Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2009.10.43 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.10.43

Arthur McDevitt (trans.), Bacchylides: The Victory Poems.   London:  Bristol Classical Press, 2009.  Pp. vii, 232.  ISBN 9781853997211.  $27.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Chris Eckerman, University of Oregon (

Previously there were four competing English translations of Bacchylides' odes on the market (those of Jebb, Campbell, Fagles, and Slavitt 1), but that does not mean that there was no need for a new translation of these poems before McDevitt translated the odes. Like Jebb's masterful edition of Bacchylides, Campbell's judicious Loeb translation appeals primarily to readers working with the Greek text, while the translations of Fagles and Slavitt offer relatively little in terms of literary and historical contextualization. McDevitt's new introduction, translation, and commentary provide the general reader of Bacchylides (surely elusive) with the historical and literary context that is so important for understanding these odes in English. This new translation will aid particularly in giving Bacchylides a greater presence in the classroom; those teaching burgeoning courses in Greek athletics should find the translation particularly helpful as well as those teaching archaic and classical Greek literature in general. Rightly, Bacchylides is no longer treated as a footnote to Pindar, and this useful translation should further the contemporary productive interest in Bacchylides' odes.

The twenty-page introduction provides the sort of elementary material that one would expect for this volume: general overviews of Greek agonistic behavior, the Panhellenic festivals, and individual athletic events, as well as a brief description of the epinician genre and Bacchylides' place within it. McDevitt offers a solid introduction, and all these materials will prove helpful to the introductory reader coming to Bacchylides with little knowledge of ancient Greek athletics or epinician poetry.

Although the translation, which follows the Greek quite closely, is admirable,2 the most noteworthy feature of this book is the lavish commentary offered on all the odes. McDevitt breaks down commentary on each ode into individual sections devoted to the victor and the event, the ode's myth, as well as a synoptic summary and exegesis of the ode; thereafter follow line-by-line notes in English. Here McDevitt contextualizes Bacchylides well in relation to literary history, pointing out Bacchylides' debts and innovations in relation to Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, and others, and discusses the programmatic and generic norms of epinician criticism. Admirably, McDevitt supplies substantial comparanda to support his assertions in the notes without having his commentary devolve into overwhelming lists of comparanda, which would be off-putting to the general reader.

McDevitt provides particularly nice commentary on Bacchylides' myths, and, since many of the myths in epinician odes are less than familiar to most readers, these sections will be particularly helpful. For example, when discussing the myth of Dexithea and Minos in Ode 1, which is in particularly bad shape, McDevitt provides both a full account of the myth and its variants as well as a section "explaining" the relevance of the myth to the victor and the occasion. Arguing for a particular connection between myth, victor, and occasion has long been a favorite past time of epinician critics, and McDevitt continues in this vein by using traditional exegetic terms such as positive and negative exemplum. Although I am somewhat wary that scholars of epinician poetry can overly straitjacket the meaning of myths with such terminology, it is helpful for all readers of the odes to see how commentators think that the myths are relevant to the victor, and providing suggestions for the relevance of individual myths may encourage the reader to decide for him- or herself the "meaning" of a myth in its context.

There are eight black-and-white photographs scattered throughout the book in locations that generally fit well with the text's subject matter. The figures, however, are not integrated into the text. For example, the reader has to infer that the famed head of Apollo from the west pediment of the temple of Zeus at Olympia, illustrated on p.3, has something to do with "the Greek ideal of mental and physical perfection" that McDevitt discusses on p. 2. But although scholars will understand that the head of Apollo is illustrated here because they are familiar with the type of academic discourse that uses the head in this way, general readers will not make this connection (since there is no discussion of Apollo in the text). Only an endnote explains the connection between text and image, and surely few general readers scour endnotes to make sense of the text. Similarly, Paionios' statue of Nike from Olympia, fig. 2, has no relation to the text; it seems to be here simply because it is visually striking and of thematic interest. If a second edition of this book will appear, it would be nice to see McDevitt incorporate references to his figures within the text and discuss how they are relevant to the topic at hand.

Some quibbles. McDevitt suggests that the First Sacred War can be positively dated (p. 10). It should be noted, however, that the historicity of the war is highly contested. McDevitt has some opinions that are too closely phrased as fact. For example, he says that neither Pindar nor Bacchylides "seems to have been personally wealthy" (p.17). This will strike many readers as odd. Pindar and Bacchylides may not have been wealthy tyrants, but they were Greek aristocrats from elite families, and McDevitt's word choice will give novice readers the wrong impression of Pindar's and Bacchylides' social status. Similarly, McDevitt claims that "the Greek gods were conceived and created in the image of man, and in their perfection they represented the ideal to which mortal men might aspire" (p.2). This is a surprising opinion professed as fact, and certainly many would disagree with McDevitt. Furthermore, like some other commentators, McDevitt makes the error of assuming since we have an extant ode celebrating Hieron's Olympic chariot victory of 468 BC (B. 3) and do not have one extant by Pindar that Hieron must have commissioned only Bacchylides to celebrate this victory (p. 90). This claim becomes even more problematic when it leads to claims that Hieron favored Bacchylides over Pindar. Pindar very well may have composed an ode for this victory that is simply not extant.3 If, alternatively, Hieron did not commission Pindar to compose an ode for this occasion, several other factors irrelevant to Pindar's poetic merit may have played a part in the decision.

Some readers may find some of McDevitt's unabashed celebratory rhetoric problematic. For example, in the introduction, McDevitt refers to "the desire to achieve and display that perfection of mind and body which lay at the heart of the Greek ideal." Of course, there never was "the Greek ideal." Sokrates famously had a good mind and a lousy body, and athletes regularly (as one may deduce from the jabs of critics such as Plato) had good bodies and lackluster minds.4

The book is out of touch with current scholarly literature. For example, in the introduction, when talking about the foundation narratives associated with the different festivals, McDevitt should have noted Corinne Pache's important Baby and Child Heroes in Ancient Greece (Illinois UP, 2004). Similarly, when discussing epinician poetry and colonialism (p. 176) there is no reference to Carol Dougherty's influential The Poetics of Colonization (Oxford UP, 1993), and there is no reference anywhere to Leslie Kurke's formative The Traffic In Praise (Cornell UP, 1991). Although important recent studies of epinician poetry (for example, by David Fearn and S. Hornblower and C. Morgan [eds.]) are noted in the further reading section, McDevitt practically never engages with contemporary epinician criticism. Indeed, McDevitt seems to be an unabashed Bundyist interpreter of epinician poetry (not necessarily a bad thing) throughout the book. Certainly general readers do not need to be drenched in contemporary scholarship, but some engagement with the ideas of present-day critics as well as references to their works would allow the opportunity for productive discussion with students and may also encourage students to engage with epinician criticism on their own. The book would also be more relevant for a scholarly audience if it engaged with current trends in criticism.

McDevitt is a proponent of the theory that shorter epinician odes were composed for performance at the site of victory while longer epinician odes composed for the same victory were performed in the home polis of the victor (e.g., pp. 69, 84-5, 108, 113, 140). This theory is put forth most vigorously by Gelzer,5 and it still finds regular proponents. There is, however, very little to support it, and I personally find it near impossible to believe if a victory was won on, say, day three of a Panhellenic festival that Pindar or Bacchylides could have been expected regularly to receive a contract from the victor to compose a poem, train a chorus, and have the chorus perform the ode on site before everyone packed up and left when the festival was over. As W. Race notes, "It is often claimed that shorter epinikia were improvisations performed at the site of the victory...but there is no conclusive evidence for such assumptions."6

Quibbles aside, with this book McDevitt has done a positive service for students and the general reader by making Bacchylides' epinician odes available in a form that will encourage deeper understanding of the odes than the current comparable translations offer. I wish that McDevitt had chosen to add a translation of and commentary on the dithyrambs, but I cannot fault him for not fulfilling a desire that was presumably not his own. If the book sees a second edition, however, the dithyrambs would be a wonderful addition.7


1.   Jebb, R. C. Bacchylides. The Poems and Fragments (Cambridge, UP, 1905); Campbell, D. A., ed. Greek Lyric IV: Bacchylides,Corinna, and Others. (Harvard UP, 1992); Slavitt, D.R.Epinician Odes and Dithyrambs of Bacchylides. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998); Fagles, R.Bacchylides. Complete Poems (Yale UP, 1961)
2.   Following traditional practice, McDevitt refers to Greek river gods with the definite article; for example, Alpheios becomes "the Alpheios" (e.g., p. 142). This practice is unfortunate since the use of the definite article encourages English speakers to cognitively understand the word "river" after the name of the god; so, Greek "Alpheios" becomes "the Alpheios," which becomes "the Alpheios river" in our minds. This gives the wrong impression and understanding of Greek religious practice and thinking.
3.   McDevitt makes the same error on p. 194 in regard to B.12.
4.   Similarly, McDevitt finds it "unfortunate" that Pantheides, father of Ceian Argeios, did not live to see his son victorious (p.88). Other value judgments could be cited.
5.   Gelzer, T. "Mousa Authigenes : Bemerkungen zu einem Typ Pindarischer und Bacchylideischer Epinikien." Museum Helveticum (42) 1985 95-120.
6.   Race, W. Pindar: Olympian Odes, Pythian Odes (Harvard UP, 1997) p.15.
7.   Further notes: Typos are not unusual but should not irritate the reader. Ancient commentators, of course, are not scholia but rather scholiasts (p.71). McDevitt can on occasion seem overly credulous in regard to epinician rhetoric. For example, he mentions that Pindar refers to a relative of a victor as being pious and then draws the conclusion from Pindar's text that piety was a "characteristic of the [victor's] family from the beginning" (p.72).

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