BMCR 2021.12.19

Simonides lyricus: essays on the “other” classical choral lyric poet

, , Simonides lyricus: essays on the "other" classical choral lyric poet. Cambridge classical journal. Supplementary volume, 42. Cambridge: The Cambridge Philological Society, 2020. Pp. xi, 285. ISBN 9780956838179 $60.00.


Simonides’s corpus has not fared well considering his fame in antiquity. Only a portion of his reputedly voluminous output survives in a better state than the statue of a certain Cleobolus he criticized for immortal aspirations. Without a second Simonides to mentally reconstruct the corpus from the remains (à la the story of Scopas), papyrologists, textual critics, literary historians, and scholars of context and reception continue to search for order in the surviving evidence. I applaud the authors of Simonides Lyricus for furthering scholarly understanding of Simonides especially with respect to historical chronology and the development of lyric genres in late archaic Greece. The volume pushes the state of the field forward: by providing resources for future study (e.g., Ucciardello’s papyri catalog); by sifting out spurious evidence from the corpus (Ucciardello on Secundus; D’Alessio on Pratinas); and, importantly, by situating Simonides as a contemporary of Pindar and Bacchylides (Poltera). Discussion of Simonidean lyric (as announced by the title) is found primarily in genre-specific studies (Sider, Carey, and Rutherford); more general, theoretical explorations of Simonides’s lyric voice would have enriched potential engagement with other, contemporary scholarship on the subject —likely not available at the time the collected essays were written, as I discuss in more detail in the conclusion of this review.”

The 2011 conference in which the papers were presented (7‒8) was put together in response to the 2008 publication of Poltera’s much-welcome edition of Simonides, also titled Simonides Lyricus (Schwabe Verlag), and in anticipation of Sider 2020, Simonides: Elegies and Epigrams (Oxford), which covers literary evidence attributed to Simonides not included in Poltera’s edition of the lyric genres. This conference bore other fruit not included in the volume: Cingano and Obbink on new Simonidean P. Oxy. fragments (forthcoming); and ch. 1 of Rawles 2018, Simonides the Poet (Cambridge). Carey’s and Athanassaki’s chapters, which were included in place of Cingano and Obbink, and Rawles, are seamlessly fitted to the themes of Part II and III respectively (which perhaps speaks to how well the volume’s topics align with current themes in the fields of archaic context and reception studies).

Agócs and Prauscello, the editors, provide probing chapter summaries in their Introduction (a “Proem”), such that this reviewer’s job is more highlight reel than play-by-play. Their Simonidean biography makes for a convenient reference (1‒7). It succeeds in sidelining the troubled ancient biographical tradition, well-covered by Rawles 2018 (and, later, Sider 2020), while calling into question the reading of Simonides as—yet another—intellectual-artistic hinge between archaic and classical. Asserting Simonides’s placedness within his period does not preclude judgments of exceptionality: the Simonides of Agócs and Prauscello is a “versatile…star” (6) and “provocative figure” (23). Certainly, their judgment accords with reception history and with the generic breadth and creative coinings found in the surviving œuvre.

Overall, the editors invite further discussion of the Cean singer’s unique brand of lyric: they seek to cast the “melica” as anchor for a subfield unsettled following the sea change of the 1992 ‘New Simonides’ (7). The use of melic is noteworthy; it raises the question of the title, which in turn leads to the hobby horse of Greek genre theory: Do we have terms that truly capture archaic genres? Sider (106‒9) handles the issue through brief analyses of the earliest occurrences of λυρικόςand μελικός, ultimately stressing both the porousness of generic boundaries and the generic variegation of Simonides, who receives the unwieldy nametag, “lyricus elegiacus epigrammaticus” (plus παιγνιογράφος, 106 n. 4). Streamlined nomenclature proves evasive, and it is unclear if Simonides Melicus would be different from Simonides Lyricus. (Also unaddressed is the subtitle, “the ‘other’ classical choral lyric poet”; surely, as acknowledged throughout, Simonides was renowned, if not more famous than Pindar and Bacchylides—what this other implies, whether poor survival or artistic uniqueness, is open-ended.)

Among the volume’s contributions, I highlight Poltera’s chapter. Furthering his inimitable contributions to the field, Poltera convincingly instructs researchers (84) not only to revise the terms of Simonides’s relationship with Bacchylides from nephew to student, with Pindar from successor to rival, and Xenophanes critic to wrongly-cited source (in fact, Chamaeleon called Simonides, “κίμβρικα [‘skinflint’]”, 102‒4), but also to reject the notion that Simonides was active in the 6th c. BCE, and to accept instead a poet perhaps less than a generation older than Pindar and Bacchylides who, in no way inventor of epinician as claimed by the heuretic biographies, was a “model for his contemporaries.” Poltera bases these conclusions on arguments that: Simonides’s Persian Wars literature should be dated to the 470s (85); his epinician fragments, when considered with respect to Pindar’s language and circumstances of patronage, also belong to the first quarter of the century (86‒91);[1] the poet’s penchant for odd, captivating words and metaphors suggests a self-consciously modernizing, genre-crossing style distinct from archaic paradigms (91‒96). The result: an early 5th c. Simonides who so pushed conventions and set trends that his “avant-garde” (93) voice presaged even the sophists (98, 101). In refining the poet’s place in archaic literary chronologies, Poltera demonstrates that Simonides’s lyric, while certainly exceptional, is readily distinguishable as belonging to the late archaic context and immediately aligned with the works of Pindar and Bacchylides.

In the chapters before Poltera’s, Ucciardello and D’Alessio together supply foundations for future study of Simonidean lyric. The former catalogs all papyri fragments attributable to the poet. The latter contributes an original overview of archaic dance and mimesis vis-à-vis investigation of the enigmatic hyporchema genre. In both chapters, the corpus of Simonidean lyric is marginally reduced through ingenious demonstrations of authorship. Ucciardello, securing his argument with a unique lemma match in the TLG (52), assigns P. Strass. inv. 1406‒9 to Secundus the Silent. D’Alessio argues that Sim. fr. 255 Poltera belongs to Pratinas after careful study of Greek mimetic dance and, in particular, of the hunting dance (sikinnis) which he sees as a fitting genre both for the implied choreography of the highly mimetic fragment, and for performance by a satyr chorus, reportedly Pratinas’s specialty (76‒78).

While some scraps of lyric are taken out of the Simonidean collection, Sider for his part seeks to expand the accepted corpus, primarily with respect to epigrams of traditionally dubious authorship (e.g.: XXXVII FGE, 110‒12; LXXXIV‒V FGE, 113‒15). The issue of attribution is handled in the introduction to Sider 2020 (25–32) where the “onus probandi” is placed on “those who would prove [an epigram] spurious” (31). In the volume under review, the topic of the lyricization of elegy is explored;[2] the epigram- and elegy-like nature of Simonidean lyric, however, is touched on only in conclusion through an image of carved words detected in “μέ]τρον δ(ια)γλύπτω” (P. Berol. 9571.55).[3]

Carey and Rutherford both provide detailed explorations of songs for which we have scant surviving evidence with respect to generic convention, performance context, and other details. Carey adapts the study of epinician rhetoric to thrēnoi (124, 131‒32), thereby capturing both genres’ strategies of handling distant and proximate, present and future audiences (127‒29). The (Bundyan) place of praise in funeral song is convincing and Carey’s study invites similar research in the opposite direction: threnodic epinicia; the dark foils of victory; the victor’s co-competitors whose athletic defeat, a prerequisite for praise, was in some cases a kind of social death. The gendered nature of the lamenting voice in archaic culture needs to be emphasized (i.e., as predominantly female in certain contexts), thereby underscoring the—what Currie might call[4]— ‘fluctuating’ identity of the Simonidean corporate persona in and across choral genres. Showcasing the Simonidean voice’s ability to mold itself to occasions, Rutherford examines the sole testimony regarding the so-called Kateukhai of Simonides (whether cult poem(s), or dithyramb(s)[5]), demonstrating how effectively the poet intoned the political interests of commissioning parties (possibly Athenians forging Delian connections) through locally charged myth performed by a chorus likely transported to Delos for the occasion.[6]

Morgan’s chapter on Simonides’s songs for Thermopylae, Plataea, and Salamis, while not about Simonidean lyric per se, tracks a convention (or, set of conventions) embedded in every genre in which Pindar, Bacchylides, and Simonides composed: the balancing acts of individual-and-collective (in Morgan’s cases, general-and-army), and epichoric-and-panhellenic. I respond to Morgan’s work more closely in a future monograph.[7] Here I propose a theoretical connection between the Bundyan praise/foil dichotomy and Morgan’s poetics of “two poles…held in tension” (172).

I regret I cannot devote more space to the cohesive Part III, three chapters on early reception by Ford, Hunter, and Athanassaki which cohere around Simonides’s appearance in Plato’s Protagoras vis-à-vis the ‘Scopas Ode’. The authors explain Simonides’s appeal to sophists and philosophers: by exploring the prosaic tone of his song (Ford: 191‒94); by noting overlap with other elite wisdom poetry, such as Theognidean elegy (Hunter: 211‒14); and by presenting Simonides’s success qua competitive khorodidaskalos as a model for sophistic agonism and Xenophon’s theories of pedagogy and government (Athanassaki).

The bibliography runs to 2019, but (perhaps necessarily because of publication timing) omits some important, recent contributions to the scholarship. I note: Fearn 2017 (cf. fn. 3 supra); Nicholson 2016 (fn. 2 supra); and Peponi 2016.[8] Fearn, who (2017, 229–48) builds on Peponi’s meditation (2016, 9–10) on the Danae fragment and its status as ecphrasis,[9] has added great detail to scholarly understanding of the aesthetic differences among the big three late choral poets, especially with respect to their divergent treatments of vision, visualization, and material art. His work addresses the how of Simonides’s (and Pindar’s and Bacchylides’s) lasting fame by outlining a poetics that thematized both its reification and its influence over an audience’s perception of material culture. Overall, Fearn’s Simonides fits with the persona put forward so well throughout Simonides Lyricus: an inventive author in terms of language and narrative, whose appeal to emotion and intellect crisscrossed literary and artistic genres while maintaining its distinct, Simonidean flair.

Authors and Titles

Peter Agócs and Lucia Prauscello, Introduction: Simonides Lyricus: A Proem

Part I. Simonides’s Songs: Transmission and Authorship
1. Giueseppe Ucciardello, More Simonides among the fragmenta lyrica adespota? A survey of the Fragments and a Case Study: P.Strass. inv. 1406‒9
2. Giambattista D’Alessio, Dancing with the Dogs: Mimetic Dance and the Hyporcheme (on Pindar fr. *107 M = Simonides 255 Poltera)

Part II. Genres and Contexts of Performance, Patronage and Reception
3. Orlando Poltera, Simonides: A Kind of Janus? Biographical Tradition and Poetical Reality
4. David Sider, Simonides lyricus elegiacus epigrammaticus
5. Chris Carey, Maestius lacrimis Simonideis: The thr­ēnoi of Simonides
6. Ian Rutherford, Simonides, Anius and Athens: PMG 537 = 301 Poltera (Kateukhai)
7. Kathryn Morgan, Kings and Generals: Simonides and the Diplomacy of Victory

Part III. Simonides σοφός: The Early Reception and the Creation of a Poet-Philosopher?
8. Andrew Ford, The Wisdom of Simonides: σοφὸς καὶ θεῖος ἀνήρ
9. Richard Hunter, ‘Clever about Verses?’ Plato and the ‘Scopas Ode’ (PMG 542 = 260 Poltera)
10. Lucia Athanassaki, Simonides in Athens: Memories of Choral Agonistic Excellence in Plato’s Protagoras, Xenophon’s Hieron and the ‘Simonidean’ Epigrams XXVII and XXVIII FGE


[1] I note that Poltera’s stimulating discussion (see especially 89) of Simonides’s and Pindar’s apparent competition over creative uses of nouns formed from κτίζω treads some ground covered by Nicholson 2016 (The Poetics of Victory, Oxford: 163‒64, 170 n. 21), who, directly engaged with Poltera 2008, did not make the bibliography of the reviewed volume.

[2] Simonidean genre-blending with respect to elegy being an important topic in the scholarship post-‘New Simonides’ (e.g., Part II of The New Simonides, 2001, ed. Boedeker and Sider, Oxford).

[3] Here the argument would have benefited from engagement with scholarship on the statue-vs-poem trope, Steiner 2001 (Images in Mind, Princeton) being the classic. More recently, Fearn 2017 (Pindar’s Eyes, Oxford: 229‒47) has handled Simonidean ecphrasis and the poet’s lyric interactions with visual art (note Fearn does not appear in the bibliography; I discuss this omission in the review’s conclusion).

[4] Currie 2013, “The Pindaric first person in flux,” ClAnt 32.2: 243‒82.

[5] Bacch. Dith. 17 similarly triangulates Athens, Delos, and the poet’s Ionian Ceos (though Crete is also involved), and prayer, myth, local commission.

[6] Some typos exist in this chapter (and in others) which may take a moment of reflection: “supposed to have [been] built” (144); “τῶ{μ}” for the genitive plural (146, fn. 20); “on one {w}ide” (147), read “[s]ide”; “were sent out [to] consult” (150).

[7] Epstein, forthcoming 2023, Lexington.

[8] In The Look of Lyric, ed. Cazzato and Lardinois, Brill: 1‒15.

[9] I note the Danae fragment is not well-indexed in Simonides Lyricus (ditto other topics: e.g., ‘Orpheus’, ‘Xenophanes’, [‘Tyrtaeus’]). Those interested in the fragment should additionally check: 28 fn. 3; 38; 93; 118; 134‒35; 193.