23 Facts About Bacchylides


Bacchylides has often been compared unfavourably with his contemporary, Pindar, as "a kind of Boccherini to Pindar's Haydn".

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Bacchylides's career coincided with the ascendency of dramatic styles of poetry, as embodied in the works of Aeschylus or Sophocles, and he is in fact considered one of the last poets of major significance within the more ancient tradition of purely lyric poetry.

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Bacchylides' lyrics do not seem to have been popular in his own lifetime.

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Keos, where Bacchylides was born and raised, had long had a history of poetical and musical culture, especially in its association with Delos, the focal point of the Cyclades and the principal sanctuary of the Ionian race, where the people of Keos annually sent choirs to celebrate festivals of Apollo.

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Ceans had participated in the defeat of the Persians at the Battle of Salamis and they could take pride in the fact that an elegy composed by Bacchylides's uncle was chosen by Athens to commemorate the Athenians who fell at the Battle of Marathon.

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Bacchylides's career as a poet probably benefited from the high reputation of his uncle, Simonides, whose patrons, when Bacchylides was born, already included Hipparchus, brother of Hippias the tyrant of Athens and cultural coordinator of the city at that time.

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Soon he was competing with Pindar for commissions from the leading families of Aegina and, in 476 BC, their rivalry seems to have reached the highest levels when Bacchylides composed an ode celebrating Hieron's first victory at the Olympian Games.

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Pindar celebrated the same victory but used the occasion to advise the tyrant of the need for moderation in one's personal conduct, whereas Bacchylides probably offered his own ode as a free sample of his skill in the hope of attracting future commissions.

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Bacchylides was commissioned by Hieron in 470 BC, this time to celebrate his triumph in the chariot race at the Pythian Games.

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Bacchylides presented his find in 1896 to Frederic Kenyon in the British Museum's Department of Manuscripts.

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Bacchylides had become, almost overnight, among the best represented poets of the canonic nine, with about half as many extant verses as Pindar, adding about a hundred new words to Greek lexicons.

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Much of Bacchylides's poetry was commissioned by proud and ambitious aristocrats, a dominant force in Greek political and cultural life in the 6th and early part of the 5th centuries, yet such patrons were gradually losing influence in an increasingly democratic Greek world.

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The debt however was mutual and Bacchylides borrowed from tragedy for some of his effects – thus Ode 16, with its myth of Deianeira, seems to assume audience knowledge of Sophocles's play, Women of Trachis, and Ode 18 echoes three plays – Aeschylus's Persians and Suppliants and Sophocles's Oedipus Rex.

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Whereas however Stesichorus developed graphic images in his poetry that subsequently became established in vase painting, Bacchylides merely employed images already current in his own day.

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Simonides, the uncle of Bacchylides, was another strong influence on his poetry, as for example in his metrical range, mostly dactylo-epitrite in form, with some Aeolic rhythms and a few iambics.

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Bacchylides has often been compared unflatteringly with Pindar, as for example by the French critic, Henri Weil: "There is no doubt that he fails of the elevation, and of the depth, of Pindar.

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Whereas however Pindar's ode focuses on the myth of Pelops and Tantalus and demonstrates a stern moral about the need for moderation in personal conduct, Bacchylides's ode focuses on the myths of Meleager and Hercules, demonstrating the moral that nobody is fortunate or happy in all things (possibly a reflection on Hieron's chronic illness).

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Bacchylides prefers to observe the gentler play of shadow and sadness over the sensuous surface of his brilliant world.

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Ode 13 of the Bacchylides is a Nemean ode performed to honor the athlete Pytheas of Aegina for winning the pancration event of the Nemean games.

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Bacchylides begins his ode with the tale of Heracles fighting the Nemean lion, employing the battle to explain why pancration tournaments are now held during the Nemean games.

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Bacchylides then tells of the greatness of these men's sons, Achilles and Ajax, alluding to a second myth, the tale of Ajax repelling Hector on the beaches of Troy, keeping the Trojans from burning the Greek ships.

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Bacchylides relates how Achilles' inaction spurred the Trojans to false hope, and how their swollen pride led them to be destroyed at the hands of the men they thought they had vanquished.

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Bacchylides instead describes a scene which is new to the audience, but which is given context by knowledge of the Iliad and Odyssey.

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