Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.02.46 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.02.46

Richard Rawles, Simonides the Poet: Intertextuality and Reception.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2018.  Pp. xii, 309.  ISBN 9781107141704.  £75.00.  

Reviewed by Thomas J. Nelson, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (


Little survives of Simonides’ poetry, especially in comparison to that of his contemporaries, Pindar and Bacchylides. Yet in this book (a substantially revised version of a 2006 UCL thesis), Rawles reveals the fruits that can be gained from a detailed study of Simonides’ extant poetry and its later reception. The main focus is Simonides’ relationship to the larger literary tradition: both his allusive engagement with earlier texts and his enduring reputation in later literature and anecdote (as a figure associated with the problematisation of wealth and poetic remuneration). In Part I, Simonides emerges as a sophisticated artist of intertextuality, successfully harnessing the authority of his epic and lyric predecessors. In Part II, Rawles argues that Simonides’ persistent association with questions of money and economic exchange derives directly from his own poetry, rather than being the anachronistic invention of a later age. Throughout, Rawles proves to be an alert, self-aware critic, capable of combining fine-grained philological investigation with larger analysis and interpretation. The result is a monograph whose arguments are not only meticulously made, but also cogent and compelling.

In the Introduction, Rawles exemplifies his approach by juxtaposing two very different passages of poetry: Simonides’ Plataea elegy and Scottish poet Don Paterson’s ‘The Reading’. In the former, Simonides appeals to Homer to define his role as poet; in the latter, Paterson performs the same kind of manoeuvre, but by looking back to Simonides. This diachronic seesaw of reading lies at the heart of Rawles’ project, as he constantly looks both forwards and backwards from the Simonidean epicentre. Rawles completes the introduction by addressing key theoretical issues that underpin his study: ‘Intertextuality’ (lucidly exploring the problems involved in discussions of early Greek allusion); ‘Reception and Anecdote’ (aligning himself with and distancing himself from the works of Lefkowitz and Carson); and ‘Economics of Poetry’ (citing the formative precedent of Kurke and positioning himself against those who have downplayed the commission-fee model of epinician poetry, especially Bowie and Pelliccia). By page 20, the reader is well primed for the remainder of the book.

Part I adopts a familiar ‘intertextual’ reading strategy, tracing Simonides’ relationships with poets of the past. Through several detailed case studies, Rawles highlights Simonides’ elaborate engagement with his predecessors. At the outset (pp. 23–27), he justifies his approach by appealing to the explicitness of Simonides’ allusive signposting, which seems to be a new development of the fifth century: the frequency with which he directly names his models (Homer and Stesichorus, 564.4 PMG; Cleoboulus, 581.1 PMG; Homer, frr.11.15–17, 19.1, 20.14 West2) or nods to them in vaguer terms (e.g. ἐστί τις λόγος, 579.1 PMG). This Simonidean change of gear is undeniable, although I feel that Rawles underplays the earlier precedent for the more anonymous variety of allusive marking. His comparanda (Pind. Nem.9.6–7, 174 West2: pp. 56–58) may be the closest lexical parallels for 579 PMG, but there are closer parallels of allusive technique (e.g. ἀρχαῖον...λόγον, Nem.1.34 ~ Peisander? (see Braswell’s 1992 commentary ad loc.); φαντί, Pyth.6.21 ~ 283 M-W). Even with Rawles’ Archilochean example, the similarities it shares with the opening of the later Aesopic fable of the ‘fox and eagle’ might suggest a more pointed case of signposted intertextuality, rather than general acknowledgement of the ‘traditionality of the story’ (ὡς ἆρ’ ἀλώπηξ καίετὸς ξυνεωνίην ἔμειξαν, fr. 174.2–3 ~ ἀετὸς καὶ ἀλώπηξ φιλίαν πρὸς ἀλλήλους ποιησάμενοι, fab.1 Perry).1 Regardless of how we situate Simonides within broader literary histories of allusion, however, the grounds for reading his poetry in intertextual terms are well established.

In 1 (‘Epic Traditions in Lyric Songs’, pp. 23–76), Rawles explores Simonides’ intertextual manoeuvres in two melic fragments: 564 and 579 PMG. In the former, the poet cites Homer and Stesichorus as sources for his account of Meleager, establishing them as models (and foils) for his present activity. The allusion to Stesichorus’ Funeral Games for Pelias is clear, but the reference to ‘Homer’ less so. Rawles considers a link with Iliad 9, where Meleager becomes the paradigmatic figure of exemplarity (cf. too Bacchyl. 5), and further highlights how the language of the fragment blurs the military and athletic stories of Meleager. 579 PMG, by contrast, exhibits a complex allusive relationship with the Hesiodic allegory of the path to Arete (Op.287–92). Rawles emphasises the complementarity of allusion and allegory as parallel interpretative procedures and highlights a significant linguistic ambiguity in the fragment: ἔσοπτος can be taken with λόγος, not just Ἀρετά, hinting at Simonidean play with the tradition of metapoetic vision and blindness, a discourse surrounding how to engage properly with the epic tradition. The fragment also aligns the poet with the successful laudandus: both have toiled to achieve Ἀρετά.

In Ch. 2 (‘The “New Simonides”: Homeric and Elegiac Transformations’, pp. 77–129), Rawles turns to Simonides’ elegiac poetry, focusing first on the Plataea elegy. After exploring its likely context and combination of panhellenic and pro-Spartan elements, he examines the poem’s allusive relationship with Homer. Scholars have long noted a string of Iliadic echoes, encouraged by Simonides’ direct reference to the Muse-inspired ‘man’ (fr. 11.15–17 West2). Rawles rather focuses on how Simonides tailors the Iliadic presentation of events to establish the Trojan war as precedent for the dichotomous thinking of ‘us vs. them’ in the aftermath of the Persian Wars. This section should be read with the Appendix (pp. 269–280), in which Rawles convincingly counters Kowerski’s suggestion that the poem represented by fr. 11 was concerned with multiple Persian war battles, rather than just Plataea. In the second half of this chapter, Rawles moves on to frr. 19–20 West2, fragments that similarly engage directly with Homer, but also—he plausibly argues—with a larger elegiac tradition of debating the value of old age. In addition, the fragments nod to the tradition of elegiac paraenesis, but simultaneously undermine it by claiming that the young ultimately cannot learn from Homeric wisdom—a challenge to the ethics and habits of elite sympotic culture.

In Part II, Rawles argues that the anecdotal tradition of ‘skinflint Simonides’ was already well-established in the poet’s own day and—most importantly—that it was largely derived from aspects of Simonides’ own poetry. This is an attractive argument, and one that follows the approach of much past scholarship on poets’ lives (especially Lefkowitz and Fairweather). Rawles goes beyond his predecessors, however, by placing a higher value on the anecdotal tradition as a form of Simonidean reception. In Ch. 4 (‘Simonides and Wealth: A Critical Description of the Tradition’, pp. 155–193), he charts the contours of this tradition through to the Hellenistic and Roman periods, noting its pervasiveness. Only Plato seems to avoid the connection (perhaps, Rawles suggests, to deny poetry the status of a techne). Most significantly, Simonides’ association with ‘money matters’ is already attested in the works of Xenophanes and Aristophanes, supporting Rawles’ thesis that the theme dates back to the poet’s own lifetime.

Further support for this conclusion comes in Ch. 3 (‘Pindar, Simonides and Money: Pindar’s Isthmian 2’, pp. 133–154), in which Rawles mines Isthmian 2 for additional evidence of Simonides’ early association with problems surrounding poetic remuneration. He argues that Pindar’s opening contrast between the modern-day φιλοκερδής Muse and the poetic spontaneity of previous generations is framed in distinctively Simonidean terms. Key to the argument is the citation of the Argive Aristodamus (Isth. 2.9–11). Rawles argues that this tactic recalls a characteristically Simonidean topos of citing sophoi and assessing their dicta (e.g. 542 PMG on Pittacus; 581 PMG on Cleoboulus). Such a Simonidean connection is certainly plausible, although its neatness is perhaps undermined by the intertextual polyphony of Isthmian 2. In particular, the citation of Aristodamus simultaneously involves allusion to Alcaeus (fr. 360 Voigt), a member of the previous generation of spontaneous composers. Rawles downplays the significance of this additional echo, but perhaps we are encouraged to detect a difference between Alcaeus’ treatment of the dictum and Pindar’s Simonidean approach to it. Our ignorance of the larger Alcaean context prevents further conclusions, but we should not dismiss this further intertext so lightly.

After exploring this external evidence for the earliness of Simonides’ avaricious reputation, Rawles turns back to Simonides’ own poetry in Ch. 5 (‘From Stories to Song: Simonides Kimbix in the Fragments’, pp. 194–225). Focusing on two further fragments, he argues that we can already see issues of wealth, poverty and remuneration thematised in the poet’s own work. The elegiac fr. 25 West2 (whose authenticity Rawles defends) alludes to Hesiod’s Works and Days and to a tradition of poets and cloaks going back to the Odyssey, aligning begging, song, poverty and poetic patronage. The second fragment is 514 PMG, a mere two words which are supplemented by other accounts of the ‘Carian logos’. As an epinician for a victory at Pellene (where the prize was a cloak), the poem apparently associated the wealthy victor Orillas with the impoverished Carian fisherman of fable (who had the stark choice of freezing by pursuing an octopus or starving by not). The extreme contrast between victor and fisherman may have invited reflection on wealth, further mirroring the anecdotal tradition.

In sum, these three chapters paint a plausible picture of the origins and development of Simonides’ skinflint reputation. At times, Rawles makes his case on little more than scraps of evidence, but the overall conclusion is convincing. I was left wondering, however, how Pindar fits into the picture. As Rawles acknowledges, several scholia associate Pindar with similar concerns about patronage and remuneration, although Rawles sidesteps further discussion by remarking that we do not see the same extensive anecdotal tradition attached to Pindar’s name. Yet even so, in Aristophanes’ Birds, one of our earliest testimonia for ‘Simonides Kimbix’, it is notable that the ‘Simonidean’ poet quotes snippets not of Simonides, but of Pindar; and Isthmian 2 itself also hints at Pindar’s economic concerns, especially for audience members who missed the subtle Simonidean topos. Rawles’ work thus leaves space for further consideration of the precise relationship between these two poets and issues of poetic remuneration. But he has laid extremely solid groundwork for any scholar who wishes to explore the question further.

In the final chapter (‘Simonides, History and Kleos: Theocritus’ Charites or Hieron’, pp. 226–268), Rawles turns to Theocritus’ Idyll 16 as a later case study involving simultaneous interaction with the Simonides of anecdote and the Simonides of our fragments. The poem constructs competing perspectives on Simonides, as a figure of both avarice and disinterested praise: while Theocritus distances himself from Simonides as praiser of Thessalians patrons (who were Medising and hardly exemplary models of generosity), he aligns himself with Simonides as celebrator of the Persian Wars. The attraction of this reading is that it retains the poem’s role as sincere encomium, while also accounting for Simonides’ strong underlying presence.

In sum, this book is an excellent contribution to an underappreciated author. At times, Rawles’ argumentation can feel a little slow or repetitive, but his approach ensures an exhaustive and clear assessment of the material available to us. In addition, Rawles is always ready to acknowledge the more speculative aspects of individual theses – a refreshing intellectual honesty. There is no final conclusion or epilogue, but the arguments have been made clearly enough throughout that this is not an issue. CUP should be congratulated on an attractively produced book with spacious margins and few typos.2 The publishers may, however, wish to reconsider their choice of font for the Greek text, given its poor treatment of diacritics: in particular, smooth breathings and acute accents look disconcertingly similar. But fonts aside, this remains a very worthwhile book – a model that other scholars can follow to reinvigorate our appreciation of fragmentary authors and their Nachleben.


1.   I discuss these matters further in my Cambridge PhD thesis, ‘Early Greek Indexicality: Markers of Allusion in Archaic Greek Poetry’. On p. 43, Rawles does note one possible Iliadic precedent (Il. 9.524–8).
2.   Most significantly, ‘Σ Aristoph. Birds 697c–e’, p. 157 (‘Σ Aristoph. Peace’). Other corrigenda: ‘to identifying’, p. 2 n. 1 (‘to identify’); ‘in the second and third chapters’, p. 5 (‘third and fourth’); ‘fill of grapes’, p. 46 (‘full’); ‘Polera’s’, p. 55 n. 92 (‘Poltera’s’); ‘hero es’, p. 86 (‘heroes’); ‘pointed out to the parallel to me’, p. 244 n. 68 (‘pointed out the parallel’). Small inconsistencies: Cyrnus (p. 119) or Kyrnos (pp. 123, 126)? D.L. (p. 142 nn. 31–32) or DL (p. 173 n. 57, p. 184)?

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