Bacchylides: Politics, Performance, Poetic Tradition 
by David Fearn.
Oxford, 428 pp., £70, July 2007, 978 0 19 921550 8
Show More
Show More

In the early fifth century BCE, Bacchylides’ career was at its height: his services as poet, composer, choreographer and impresario were in demand throughout the Greek world. He delivered theatrical spectacles on commission, composing songs for a wide range of occasions, training choruses to sing and dance to them, and organising their musical accompaniment. His clients asked him to glorify athletic victories, honour the gods, brighten processions, provide entertainment at parties and even celebrate a magistrate’s election to office. He worked for the most powerful individuals and communities of his time: the cities of Athens and Sparta, the king of Macedon, the tyrant of Syracuse and the grandest Aeginetan aristocrats. The only artist who could compete with him was Pindar: sometimes both were commissioned to celebrate the same occasion for the same audience – we still have the rival scripts, but are left to wonder how the performances were arranged, and who got the bigger fee.

After his death, Bacchylides’ poetry became canonical. The Alexandrian scholars included him in their list of the nine best Greek lyric poets. He was the most recent of the nine, and considered the one closest to classical drama. Despite these accolades, Bacchylides’ poetry did not survive the fall of the Roman Empire. The only lyric poet whose work did survive was Pindar: his victory odes have never been out of circulation, and his poetry fundamentally shaped Western perceptions of Greek lyric in particular, and high poetry in general. Then, in 1896, Bacchylides reappeared.

The exact circumstances remain unclear. A papyrus roll containing Bacchylides’ victory odes and the first half of his collection of dithyrambs appeared at Meir, near el-Qusiya in Lower Egypt. The first edition, published in 1897, says very little about the find: ‘The discovery was made by natives, to which fact the unfortunately mutilated condition of the papyrus may be ascribed. Most of the fractures are recent.’ The Egyptologist Sir Wallis Budge, writing in 1920, remembered that he bought the papyrus ‘at a preposterous price’ from an Egyptian dealer, who said it had been found in a ransacked tomb between the feet of a broken mummy. Having got hold of it, Budge defied the British consul, fooled the Egyptian service of antiquities and evaded customs in order to get it ‘home’ to the British Museum. With the help of a native, a heavy cloak, a crate of oranges (used as a decoy), a switch of trains and a clandestine embarkation, he eventually sailed from Suez while officials were searching through his trunks at Port Said. He was carrying with him a small packet of photographs – among which was the newly discovered papyrus, cut into sections.

An exciting story, except that the denouement is flat. The text turned out to be Bacchylides’, and that was wonderful; but Bacchylides himself didn’t quite live up to his reputation as a lost classic. Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, the supreme authority on Greek literature at the time, took a quick look at the new find and declared: ‘No great poet has appeared.’ At Cambridge, Sir Richard Jebb thought that while Bacchylides was no eagle, he ought to be praised as a lively nightingale. ‘Students,’ he added, ‘would find his poetry helpful in facilitating their approach to Pindar.’

Bacchylides had been compared with Pindar from the beginning. Already in antiquity, pseudo-Longinus had snootily remarked that Bacchylides was impeccable, elegant and smooth, but that Pindar alone displayed true greatness, despite his unevenness. Modern scholars happily echo this opinion, partly because it suggests a comforting link between literary merit and the history of textual transmission. Pindar’s poems were copied, annotated and passed on for more than two thousand years; the recovery of Bacchylides was a fluke. Thus comparing the two poets became a way of talking about a much larger issue: the history, nature and value of classical literature. Could Bacchylides be better than Pindar? Had the best poets disappeared? Was the classical tradition a matter of random survival or of consistent aesthetic judgment?

These questions were keenly argued at the turn of the 20th century, when a series of new discoveries threatened to change the contours of ancient Greek literature. Between 1896 and 1907, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt excavated the ancient rubbish dumps at Oxyrhynchos, in Upper Egypt; hundreds of lost literary texts emerged, together with unprecedented information about the people who read and eventually discarded them.* Authors who had been little more than names, such as Sappho or Menander, slowly acquired an oeuvre, as scattered fragments were lovingly pieced together. The new discoveries prompted classicists to ask what the differences were between ‘flower and fungus, wreath and rubbish’, as Sir Leslie Shane put it in 1929. Bacchylides became a test-case: his poems appeared all at once, and in good condition. He had been Pindar’s rival: was he as good?

The answer, unsurprisingly, was ‘no’. Pindar’s poems shaped our taste; Bacchylides’ had to make up for a silence of almost two millennia. He did not lose because he seemed arcane or unappealing. On the contrary, he turned out to be too easily enjoyable. His lyrics are full of colour: the Graces have ‘violet eyelids’; the corpses of warriors ‘dye a river purple red’; ships have ‘glittering sterns’. It is easy to imagine how his poems could be mimed and danced: darkness sports a ‘black cloak’, dawn appears with her ‘golden arms’. Sometimes, we can take a guess at how his music sounded: there are ‘low-bellowing bulls’, the sea is ‘deep-roaring’, a bow-string has a ‘clear and sharp twang’. Bacchylides has a gift for the memorable scene and the emotional detail: Croesus and his family on a pyre; a rapist touching a girl’s ‘white cheeks’; Theseus leaping into the sea to retrieve a ring (Schiller’s ‘Der Taucher’, of 1797, is remarkably similar). Less dramatically, Bacchylides’ eye for detail is obvious in this part of a poem in honour of Apollo:

Peace gives birth to great wealth for mortals,
to the flowers of honey-sweet songs,
to sacrifices for the gods –
thighs of oxen and fleecy sheep
burning in a blond flame on decorated altars –
to young men’s concern for athletics,
flute-playing and good times.
On the iron grips of shields
red-brown spiders spin their webs;
rust subdues sharp spears
and double-edged swords.
There is no noise of bronze trumpets,
and sleep – honey for the mind –
still soothes the heart at dawn:
it is not pillaged from men’s eyelids.
The streets are laden with lovely feasts,
and the singing of boys rises like a flame.

The poem is self-reflexive: a chorus of young men sing about how, in times of peace, choruses sing in praise of the gods. Bacchylides thus suggests that the performance of his poem is itself a sign of peace.

One common criticism of Bacchylides is that he is too mainstream, too Homeric. Yet his engagement with Homer can be creative and pointed. There is his treatment of Briseis, for example, the slave girl who causes the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon which sets the Iliad in motion. In Homer, she remains featureless until the moment when she performs a funeral lament for Patroclus, and simultaneously tries to arrange her own marriage to Achilles. Bacchylides gives us a little more detail: ‘Achilles was staying in his tent,’ he says, ‘on account of the blonde Briseis, the woman with lust-inspiring limbs.’ The language here is highly original, though the overall point is not. Briseis, it turns out, was a blonde bombshell: Homer never said so, and even the producers of Troy cast her as a tasteful brunette, but at least we now know the reason for Achilles’ fury when she was taken away.

In short, people of taste are not supposed to like Bacchylides: too easy, too bright, too accessible. When in doubt, always go for Pindar, and claim that reading him is like climbing a mountain: rewarding, exhilarating even, but hard. After the sensational rediscovery of Bacchylides, scholarly interest soon waned. In 1962, E.L. Bundy wrote an influential study of the Greek victory ode which ostensibly dealt with Bacchylides but in fact concentrated on explaining Pindar. What had been Pindaric flights of fancy in the 19th century became, after Bundy, generic conventions of the victory ode. Bundy failed to explain why Bacchylides was so different from Pindar, even though both were writing the same kinds of poem for the same audiences and occasions. In 1985, Anne Pippin Burnett took up that question in The Art of Bacchylides, and since then there has been a scattering of publications, but nothing resembling the frenetic publishing on other classical authors.

David Fearn’s book is the first English-language monograph on Bacchylides in more than twenty years. Fearn sternly refuses to ask whether Bacchylides is any good. This is understandable, but his disengagement is also a pity. He could have pointed out en passant the odd effective turn of phrase or sexy detail, but his focus is narrower: he deals with a handful of poems and tackles, in sequence, the three issues that make up his title – politics, performance, poetic tradition. The overall point is New Historical: to establish the context within which Bacchylides was working and to judge his merits against the demands of his job. The idea is good, but its execution is difficult: we often know too little about Bacchylides’ circumstances to work out exactly how he responded to them. Fearn could have made a virtue of drawing attention to the inevitability of these difficulties, but instead he often disguises it through abundant use of annotation, convoluted prose and learned padding. The book is interesting nonetheless, for the questions it asks as well as the possible answers it offers.

A significant part of Bacchylides’ job was to mediate between local and international concerns. He was paid to compose songs that celebrated a specific victory, or individual, or community; but his lyrics could then be re-performed in a variety of places and contexts. In fact, the whole point of commissioning a superstar like Bacchylides was to broadcast local achievements and perspectives to the entire Greek-speaking world. The city-states of Classical Greece were often at war with each other. It must have been difficult to praise a local athletic victory, or religious festival, or mythical tradition, without upsetting audiences (and potential future clients) from the rest of Greece. It would be good to be able to follow Bacchylides’ tactics, though our knowledge of early Greek history is often too patchy to allow for detailed reconstructions.

There is at least one case, however, in which we can establish the politics behind a poem. Fearn offers a brilliant analysis of Bacchylides’ Ode to Alexander of Macedon (an ancestor of Alexander the Great) by drawing on Herodotus’ Histories. When the Persians set out to annex the Greek city-states, Alexander of Macedon sided with them against the Greeks. But when he realised that the Persians were likely to lose, he swiftly hedged his bets, offering the Greeks intelligence about the Persians and asking them to remember his services after the war. Herodotus gives us a clear picture of Alexander: he was a double-dealer. Bacchylides’ Ode was written before the Persian Wars. It is clear that Alexander was courting Greek audiences when he commissioned it, but this posed a problem for Bacchylides. Alexander was not straightforwardly Greek, he was an eastern monarch, and Bacchylides had to be careful when praising him: there was a real danger of alienating his Greek clients and audiences. We do not have the whole poem: the papyrus breaks off after thirty lines, and only the first 15 are at all well preserved. The opening, however, gives a sense of Bacchylides’ strategy:

My lyre, cling to your peg no longer,
silencing your clear voice with its seven notes.

Come to my hands!
I am eager to send Alexander
a golden wing of the Muses,
an adornment for banquets at the month’s end,
when the sweet compulsion of the speeding cups

warms the tender hearts of young men,
and hope of Aphrodite,
mingling with the gifts of Dionysus,
makes their hearts flutter.
Wine sends a man’s thoughts soaring on high:
immediately he is destroying the battlements of cities,
and he expects to be monarch
over the whole world;
his house gleams with gold and ivory,
and wheat-bearing ships bring great wealth
from Egypt over the dazzling sea.
Such are the musings of the drinker’s heart.

This is a strange eulogy of a monarch: it seems to suggest that we are all like Alexander when drunk. Perhaps Bacchylides went on to say that the only real and true king was Alexander of Macedon; perhaps he broke off without much explanation – we know from other poems that he was quite capable of doing that. However that may be, Fearn is surely right in pointing out that Bacchylides carefully mixes praise of the monarch with the egalitarian poetics of the Greek drinking party.

Moving on to the other two parts of his subtitle, performance and poetic tradition, Fearn starts by distancing Bacchylides from his Alexandrian editors, who catalogued his poems two hundred years after his death. He shows, quite convincingly, that what the Alexandrians called his ‘dithyrambs’ were for him above all songs danced in a circle – kyklioi khoroi. This helps to explain why so few of the poems have anything to do with Dionysus, god of the dithyramb, but also brings into focus the fact that in Bacchylides’ time, the mode of performance was a fundamental aspect of the text. A careful reading of classical inscriptions and public speeches reveals that even the dithyrambs performed for Dionysus, at his main festival in Athens, were usually described as ‘circular dances’.

Fearn ends with a reading of three so-called dithyrambs. His discussion of fragment 15 is particularly compelling: this circular dance was composed for the Panathenaea, the most important Athenian festival. It lasted several days, involved a great amount of drink and meat (the comic poets describe it mostly in terms of indigestion), and culminated in a procession to the temple of Athena, where the goddess was presented with a robe – a ritual gift offered in exchange for her protection. By decree, the poems of Homer had to be recited at this festival, and were flanked by several other poetic, musical and athletic displays. Bacchylides, in the lyrics to his dance, tackles a major problem with the performance of Homer, again showing his political acumen and poetic dexterity. In the Iliad, the Trojans organise a procession to the temple of Athena and offer her a garment; yet the goddess, we are told, ‘averts her head’ and abandons Troy to its fate. To perform this passage at the Panathenaea raises a question: why should the goddess behave any differently towards the Athenians? They too are organising a procession, offering a robe and hoping for protection. According to Bacchylides, the answer is simple: the fate of a city depends on the good sense of its people, not on the will of the gods. The Iliad starts by asking ‘which god first caused contention and strife?’ Bacchylides asks his Muse ‘which mortal first started speaking words of justice?’ He points out that ‘Zeus is not responsible for the great evils that beset men’ and adds: ‘It is open to all men to follow the straight course of justice.’ Fearn shows that these words are embedded in poetic tradition and local pride: they echo the wisdom of Hesiod and the poems of the Athenian lawgiver Solon. What is new in Fearn’s discussion is the demonstration that allusion works not just through Bacchylides’ words but also through the context of his performance.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences