Classics Bacchylides
Peter Agócs
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 March 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0167


Bacchylides of Keos was a choral song composer of the first half of the 5th century BCE, one of the nine archaic/classical Greek lyric poets canonized by the Alexandrians. Although he was famous in his lifetime, attracting commissions from across the Hellenic world, 5th-century poetry shows few obvious traces of his influence and no obvious quotations are found in the works of 4th-century writers. His songs gained wider currency from the 3rd century BCE onward thanks to the editorial work of Alexandrian scholars. They were certainly read by Callimachus, Strabo, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Horace, and Plutarch. While the number of books in Bacchylides’ Alexandrian “edition” is unknown, he worked in a variety of choral lyric genres: later sources cite books of epinicians, hymns, paeans, dithyrambs, prosodia, partheneia, hyporchemata, erotika, and encomia (or skolia). (Two epigrams of the Palatine Anthology are also ascribed spuriously to Bacchylides). Of this large body of work only about one hundred verses survived the shipwreck of the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, with a small number of fragments anthologized or preserved by commentators and lexicographers as well as Athenaeus. In 1896 the magnificent London Papyrus (British Library, P. Lond 733) was discovered and published a year later by F. G. Kenyon. Dated to the 1st–2nd centuries CE, it preserves the remains of a single book roll containing what transpired to be substantial parts of fourteen epinician odes (probably almost the whole of Bacchylides’ epinician production as it was known in Hellenistic times) as well as six dithyrambs, five of which were also largely complete. Since then, remains of fifteen more papyri have been attributed to Bacchylides: two more papyri contain fragments of commentaries on his dithyrambs and epinicia. The implications of these extraordinary discoveries are by no means yet fully understood. Already in Antiquity, Bacchylides suffered from comparison with Pindar (see, e.g., Ps.-Longinus, On the Sublime 33.5). Only in recent decades has his poetry begun to be appreciated in its own right, with ongoing editorial work having produced a text that is dependable enough to leave scholars free to examine his poetic technique and the relationship of his poems to their historical and performance contexts. The scholarly bibliography is still, however, quite limited. Though little known outside the world of classical scholarship, Bacchylides is well served with commentaries and translations in major languages; still, many aspects of his poetry remain to be explored.

Historical and Cultural Context

No book-length critical overview of Bacchylides is available, nor can he really be studied in isolation from the other choral poets (especially Pindar and Simonides) or indeed from the other literature, material culture, and history of his time. Since Bacchylides has become increasingly popular in recent years as a teaching text in undergraduate lyric courses, this section aims to list the best general accounts of the poet himself, catering to the needs of a reader engaging with Greek choral song for the first time. Fränkel 1975, Herington 1985, Gentili 1988, Kurke 2000, and Budelmann 2009 are a good place to start in learning about the general literary, cultural, and historical context in which Bacchylides worked. Bundy 1962 has exercised an enormous influence over modern approaches to the poet, not only in the author’s rejection of the old-style “man and works” type of conjectural biographical reading, but also in his focus on the syntax, rhetoric, and tropes of choral praise. Segal 1985 provides a good basic discussion of the 5th-century choral poets.

  • Budelmann, Felix, ed. 2009. The Cambridge companion to Greek lyric. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521849449

    Useful, up-to-date collection of basic readings on archaic and classical Greek song, including meter, genre, language, and social context, with good bibliography.

  • Bundy, Elroy J. 1962. Studia Pindarica I–II. University of California Publications in Classical Philology 18, nos. 1–2. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Influential study of the rhetoric of ancient Greek choral praise poetry. Reissued by University of California Press as a combined edition in 1986 (a digital version is available online).

  • Fränkel, Hermann. 1975. Early Greek poetry and philosophy. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

    See pp. 425–504. Fascinating account by a great scholar of the pre-1945 generation of the intellectual background to Bacchylides (if somewhat too focused on a developmental view) with some fine close readings of particular odes and fragments.

  • Gentili, Bruno. 1988. Poetry and its public in ancient Greece: From Homer to the fifth century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    Exceptionally clear and thoughtful introduction to the contexts and themes of early Greek song. Translated from the original Italian and introduced by A. Thomas Cole.

  • Herington, John. 1985. Poetry into drama: Early tragedy and the Greek poetic tradition. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Chapters 1–3 (pp. 3–78) are essential reading for anyone beginning the study of ancient Greek lyric.

  • Kurke, Leslie. 2000. The strangeness of “song-culture”: Archaic Greek poetry. In Literature in the Greek and Roman worlds: A new perspective. Edited by O. Taplin, 58–87. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    An excellent brief introduction to the genres and contexts of choral song.

  • Segal, Charles. 1985. Choral lyric in the fifth century. In The Cambridge history of classical literature I: Greek literature. Edited by P. E. Easterling and B. M. W. Knox, 222–245. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521210423

    Sensitive discussion of the literary qualities of Simonides, Pindar, and (pp. 235–239) Bacchylides.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.