Proving that poetry is the path to eternity, we have here a large book on Simonides. While most of the leaders and military generals of that long ago time when he lived (born in 556 BCE) have vanished from memory, we still remember this itinerant poet who commemorated the great events that founded the Western world.
David Sider (Professor of Classics at New York University) has produced here the definitive work on the epigrams and elegies of Simonides. At the outset he tells us that the ‘lyrics’ written by Simonides (not included in this book under review) are thoroughly covered in a book by Orlando Poltera. While that may be true, a thoroughly engaging book on the lyrical output of Simonides was published just after this book by Sider; it consists of 10 chapters, one of which was written by Sider himself. So for a thorough survey of his work I recommend Simonides Lyrics, edited by Peter Agocs and Lusic Prauscello, in addition to this book by Sider.
Truth be told, one must have a thorough understanding of the ancient Greek language to full appreciate any of these books. That said, there is much to be learned here for those who can only read English. All of the epigrams and elegies are carefully translated, followed by a detailed (often word-for-word) examination of what each line in the text really means. Sider is not afraid to strongly disagree with the greatest established scholars of Simonides, and often sets out his own view on what a passage means or pertains to.
On the former, he often agrees with the late Denys Page by “assuming his arguments in silence,” but when he disagrees with Page, he does so in often strident language. In examining one epigram on page 72, he writes “There is nothing that would deny our epigram to Simonides, who was, though Page would say falsely, credited with many epigrams on the victory of Marathon.” On the attribution of another epigram, Sider writes “Page had no right to say without further argument that ‘the ascription to Simonides is not to be taken seriously.’” In this book, Sider has positioned himself as the new authority on Simonides; dethroning both Page (1908-1978) and Ulrich Wilamowitz (1848-1931) represents a monumental shift in Classical scholarship.
Before going further, let me quote one epigram to get an idea of what this is all about. This one commemorates the great battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE, which inspired the 2007 action film 300:
If to die nobly is the greatest part of valor, this is what Fortune allotted to us out of all men.
For because of our zeal to crown Greece with freedom, we lie here enjoying praise
that will never grow old.
Even after 2,500 years such words resonate within all humans (except those such as members of a certain political party/death cult in the United States who tried, one year ago today, to destroy the freedom and democracy bequeathed to us by those great warriors and statesman in Greece). Whenever a great battle was fought and won against the forces of evil, such as the Persians at Thermopylae, it was Simonides who was called upon to commemorate these events in verse. He was the right man for the most crucial period in history, a prime reason many of his words still survive to inspire the forces of good.
Even a single line by Simonides prompts Sider to write eight pages of commentary.
A great light indeed appeared for the Athenians when Aristogeiton along with
Harmodius killed Hipparchus.
At issue here is the slaying of Hipparchus, a tyrant who ruled over Athens until the two men named here put an end to it in 528 BCE. The sculptor Antenor was commissioned by the populace to produce a bronze statue honouring Harmodius and Aristogeiton, “the first mortals to be so treated.” When the Persians invaded, they regarded this statue of such importance that they stole it, taking it to Susa. Not deterred, Athens created a new statue in 477 and it was upon the base of this that the epigram just quoted was chiselled. Athens was avenged when Alexander the Great returned the original statue, once he had conquered the Persians and taken the city of Susa, so that both the original and its replacement were proudly put on display. As for the inscription itself, both Page and Sider agree “a Homeric tone is produced,” creating an effect that is “quite vivid, as though the stone were putting words in the mouths of passers-by.”
Even though Athens is the centrepiece, other Greek cities also employed Simonides, who, having no permanent home, spent time in various places. One epigram ends with this line: “For Aphrodite did not wish to hand the acropolis of the Greeks over to Persian bowmen.” The acropolis here is not in Athens! “Corinth’s impressively high acropolis,” writes Sider, “about 1000 ft above the ancient town, can excusably be described as the acropolis of Greece, at least by its own citizens.”
Some of the epigrams are on stones that have been lost in recent times. One that begins with the words “In our eagerness to foster the day of freedom for Greece and Megara we accepted our fated death” was found in a church near Megara, 25 miles west of Athens. The first, flawed, version of the inscription was made in 1818, but it was not until 1898 that a reliable transcription was made. “The stone can no longer be located,” Sider tells us.
Simonides, in his elegies, often adopted a different tone to the martial lines I have been quoting. In one, a man laments his death. “In the Underworld he grieves only – not that he left the sun behind and now has met Forgetfulness – but that he is bereft of graceful Megisteus and the desirable Thracian Smerdies.” Sider explains that “Anacreon regrets the loss of his two boyfriends and nothing more”!
Another elegy appears to have been written for the ultimate curmudgeon:
Having eaten little and drunk little and often fallen sick, although late, I finally died.
The rest of you can go to hell.
I found only one typo in the book: “imaging” should be “imagine” on page 161.
As the forces of evil once again conspire to smother democracy, the words of Simonides are more relevant today than they have ever been.
Simonides: Epigrams and Elegies is $145 by Oxford University Press