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Bacchylides of Cos (c. 518– 452 BC)
the first poets
skill required to decipher them. Early editors could be fanciful, or they were
simply flummoxed by the tiny, deteriorating script. During the nineteenth
century expertise developed, and by the century’s end the time between accessing new papyrus acquisitions and their deciphering, transcription and
publication had shortened considerably.
Wordsworth’s prayer began to be answered, but too late for the poet to
enjoy it. And it was not Simonides’ poetry but his nephew Bacchylides’
which materialised out of the duny sepulchre. Poems and other important
texts came to light and were published, including six speeches of the Greek
orator Hyperides, one of them complete. And then, in 1891, the Mimes of
Herodas were dusted down, and what remains one of the most astonishing
historical finds, Aristotle’s, or rather the Aristotelian, text on the Constitution
of the Athenians was published from the British Museum. The study of papyruses became an important exercise for philologists. A valuable papyrus
mine was found at Tebtunis, in the Faytum, one of the chief sources being
the crocodile graveyard. Sacred crocodiles were mummified and wrapped in
papyrus as if parcelled up in tinfoil for the oven. In 1902 at Hibeh important manuscripts from the period of the Ptolemies were discovered, followed by other major finds at Oxyrhynchus a year later, a period of
unparalleled surprise and enrichment. Then in 1908 in Abusir a large body
of Alexandrian papyruses was discovered, saved from the unfriendly climate of Alexandria, in which texts readily perished, because they were regarded as rubbish and carted off into the desert.
More than 650 literary papyruses from Egypt have now been published.
Roughly a third are passages of Homer, just under a third are versions of
works which survive in other forms, in later copies and include philosophy,
oratory, history and drama. What remains consists of fragments and longer
portions of work regarded as lost forever: passages of Sappho, Alcman,
chunks of Menander’s comedies, of the Iambi of Callimachus, passages of
Antiope, Euripides, Hypsipyle, the Paeans of Pindar and (for our purposes here) most important of all, the odes of Pindar’s rival, or competitor,
The papyrus with the odes was found in Egypt by local diggers. It arrived
at the British Museum in 1896, in the autumn. What had been a roll was
now a jigsaw of about 200 friable pieces. The skilful and patient scholarship
of F. G. Kenyon bore fruit, and in 1897 he published the editio princeps, the
“first edition,” of the poems, increasing the amount of Bacchylides from
around a hundred disconnected lines and phrases to more than a thousand
lines of relatively continuous verse. In Kenyon’s painstaking reconstruction, the papyrus is in three parts. The first includes twenty-two columns of
writing and ends abruptly just after the start of Ode XII. Column 23 has
more or less vanished: the second section of the papyrus runs from the ves-
bac chylides of c os
tiges of column 23 to column 29 and contains what is left of Odes XIII and
XIV. The last section includes nine further columns, the first again damaged, and includes Dithyramb XV, breaking off suddenly. Each column has
between thirty-two and thirty-six lines.
Fourteen or thirteen epinicean odes2 and six dithyrambs survive in this
one papyrus. The odes were arranged like Simonides’, by the type of athletic event celebrated, rather than like Pindar’s, by the place in which the
games occurred. To this material were added further fragments, in 1956,
from the Oxyrhynchus trove.3 Like Simonides and Pindar, Bacchylides had
received commissions from all over the Greek world, from Aegina, Athens,
Cos, Macedonia, Metapontion, Philus, Sparta, Syracuse and Thessaly, and
these are the remains of his labours. Albin Lesky values Bacchylides principally for the light his poems cast, given the substantial nature of the remains, on Pindar; also because in a quite unique way Bacchylides is “ours,”
almost a twentieth-century ancient Greek.4
Readers of the new Bacchylides were initially disappointed: Simonides’
nephew was not Pindar. Once this fact was accepted, readers began to puzzle
out who he was, a writer whose narratives were less allusive, more continuous than Pindar’s, who was on occasion a brilliant describer and evoker of
specific details and specific emotional moments; who was, in short, a
dramatist avant la lettre, a lucid teller of stories. In the underworld Meleager
recalls the moment of his death, and Heracles responds; Croesus, despairing, is saved from his pyre; best of all is the confrontation of Minos and
Theseus, and Theseus’ plunge into his father’s, Poseidon’s, churning realm.
In the eighteenth ode, Aegeus and a chorus conduct a dramatic dialogue.
Or take this brief passage from Ode X, in Campbell’s prose translation:
“For when he had come to a halt at the finishing-line of the sprint, panting
out a hot storm of breath, and again when he had wet with his oil the cloaks
of the spectators as he tumbled into the packed crowd after rounding the
course with its four turns . . .”5 We could hardly get closer to the action.
In Ode XIII, by contrast, his inadequacy is clear: the truisms and truths
he tells are morally and poetically undistinguished. They lack focus and
pith; they ramble, they are merely ceremonious. “Nowhere,” says Lesky,
“do we find the profundity of Pindar’s perception of values.”6 His morals
are very like his uncle’s: Ode XIV might have been written by Simonides:
“. . . To be granted a good lot by God [singular] is best for men; but if luck
comes with a burden of suffering, she wrecks an admirable man, while even
a low-born fellow, set on a happy highroad, can shine.”7
The myth story in each ode attaches to the victor celebrated, to his city or
to his sport, and its purpose is to connect his mortal deeds with the timeless
deeds of the gods and heroes, as it were to deposit his achievement in a
timeless realm. In his first epinicean ode, for Argeius of Cos, Bacchylides
the first poets
distinguished between mere “lightweight” ambition, which wins honour
only for a lifetime, and true excellence, which is hard-won, yet when concluded correctly leads to a man’s fame becoming part of a durable glory. It
is as if there is a kind of entity called “gloryness” into which true excellence,
at its demise, spills its qualities, the way a soul might rise to merge into an
Pindar and Bacchylides both set out to make such connections, but Bacchylides is more limpid, less complex and hermetic. This difference between them was noted by a first- (or third-) century critic, possibly Cassius
Longinus, or whoever was the author of On the Sublime, which is generally
attributed to him.8 He wonders whether faulty greatness in writing is preferable to the smooth and undisrupted work of the great technician. He concludes that greatness is to be preferred. In the area of poetry, we prefer
Pindar to Bacchylides even though in the latter we find elegance and polish
(the style is glaphuros): he may produce unblemished verse, but he falls short
of the higher beauty. In the end, Bacchylides’ art is simpler in conception
and easier in execution than Pindar’s. You can imagine buying Bacchylides
by the yard: he is, after all, his uncle’s nephew. Pindar delivers his verse in
less standard measures.
Bacchylides is not Pindar, and yet critics and readers keep wanting him
to be. Even the textual scholars approach him with Pindaric expectations,
and their editorial work—especially in proposing emendations on bridgepassages where text is missing—can be coloured by this predisposition. It is
as though we were to edit Christopher Marlowe entirely in the light of
Shakespeare’s practice. We distort the structure and the language of both
poets in the process.
Meleager spoke of the “ripe ears from the harvest of Bacchylides.”9 In
old age Simonides left Athens and went to Sicily, to the court of Hiero of
Syracuse, and seeing there was work to be had, summoned his nephew Bacchylides of Cos, who was then living in Athens or Thessaly or perhaps was
exiled10 in the Peloponnese.11 Poetry was a family business and, in the absence of a son, a nephew would have to do. There was demand for
epinicean odes. Pindar was making a good living, and so was Simonides.
Some traditions say that Pindar and Simonides were in competition; the latter, being old, needed reinforcements and Bacchylides, already well known,
came to the rescue. Other (late) traditions suggest that Pindar studied under
Simonides. In any event, Bacchylides may have settled in Syracuse for a serious spell (478–467 bc).
Bacchylides’ mother was Simonides’ sister, probably a younger one. His
father was Meidon, the name deriving, the ninth-century Etymologicum Genuinum tells us, from meidin, “smile.” His grandfather was “Bacchylides the
athlete,” so from boyhood he knew about the great sporting fixtures and
bac chylides of c os
may have heard some of the poems composed to celebrate the victors, his
He was probably some forty-nine years younger than his uncle, and perhaps fifteen years younger than Pindar, though Campbell believes they were
more or less exact contemporaries. His first surviving poem may be a drinking song for Alexander, son of Amyntas, king of Macedonia, composed before 490 bc.13 The poet takes up his lyre and plays loudly, “with its seven
notes silencing your clear voice.” He longs to send a gift of value and
beauty. Drink leads on to amorous thoughts, and then to thoughts of bravery and opulence. He imagines the company of Alexander. The poem celebrates imagination (lubricated and stimulated) and the power of poetry to
bring into the open what is imagined, in order to share it.
The earliest datable epinicean ode is XIV, from 485–83 bc, and the last is
from 452 bc, which Campbell believes was the year of his death. Severyns
divides his work, and his life, into three phases and geographies, the first
concentrated in the east (498–486, Thessaly, Macedonia, Aegina), the second in mainland Greece and points west in Magna Graecia (486–466,
Athens, Syracuse), and the last in the Peloponnese and back to points east,
including a return to Cos (466–452 bc, Cos, Sparta, Phlius, Asine). At
Alexandria his work was edited into nine books, Campbell says, the divisions apparently generic: the epinicean odes, for which he was best known
and best paid; paeans; dithyrambs; hymns; prosodia, or processional poems;
maiden songs; hyporchemata, or dance songs; erotica; and encomia. There
were a few epigrams, of which two survive, and yet Bacchylides is mentioned in the first poem in Meleager’s Garland.14
On the face of it, there would seem to be no expressed animosity between Pindar and Bacchylides. Pindar celebrated the island of Cos as a
provider of poets, and he must have been referring to Simonides and his
nephew. But the scholiast, considering Pindar’s Olympian II,15 declares that it
targets the garrulity of uncle and nephew, comparing them to crows “stuttering out pointless words against Zeus’ holy bird,” the eagle, namely himself.16 Carrying forward the bird analogy, elsewhere he appears to refer to
Bacchylides as a jackdaw, to himself again as the eagle.17 And is Bacchylides
the monkey, entertaining to children but ridiculous to a man of mature
judgement like Hiero? Perhaps. Some say that Bacchylides, in his turn, slandered Pindar privately to Hiero, stressing his obscurity, his bookishness, the
cold artifice of his compositions.18
The rivalry, if it existed, was probably due to the fact that both poets
were trying to beguile a single patron, their customer and tyrant. Tradition
says that Hiero preferred Bacchylides, the easy-going Ionian, to the severe,
courtly manner of the Boeotian who kept reminding his listeners of ancestry and seemed to praise his patrons for their wisdom in associating with
the first poets
him.19 He could understand Bacchylides’ poems more easily, and Bacchylides was less prone than the sometimes arrogant Pindar to insert himself into the poem as a dominant “I.” It may not be mere chance that,
whereas in 476 and 470 bc both Pindar and Bacchylides wrote Hiero
epinicean odes, in 468, the most important of Hiero’s victories, only Bacchylides would appear to have been asked, though Pindar composed an ode
for another victor from Syracuse (Olympian VI).
Bacchylides’ three odes celebrating Hiero’s victories can be dated with
some certainty. Ode V commemorates Hiero’s single-horse-race victory—
the most augustly sung of Greek horses, Pherenicus, is stabled here—at
Olympia in 476, as does Pindar’s Olympian I. The brief Ode IV celebrates
the 470 Pythian chariot race, and Pindar’s Pythian I does the same. In 468 bc
Hiero won the Olympic four-horse chariot race, and Bacchylides composed
Ode III.20 Here he pays the highest praise to Hiero’s taste and judgement
Marking Hiero’s Olympic victory, the poet invokes Clio, the Muse of history. He goes on to celebrate the tyrant’s wealth, power and openhandedness. The myth he explores is that of Croesus and his dreadful
plight when the Persians were over-running his city, Sardis. He built his pyre
and mounted it, lamenting, his dear wife and daughter with him. It is a brilliant evocation, with something like a Homeric pathos about it. “The death
that can be seen advancing from far off is most dreaded by mortals.” At the
last moment Zeus quenches the pyre with a downpour and Apollo bears
the old king, his wife and daughter off to the Hyperboreans, where he settles them, in recompense for their pieties (Croesus’ people, meanwhile, fall
under the dreadful yoke). What point could such a story have in the
Olympic context? Is it that Hiero has sent even more gold to Delphi than
Croesus did? Or is the poet aware that Hiero is dying, and is this a delicate
acknowledgement and consolation? If so, the connection is less tenuous;
the story moves us. Bacchylides then adds the myth of Apollo, compelled
by Zeus to be servant to Admetus because Admetus killed the Cyclops.
Apollo speaks to Admetus, but as we listen, the voice modulates into the
voice of Bacchylides himself, counselling Hiero and including himself, Pindarically as it were, in the kite-tail of the offered praise. Here is how it goes:
“You are mortal, Admetus, remember,
And hold these two opposing thoughts in mind:
Tomorrow is your final day of sunlight;
You’ll live for fifty years in utter wealth.
Do right things and be glad at heart, that’s best.”
I speak the words that a wise man will hear:
The deep skies are stainless, the ocean depths
bac chylides of c os
Do not decay, gold pleases, but no man
No matter who he is, can cast aside
Ashen age and get back budding boyhood.
The flame of good deeds does not flicker with
The body, but the Muse will fan and fuel it.
You, Hiero, have shown to men wealth’s fairest blossoms.
When a man has prospered, silence does not grace him:
As well as celebrating what you’ve done, for ever men
Will speak too of the honey-tongued, the Cean nightingale.
In Ode IV he refers to himself as lyre-mastering Urania’s “sweet-crowing
cock.” No wonder Pindar likened his foes to coarse-voiced, rough-plumed
birds: he found the birds in their own poems. And then, in his Ode X, Bacchylides becomes “the clear-voiced island bee.”
What is cloying about Bacchylides’ verse, and what puts us in mind of
the weaker of the Homeric Hymns, which they sometimes resemble, is the
profusion of adjectives, praised by some ancient critics as “epithets.”
Clearly their intention is Homeric and conventional, but in Ode IV, when
Heracles goes into Hades to bring back Cerberus, for example, not a single
noun escapes without having to carry an adjective or two on its shoulders.
These words are not “uniquely chosen.” Copious ornament stiffens the
work. Many of the epithets are compound words used nowhere else in
Greek poetry, perhaps Bacchylides’ own effusive coinings.
His similes, too, while sometimes effective, can be over-elaborate: too
much gold in the brocade, so that the poem cannot dance, can hardly move.
He is paying a tribute to Homer, but his similes work to quite different ends,
not (as Homer’s do) to produce sudden clarification, but rather to add a frill,
a decoration, to what is already clear. His satisfaction as a poet would have
derived from the sense that he had produced something expected and acceptable to his patron or his audience, rather than something that touched
deeply upon his subject. At times the flash of metaphor does illuminate in
both directions, the audience and the subject, as when he sees the afterlives
of men lining the river Cocytus like wind-shuddered leaves on “Ida’s shimmering promontories.”21
What redeems the over-wrought passage in Ode IV is not a suddenly
successful simile but the power of narrative realisation. Heracles meets the
afterlife of Meleager and seeks to re-slay him. Instead they have a conversation. Meleager tells of his father’s failure to appease Artemis, and how the
goddess sent the Calydonian boar to hunt him down. Meleager’s speech is
wonderful, recounting pell-mell what the boar hunt and battle were like, the
victims, the blind rage and the sad consequences. Heracles weeps only once
in his life, and this is the occasion.
the first poets
One can imagine how the object of the epinicean ode, the patron who
commissioned it, would hearken as the poet and the chorus recited, waiting
to see how the long mythical narrative might relate to his life and achievement. It is not easy to say exactly how the exchange between Heracles and
Meleager relates to Hiero’s achievement. It may have to do with the
ephemerality of even the greatest heroic achievements, which survive as
narrative alone. The poem ends with Heracles asking Meleager if he left any
suitable maiden sisters in the mortal world, and Meleager saying, yes. His
sister was in fact Deianira, who, an audience would have realised, was to be
Heracles’ wife and, when he proved unfaithful to her, was inadvertently to
cause his death, having presented him with a shirt impregnated with the
blood of Nessus, his centaur victim. What interests the poet is not the later,
but the present story, so he leaves the future unspoken. This narrowing of
narrative focus can be highly effective.
Whatever the connection of the poem with the occasion of victory, Ode
IV is dramatic. Dithyramb XV is also a play of voices. The sons of Antenor
request the return of Helen. Odysseus and Menelaus attend the court of
Priam, arguing the toss for giving Helen back on the grounds of justice.
Very near at hand, the forces of the drama are gathering. Indeed, Aeschylus is less than ten years Bacchylides’ junior and will predecease him. Dithyramb XVI, with the (poetically postponed, as it were) cloak of Nessus and
the death of Heracles, also verges on dramatic form.
The most beguiling Bacchylidean poem is Dithyramb XVII, which had a
direct impact on Virgil.22 A ship is conveying the seven young boys and the
seven young girls to Crete, the annual tribute of protein for the Minotaur
(the story of whose mother Pasiphae, Minos’ wife, with her bestial appetites, Bacchylides tells).23 Minos, who is accompanying the sacrificial victims along with Theseus, finds one of the seven girls, Eriboia, sexually
irresistible. Theseus tells him to behave, a chivalry dictated as much by necessity (the fourteen victims were supposed to be virgin) as out of humane
concern. Then both Minos, son of Zeus, and Theseus, son of Poseidon,
boast of their parentage. Minos asks Zeus to send a thunderbolt to prove
his lineage, and Zeus obliges. Then Minos throws a jewel into the sea and
challenges Theseus to retrieve it with Poseidon’s help. Theseus dives off the
stern and Minos maliciously orders that the ship keep course and speed on.
The Athenian crew are worried and weepy. But the dolphins do their trick,
carrying Theseus to his father’s deep mansion, which is evoked in sumptuous and erotic images. He returns “unwet” from the sea depths to great rejoicing; Minos is compelled to control his lust.
Dithyramb XVIII is stageably dramatic. Aegeus and a chorus of Athenians conduct a dialogue which may have been composed for an ephebic festival.24 The chorus questions Aegeus: What’s happening? Why is there this
bac chylides of c os
terrifying trumpeting? Aegeus replies: a herald has come from the Isthmus
bringing news that a stranger (Theseus, Aegeus’ son, though Aegeus does
not yet know it) is on his way along the (widely familiar) road from Epidaurus to Athens. He has destroyed a sequence of legendary malefactors:
a) Sinis, who tied victims to bent pine-trees and let the trees go;
b) The man-killing sow “in the vales of Cremmyon”;
c) Sciron, the robber who threw his victims over the Scironian cliffs;
d) Cercyon, who forced passers-by to wrestle with him and killed the
e) Procoptes, the Cutter, also known as Procrustes.
The herald, Aegeus says, reports that the stranger is accompanied by two
lesser men, that his eyes are fiery, his sword heroic . . . Bacchylides creates
dramatic tension of a real if rather dogged kind.
There are other Bacchylidean fragments, two—reported by Clement of
Alexandria—with the force of Simonides’ apophthegms. “One gets his skill
from another, now as in days of old,” the poet says, in a definition of tradition which few pre-Modernists would gainsay. He adds that it is hard “to discover the gates of verse unspoken before.”25 The quest for originality, within
the strict confines of conventions of form and diction, is a serious challenge
for a poet, and Bacchylides does not consistently rise to that challenge. Yet
sometimes he does, occasionally in a long run, occasionally in brief:
. . . Fate that metes out all things moves
A cloud; it hangs now here above this
Country, then there hanging above that.26
He is certainly impersonal, sharing with his uncle a degree of reticence, including himself in the frame of a poem only when convention would seem
to dictate it.
The Alexandrian critics set Bacchylides ungrudgingly among the nine
canonical lyric poets.27 Didymus, the Alexandrian grammarian, composed a
commentary on the Odes. Horace studied and imitated him, Virgil took
bearings from him, and the historians and anthologists went to him as a dependable and authoritative source. The benign and maligned emperor Julian the Apostate, a lover of Greek culture who was compelled to serve an
empire against his will, loved Bacchylides.28 And then, between the fourth
and twentieth centuries, the poet virtually disappeared.
Callimachus of Cyrene (310–240 BC)
Shades of Callimachus, Coan ghosts of Philetas
It is in your grove I would walk,
I who come first from the clear fount
Bringing the Grecian orgies into Italy,
and the dance into Italy.
E Z R A P O U N D,
“Homage to Sextus Propertius”
Oral cultures value what is old, attested, legitimate. There is little
room for what is novel or goes against the grain of legend or
custom. No copyright inhibits the transmission of oral poems:
everyone, from bard to ploughboy, can store them in the retrieval system of memory and repeat them at will. But if you add lines and
passages you run the political risks of that great forger-editor Onomacritos.
The word “original” has a pejorative sense.
Accuracy of fact in such verse is secondary to fidelity of transmission.
Facts are local, poetry universal. Historical fact can give way, in epic narrative and hymn, to the demands of poetic pattern. A singer of tales is after
characteristic rather than specific truth. In epic, things are too far in the past
to be verified. It is another country peopled by larger men. Hyperbole, unlikely connections between disparate narratives, anachronism, all have a
place there. A synthesis of elements, even of dialects, in a single, specifically
poetic idiom occurs. Oral tradition is an arresting amber: words, images and
forms survive beyond extinction. Oral traditions develop at a glacial pace.
Then comes writing, and, gradually at first, the thaw commences.
A millennium before the Trojan War, a boy called Pepy was being taken
up the Nile to be placed in a writing school. Khety, Pepy’s father, declared,
“I shall make you love writing more than you love your own mother; and
thus I shall make beauty enter before your face.” The main thing, Khety insists, is that a scribe will always have work.1 Egyptians valued writing because it was a source of control and therefore of power. The Greeks in due
course came to love it for itself.
It is time to turn to Egypt, where the closing chapters of The First Poets
are set. “As Mesopotamia may be considered the cradle of writing, so may
Egypt be considered the cradle of ‘the book,’” says David Diringer. “From
the earliest ages the Egyptians had the greatest veneration for books, writing and learning.”2 Greek literature could hardly have found a more hos-
callimachus of cyrene
pitable long-term home: without the climate of Egypt, papyrus, and a religion which involved mummification, we would have only a fragment of the
fragment of Greek poetry that survives.
Writing borrows energy from the oral tradition and at first seeks to replicate its means and serve its ends. But the reciting bard and the individual
writer engage their subjects—place, character, legend, myth—rather differently. A writer composes away from the undifferentiated audience; perhaps
he has scrolls of other texts around him which he can draw upon. He has in
mind as his reader or fellow symposiast a crowd different from Homer’s or
Hesiod’s, different from those who frequented the theatre. It consists of
almost-individuals, better washed, fed and informed than common men. A
written tradition as it evolves encourages variation, individuality, even originality in handling forms, metres and subject-matter itself. What was sacred
or legendary becomes “textual”; what is “textual” can be a specifically literary resource.
By the end of the classical period, the written tradition, still grounded in
Homer and Hesiod, had become a theatre of originality and variety. Theatre
itself took hold of the tradition, and from 450 bc onwards—after Pindar,
pending Alexandria—verse thrived primarily in the drama. Before 450,
prose literature was limited: we see into earlier ages through poems—there
we hear voices, view landscapes, hear the sounds of the street and the worlds
of love and conflict. Aristotle and Plutarch depend upon the poets for a
sense of place and moral reflection: they read Tyrtaeus to learn about Sparta,
Solon to learn about Athens. There is a special kind of truth in such poetic
traditions, but they pass. The arts of prose develop alongside the drama.
Already in Pindar there is the baroque elaboration that an unkind critic
calls “merely literary,” as though that heavily political and earnest author
was a pince-nezed art pour l’artiste. His poems are certainly not spontaneous
(but then not even the freshest-seeming, the archaic Greek poetry, is off
the cuff as modern readers would like it to be). Greater elaboration, in Pindar, appeals to a specialised audience; if an audience loves puzzles, a poet
will be a riddler; if a patron delights in obliquity and allusion the poet will be
obligingly oblique and allusive. The more a poet tunes in to a particular audience, genre and approach, the fewer (and fitter) his readers and hearers
will be. But with Pindar, however local the victor he celebrates, we know
that the poem is intended for transmission to the entire Greek world, or
those audiences within that world primed to the epinicean tradition.
Cultural accompanied the political changes of the ancient world. In 404
bc, Athens was decisively defeated: the Old Comedy and much else went
out of fashion. The century after 360 bc saw transformation and a reformation of the Greek world; the centre of gravity moved from Athens, south
the first poets
and west. Philip II of Macedon defeated the Greeks at Chaeronea in Boeotia in 338 bc, sealing “classical Greece” as such in its tomb. Between 334 and
323 bc, Alexander conquered the Near East and Egypt, then went on as far
as Pakistan, perhaps crossing the Indus. But the polis system of agora, gymnasium, theatre and other accoutrements, along with Greek-style administrative structures, he imposed in facsimile over a huge area. There were
many Alexandrias, especially to the east. The koine, the Athens dialect, was a
sort of lingua franca. Ancient Greek texts have been found as far east as
Afghanistan. Hellenism, the version of Greek culture that Alexander
spread so successfully with his conquests, survived under later patronage,
set apart from the cultures of cities whose first language was not Greek.
Greek common folk had provided the nurturing context for epic, drama
and their familiar, familial geographies. The literary culture of the nonGreek cities was Hellenistic, and in many places a “native” tradition was displaced by this pious imposition, an imposition taken further and deeper still
by the Romans in their imperial travels.
Born of Alexander’s devotion to every aspect of Greek culture, the greatest
Alexandria—founded in 331 bc—was no less Egyptian. Under the Ptolemies,
it grew to more than half a million souls. In this world, literature became
specifically writing. The classical Greek diaspora was one thing, ethnic and
even tribal in character; the Hellenic dispensation was something else. Now
Greek culture was available to non-Greeks (it had been spread, after all, by
the greatest Macedonian of all time), to the previously despised barbaroi.
What had been an instrument of national identity for Greeks from all over
the Mediterranean world, a prophylactic against the barbarians, was now
open to all.
Those Greeks who lived for the culture felt defensive, separated, aloof.
To retain possession, they needed to devise protective strategies. “I hate
everything public” or “common,” says Callimachus,3 perhaps because the
Alexandrian public expressed a value system at odds with the culture he had
acquired through the Greek language and in his studies in Athens. Poetry
had to move indoors, out of the literal sun: it lived in libraries. What had
been language responding to nature, history, the social world began to become language responding to prior language. The epigram came into its elegant own, honed and admirable and polite. “Great art overshadowed and
checked new growth, as it is wont to do.”4 Now no great art overshadowed.
Thus the code and the traditions that had bound the scattered Greeks
into a sense of nation became an acquirable culture. The classical period
ended with a Geist of Greek culture haunting Greek cities around the
Mediterranean and further afield, each with its Homer, Hesiod and heritage,
part of a Greece of mind and spirit and sport; by the time that Rome, with