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Bacchylides of Cos (c. 518– 452 BC)

Bacchylides of Cos (c. 518– 452 BC)

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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-



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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




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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



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may have heard some of the poems composed to celebrate the victors, his

grandfather included.12

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




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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

in poetry.

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



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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.




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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



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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

losers; and

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.



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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-



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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




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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

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Bacchylides of Cos (c. 518– 452 BC)

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