The year 2021 was meant to be a big one for commemorations in Greece: it marked the bicentennial of the start of the Greek War of Independence and—depending on your arithmetic—the 2,500-year anniversary of the storied Battles of Thermopylae and Salamis. Though Covid lockdowns muted some events, Greeks and visitors were reminded by a variety of museum exhibitions, stamps, and ubiquitous murals and posters of the heroes who fought for freedom against the “slavery” of a tyrannical Eastern power—whether the Ottoman “yoke” or the Persian Empire. The conflation of the two struggles, widely used by the philhellenes themselves to drum up support for Greek independence in classically educated Europe, gives an idea of the success of the original propaganda surrounding the Persian invasions and of the force of the Greek writers who shaped the collective Western memory of them.
The most popular account of the Persian invasions is of course by the father of history (and journalism), Herodotus, who rendered his eminently readable text in the newfangled medium of prose but who was writing a good fifty years—some two generations—after the events. By his time the battles were already the stuff of myth and legend and had been defined by monuments, statues, speeches, commemorations, plays, and poetry. (Aeschylus, in the oldest extant Greek drama we have, The Persians, gives an eyewitness account of the Battle of Salamis.) Around this time a new kind of poetry became popular: the epigram. Short and sharp, not unlike an advertising slogan, it was often literally carved in stone. Since it was usually written in the form of a memorable metrical couplet, the epigram became portable through time as well as space. The first poet working in this genre for whom we have a name is Simonides.
Simonides and the epigram are both closely associated with memory and commemoration. Simonides of Keos (now Kea or Zea), who died at the ripe age of eighty-nine, lived through one of the most eventful periods of Greek history, from the mid-sixth to the mid-fifth century, witnessing the rise of Athenian democracy, as well as the period of the two Persian invasions. (He was probably in his mid-sixties when the Battle of Marathon occurred.) His epigrams make him the first Greek poet known to have composed poems to be read by a reader rather than heard by an audience. He is also said to be the first poet to have demanded payment. As a writer who is so obviously a real person (wanting to be paid, no less), he perhaps more than any other ancient poet attracts anecdotes and stories that reflect on his character as much as his work.
If you’ve read anything about Thermopylae, for instance, you have run across some variation of this epigram by Simonides, here in a version by David Grene:
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here obedient to their words we lie.
This epigram amply demonstrates the quintessential Simonidean qualities of emotional restraint combined with empathy (“the power to excite pity,” as Quintilian puts it) in a plainly worded style. Like many epigrams, it speaks for the dead and addresses a hypothetical reader at some future time.
But do we know it is actually by Simonides? This epigram is quoted by Herodotus as the second of three displayed at the site of Thermopylae on monuments or cenotaphs. Yet of the three epigrams, only the third—for a monument to an individual, the seer Megistias—does Herodotus specifically associate with Simonides, who evidently commissioned the monument as the seer’s personal friend. (One naturally assumes he would have composed the words inscribed on it.) Thus even Simonides’ most famous epigram does not have a definitive attribution. Mostly we have these epigrams from quotations in later authors and from ancient anthologies, where authorship of individual poems is not always indicated. And as with more modern wits—Oscar Wilde or Mark Twain, say—many lines are apocryphally attributed to Simonides simply owing to their style, genre, or subject matter. One field of activity for Simonidean scholarship focuses just on identifying the authentic verses.
As the Spartan epigram suggests, epigram and epitaph are closely related, the latter a species of the former. Properly speaking, “epigram”—as David Sider points out in his thorough and hefty Simonides: Epigrams and Elegies—refers to words inscribed onto a surface other than papyrus: a pot, the stone base of a statue, or even, in one chilling case, a slave’s forehead (this from Herodas’s Mimes). Epigrams were so often written in elegiac couplets—a form that consists of one line of dactylic hexameter followed by a shorter line of pentameter—that “epigram” and “elegy” are often confused.
But elegy, as its folk etymology suggests (ἒ ἒ λέγειν, “to say ‘ah ah’”), is, in its essence, something uttered or performed, limited in length only by the poet’s stamina and the audience’s appetite. The epigram, particularly when carved in stone, must be, as the inimitable Anne Carson points out, “economic” in its expression: monetized information, it has a limited amount of space in which to make its claims—a restricted number of words or even characters. That may sound a bit like Twitter—“character,” after all, is a metaphor from inscription, something stamped or carved—and there are other similarities. Both can easily be “shared” or even “go viral,” amplifying their influence.
In direct contrast to the Homeric bards of epic, who entertained in return for hospitality and honor, the composer of an epigram worked for pay. Sometimes competitions were offered for the tender of an epigram: in the ancient, anonymously written Life of Aeschylus, we are told that in the contest to mark the Battle of Marathon, Simonides beat out Aeschylus. The biographer even gives the loss as the reason for the playwright’s leaving Athens in high dudgeon for the court of the tyrant Hieron. (Imagine the insult—Aeschylus had fought at Marathon!) While perfect for tragedy, Aeschylus’s operatic style—grandiose, bombastic, arcane—did not suit the genre of public epigram, known for its modesty, poise, and ironic understatement. Simonides’ “lapidary” style, suitable for carving in stone, was just the ticket. (In 1932 the second chunk of an inscribed marble block—the first of which had been found the previous century—helped scholars piece together two couplets that arguably represent Simonides’ and Aeschylus’s entries in the contest.)
Sider’s overview of Simonides’ epigrams and elegies, with analysis of the literary and linguistic elements, manuscript tradition, and historical background of each poem and fragment, sidesteps the debates over which poems are genuine Simonides; Sider tends to take a refreshingly optimistic Simonides-until-proven-otherwise stance, in opposition to the overcautious pessimism of earlier scholars. His volume—meant to complement Orlando Poltera’s commentary on Simonides’ lyric poems*—is essentially a book of footnotes, offering some Nabokovian pleasures one might not otherwise expect, its scholarship leavened with humor, wit, and intriguing asides. (Regarding one scholar’s rejection of Simonides’ generally accepted birth date on the grounds that he would have been too active as a poet and traveler to be in his seventies, Sider points out not only the many ancient and contemporary examples to the contrary, but also that the objector was only forty when she wrote this.)
In elegy, too, Simonides performed his feats of commemoration. In 1992 a discovery of ancient papyrus at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt turned up new fragments of Simonides, including a longish chunk of an elegy for the dead at the Battle of Plataea, the mopping- up operation that cemented the Greek victory against Xerxes. It belongs to a genre of which we find few other surviving examples; epic in rhetoric, it compares the struggles of the Spartan commander Pausanias with the fate of Achilles in the Trojan War. The fragment gives a more complete picture of Simonides as a working poet, casting current events on a mythological scale: words as memorial, propaganda, nation-building. Poems such as this enabled the Greeks to look on their own recent history as the stuff of legend, and to console themselves for the fallen, who could be thought of as Homeric heroes.
Simonides’ reputation for miserliness, his dealings with tyrants, his legendary memory, his wisdom, and his famous “luck” (“Miraculous Escapes” is an atypical subheading for a poet’s biography) are qualities all on display in the most famous anecdote about him, especially the version related by Cicero. Commissioned to write a piece for a banquet, Simonides had his agreed-upon fee halved by Scopas, his disgruntled client:
The story runs that a little later a message was brought to Simonides to go outside…but in the interval of his absence the roof of the hall where Scopas was giving the banquet fell in, crushing Scopas himself and his relations underneath the ruins and killing them; and when their friends wanted to bury them but were altogether unable to know them apart as they had been completely crushed… Simonides was enabled by his recollection of the place in which each of them had been reclining at table to identify them for separate interment; and that this circumstance suggested to him the discovery of the truth that the best aid to clearness of memory consists in orderly arrangement.
(translated by E.W. Sutton and H. Rackham, 1942)
Besides learning something about Simonides’ invention of location as a mnemonic device, what we call a “memory palace,” we learn about the indignities of the new class of professional poet. Being the first freelancer, Simonides seems especially contemporary. Carson devotes a whole book, Economy of the Unlost (1999), to discussing Simonides and, counterintuitively, Paul Celan. Carson’s focus is on Simonides as being at the forefront of the shift from a gift economy to a monetary one, as well as an oral culture to a written one. (Coinage, invented by the Lydians sometime in the mid-seventh century bc, only arrived in Greece a generation or two before Simonides.) “I think of him as the smartest person in the fifth century BC,” Carson quips, which is almost like saying, “Plato, Aristotle, Socrates—morons.” A blog post I stumbled on about Carson’s Simonides book takes its title from Goodfellas: “Fuck You, Pay Me.”
Though best known for epigram (“I carve out my meter”), Simonides worked in every known poetic genre of the time, and he arguably even invented a couple, including the encomium—a praise poem written not to honor a god (that would be a hymn) but to glorify a mortal—and the epinician ode (the kind of poem Simonides was reciting in Cicero’s anecdote), a subcategory of encomium that praised a human or even an animal for an athletic victory. (It was said that Simonides once turned down a commission to celebrate some victorious mules, but then, being offered sufficient remuneration, he began with the delightful line “Hail, daughters of storm-footed horses!” Aristotle snarkily noted that the mules were “also the daughters of jack-asses.”)
The quality of empathy that marks out Simonides’ epigrams also infuses his lyrics. In perhaps his most famous lyric fragment, he imagines the mythical plight of Danaë, put to sea in a box with her infant son, Perseus, by her father, King Acrisius, who has received an oracle that his grandson will be the death of him. (As is the case in fairy tales and mythical prophecies, the mother and son survive, and Acrisius puts in motion his own doom.) Her terror is foiled by the innocent sleep of the wave-rocked infant, whom she addresses, almost as if in a lullaby. In Stone-Garland: Six Poets from the Greek Lyric Tradition (2020), Dan Beachy-Quick translates it lyrically but with a close eye on the original:
But you sleep, your
suckling heart slumbers…
You are careless, careless of the wind’s
keen howl, lying
within my purple shawl, your lovely face.
If this terror was terror for you
you’d turn your small ears
to my hushed words.
I tell you, sleep as still in my womb, baby;
go to sleep, sea; go to sleep, my depthless trouble.
This fragment reveals a universal truth about new parenthood—how at sea you are with an infant, how frightened for the future, how oblivious the infant is. It is an emotion that finds expression in Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” and in The Tempest, when Prospero remembers how he and Miranda were cast to sea in a leaking raft. There are still women and babies fleeing war who try to cross the Aegean in boats little better than wooden coffins. It is a rough lullaby that the sea still sings.
The span of Simonides’ life meant that he experienced, much as we now do, a time of accelerating change. He watched the rise of Athens, the shift from tyranny to the new governing concept of democracy, and an existential crisis for that democracy; he lived through Darius’s invasion at Marathon and Xerxes’ attack at Salamis; he personally knew the Athenian tyrants Hipparchus and Hippias as well as Themistocles (the commander at Salamis) and Pausanias, and traveled all over the Greek-speaking world, eventually dying in far-flung but poetry-appreciating Sicily. Not only was poetry changing, but so were architecture and the other arts: pottery, sculpture, and painting were all preparing for the astonishing flourishing that we think of as Greece’s golden age, Periclean Athens. Simonides seems to be the first poet to explicitly compare image and word (“the word is a picture of things”), perhaps in the first piece of literary criticism.
For all that Simonides sometimes worked for tyrants and was known to be tight with money, as often as not he inspires admiration and affection: consider Mary Renault’s down-to-earth portrait of him under the nickname “Sim” in her 1978 novel The Praise Singer. The desire to defend him—the urge, in other words, to identify with him—even comes down to the idea of his being a miser. As Sider points out in his introduction, the Greek word Xenophanes uses to describe Simonides is kimbix, which originally referred to some sort of annoying insect—a gnat or a midge. So is the criticism not about his being a skinflint, but something else annoying—a fussbudget, a gadfly?
Somehow Simonides’ wisdom and humanity and humor win out over questions of venality. Not everything he did was for money. Having found a drowned man on the shore, he buried him and wrote him an epigraph, gratis. As is the way with Simonides, though, he was repaid for his kindness: the drowned man came to him in a dream and warned him not to sail the next day. Simonides duly refused to board the ship, which sank, within sight of shore, with all souls aboard.