particularly unruly class at this festive time.
At such times we could do worse than turn to the witty epigrams of Martial to provide the cheeky tocsin and mood music of ribaldry and outrageous bawdiness for such frivolous pursuits.
Martial (40 CE-104CE) like a couple of his famous near contemporaries hailed from Spain and after a standard Roman education in the provinces came to Rome in his early twenties to seek his fortune. He reminds me of Lucian in that despite a great eloquence and mastery of language, rather than follow a career at the bar or elsewhere, Martial decided to apply his verbal talents to the page and in particular the epigram – a brief, well-crafted witticism covering almost any subject, a person, object, occasion and gradually (if we believe his own trumpet blowing) making quite a name for himself. There are 12 books extant as well as other collections which don’t fall neatly into the finished epigram format – On Spectacles, Apophoreta, and Xenia.
Martial tells us where his works can be bought and it appears from this that there did indeed seem to be a growing readership for his ribald verses and witty if rude character portraits – although he states that he never uses real names, it might have been possible for those in the know to read between the lines, unless some of the epigrams are mere exercises in ‘types’ rather than any particular individual. Reading through the books of epigrams, you get a variegated and rich picture of life in Rome from the angle of the client, constantly on the run to dinner of a rich patron to curry favour, perhaps get a decent bite to eat, perhaps even some money, following your patron to the baths, or assisting in his own legacy hunting or favour currying with even higher-ups..a veritable sweating pyramid of amicitia! There are shades of Juvenalian tropes, the simple rustic life versus the noisy crowded and expensive city, but Martial fares better as he withholds invective judgement and just gives us jewel-like visions of the odd, bizarre, amusing and disgusting aspects of Roman life at the time. He revels in the obscenity rather than rails moralistically at it.
For me the books appear to take us through Martial’s career arc (if they are in more or less chronological publishing order) and hence the title, it has been noted by many that the increasingly nauseating Imperial panegyric aimed at Domitian tend to cast a shade over his other work.  The Imperial bum licking epigrams are shouldered by an increased traditionalist tone, mere empty praise of gods or mythological figures, something which an earlier Martial would have steered away from as old hat in favour of some good old cock and cunt quips. The earlier books have a more anti-establishment air, a time before he came to the notice of a wider readership and thus the Imperial entourage and the emperor himself. Later on he appears to tone himself down and is finally content to turn out what amount to ready made to order, factory production line pieces: the Apophoreta have a list of random gift labels/fortune cookie-esque vibe, almost listlessly executed, like an experimental spare button box to be stored away and rummaged through later on a rainy day. Perhaps he ran out of steam and retired to the country – but finding the boondocks too quiet, returned to the capital for one last roll of the sheep’s knuckles.
Amongst the ribaldry and ribbing there are some genuine moments of pathos, a series of epigrams to Erotion. I am not sure whether he addresses the same Erotion in all the instances her name appears, from what we can glean from the texts themselves, she is a young girl who tragically died at the age of six (?) but the epigrams contain some very vivid element of pathos that strikes a contrast with Martials other work – which despite being very witty and punchy have a very canapĂ© effect upon the poetic palate. The Erotion epigrams hint at other depths in Martial, hints that he could have turned his talent to works of higher literature.
But he preferred to carve out a career of two or three liners, possibly on a commission basis as his little collections sold more and more and he became more in demand and further under the Imperial radar and patronage, always the master of the bon mot, adept at turning out a well-wrought punchline for a staggering variety of situations – striking a very realist stance as he brings the vicissitudes and joys of Roman life vividly to life. The epigrams are like bright little gems whose glint has not faded even after the odd couple of millennia.
I look forward to assaying their brilliance when we next meet. In the meantime here is a list of some of the epigrams I particularly liked or found interesting for one reason or another.

Book/Number Notes/Docket Note

1/43               60 men to a tiny boar!
1/33 ‘ille dolet vere qui sine teste dolet’
1/83 Dogs like to eat shit
2/29              A well dressed ex-con
2/36 Doggy Bags
3/60 Host v Guest dole fare
3/93   (4/13)             Images of marriage age
4/42                           Martials perfect boy
5/13                          I can be you but you cannot be me
5/20                         ‘quisque, vivere cum sciat, moratur?’
5/24                          Hermes, Hermes, oh get on with it!
5/34+37             Death of Erotion
5/78             Dinner at Home
7/20                         Santra rakes it in
8/27                           Legacy hunters
9/1                              In the hall of fame?
9.25           Wandering eyes
9.68                          A Noisy bastard
9/91                        Domitian dinner invite?
10.47                          The Good Life
10.61          Erotion’s Tomb
11.99          Wardrobe Malfunction
12.10          The Emptiness of Riches
12.13         Hating comes cheaper than giving
12.70         An Acquired taste for Luxury

Vale! And Happy Saturnalia!

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Ancient Historiomachy -Hobbes contra Dionysius in defence of Thucydides


Can we ever talk about Thucydides (460-c400 BCE) without mentioning Herodotus in the same breath(484-425 BCE)? I think it would be very difficult indeed, for however much we consider his account of the Peloponnesian War to be a unique departure from the work of the Halicarnassian ‘Father of History’, there are oblique references in it to the earlier work and it could even be said that there are certain subtle influences. Could Thucydides be the stylistic wayward son of Herodotus? It’s a curious thought.
Scholars until recently have focused predominantly upon questions such as the accuracy of the history or the veracity of the speeches and how truthful Thucydides might have been as a historian – but ultimately undecidable issues have been on the whole abandoned in favour of closer investigation into the history as a work of literature in its own right, its artistic merits, its architecture and its affinity to other forms of literature, in particular tragedy and epic.
Be that as it may, nowadays the consensus on the whole of readers of the two historians is that Thucydides is more akin to modern historiography and as such is considered to be more recognisable to us, rendering him in some way a better historian than the’ mere teller of fantastic fables’ as some have disparagingly described Herodotus (Thucydides amongst them - see I.20). But it was quite a different story as reflected in earlier criticism.
Reading the introduction to Rex Warner’s translation of the Peloponnesian War, I came across the classical era essayist and critic, Dionysius of Halicarnassus (60 BCE-7?BCE), who amongst other writings on rhetoric and literature wrote a deeply critical essay of Thucydides. Perhaps Dionysus’ comments resonated with some scholars at the time, or were in tune with what the ancients thought good history should look like – it is telling that for a long time after Thucydides no other historian wrote history using his approaches to structure and the deft arrangement of factual information. Nearer to our times, the political thinker Thomas Hobbes made the first direct translation from the ancient Greek of The Peloponnesian War and takes umbrage at Dionysus in his introduction of 1628:
Hobbes looks specifically at six points of contention that Dionysius makes against Thucydides. It is well worth reading all of them but in the interests of time and space our perpetual Rhadamanthus and Minos, I am going to give just the first two as a taste of Hobbes sense of umbrage and outrage at Dionysius’ pontifications:
1. Dionysius: ‘The principal and most necessary office of any man that intendeth to write a history, is to choose a noble argument, and graceful to such as shall read it. And this Herodotus, in my opinion , hath done better than Thucydides. For Herodotus hath written the joint history both of the Greeks and barbarians, to save from oblivion, &c. But Thucydides writeth one only war, and that neither honourable  nor fortunate; which principally were to be wished never to have been; and next, never to have been remembered nor known to posterity. And that he took an evil argument in hand, he maketh it manifest in his proeme, saying : that many cities were in that war made desolate and utterly destroyed, partly by barbarians, partly by the Greeks themselves: so many banishments, and so much slaughter of men, as never was the like before , &c.: so that the hearers will abhor it at the first propounding. Now by how much it is better to write of the wonderful acts both of the barbarians and Grecians, than of the pitiful and horrible calamities of the Grecians; so much wiser is Herodotus in the choice of his argument than Thucydides.’ Hobbes: Now let any man consider whether it be not more reasonable to say: That the principal and most necessary office of him that will write a history, is to take such an argument as is both within his power well to handle, and profitable to posterity that shall read it, which Thucydides, in the opinion of all men, hath done better than Herodotus: for Herodotus undertook to write of those things, of which it was impossible for him to know the truth: and which delight more the ear with fabulous narrations, than satisfy the mind with truth: but Thucydides writeth one war; which, how it was carried from the beginning to the end, he was able certainly to inform himself: and by propounding in his proeme the miseries that happened in the same , he sheweth that it was a great war, and worthy to be known; and not to be concealed from posterity, for the calamities that then fell upon the Grecians; but the rather to be truly delivered unto them, for that men profit more by looking on adverse events, than on prosperity: therefore by how much men’s miseries do better instruct, than their good success; by so much was Thucydides more happy in taking his argument, than Herodotus was wise in choosing his.
I think it better to leave to the reader to savour the arguments and rebuttals as they are without me putting too much of a gloss on it by way of superfluous comment. Hobbes robust eloquentia does the job admirably enough upon close reading.
2. Dionysius: ‘The next office of him that will write a history, is to know where to begin and where to end. And in this point  Herodotus seemeth to be far more more discreet than Thucydides. For in the first place he layeth down the cause for which the barbarians began to injure the Grecians; and going on, maketh an end at the punishment and the revenge taken on the barbarians . But Thucydides begins at the good estate of the Grecians; which, being a Grecian and an Athenian, he ought not to have done: nor ought he, being of that dignity amongst the Athenians, so evidently to have laid the fault of the war upon his own city, when there were other occasions enough to which he might have imputed it. Then in the ending of his history, there be many errors committed. For though he profess he was present in the whole war, and that he would write it all: yet he ends with the naval battle at Cynos-sema, which was fought in the twenty-first year of the war.’ Hobbes: To this I say, that it was the duty of him that had undertaken to write the history of the Peloponnesian war, to begin his narration no further off than at the causes of the same, whether the Grecians were then in good or in evil estate. And if the injury, upon which the war arose, proceeded from the Athenians; then the writer, though an Athenian and honoured in his country, ought to declare the same; and not to seek nor take, though at hand, any other occasion to transfer the fault.
Hobbes goes on to list Dionysius arguments against Thucydides, including his unique approach to writing the history by time rather than by episode in linear order, his negative attitude to the section known as The Archaeology at the beginning of the history where Thucydides outlines periods before the war he has chosen to describe, his problems with Pericles’ funeral oration (contrived in his opinion) and the one sidedness of the recording of the speeches in the (in)famous Melian dialogue, summing up his writings on these issues with the words, ‘I think there was never written so much absurdity in so few lines’.
After his elegant destruction of Dionysius, Hobbes muses openly on why the rhetorician would have tried to denigrate such a great work in this way.
‘Some man may peradventure desire to know, what motive Dionysius might have to extenuate the worth of him, whom he himself acknowledgeth to have been esteemed by all men for the best by far of all historians that ever wrote, and to have been taken by all the ancient orators and philosophers for the measure and rule of writing history. What motive he had to it, I know not: but what glory he might expect by it, is easily known. For having first preferred Herodotus, his countryman, a Halicarnassian, before Thucydides, who was accounted the best; and then conceiving that his own history might perhaps be thought not inferior to that of Herodotus: by this computation he saw the honour of the best historiographer falling on himself. Wherein, in the opinion of all men, he hath misreckoned. And thus much for the objections of Denis of Halicarnasse.’
I look forward to hearing of your own reckonings of the man and the history when we next meet!


Sunday, 2 October 2016

Corinna of Tanagra - The Tenth Lyric Star?

Corinna of Tanagra (5th or 3rd BCE?) in Boeotia is not included in the list of great lyric poets by the Alexandrian scholars – it’s not known for sure why. Extant only in the form of a few papyri fragments and in ancient testimonia, it’s still not clear whether she is from a later era in the Hellenistic age or a contemporary of Pindar.
From the little we do know her works centres on the retelling and praise of myth and it retelling in a ritual context. One fragment (664(b) PMG give us a clear indication of what she is driven to song by,
[hionei d’eiroon aretas cheiroadov]
‘..but I have come to sing of heroes and heroines..’
In another fragment (664 PMG) she takes another lyric poet Myrtis to task for daring to square up against her hero Pindar, further underlining her devotion to the praise of myth and ritual choral hymns. It is here where the argument over dates is centred. From the fragments and available testimonia Corinna refers to the details of choral and ritual performance in connection with places she is familiar with, e.g. the Boeotian town of Thespia and this sounds  more like the earlier type of lyric, ritual setting, choral performances and a retelling of a myth or hymn in praise of a god.  The muse of choral dance is also referenced in her work, lending weight to the theory that she was a poet predominantly known for choral performance work in a ritual or festival setting rather than the more personalised ambience of a synposion. She could even be referred to as a ‘public poet’ as opposed to a proponent of more personal touches that the later lyric poets excel in.
But in other fragments there are potential personal touches, signs of self-deprecation  or irony, an over exacting attention to detail that perhaps would have been common knowledge in the earlier contexts to which she is alluding or placing herself. Or it could just be down to the fact that the fragments were written in a different form and modernised from her original work – although this is unlikely given the distinct Boeotian linguistic style in which they are written.
As usual with such scanty evidence to go on we are left with endless scholarly debate, at least that is , until some more fragments emerge from the sands of Egypt and we have more poetry and doubtless more questions in its train. I thought nevertheless that we should include Corinna. I for one would not want to find her standing outside the banquet hall during the Greek Lyric poet’s reunion synposion scolding me for neglecting her. So here's in praise of Corinna. The tenth Greek Lyric poet…may she live forever!


Sunday, 18 September 2016

Nine to the Universe - The Greek Lyric Poets Hall of Fame

At some point during the Hellenistic Period, scholars at the great centres of learning such as the great library of Alexandria created a list of nine ancient Greek Lyric poets that they deemed worthy of recording in the archives for posterity and study as outstanding exemplars of the art. Sappho and Alcaeus are included the list but as well as a brief introduction to these two figures who will be the subjects of our next Legendum meeting, I thought it would interested to look at the other seven as well.
I was also curious to look at Lyric poetry as a genre; what is Lyric as opposed to Iambics or Elegy? How and when did it originate? Once we have gained an outline idea of what lyric is we shall look at the nine exemplars to give us some background for Sappho and Alcaeus and their reception in the ancient world.
Greek Lyric – Some observations
The information that comes to us from the ancient Greek sources indicate the period when Lyric flourished to be sometime between the 7th and 5th centuries before our era, although it is very likely that it has its origins deeper in antiquity and further east. The Lyres of Ur as represented on the ‘peace’ side of the so-called standard of Ur provide us with an image of the earliest context of lyric, a long haired (female) singer who stands next to a lyre player and seems to be clapping in time to keep the beat while chanting or singing. The standard of Ur is dated to about 25th C before our era suggesting that lyric in its earlier forms had a considerable precedence in the Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures, before filtering through Mycenaean culture (14th-12th  centuries BCE) and reaching a peak production and acme of perfection (at least in the eyes of the Alexandrian archivists). In the 7th to 5th Centuries BCE in Greece.
Thus, from earliest times, when there was an important (usually elite) occasion to mark, a victory, a memorial, or a birth perhaps or marriage or coronation, solo or group chanting and lyre playing seem to have been an integral part of the celebration. A common occasion and one requiring less formal recognition was the symposium or drinking party – one can imagine that this was the most frequent occasion for song, when friends or members of kinship or other type of affiliated groups would get together and pass the wine cups around and enjoy the latest expert performances. At some point the Greeks innovated upon the original remit of general celebration to more personalised, nuanced expressions of love, desire, jealousy as well as personal and searing political invective.

Sappho and Alcaeus are prime examples of this highly innovative, impassioned style despite having mere fragments upon which to base such an impression.  They realised that the lyric could be used for a wider range of highly personalised expression previously unimagined or taboo – much like comparing the lyrics of the happy go lucky cheery popular songs of the 1940s and 50s ‘hit parade’ with its searing endpoint in Lou Reeds ‘Heroin’ or Nirvana’s Rape Me. You never know however, how wild the lyrics might have gotten with the Lyres of Ur – judging from the extremely violent scenes on the ‘war ‘ panel of the Ur standard – they could have come up with songs that wouldn’t have looked out of place on an early Sabbath album! The phrase itself, The Lyres of Ur is so fecund with suggestion! I can imagine a very bored customer dining at Douglas Adams’ Restaurant at the End of the Universe asking for an exclusive cocktail entitled ‘the Lyres of Ur’.

I think that a lot of musical development is circular or at least goes in spiralling upwards or downwards trends – constantly swinging between order and decadence so it’s possible to imagine that even the Greek lyric was revisiting themes or styles of the distant past as it followed its own meandering trajectory from the shores of Apollo to the peaks of Dionysos. But enough of these bizarre ramblings! Let us take a closer look at the nine Melians, starting with Alcman. I thought we would take a sort criminal record sheet/top trumps type of approach…


Name:   Alcman

Floruit:  7th C  BCE

Birth place:  Sardis, the ancient capital of Lydia (?), The Suda has him down as hailing from Messoa.

Date/Cause of Death:  Unknown date, from an infestation of lice (Aristotle), buried in Sparta next to the tomb of Helen of Troy (Pausanias)

Metrical Forms: Dactylic tetrameter/mixed metrical forms in composite long sections and repeated them strophically.

Dialect: Composite/Doric

Poetry: There were six books of choral poetry extant in antiquity (50-60 poems) but had disappeared by the beginning of the Middle Ages.  An 1855 discovery at Saqqara was made of a part of one of his poems; other fragments have been emerging from the Oxyrynchus papyrus dump since the 1960s. The predominant form of his poetry seems to have hymns, although it’s difficult to make an accurate judgement. The First Parthenaeion was such a choral/hymnal work to be performed by choroi of unmarried women.

Bonus Factoids: He seems to have been into praising the Gods, the beauty of women and the minute observation of natural flora and fauna around him

Melian Star rating (out of 10):  8 (one of the earliest lyric poets, stately with an eye for the detail of ritual practice.


Name:   Sappho

Floruit:  Born between 630-612 BCE

Birth place:  Island of Lesbos (other traditions suggest Mytilene or Eresos

Date/Cause of Death:  570 BCE, some sources suggest suicide but this is not regarded as historical by most scholars. Exiled to Sicily sometime between 604-594 BCE and probably died in maturity.

Metrical Forms: Sapphic Stanzas, Alcaeics

Dialect: Aeolic

Poetry:  Around 10,000 Lines of poetry, of which 650 survive. The Suda attributes elegiacs, iambics and epigram in addition to her lyric works. The lyric poetry was collected by the Alexandrian archivists into a collection of around eight books. Most of her poetry is lost – we have the Oxyrynchus fragments to thank for continuing discoveries and publications, notably the Brothers Poem and the Kypris Poem, both published in 2014. Her poetry is direct, vivid and immediate with sharp imagery and emotive expressions. The poems celebrate the passion of love and of the memorialisation of events and festivals occasions.

The fragments and some other sources have been used to argue that Sappho engaged in homoerotic relationships with her female companions but the evidence is thin and unclear. Up until the 17th Century she was considered heterosexual and increasingly in modern times has become a gay icon. The contents of the fragments could be argued either way.  It could also be argued that she engaged in sexual relationships across the gender spectrum but we should heed a caveat against putting too much of a modern interpretation based on such limited evidence.

Bonus Factoids: The works of Sappho and Alcaeus were publicly burnt by the church authorities in Constantinople and Rome in 1073. (cited by Will Durant after Mahaffy)

Melian Star rating (out of 10):  9 Highly rated by ancients and moderns alike.


Name:   Alcaeus

Floruit:  c.620 BCE – 6th C BCE

Birth place:  Island of Lesbos, Mytilene

Date/Cause of Death:  Unknown

Metrical Forms: Alcaeic, Sapphic Stanzas (?)

Dialect: Aeolic

Poetry: His works were collected into ten books by the Alexandrian scholars Aristophanes of Byzantium and Aristarchus of Samothrace during the 3rd C BCE. Subject matter covered such genres as political songs, drinking songs, love songs and miscellaneous others. The sources for the fragments in which his work survives are a result of the scholarship of the renaissance and finds from our old friend the Oxyrynchus papyrus dump. Alcaeus is often contrasted with Sappho as being a bit low key in terms of emotions, but more versatile if less sophisticated verse.

Bonus Factoids: He was involved throughout his life in political struggles with a series of tyrants or tyrannical factions on the island, suffering exile as a result at least once. This political activity is alluded to in many of his poems. He was a contemporary of Sappho and rumoured to be a lover of hers at some time.

Melian Star rating (out of 10):  8.5


Name:   Anacreon (of Teos)

Floruit:  582-485 BCE

Birth place:  Teos, an Ionian coastal city and one of the 12 cities forming the Ionian League.

Date/Cause of Death:  485 in his home town of Teos from natural causes. There is a dubious apocryphal anecdote (Pliny Elder) that he dies from choking on a grape stone.

Metrical Forms: Anacreonteus. Long and short vowels alternation peculiar to his dialect lent a natural musicality to the recitation/chanting of lyrics.

Dialect: Ionic

Poetry: There were five books of poetry mention in the Suda, of which only fragments survive and the poems covered the usual themes of love with its attendant ups and downs, festivals, celebrations and arrange of quotidian themes.

Bonus Factoids: Hipparchus who was quite a fan of all things literary, had Anacreon ferried over to Athens in a 50-oar galley to join his court as official poet.  The ancient equivalent of flying your favourite rock star in on private jet!

Melian Star rating (out of 10):  9 (for the above anecdote alone!)


Name:   Stesichorus

Floruit:  c.630-555 BC (The Suda chronology has been disputed by at least one scholar (M.L.West, 'Stesichorus', The Classical Quarterly, New Series Vol.21, No.2 (Nov. 1971) page 302)

Birth place:  Metauros in Calabria, southern Italy

Date/Cause of Death:  555 BCE in Catania, Sicily.

Metrical Forms: Lyric (Epic), Dactyls predominantly. Due to his bardic style poetical activities he is a possible link or bridge poet between Homer and Pindar. He composed verse forms in strophe, antistrophe and epode ‘The Stesichoran Threes’.

Dialect: Doric

Poetry: Originally his poetry was collected in 26 books and included epic tales in lyric form (a genre for which he was noted). Only a few fragments survive of his work and he seems to have scant commentary from the Alexandrian scholars and archivists. The Geryonis poem consisted of 1500 lines of poetry and took four hours to perform (presumably with lyre and dancers – ancient prog rock!)

Bonus Factoids: Went blind due to verses critical of Helen of Troy, but cured later after composing verses praising her. Menippeans take note! He was exiled from Arcadia for political reasons (Tegean/Spartan rivalry). According to Legend (Pliny the Elder) a nightingale flew in through the window at his birth, perched upon his lips and sang, imparting its skill to him.

Melian Star rating (out of 10):  8, (Not much is known of him but he is a survivor and a reformed character!


Name:   Ibycus

Floruit:  Latter half of 6th C BCE. Our information comes from the Suda and again the biography and chronology is suspect or muddled at best – the dates and other contemporaries don’t tally well or are perhaps mixed narratives at cross purposes.

Birth place:  Rhegium

Date/Cause of Death:  Unknown date, but captured by bandits and murdered.

Metrical Forms: choral style based upon Stesichorus so presumably, dactylic, lyric.

Dialect: Epic, Doric with some borrowed Aeolisms from Sappho and Alcaeus.

Poetry: Known to the ancients for composing verses on the theme of boy love and in addition lyric on mythological themes in the vein of Stesichorus. His works survive in quotations of ancient scholars and some papyrus fragments from Egypt. Works amounted to seven books compiled by the Alexandrian scholars.

Bonus Factoids: ‘The Cranes of Ibycus’ was a saying coined from a revenge myth related to the tormenters of Ibycus, who were warned by him that cranes flying over at the time of his ill treatment by them would be his avengers. He invented the triangular Lyre, as revolutionary for its time as the Gibson Flying V!

Melian Star rating (out of 10):  10…anyone who invents a triangular lyre has my highest praise!


Name:   Simonides

Floruit:  556-468 BCE Suda is the source and the usual problems are noted when trying to match with other sources, Olympiad dates etc.

Birth place:  Ioulis, Ceos

Date/Cause of Death: Date as above. Cause unknown but after a few lucky and legendary escapes its seems likely that he died of natural causes.

Metrical Forms: Choral lyric, encomium (in particular the Victory Ode) for which he is credited as the inventor,elegiac, dithyramb (songs sung originally in honour of Dionysus but extended later to long encomiums on heroes and mythical personages)

Dialect: Ionian, Doric.

Poetry: Fragments and quotations in other ancient sources give us a general idea of his work. He became very sought after as an epitaph writer and possibly made his fame and living chiefly from this although his work ranges over other genres.

Bonus Factoids: Composed the commemorative verse for the Athenian war dead at Marathon, apparently being chosen by them for the job in preference to Aeschylus much to the latter’s chagrin.

There are two interesting accounts of miraculous escapes that Simondes made. The first when he was the feast guest of a certain Thessalian chieftain Scopas. He was summoned out of the feast hall by two mysterious visitors and just after he left, the ceiling of the hall collapsed killing everyone in it, including Scopas. This has the added touch of being a revenge tale as well as a miraculous survival tale in that prior to the escape, Simonides had been involved in a payment dispute with Scopas who had commissioned him to compose one of his famous victory odes in honour of a local boxer. Simonides had made so many references to Castor and Pollux that Scopas threatened to pay half of the fee to them!

Melian Star rating (out of 10):  For the verse commemorating the war dead at Marathon claim to fame surely a 9!


Name:   Bacchylides

Floruit:  518-451 BCE (Yes I know Sudas, much to answer for)

Birth place:  Strabo tells us he was born on Ceos (Ioulis) but the details of his life are scanty.

Date/Cause of Death:  The Suda's dates are again not without difficulty but some point before the Peloponnesian War, 451 BCE

Metrical Forms: Encomium,  Choral and individual Lyric and  mythic using the usual meters as per Simonides as far as I can ascertain since Uncle and nephew were in the same line of business, and possibly rivals. Ancient scholars and for that matter a number of more recent figures too have tended to depict Bacchylides as inferior in quality and ingenuity to his uncle Simonides. Bacchylides covers a wider range of genres than all of the other Lyric poets, paean, dithyramb, partheneia, prosodia etc, probably due to his career as a jobbing poetaster around the Greek world.

Dialect: Ionian

Poetry: Nine books of poetry were compiled by the Alexandrian Grammarian Didymus (3rd C BCE). Only fragments survive and he also survives in the quotations of other ancient scholars and commentators.

Bonus Factoids:  Nephew of Simonides of Ceos and possibly an inheritor/imitator of his style. A major discovery/purchase in Egypt by the Egyptologist Wallis Budge of a large papyrus fragment in the 19th C added to our knowledge of his poetry considerably, enabling Frederic Kenyon of the British Museum department of manuscripts to publish an edition of twenty poems, six of them more or less complete.

Melian Star Rating (out of 10): 8. Living in the shadow of Simonides, more eloquent but not an innovator and lacking the deeper insight and philosophical nuance of his uncle's works. He could be looked at as a successor rather than a serious rival to his uncle.


Name:   Pindar

Floruit:  522-443 BCE

Birth place:  Thebes

Date/Cause of Death:  440 BCE of natural causes while attending a festival at Argos

Metrical Forms: Mixed strophic but the usual for choral and lyric as well as epinika.

 Dialect:  Predominantly Doric (although he spoke in Boeotian dialect)

Poetry: Alexandrian scholars collected his compositions into 17 books according to genre, so like his contemporaries (?) Simonides and Bacchylides his range was considerably wide. He did not create any new lyrical genres however.

Bonus Factoids: The first Greek poet to discuss poetry itself and its nature and purpose and the role the poet played in society.

 Melian Star rating (out of 10):  10 if we are to believe Horace and many other commentators, but it may be due to the fact that a lot more of his work survives (Epinikia or Victory Odes etc).

I have been crushingly brief with Pindar who really deserves a page wholly devoted to him since there is by far so much more extant of his works quoted in the works of other ancients and surviving complete odes. However my aim was to give you a quick run through of the nine in order to provide a backdrop for the two we are going to look at in more detail. Something of an image however dim comes to me from looking into the backgrounds of these melian greats ; a gradual blossoming of the performed song from private recital at symposiums amongst elite groups or in choral from as part of a city wide religious festival into a sort of Greek version of travelling singing stars criss-crossing the seas of the known world of the time, composing and performing for fees and patronage of kings and tyrants, influencing each other as rivals in the same highly competitive and lucrative activity - carving out a name and legacy for themselves with their innovative style of song, lyric and even instrument. Very much the itinerant blues players or seafaring rockstars of their day. I look forward to imagining their lyrics setting our hearts and minds aflame when we next meet!