In his monograph on Bacchylides (“the first … in English in over twenty years”) Fearn presents his own approach as “original and wide-ranging” and describes his book as “a significant and timely contribution” to an ongoing debate (p. v). There is no doubt that very few monographs have been devoted to Bacchylides, in English or in other languages for that matter, and Fearn’s work, based on a 2003 Oxford dissertation, is thoroughly researched, wide-ranging and stimulating. The book comprises an introduction, on “Tradition and Contextualization”, and two parts, one on “Praise”, and the other on Bacchylides’ ‘Dithyrambs’. It is on points of detail that the book’s strength can be more easily recognized, and the second part, on the so-called Dithyrambs, seems to me to be the most successful one.
In his introduction, after the usual brief preamble about Bacchylides’ neglect in comparison to Pindar and other contemporary poets, Fearn devotes twenty pages to the interpretation of fragment 5, a short quotation from one of Bacchylides’ Paeans about the importance of tradition and the difficulty of innovation for the sophoi (i.e., the poets) in finding the gates of not-yet-said words. Fearn finds fault not only with the view that these words may have anything to do with a personal polemic between Bacchylides and Pindar (somewhat of a straw-man, since very few scholars would share this view nowadays), but even that they may simply (Fearn’s emphasis) relate “to Bacchylides’ poetic agenda” (p. 4). It may well be argued that “poetic agenda” is too vague an expression, but it can hardly be denied that Bacchylides’ lines are indeed a statement about poetic expression. Fearn draws attention to the different way in which these lines have been read by early Christian authors. Clement of Alexandria who, according to Fearn, plausibly “had knowledge of the wider context of the Bacchylidean lines”, quotes them “to illustrate the point that even the Greeks had some inkling about the divinity of God and the Gnostic life”. The wider relevance of Clement’s reading of the fragment for our understanding of Bacchylides’ attitude toward issues of tradition and innovation in poetic expression is more than doubtful. It certainly is an interesting case of Christian interpretation of Greek classical poetry, but even if we assume that Clement had not read the lines in an anthology of quotations on the importance of sophia (by far the likeliest possibility), a comparison with one of the other passages he quotes in the same context, Callimachus epigr. 46.4 Pfeiffer, could easily show how misleading a guide Clement would be for reconstructing the line’s “wider context”. According to Callimachus “poetry ( sophia) is indeed a remedy against all diseases”. Clement understands this as an example of how the Greeks acknowledged the divine status of ‘Gnostic life’. In Callimachus it introduces the example of the lovesick Cyclops, who finds consolation in singing about his love. I think that most of us would agree that in fifth century Greek lyric poetry sophia and cognate words potentially evoke a semantic sphere that could be broadly defined as ‘religious’. I doubt that many would say the same for Callimachus’ epigram. In both cases, Clement’s reading of these lines as a foreshadowing of ‘gnostic’ sophia is more interesting as an example of the ways in which quotations acquire a life of their own, once separated from their original contexts. It is difficult to share Fearn’s view, however, that this has a methodological lesson to offer for our reading of these lines. Fearn then moves to the issue of the interpretation of the poetic voice in Bacchylides’ paean, via a long digression on Pindar’s paean 7b, where the poetic voice emphasizes its own originality using one of the same images of Bacchylides’ fragments, that of the gates of words. This is useful enough in itself though perhaps not very illuminating for our understanding of Bacchylides’ fragment. Fearn next suggests that in our fragment the words to which the gates lead are not (only) “unuttered” but (also) “unutterable”, referring to secret lore connected to mystery cults. This sounds unlikely given that the quotation comes from a paean, not a typical song for a mystery-cult context, that the topos of the sophos who has to struggle for novelty of expression and subject is a common one in archaic poetry, and that the verb used by Bacchylides, exeurein, “to invent, discover”, is typically used of the task of poetic composition rather than for transmission of hidden lore, as Fearn himself acknowledges (19, n. 65). In conclusion, Fearn comes back to the well established idea that “Bacchylides’ narrative technique tends to flaunt its indebtedness to pre-existing … narrative, in a way that the Pindaric narrator appears generally to have eschewed” (20). The assessment of Bacchylides’ different attitude toward poetic tradition, however, is neither the only nor perhaps even the most important subject Fearn explores in the bulk of the book.
The introduction is followed by two parts, the first one dealing with praise poetry, the second one with the ‘dithyrambs’. While the second part also covers some more general issues about the lyric genre, the first comprises only a close reading of two poems, fr. 20 B, a short sympotic poem for Alexander, a prince and later king of Macedon, and Epinician 13, a long victory ode for an Aeginetan victor. Fearn’s reading of the ode for Alexander, a fairly neglected fragmentary poem, probably among the earliest ones by Bacchylides, is rich in subtle and perceptive comments. Too often, however, Fearn seems to me to read far too much into this text. Only the first half of the poem is well preserved: it is one of the earliest variations on the topos of the delusion and fantasies experienced by intoxicated symposiasts. These include sex (for the young ones, neoi, l. 6), and, for more mature men ( andres, l. 10), military achievements, absolute rule over all other men, material luxury and wealth. A sympotic poem by Pindar for a member of the Sicilian family of the Emmenidai (fr. 124 ab S.-M.) offers a slightly different treatment of the same topos. In Fearn’s view, Bacchylides’ use of this topos is driven by a somewhat hidden agenda. Pindar, in a poem in honour of this same Alexander, exploits his homonymy with the Trojan hero (“homonymous with the prosperous descendants of Dardanos” fr. 120 S.-M.). Fearn makes very much out of this, and sees this address as “an instance of parainesis” (48), which would allude, inter alia, to a passage in the Iliad where Priam is said once to have been “prosperous” (24.543). By addressing Alexander in this way, Fearn argues, Pindar warns him “about the stakes involved in warfare”. Bacchylides, on the other hand, says nothing about Alexander’s Trojan connections, but, according to Fearn, his use of the expression “undoing the veils of cities” at line 11 (a variation on an epic formula, not unnaturally used of Troy in the Homeric poems) suggests that the audiences of the ode are invited “to consider analogies” between the two Alexanders “as destroyers of their own cities” (Fearn’s italics). By such associative processes Fearn transforms a topical sympotic poem into a covert criticism of the praised dedicatee. This is a technique well familiar to readers of Augustan poetry but Fearn’s attempt to apply it to Bacchylides’ relationship with his Macedonian addressee, in a context where the circumstances of patronage and the political background were very different, fails to carry conviction. Equally unconvincing is his idea that one of the crucial themes of the ode is the construction of Alexander’s “Hellenicity”. There is no explicit allusion to this in the preserved portion: Fearn speculatively imagines that this might have been an important theme in its largely fragmentary second half, but his evidence is very thin at best. Equally absent in the ode is the issue of Alexander’s philopersian or philhellenic attitude. According to Fearn (p. 78), however, “the question that Bacchylides asks is with whom should Alexander be associating himself as a king: should it be with panhellenic Greek poets like Bacchylides himself, or should it be with others who make submissions at the Macedonian court, people like the Persians”, and inviting the conclusion that (p. 81) “for pan- hellenic poets, Macedonians are difficult to work with”. There is a good deal of fiction in all of this, and Fearn’s view that Alexander would have been viewed as “alien or even hostile to the interests of Greek elites or poleis, because of allegations of, and outright evidence for, Macedonian Medism” is based, in my opinion, on a simplistic view of what the interests of “Greek elites” (far from unified) would have been in the early 490s. One only has to think of the Aeginetans, who, arguably, were not difficult to work with for panhellenic poets, and who (among many other Greek poleis) made act of submission to the Persian empire as late as 491 (Hdt. 6.49.1). Fearn quotes this passage in his next chapter on Bacchylides’ Aeginetan patrons (p. 93), stating that Herodotus ” suggests (emphasis mine) that Aigina submitted”, and suggesting himself that “such accusations had much to do with Athenian propaganda”. Herodotus in fact plainly says that they did (together with other Greek islands), and the fact that later on they changed their allegiances does not contradict his unambiguous statement.1 The idea that a few years earlier Bacchylides should have acted as a member of a board of “panhellenic” poets in awarding (or refusing) his patrons patents of Hellenicity, scrutinising their attitudes toward the Persians, sounds very unlikely to me, and certainly not supported by the remains of fr. 20 Bacchylides.
Fearn’s next chapter is a reading of one of Bacchylides’ longest preserved poems, to be dated around 485, his Epinician 13, for Pytheas of Aegina, Lampon’s son, the dedicatee of Nemean 5, an ode by Pindar, who also composed Isthmian 6 for him and his brother Phylakidas and another lost Isthmian ode for another member of his family (Fearn has a long appendix on the dates of some of these poems, on pp. 342-350). The bibliography on this ode is much richer than that on fr. 20B and Fearn is well informed and up-to-date.2 Fearn first provides a useful introduction to the ode’s historical and archaeological background dealing with a wide range of relevant issues and putting into context Aegina’s mythological traditions, and its choral performances.3 The next section explores, largely drawing (with some qualifications) upon a 2000 article by T. Power, the issue of the interaction between the female choral performances evoked in Bacchylides’ ode (ll. 83-99) and its own performance, to which the text refers in ll. 190 ff. It is not quite correct to say, however, that the projected chorus of virgins “sing and catalogue the female line of the Aiakidai”, while the male chorus sing “of their sons”, as the former song includes Aiakos himself: the division in the subject matter has to do more with generations than with gender. The bulk of the chapter is taken by a detailed reading of the ode’s mythical section, exploring its narrative technique, its use of imagery and its intertextual relation with the Iliad.
On the whole, Fearn’s reading of Bacchylides 13 and of Victory Odes in general stresses the possible elitist implications of the texts in contrast to other current interpretations that privilege their function as a means for re-integrating a member of the aristocratic elite within the broader political community. The situation, as Fearn acknowledges, might have been different in different contexts (see e.g. p. 150 n. 169), and I am not sure that Bacchylides 13 is the best example to make a strong statement about this issue, as I suspect that most readers (Fearn included) would agree that Bacchylides does represent the celebration of Pytheas’ victory through mechanisms (such as the blurring mention of the chorus of parthenoi : in particular ll. 84 ff.) that assimilate it to a celebration of the whole community. To what extent such a representation did match with the actual dynamics taking place at the time of the performance is a matter of conjectural reconstruction. I think Fearn is probably right in stating that the situation might have been complex. Concepts such as “community” and “integration” should not be used too loosely. The definition itself of “political community” needs to be refined, and if we should be wary of talking about it as if it necessarily were a homogeneous body, we should equally avoid the same pitfall when talking about local elites (e.g. p. 152, 160).4
On a point of detail: on p. 155 Fearn argues that the use of the epithet
As far as new alternative interpretations of the traces are concerned, the reader has now two extremely detailed and partly independent descriptions of these lines, that of Barrett and that of Fearn In most cases, reassuringly, they do corroborate each other. A few divergences are involved, e.g. in lines 159 and 162. In both instances I found Barrett’s description closer to what I saw on the original. For the trace in line 159, which Barrett read as part of an ypsilon , and Fearn as the “small extension to the upper left (…) at the apex of delta” (p. 354), I would concur with Barrett that, once the small portion of papyrus is notionally “twisted back to its original position”, the trace would rather look as “a stroke rising gently to the right” (Barrett, p. 273). It is equally my impression that the traces above the line, interpreted by Fearn as a chi supra lineam, belong in the same category as the “smudgy ink” traces preceding it, and are rather different from the traces of the text itself (so Barrett). In l. 162, Barrett’s interpretation of the first trace (“foot of an upright or stroke slanting upwards or perhaps most readily (with an upright left edge and slanting right) from the left angle of
The second half of Fearn’s book deals with Bacchylides’ Dithyrambs : a long section on the definition of the genre is followed by a survey of the contexts and a closer reading of Bacchylides 15. In the first section Fearn argues that the poems gathered under the heading Dithyrambs in Bacchylides’ Alexandrian editions belong to the wider category of the kuklioi khoroi. This label was used already in classical times to describe a large group of choral poems according to their mode of performance, the dithyrambs being in fact its most conspicuous sub-category. The partial overlap between the two classificatory terms has produced considerable confusion in modern discussion on the dithyramb, particularly (but by no means only) when discussing the lack of Dionysiac connotations of several of Bacchylides’ Dithyrambs. One of the most important contributions to the clarification of the issue is due to L. Käppel.6 This line of inquiry has been subsequently pursued by other scholars, particularly at a conference on the “Contexts of the Dithyramb”, which was held at Oxford in July 2004, including P. Ceccarelli, and myself (in a paper where I discuss in detail the implications of the partial semantic overlap of the generic terms dithyrambos, nomos, and kuklios khoros).7 Fearn’s general introduction to the ‘dithyrambs’ follows the same interpretative approach, but expands its horizon considerably, and explores important implications about the contexts of the kuklioi khoroi and their later reception(s). Fearn also examines some aspects of the criticism of the ‘New Music’ from this perspective. The relevance of this latter section to the interpretation of Bacchylides’ poems is somewhat debatable: the discussion, though, is very useful and stimulating. In some cases, however, this leads to a potentially misleading confusion between two only partly overlapping issues. For example, Plato’s criticism of modern musical decline and confusion of forms is linked by Fearn to the problem of “the applicability of the kuklios khoros to a wider range of Athenian festivals than simply the City Dionysia” (p. 188, cf. also pp. 200 f.). But this does not ever seem to be an issue per se for Plato.8 Fearn’s treatment of the way in which Plato’s Laws deal with Dionysiac music is also less than satisfactory. In the Laws in fact Plato attributes the greatest importance to Dionysiac influence in musical performances, and the “Dionysiac khoreia” far from being ” relegated to third place” and “left as patronizing pick-me-up for old men” (Fearn, p. 199, n. 113, emphasis mine) is presented as the most authoritative and persuasive form of choral performance in the whole city (cf. e.g. 2.665d), and Plato attributes to the third chorus a function close to, if not identical with, that of the Nocturnal Council.9 I am also sceptical about the idea (derived from Käppel) that the Alexandrian classification of the kuklioi khoroi under the label of ‘dithyrambs’ might be due to the influence of Plato. The overlapping confusion which involves kuklioi khoroi,’dithyrambs’ and even ‘nomoi’ is attested earlier than Plato, and it is unlikely that the two passages quoted by Fearn on p. 211, one defining the ‘dithyramb’ in terms of content, the other focussing on its narratological features, might have exerted such a pervasive (and diverging) influence on later scholarly practice. Fearn argues that “later sources crediting Arion with the invention of the kuklios khoros may be simply misremembering Herodotos”, with reference to Procl. ap. Phot. Bibl. 5.320a.32, but this is not possible as the earliest testimony is Hellanicus 4 F 86 FGrHist, Herodotus’ contemporary (curiously quoted by Fearn himself in a different context, p. 230 n. 9, without any expression of doubt). The passage on the classification of Xenocritus’ poems as ‘dithyrambs’ based on their heroic narrative content in Ps. Plutarch On Music 1134e has been attributed to a source drawing upon Glaucus of Rhegion, 5th century BCE. The issue has been debated, but it is noteworthy that Glaucus is quoted immediately before and after this passage, which, in any case is often supposed to go back to Heracleides of Pontus.10 It is more likely that ‘dithyramb’ was used as a shorthand label, mainly due to the enormous importance of Dionysiac choral festivals at Athens (and elsewhere at a later date).
In the next chapter Fearn deals with the contexts of Bacchylides’ ‘Dithyrambs’. In the first section, on Sparta, he examines Bacchylides 20, where the song actually performed is said in the text to have been “such as” the one performed in mythical times by the “blonde maidens of the Lakedaimonians”, and argues that it was a kuklios khoros performed by men rather than by women. This is hardly convincing, and overlooks, among other issues, the fact that another (almost surely) Spartan poem that was very probably part of the collection of Bacchylides’ ‘Dithyrambs’, fr. 61 S.-M., equally begins with the evocation of the performance of a group of female singers and dancers. Performances of kuklioi khoroi by maidens are frequently mentioned in various sorts of texts, and it is much more likely that these two Spartan songs belong in this group. The rest of the chapter is devoted to Athens, where Bacchylides 15 and 18-19 are usually said to have been performed (though only in the last case is explicit evidence provided by the title in the papyrus), and to Delos (Bacchylides 17, the most famous among Bacchylides’ ‘Dithyrambs’, on whose political and ideological background Fearn has some perceptive comments to offer), while no section covers Delphi (Bacchylides 16, which has also been read as a poem for an Athenian performance, is briefly discussed in another section, p. 171 f.).
The last chapter is a close reading of Bacchylides 15, which Fearn, as most modern scholars starting from the early ’70s, sees as a poem originally performed at the Panathenaia. This is a reasonable assumption, but an entirely conjectural one. Fearn tries to project this text against the background of the wider, intriguingly complex background of Athenian democratic ritual performances, which most famously included also dramatic performances. Given the conjectural nature of the starting point (i.e. the attribution of this poem to a performance at the Panathenaia), the inevitable danger of circular reasoning in this case should perhaps have been stressed in a more explicit way. Among the issues explored by Fearn in this densely argued chapter are the cultural and ideological implications of the poem’s intertextual relation with Homer and Solon. In some instances Fearn’s subtle intertextual reading entails assumptions that might be not to everybody’s taste. For example, in Bacchylides 15 the speech addressed by Menelaos to the Trojans is preceded by an invocation to the Muse (47-49) introducing a question about priority (“who was the first …”?). This device is found thrice in the Iliad, and in its first occurrence, in Book 11, it introduces a catalogue of heroes killed by Agamemnon, the first one being Iphidamas, one of the sons of Antenor. The sons of Antenor were mentioned in Bacchylides’ dithyramb and gave it (perhaps at a later stage) one of the titles it now bears in the papyrus. As we know from other epic sources (the Cypria), Antenor pleaded in favour of Menelaos’ proposal before the Trojan assembly. On an earlier occasion in the same book Agamemnon had killed another two Trojan heroes, the sons of Antimachus, saying that this was an apt reward for the fact that, after Menelaos’ and Odysseus’ embassy, their father had plotted to kill them in an ambush. According to Fearn, Bacchylides’ audience should have picked up in their memory exactly this Iliadic occurrence of the “who first” motif, should have connected it to the previous Homeric episode, and given extra meaning to the text of Bacchylides, who does not mention Iphidamas, Antimachus, his plot, nor, for that matter, the outcome of the embassy at all. In another instance, Fearn argues that the use of the two words
Fearn also develops some more general considerations on this poem as an example of the kind of poetry (other than the dramatic one) the Athenians performed and enjoyed in their public ritual contests. Some of the points he makes on Bacchylides’ style in this very stimulating section are certainly sound and useful. I am not sure, however, that one should indulge too much in such generalizations. Enargeia is one of the most outstanding features of Bacchylides’ poetry, and Fearn argues that, in the case of Bacchylides 15, this has very much to do with the performance context and with its interplay with the Rhapsodic performances which took place during the same festival. Enargeia, however, is a feature of Bacchylides’ poems in general, not only of Bacchylides 15, nor, even, of his kuklioi khoroi. Fearn establishes an intriguing connection between the ‘open closure’ of Bacchylides 15 and its (conjectural, I would stress, once again) Athenian, democratic context of performance (p. 314). This is a very interesting insight: one should be cautious, however, about the possibility of such simple ideological explanations especially as so few kyklioi poems from any context are reasonably well preserved, and as Bacchylides shows a preference for similar narrative effects in other poems as well: what about the ‘open’ ending of the mythical narration of Bacchylides 5, a poem for a ‘tyrant’, and the closures of Bacchylides 16 and of fr. 60 (though I suppose one might always assume an ‘Athenian’ background for the former)?
After a brief conclusion, the book is rounded off by two appendices (on Bacchylides 13, discussed above), a 38-page bibliography, and two indexes. It is generally well produced: I have found a mere handful of slips and typos.
All in all, this is an extremely stimulating and thorough reading of some of Bacchylides’ poems, which leaves very few stones unturned, and should be consulted by everyone interested not only in archaic Greek poetry, but also in Athenian performance culture (and even in later transformations of lyric narrative techniques in Latin poetry). It is also because of its wide-ranging and searching exploration of the subject that it is bound to raise questions (and occasional criticism) such as the ones I have voiced in this review.
1. Evidence that Aegina might have submitted to Persia at an even earlier date, based on the presence of an Aeginetan silver stater in the Apadana foundation deposit, is much more uncertain: cf. M. Cool Root in Numismatic Chronicle 148 (1988), 1-12, and A. R. Meadows, Numismatic Chronicle 163 (2003), 342-4.
2. The omission of a relevant article by J. B. Fenno published in Hermes 133 (2005), 294-311 (cf. Fearn pp. 113-5, and his appendix on the date of the odes) is easy to understand, though quite a few other 2005 (and even 2006) items are included in the bibliography.
3. Callimachus’ Iamb 8 and A. R. 4.1765 f. should be added to Fearn’s references on cultic performances by the so-called “Asopian water” (p. 104 n. 66): Ch. M. Dawson in YCS 11 (1950), 88 f. had already provided the correct explanation of the scholia on Pind. Nem. 3.4 using this material.
4. For a recent contribution to debate on the ideological interpretation of Greek Lyric, not discussed by Fearn, see D. Hammer, “Ideology, the Symposium, and Archaic Politics”, AJPh 125 (2004), 479-512.
5. Cf. W.S. Barrett, Greek Lyric, Tragedy and Textual Criticism. Collected papers assembled and edited by M.L. West, Oxford 2007, 232-284. Fearn knows Barrett’s arguments only thanks to Maehler’s references to the unpublished paper.
6. “Bakchylides und das System der chorlyrischen Gattungen im 5. Jh. v. Chr.”, in A. Bagordo and B. Zimmermann (eds), Bakchylides. 100 Jahre nach seiner Wiederentdeckung, München 2000, 11-27.
7. There is no mention of this conference in Fearn. The debt to Käppel 2000 “on questions of Alexandrian classification” is acknowledged in the first footnote of this section, on p. 163.
8. Cf. also p. 174, where Fearn suggests that the issue was debated in classical Athens, without, however, providing satisfactory evidence.
9. On the whole issue of Dionysus in the Laws see, at least, E. Belfiore, “Wine and Catharsis of the Emotions in Plato’s Laws“, CQ n. s. 36 (1986), 421-437 and, most recently, G. Panno, Dionisiaco e Alterità nelle “Leggi” di Platone. Ordine del corpo e automovimento dell’anima nella città-tragedia, Milan 2007, with previous bibliography.
10. Incidentally, the classification of Pindar’s dithyrambs is not at all likely to go back to Aristarchus, as stated by Fearn on p. 212.