Simonides of Kea

Simonides of Kea

Simonides Ceos (Σιμωνίδης ὁ Κεῖος) "Simonides of Kea" (c. 556 BC-468 BC), Greek lyric poet, was born at Ioulis on Kea. He was included, along with Sappho and Pindar, in the canonical list of nine lyric poets by the scholars of Hellenistic Alexandria. He was uncle to Bacchylides, another of the nine lyric poets. He is the narrator and main character of Mary Renault's historical novel "The Praise Singer".


During his youth he taught poetry and music, and composed paeans for the festivals of Apollo. Finding little scope for his abilities at home, he went to live at Athens, at the court of Hipparchus, the patron of literature. After the murder of Hipparchus (514 BC), Simonides withdrew to Thessaly, where he enjoyed the protection and patronage of the Scopadae and Aleuadae (two celebrated Thessalian families).

Cicero ("De oratore", ii. 86) tells the story of the end of his relations with the Scopadae. His patron, Scopas, reproached him at a banquet for devoting too much space to a praise of Castor and Pollux in an ode celebrating Scopas' victory in a chariot-race. Scopas refused to pay all the fee and told Simonides to apply to the twin gods for the remainder. Shortly afterwards, Simonides was told that two young men wished to speak to him; after he had left the banqueting room, the roof fell in and crushed Scopas and his guests. [] During the excavation of the rubble, Simonides was called upon to identify each guest killed. He managed to do so by correlating their identities to their positions (loci) at the table before his departure. After thanking Castor and Pollux for paying their half of the fee by saving his life, Simonides drew on this experience to develop the 'memory theatre' or 'memory palace', a system for information management widely used in oral societies until the Renaissance. [Francis A. Yates. 'The Art of Memory', University of Chicago Press, 1966, p. 2] He is often credited with inventing this ancient system of mnemonics (Quintilian xi.2,n).

After the Battle of Marathon, Simonides returned to Athens, but soon left for Sicily at the invitation of Hiero I of Syracuse, at whose court he spent the rest of his life.

His nephew was Bacchylides, an important poet in his own right.

His reputation as a man of learning is shown by the tradition that he introduced the distinction between the long and short vowels (ε, η, ο, ω), afterwards adopted in the Ionic alphabet that came into general use during the archonship of Eucleides (403 BCE). So unbounded was his popularity that he was a power even in the political world; we are told that he reconciled Hiero and Thero on the eve of a battle between their opposing armies. He was the intimate friend of Themistocles and Pausanias the Spartan, and his poems on the war of liberation against Persia no doubt gave a powerful impulse to the national patriotism.

For his poems he could command almost any price: later writers, from Aristophanes onwards, accuse him of avarice, probably not without some reason. To Hiero's queen, who asked him whether it was better to be born rich or a genius, he replied "Rich, for genius is ever found at the gates of the rich." Again, when someone asked him to write a laudatory poem for which he offered profuse thanks, but no money, Simonides replied that he kept two coffers, one for thanks, the other for money; that, when he opened them, he found the former empty and useless, and the latter full.


Of his poetry we possess two or three short elegies (Fr. 85 seems from its style and versification to belong to Simonides of Amorgos, or at least not to be the work of our poet), several epigrams and about 90 fragments of lyric and choral poetry. The epigrams written in the usual dialect of elegy, Ionic with an epic colouring, were intended partly for public and partly for private monuments.

There is strength and sublimity in the former, with a simplicity that is almost statuesque, and a complete mastery over the rhythm and forms of elegiac expression. Those on the heroes of Marathon and the Battle of Thermopylae are the most celebrated.

: polytonic|Ὦ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε

: polytonic|κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.

: O xein', angellein Lakedaimoniois hoti têde

: keimetha tois keinon rhémasi peithomenoi.

which may be translated literally as "Stranger, tell the Spartans that we lie here, obedient to their utterances/orders/laws." (note: "ῥήμασι" most literally means "according to the verbiage.") See here for a list of English translations in rhyme.

Thomas Bullfinch wrote that Simonides "particularly excelled" in the genre of elegy: "His genius was inclined to the pathetic, and none could touch with truer effect the chords of human sympathy." [ [ Simonides - Thomas Bulfinch. (1796–1867). "Age of Fable: Vols. I & II: Stories of Gods and Heroes". 1913.] "SIMONIDES was one of the most prolific of the early poets of Greece, but only a few fragments of his compositions have descended to us. He wrote hymns, triumphal odes, and elegies. In the last species of composition he particularly excelled. His genius was inclined to the pathetic, and none could touch with truer effect the chords of human sympathy. The “Lamentation of Danaë,” the most important of the fragments which remain of his poetry, is based upon the tradition that Danaë and her infant son were confined by order of her father, Acrisius, in a chest and set adrift on the sea. The chest floated towards the island of Seriphus, where both were rescued by Dictys, a fisherman, and carried to Polydectes, king of the country, who received and protected them. The child, Perseus, when grown up became a famous hero, whose adventures have been recorded in a previous chapter. Simonides passed much of his life at the courts of princes, and often employed his talents in panegyric and festal odes, receiving his reward from the munificence of those whose exploits he celebrated. This employment was not derogatory, but closely resembles that of the earliest bards, such as Demodocus, described by Homer, or of Homer himself, as recorded by tradition. On one occasion, when residing at the court of Scopas, king of Thessaly, the prince desired him to prepare a poem in celebration of his exploits, to be recited at a banquet. In order to diversify his theme, Simonides, who was celebrated for his piety, introduced into his poem the exploits of Castor and Pollux. Such digressions were not unusual with the poets on similar occasions, and one might suppose an ordinary mortal might have been content to share the praises of the sons of Leda. But vanity is exacting; and as Scopas sat at his festal board among his courtiers and sycophants, he grudged every verse that did not rehearse his own praises. When Simonides approached to receive the promised reward Scopas bestowed but half the expected sum, saying, “Here is payment for my portion of thy performance; Castor and Pollux will doubtless compensate thee for so much as relates to them.” The disconcerted poet returned to his seat amidst the laughter which followed the great man’s jest. In a little time he received a message that two young men on horseback were waiting without and anxious to see him. Simonides hastened to the door, but looked in vain for the visitors. Scarcely, however, had he left the banqueting hall when the roof fell in with a loud crash, burying Scopas and all his guests beneath the ruins. On inquiring as to the appearance of the young men who had sent for him, Simonides was satisfied that they were no other than Castor and Pollux themselves."]

In the private epigrams there is more warmth of colour and feeling, but few of them rest on any better authority than that of the "Greek Anthology". One interesting and undoubtedly genuine epigram of this class is upon Archedice, the daughter of Hippias the Peisistratid, who, "albeit her father and husband and brother and children were all princes, was not lifted up in soul to pride."

The lyric fragments vary much in character and length: one is from a poem on Artemisium, celebrating those who fell at Thermopylae, with which he gained the victory over Aeschylus; another is an ode in honour of Scopas (commented on in Plato, "Protagoras", 339 b); the rest are from odes on victors in the games, hyporchemes, dirges, hymns to the gods and other varieties.


Simonides requires no standard of lofty unswerving rectitude. "It is hard," he says (Fr. 5),

: to become a truly good man, perfect as a square in hands and feet and mind, fashioned without blame. Whosoever is bad, and not too wicked, knowing justice, the benefactor of cities, is a sound man. I for one will find no fault with him, for the race of fools is infinite. ... I praise and love all men who do no sin willingly; but with necessity even the gods do not contend.

Virtue, he tells us elsewhere in language that recalls Hesiod, is set on a high and difficult hill (Fr. 58); let us seek after pleasure, for "all things come to one dread Charybdis, both great virtues and wealth" (Fr. 38).

Yet Simonides is far from being a hedonist; his morality, no less than his art, is pervaded by that virtue for which Ceos was renowned — self-restraint. His most celebrated fragment is a dirge, in which Danaë, adrift with the infant Perseus on the sea in a dark and stormy night, takes comfort from the peaceful slumber of her babe. Simonides here illustrates his own saying that "poetry is vocal painting, as painting is silent poetry," a formula that (through Plutarch's "De Gloria Atheniesium") became Horace's famous "ut pictura poesis."


:"This entry is adapted from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica."

Of the many English translations of this poem, one of the best is that by J.A. Symonds in "Studies on the Greek Poets". Fragments in T. Bergk, "Poetae lyrici Graeci"; standard edition by F.W. Schneidewin (1835) and of the Danae alone by H.L. Ahrens (1853). Other authorities are given in the exhaustive treatise of E. Cesati, "Simonide di Ceo" (1882); see also W. Schroter, "De Simonidis Cei melici sermone" (1906).


External links

* [ Simonides, "Elegies": second century AD]

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