Flower or Fungus?

Barbara Graziosi

  • Bacchylides: Politics, Performance, Poetic Tradition by David Fearn
    Oxford, 428 pp, £70.00, July 2007, ISBN 978 0 19 921550 8

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.’

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[*] Christopher Kelly wrote about Oxyrhynchos in the LRB of 21 February.